Navigating interdisciplinarity (as a DH scholar)

Today’s post is something at the interface of rant and rambling. While I love being interdisciplinary, it’s also quite the hassle at times which is why I guess most interdisciplinary scholars sometimes wished they weren’t doing interdisciplinary work.

There are so many negative stereotypes, like…

“You have it easier being interdisciplinary” vs it’s actually twice the work

So do you really think that we have it easier? I hate how we always get this reproach that we’re taking the easy route. Can somebody please explain to me what’s “easy” about having to follow the state of the art in multiple fields at the same time?

And then not even knowing where to get published because scholars from discipline A don’t understand half of your research and the same in the other direction. I tend to be somewhat “too historical” for the Digital Humanities but then waaaay to technical for the “normal Humanities”.

I think being in the DH and doing work in history at the same time is hard. Despite what many “traditional Humanities scholars” would like you to believe. Of course I reap some benefits from being in the DH and more funding etc. But did you take the time to learn programming and digital technologies? That was years of hard work and not exactly like “anyone can do that on a weekend off”.

And yes, most of that work was done in my free time while I worked other jobs to earn a living. Also yes, some of those were DH jobs but only because a job is a DH job doesn’t mean this will necessarily teach me the new technologies I need to know about in order to stay up-to-date. Many DH jobs don’t include the opportunity to learn programming so I did all of that work in my free time. (See this resources list for more information: How to improve at programming when your current position doesn’t require it & Online Learning Resources)

Difficulties getting pubished in traditional venues

I have recently received feedback on an article of mine which was quite tailored to the journal I submitted to (keeping the tech part to a minimum while trying hard to explain it as best as possible to a non-technical audience). And now I get contradictory reviews where some say “Please don’t bore us with the technical details” and others don’t believe me my method works unless I prove it convincingly (ergo that involves lots of boring technical detail).

The next problem I face is that I can’t just submit to another journal or just put it into a DH journal where people are more into tech (like Humanities scholars tend to recommend) because this paper is basically not technical at all. In a DH journal, I would never be accepted with this paper. I’d have to write a completely different one. This paper was tailored so that a non-techical community could more or less grasp the idea behind what I’m doing. That’s not at all enough to impress DH scholars!

I think another issue is that some journals prefer certain types of articles, i.e. for example a traditional discussion of historical sources. Not falling into that schema of the traditional Humanities article or even the fact that you don’t fall neatly into the spectrum of one (sub-)discipline to which journals are dedicated is a source of many rejections and criticisms I have received. But, in my experience, traditional scholars tend to leverage the argument how you are so much more versatile and you can just go to some of the other endless possible journals / conferences for you to get accepted in. Frankly, the way people treat you often feels more like an outcast in both of your disciplines rather than an asset to both.

I grant you the benefit for the doubt regarding traditional conferences because they often like to add some alibi DH stuff so they can seem more cutting edge. I, however, contend that this is not at all the case with getting published. Many times this is likely due to the fact that there just aren’t a lot of competent reviewers who can judge both of your disciplinary backgrounds. My abstracts have oftentimes been rejected by reviewers who clearly didn’t understand what I was talking about (maybe I should have explained better but hey, abstracts are short?) or even quoted “facts” against me which were blatantly wrong, had been debunked ages ago or were just completely at odds with the current state of research. But there usually isn’t a way to let conference organizers know about this and they probably wouldn’t have the resources to fix it either. It’s still really unfair and has made getting accepted quite hard for me as a non-established early career interdisciplinary scholar. But let’s not get any deeper into that. But…

Lots of emotional labor or service work, yet getting nothing back in return most of the time

Let me think of any example.. Right! What about being invited to submit to all sorts of publication venues, so they can use me to “spice up” their portfolio by adding DH and then getting horrible feedback which is, for the most part, just discriminating against digital methods? The methods they specifically asked me to contribute.

Yeah, so I’m not sure I should go on much longer as this week’s post is nothing but a rant so far. But I guess I’d like to tune in with my readers and ask if any of you share this pain. And to make it visible to all those who claim that we have it easy being in the DH and how we’re so much more interesting because we’re interdisciplinary.

In my experience, it’s not actually easier to get accepted being interdiscipinary. And in the few cases where it is, the outcome will often only benefit only the organizers who wish to clothe themselves in DH feathers without doing the work. I have had some easy accepts to conferences but then, the conferences didn’t end up all that helpful to me because there litterally were no DH people or only people just pretending to do DH. I ended up not getting any useful feedback at all and having to do lots of emotional labor explaining DH basics and defending the DH to people who were pretty hostile towards me.

So yeah, I had lots of discussions where people wanted to talk to me and were probably more interested in me than in the average PhD student. But most of the time, they weren’t genuinely interested. They were attacking my field (and thus me and my work) in a place where I had nobody to back me up. Or trying to get the “intro to DH” for free and without the work. It might look like giving the poor PhD student opportunities – which might be partly the case – but also means demanding lots of emotional labor from them with not necessarily any actual return.

I’m not sure I actually ended up getting real support or extra opportunities just because someone got interested in me at a conference. Maybe I was more successful getting my PhD funded beacuse I do fancy DH stuff, though, I grant you that.

In my experience, the DH submissions to traditional Humanities journals or proceedings where I had been specifically asked to contribute so they can have some fancy DH papers were the single biggest pain in the ass ever! And all that just so they can have me do the service work of explaining DH to them in a way that is relevant to their field so that they only need to put in the minimum possible effort themselves. Once something like that is published you do get positive feedback because people are thankful, so it’s kind of worth it for me. It’s also worthwhile creating acceptance and respect for DH work in subfields by showing them how some DH methods work (in a not-so-technical language they can understand more easily) and how those methods can be used to the greatest benefit on the sub-field’s specific, maybe even niche problems. But until you get that publication, the hassle is unbelievable! You get shamed for not presenting enough “results”. If you do present lots of results, you will get asked to over-prove how and that your methods work and that they are valid. And then, on top of all that, such a publication will likely end up not being “worth much” in the DH because the techincal stuff explained in it is super basic. So yeah, thanks for nothing!

Being interdisciplinary is definitely more effort than traditional research

Being in two disciplines at once can be a huge source of discrimination and bias. It means (at least) twice the work. And then doing the labor of having to constantly defend the Humanities to my DH friends and the DH to my Humanities friends. I think you are both being judgemental, at times, I must say.

How it is taken for granted that I will introduce everybody to the DH like I have nothing else to do. Some people even seem to think I “owe it to them” to introduce them to DH because it’s such a privilege that I have.

And don’t get me wrong. Introducing people to DH is part of the motivation behind this blog and overall, I love it. I want to be part of making DH accessible rather than fencing them off and excluding people with less “tech privilege”. But I also wanted to use today’s post to give space to the frustration which often comes with being stuck between two disciplines. And part of the motivation of this blog is to reduce the amounts of service work necessary because if i get asked a question, I make a blogpost about it and from then on, I can refer to this blogpost rather than having to explain the same repetitive questions over and over again. So yeah, I love it but also, don’t mistake my being passionate and wanting to help with my service to the DH and the Humanities as “not work”.

Overall, I love it but it’s also lots of extra work. Not just the work of having to be up-to-date with multiple disciplines or even learning their ways, tools and methods in the first place. Also lots of what we might call “service work” that people take for granted and which might or might not be part of a DH job description, ergo what I’m paid for. (This blog, for example, is part of unpaid service work in a way. I love it as a way of giving something back, sharing what I have learned so more people can profit from it and lifting people up. But I have also been fortunate enough to have been paid – and to be continuted to be paid, more on that in the future – for some community service work. Which I’m very happy about.) But it’s still work. And work that I don’t have to do. I hope people can appreciate that.

So thanks for your attention – maybe you want to share your personal experiences in the comments below or on Twitter (twitter.com/@latex_ninja). Also, if you appreciate the “service work” aspect of what I’m doing, consider donating blow (“Buy me coffee”) or becoming a Patreon of this blog.

So long and thanks for all the fish!

PS: Read more on similar issues in the D and the H category or the DH etiqutte category.

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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