Stray from Home: Inter-, Multi-, and Transdisciplinarity

by Jon Heggestad

Interdisciplinarity is one of those buzzwords that didn’t exist for me until I started my graduate studies, at which point, I made up for lost time by haphazardly slapping it onto everything I said and did. It took some time to figure out how I ought to be using it, but as I did, I came to see why it attained the reputation it has. In this post, I unpack the idea of interdisciplinarity alongside its sister-terms, transdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, as a means for considering how they might influence both our research and our teaching.

To begin with, I’d like to think about what these terms mean literally. The best way I can think to do so is to describe them in the context of a Women’s Studies graduate seminar that I enrolled in last fall. As an English graduate student, I often feel like I’m playing catch-up in these courses (more than the usual amount, I mean), as classmates throw out the names of texts and scholars I’ve never even pretended to know. Yet, what becomes more and more apparent to me in every Women’s Studies class I take is that this represents the norm.

While creating a definition for the field of “Women’s Studies” would constitute a whole blog post (or graduate-level course) on its own, let’s assume that the OED will get us moving in the right direction: “academic courses in sociology, history, literature, and psychology which focus on the roles, experiences, and achievements of women in society.” As a field, then, Women’s Studies is marked by the range of disciplines it spans. In my class last fall, that could be seen by the classmates that sat on either side of me: one who studied fandoms through the cultural studies department; the other, a sociologist working in the area of masculinity studies.

With these classmates in mind, multidisciplinarity turns out to be the easiest term to define. Multi- (with the OED’s help, once again) conjures up the idea of there being “more than one, several, many.” Accordingly, multidisciplinarity might be thought of as the application of two (or more) disciplines to any individual project, academic course, or object of study. The Women’s Studies classroom in which I found myself was thus multidisciplinary in its very structure, as it gathered together a range of scholars from distinct disciplines. Remaining in our own, separate programs with our own, distinct methodologies, we would come together once a week to discuss Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or écriture féminine, offering one another insights from our various fields and methods of analysis: the sociologist in his overview of key terms and the ebbing and flowing of their use, the cultural studies scholar with her overview of audience reception, and me with my close readings.

From this multidisciplinary approach, we then might move into thinking about interdisciplinarity, which occurs in the spaces between those disciplines listed above (cf. Korvajärvia and Vuorib). From the dialogues that result from mixing these disciplines together, “new synergies” emerge.1 While interdisciplinarity takes time, one can see the beginnings of these new synergies in the pregnant pauses of the Women’s Studies classroom, as questions posed by one scholar are left unanswered by their colleagues in other fields.

Lastly, transdisciplinarity might be thought of in terms of a true shift, as one picks up the knowledge and methods more commonly situated in one academic discipline and brings them to bear on another. In this way, we see how the prefix here is being used as means for one discipline to cut across, “through, over, to or on the other side of” another discipline’s context (OED). Look, for example, to the day that my classmate who works in quantitative sociology challenged my close reading of a popular television show. After my beautiful retelling (I’m sure) of the negative depictions of the show’s queer characters, my sociologist-friend squinted and asked, “Is that right? Is that the actual impression that’s being made? Has there been any kind of focus group on that idea? Are there any numbers to support it?” These types of questions, questions rarely asked in an English classroom, give rise to an exciting new way of seeing things. What would it mean to bring a quantitative analysis alongside a close reading like this? (Spoiler: it looks like the digital humanities and distance reading.)

The benefit in these approaches (that, despite my distinctions, often all get grouped together under the idea of interdisciplinarity as an umbrella term) is that they offer new pathways for thinking. They help us to think afresh. In bringing these ideas into the classrooms of courses I teach, grounded firmly in the English department, I’m able to push back at the constraints of what’s traditionally held my discipline together. Why would I want to do this?

So much of what attracts students to literature is the relatability factor, the idea that they can see themselves, or a part of their world, or a fraction of their own understanding in the reflection of the works we read. By allowing students to wander outside of traditional literary ways of knowing, one increases these opportunities for connections. Of course, it’s important to still stress what’s different and what’s unique about a literary mode of thinking. I’m not suggesting that we get rid of close reading (please don’t think I am). I’m suggesting that by opening a few doors in your classroom so that students are invited to bring in new ways of thinking, methodologies that they’re more familiar with if you’re teaching classrooms full of non-English majors like I am, you’re inviting your students to find more meaningful ways to connect with your text, your topic, and your class as a whole.

  1. Korvajärvi, Päivi, and Jaana Vuori. “A Classroom of Our Own: Transforming Interdisciplinarity Locally.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 54, Jan. 2016, pp. 138–46. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2015.06.012.
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