Putting Our Heads Together (About Disciplinary Differences)

“Of Two Minds: Bringing Together the Sciences and the Humanities”

How can we straddle the divide between two disciplines when “most of life happens on one side of the bridge or the other”? That was the question that animated the discussion on Thursday, May 15th, among panelists invited to “Of Two Minds: Bringing Together the Sciences and the Humanities,” co-sponsored by the UC Davis Humanities Institute, American Studies program, and Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures. The panelists, each of whom have one foot in the sciences and another in the social sciences and humanities, came together as a key session during The Contours of Algorithmic Life conference to discuss the challenges of living a double academic life.

The language of bridges and connections was at the heart of the panel’s concern about the difficulty of doing interdisciplinary work. As Hannah Landecker, associate professor of Sociology at UCLA, said, “I always think of bridges as things that people walk over.” The problem with bridges, the panel seemed to concur, is that they connect things, but they don’t offer any critical synthesis of the divided parts. In the place of bridges, the panelists each described their own process of developing two and often more disciplinary minds developed for dealing with very different types of academic work.

Associate Professor Charlotte Biltekoff, who has a joint appointment in American Studies and Food, Science and Technology at UC Davis, started the panel off by emphasizing the deep-seated differences between academic disciplines, which are not simply ideological, but also institutional and methodological. Things like what counts as evidence—and just as importantly—what counts toward promotion and tenure, are disciplinarily determined.

Biltekoff faced just such challenges learning how to communicate the humanist perspective of her first book Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Dietary Health to her scientific colleagues. While it has been a fruitful interchange that has sprouted her next book project, there isn’t always the institutional infrastructure to enable this kind of success story.

That’s where the panelists and their respective programs come in. English Professor Kirsten Ostherr’s Medical Futures Lab at Rice University brings together “humanists, health professionals, artists, scientists, hackers, all under one roof“ to develop a curriculum for educating the doctors of the future. The Medical Futures Lab challenges students to think critically about the medical profession and to develop real-world solutions for everyday challenges that doctors face.

Ostherr’s goal is teach students to effectively bring their detailed medical knowledge into the public and to help influence policy debates.

Similarly Landecker’s Human Biology and Society major at UCLA offers courses in which students who already work across the science-humanities divide as double majors can synthesize the knowledge they have gained through both disciplines. Courses like “Ways of Knowing,” according to Landecker, teach students how to “integrate their knowledge sets” and to “understand…incommensurability” in whatever form it appears. Rather than attempt to bridge the chasm of technical vocabularies between distinct disciplines, both speakers’ programs empower students to be agents capable of traversing both worlds and offering each the benefits of that collaboration.

Rounding out the day, UC Davis’ own Professor Joe Dumit, director of Science and Technocultural Studies, offered some sage advice about how to get involved in fruitful interdisciplinary projects saying not to underestimate the power of just getting together face to face—through ongoing projects, conferences, on a train, or over lunch. Simply spending the time to interact with our colleagues from other departments helps us understand their methods and their language, and even more, helps us identify what we don’t yet know about them.

Disciplinary divides are natural when we work with such specificity in our own fields, and it would be counterproductive to collapse them. Meaningful interdisciplinary work requires commitment to each of the disciplinary traditions it unites. The key to a successful interdisciplinary project, each of the panelists in their own way commented, is making sure that everyone involved reaps some benefit in their own terms. The day’s panelists may indeed help build lasting bridges among the disciplines, but only by cultivating and synthesizing multiple disciplinary minds.