Disciplining Interdisciplinarity

We threw a little conference here at UNT last week. Digital Frontiers was a one-day conference followed by a THATCamp that was intended to bring together “the diverse communities who use digital resources for research, teaching, and learning.” The schedule featured university archivists; grad students from History, LIS, Media, and English; faculty in English and History; digital librarians; and library administrators. In short, it was supposed to model the ideals of interdisciplinarity and cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration that is touted as the future of the academy. On the surface it was quite successful. It was well attended, the THATCampers worked very hard and cheefully through a long day, and the Twitter back channel was active and overwhelmingly positive.

But a couple of things emerged for me as flies in the happy ointment. While I was Storifying the Twitter backchat, I came across a tweet sent by a “Communication Technology Professional” during the Keynote Address:

@ayyoovodwould rather read the notes myself than having the speaker reading them for me. #df12unt

— Ayyoub Ajmi (@ayyoovod) September 21, 2012

I’ve encountered this bias before at conferences. Humanists, especially literary scholars, which our Keynote Speaker is, read papers. Info scientists and librarians give PowerPoint talks that are mostly ad hoc. Though I have to say, I read my paper at TCDL this spring and was well received, so this hang-up isn’t universal. I shrugged off the snarky Tweet (what’s a conference without a snarky Tweet or two, really?) and went on with my day.

Later, however, I encountered a colleague in the Library who, perhaps forgetting she was speaking to a literature scholar, made a comment about the keynote speaker as being “such an English professor” and proceeded to dismiss the public humanities work he described in his talk. I made some mumbled comment about disciplinary differences and extricated myself from what had instantly become a horribly uncomfortable situation as gracefully as possible (which I fear wasn’t too).

Now, as a literature scholar, I’m pretty much used to getting kicked in the teeth by the anti-literary and anti-theory historians who dominate fellowship review committees at most museums and archives, and who have a disproportionate presence on the editorial boards of literature journals to the degree that one colleague expressed the relationship between lit and history by paraphrasing a particularly repugnant Republican activist: “interdisciplinarity is date rape.” I have to put out there that the overall response to both the keynote and the other humanities papers on panels throughout the day was overwhelmingly positive, and we have the data – both anecdotal and from the backchat – to support that.

But after a year in this gig, I’m still (perhaps foolishly) surprised by how smugly intolerant of the academic disciplines some librarians are. For all the talk talk talk of interdisciplinarity, and all the hand-wringing about the need for collaboration there’s a real resistance to any other discipline penetrating into library territory. Programs like the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowships in Academic Libraries, and digital humanities centers that are co-located in libraries do very little at all to change the insularity of the library world (what I described at a conference last fall as “the hegemony of the LIS”). I don’t know if it’s anti-intellectualism, or just protectiveness of their trade, or both. A research project I contributed to earlier this year concluded that:

Few researchers see the library as a partner, and most of the researchers in this study seemed to regard the library as a dispensary of goods (i.e., books, articles) rather than a locus for badly needed, real-time professional support.

At the time, I was dismayed by this. But I think I’m beginning to understand.

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