The Beauty of Interdisciplinarity: Moving Between Two Cultures


Image source: “Interdisciplinary Crosstalk

Lately, I’ve been reading Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts–the Programmers who created the software revolution by Steve Lohr (2001).

Why on earth would an English PhD student read something like this? 

I mentioned several posts ago that my background is kind of whacky. I’ve never felt quite “at home” in any one department.  I’m like the friend who “couch-surfs” from house-to-house. I could crash anywhere and fit in for a while…but moving in permanently is out of the question. (Probably not the most flattering description, but I think it serves its purpose.)

I used to think I was weird, schizophrenic, or–even worse–uncommitted and indecisive.  I was the crazy kid in high school who loved geometry but hated calculus, who struggled through Eliot’s The Waste Land (not because I actually liked it… but because I was determined it wasn’t going to beat me), who abhorred chemistry yet excelled in anatomy. I was also the kid who fell asleep during the math portion of the SAT. (I wish I were kidding.)

Then later in undergrad, I was the one who sat in class during the week with creative writers, American Modernists, and Post-colonialists, but preferred to hang out with the math majors, network admins, and programmers to watch Firefly on the weekends.  I was the one who scored higher on the math portion of the GRE than the verbal… yet still applied to and managed to get into a wonderful English Rhet/Comp graduate program. (I won’t question my good fortune.)

And now I’m the one who wakes up at 4 a.m., excited to write or read about usability research or open-source learning environments… and then stays up until 1 or 2 a.m., teaching myself HTML, Javascript, or Ruby.

I get it. It’s weird.

Or maybe not.

While reading Go To, I came across a reference to “The Two Cultures,” a lecture given by C. P. Snow at Cambridge University in 1946.  I spent the next 45 minutes reading it and feeling like Snow had tapped into my brain. (Read it. It’s fascinating.)

In the lecture, Snow comments on his life as a scientist and a writer, living between what he terms “two cultures”: the sciences and the humanities.  He describes this polarization as an unfortunate and dangerous division that is fueled but “hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding” (2). I found myself nodding along in agreement with Snow, as he admits his frustration about the lack of communication and cooperation between the two groups:

The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures—of two galaxies, so far as that goes—ought to produce creative chances. In the history of mental activity that has been where some of the break-throughs came. The chances are there now. But they are there, as it were, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can’t talk to each other. (9)

I suppose this is why I’ve struggled to create some sort of balance between my interest in rhetoric and writing and my interest in information technology and HCI. I’m trying to be a part of the “clashing point” that produces the “creative chances.”  It’s a struggle, but when you can draw from these two cultures, you have the ability to create work that is more complete, higher quality, and infinitely more valuable.

This past semester, I wrote a paper that focused on the theories of Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan, and Vilém Flusser.  My goal was to weave together a conversation between these three men, based on their theories and ideas about the impact of digital technology on our culture. This might not seem very original, until you realize these three men have never really been considered together before–largely because they come from three completely different disciplines. Bush was an engineer and scientist who played a pivotal role in the WWII Manhattan Project; McLuhan was a literature professor-turned-communication theorist; and Vilém Flusser was a philosopher.

Although I didn’t focus on this point in my paper, I was originally inspired to look at these three great thinkers because of their differences. They each saw digital technology as a significant influence on culture, but they took different approaches to discussing its effects and potentials. (In a very distilled and superficial summary, Bush was an hopeful idealist, McLuhan was a jaded technical determinist, and Flusser was a frustrated realist.) Sure, we can learn a lot by looking at these thinkers independently from one another. But we can create a much clearer and more complete picture by bringing their ideas together.

There is no good reason to separate the humanities from technology.  My time working at a computer help desk, drawing up technical documents, and writing standard operating procedures helped me realize the importance of being articulate, clear and precise–something that has (I hope) carried over into my academic writing and teaching.  Likewise, my understanding of the rhetorical situation and sensitivity to audience, context, and purpose helped me form my approach to HCI and usability research.

So, to return to the question I posed at the beginning of this post: This is why I’m reading a book about computer programmers and software development–and why I’ll continue to push the limits of the “academic norm” (whatever that means).  It is why I’m fighting with the terminal command prompt every day (thank you, Ruby) and why my bookshelves (both the physical shelves and Kindle) are experiencing an subject identity crisis.

The age of extreme specialization is dead. We can’t continue to limit ourselves to one narrow field of expertise when we can gain so much more by taking an interdisciplinary approach to our educations and careers.

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One thought on “The Beauty of Interdisciplinarity: Moving Between Two Cultures

  1. Pingback: Writing and Programming: More alike than you may think (Part 2) | Laurissa Wolfram

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