Páraic’s previous post (‘All the President’s Men – The historical importance of humanities research in Ireland’) highlighted the importance of Humanities, especially in a world which seems to place increasing value on STEM subjects at the expense of Humanities and the Arts. This apparent conflict between disciplines echoes the annual, post graduation, media frenzy over ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. The argument goes along the expected lines – future earnings, what ’employers want’ – and advocates for each side rushing in to defend their chosen subject areas…But all of this misses the point – it is artificial, and rather unhelpful, to polarise the Arts/Humanities and STEM as dichotomous entities.
In reality, the boundaries of subjects are blurred. This is not a new phenomenon. The original Renaissance scholars prided themselves in excelling across a range of knowledge – this was the age of the polymath. Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and others were lauded as experts in multiple fields which cross the current STEM/Humanities divide. They accepted that an in-depth understanding of the world around them meant embracing science and languages, mathematics and philosophy.
The modern world is increasingly complex with large and diverse datasets waiting to be explored, so it should come as no surprise that understanding our world often requires a multidisciplinary approach, just as much as the Renaissance world did. The benefits of this type of approach are evident in, for example, Semino et al.’s (2015) work on the use of metaphor in end of life care (“The Online Use of Violence and Journey Metaphors by Patients with Cancer, as Compared with Health Professionals: A Mixed Methods Study.” BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care (2015): n.pag. Web.), or Apollonio, Gaiani and Benedetti’s (2012) exploration of 3D modelling and GIS in the preservation of Pompeii (“3D Reality-Based Artefact Models for the Management of Archaeological Sites Using 3D Gis: A Framework Starting from the Case Study of the Pompeii Archaeological Area.” Journal of Archaeological Science 39.5 (2012): 1271–1287. Web.).
Now, as a PhD student studying 19th Century literature and Digital Humanities, this blurring is even more apparent. Many of the articles I read include complex statistics. I am learning to code using R in order to carry out my analysis – is this Literature, or Statistics, or Technology? Or perhaps all three?
Digital preservation and presentation of artefacts, GIS, and the ability to manipulate data are becoming increasingly evident in many fields. Perhaps it is about time that we stop trying to divide the subjects, stop propagating the myth that you can only be good at Arts OR STEM, Maths OR English?
However, for many planning to venture into the world of interdisciplinary study, there is the challenge of a language barrier. Not just the barrier between English speakers and non-English speakers, but a barrier between the way language is used in different disciplines. Subject matter alone does not mark the boundary between disciplines. There is a wealth of language surrounding theoretical approaches, mathematics or computer coding, all of which make the transition to this type of study all the more complex.
For a Humanities scholar applying computer analysis to literature, it is not uncommon to find the phrase ‘and therefore…’ followed by a complex mathematical formula with no explanation. This is frustrating, especially when a mathematical symbol may mean different things in different contexts. Sadly we cannot demand that other disciplines change for us, even if there are excellent reasons. What we can do is ensure that what we do is as clear and open as possible. We can ensure that the code we write is tidy and annotated carefully, that we explain any mathematical formulae we use, but we can also show consideration for those from other disciplines when they venture into our areas of expertise.
Interdisciplinary collaborations can make for fascinating discoveries, it would be a shame for language barriers, of any kind, to be viewed as insurmountable obstacles.
Sara J Kerr is a third year PhD researcher in Digital Humanities and English at An Foras Feasa, Maynooth University. Her research uses R programming and data mining to explore independence and dependence in the novels of Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson. She won a John and Pat Hume Scholarship which supports her PhD studies. Prior to returning to full time study, Sara worked in the education sector for 12 years and completed an MA in Education. Her website can be found at https://sarajkerr.com and she tweets as @data_fiend