Identity Crisis called ‘Interdisciplinarity’

I’m currently contemplating future jobs (ok, applying for jobs) at the behest of my committee chair. And while fruitful to sit down and focus on statements of research, teaching interests, pedagogical positions, etc., what I’m really learning is this: interdisciplinary work can create an identity crisis. I might be somewhat unique in that my background is fine art, my interest lies in ‘the city’, much of my visual work engaged the built environment, with an emphasis on suburban development, obliquely engaging political economy, geography, urban and architecture theory, etc. Given that my visual work was so research-driven and I had a strong interest in writing, I found myself heading into a PhD program, with my intellectual promiscuity and a developed preference for ‘sketches’, or, in visual art terms, visual experiments that worked through intellectual ideas.

Going into the program, I imagined myself furthering my work on the single family home and really digging into the scholarship. I think I even fancied myself to work on developing a theory, based on an oxymoronic pairing of the words ‘oblique’ and ‘economy’. But my idle interest in Google Street View got the best of me, and I found myself switching topics, and with it, a whole host of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ was set aside in order to focus on a fascinating visual phenomenon that suddenly pulled together a long standing interest street engagement and the public realm, phenomenological understandings and mental maps, as well as a host of other concepts that seemed to yield questions that needed to be asked, like “what happens to the concept of the derive in the era of Google Street View?”, and “Is it smooth or striated space?”

But now I find myself fighting an easy passage into geo-web, communication and ICT driven discussions, as I am not particularly interested in those discourses, at least not to the degree in which I see myself advancing the scholarship, though my topic simply begs to go that route. And I cannot even imagine teaching foundational coursework in ‘communication’… However, I continue to think about the city and how this navigational tool might affect our engagement with it, but I find myself drifting further and further from the discourses of the actual material city, for the discourses are not directly applicable to my topic.

So as I sit and look at job postings, the few that are out there, I find myself unable to articulate a clear future research interest that would place me back in an Urban Studies realm, for I do not anticipate a continued engagement with Street View, nor do I want to be Google expert. I’m also finding myself ill-equipped to engage something like a comparative studies program, as I lack some of the foundational coursework and am not fluent in other languages. I don’t know new media or media studies well enough, nor do I necessarily wish to put myself back in the art department, for I’m not currently making work, nor do I want to rejoin the faction of gallery artists. In short, my interest in theory and the activity of playing with it has left me with a broad understanding of a whole lot without content depth in what I’m truly interested in.
Despite that, I am applying for a position in an interdisciplinary arts & sciences program, trying to fit myself into the niche they are looking to fill. But as I sit and attempt to articulate the broader themes of my research and how it phases with art, the language I really need to wield has receded. I fear that I will be entirely unpersuasive in my ‘future’ trajectory, given that it needs to fit in the space of a page, and as my ‘co-conspirator’ Keith says, ‘that sounds really hard for someone who is not known to be concise.’  While I truly believe in the value of interdisciplinarity, I continue to be haunted by the words of Julia Kristeva (paraphrased) ‘to be interdisciplinary, one must first be disciplinary’. Those words always stuck with me, for I wasn’t sure then that I believed them. But increasingly, I believe them more and more, simply for pragmatic reasons, but also for the need for an intellectual lineage.


2 thoughts on “Identity Crisis called ‘Interdisciplinarity’

  1. More and more students coming out of graduate programs are doing exciting interdisciplinary stuff, and yet the departments in which they’d hope to find jobs may or may not be themselves interdisciplinary. You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I had never heard that Kristeva quote, but it certainly resonates with me as a Hispanic Studies-trained academic interested in questions crossing urban studies, geography, art/literature, film, cultural studies, disability studies and more… best of luck!

  2. I ran across an interview with Kristeva a long time ago- I’ll hunt it down and post it here. It’s been a funny process- simultaneously thinking ‘I can do that’ and ‘I’m not qualified’- but I’m hopeful that culture continues to shift towards interdisciplinarity, where questions are greatly complexified as the cross through many planes like the ones you’ve mentioned.

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