Interdisciplinarity, or, Reading the Room

A very heavy (prop) severed head.

I once used a (prop) severed head in a research stump speech competition in front of a room full of engineers.

Another time, and in a different room, I submitted a business plan that was fully cited and footnoted like any good humanities article.

And in an early pitch of the concept for Something Wicked, I answered a psychology professor’s very insightful question about empathy with a seven-minute close reading of the implied sound cues and meter devolution in Act 2 Scene 2.*

The severed head bit actually went over like gangbusters (I won a Moleskine and The Big Pack of ultra fine Sharpies!), but 2.2 sermon did NOT. My advisor, who was in the audience (probably signaling to me at minute three) shook his head as we walked back down to the humanities side of campus. “You had them,” he said. “You had the room. And then you lost the room.”

I think navigating interdisciplinarity has a lot to do with reading the room. My program at Northwestern is called the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama, so by design we’re often odd-person-out in any given room. I’ve been the token theatre person in a sociology class, the token humanist in a learning sciences technology class, and even the token PhD student in a bona-fide MBA class (that was weird/awesome/also weird).

Like a lot of digital humanities projects, Something Wicked can only exist as a collaboration between radically disparate fields: Shakespeare studies, learning sciences, video game studies … I could devote the next two years to upskilling myself on Unity into a one-person game dev team, but even then I’d barely be mediocre. This project works best as a conversation across disciplines, which means spending a good chunk of time in different rooms, with different audiences.

Over the last three years, each room I’ve been in has asked about (gleefully poked holes in) the project from its own disciplinary point of view. So I’ve had to think about it from more than just my familiar theatre and drama perch. As a result, the game has gotten stronger, though many (interrogation) rooms remain on the horizon.

Happily, my implied-sound-cues fail was early in my journey through academic interdisciplinarity. I like to think that I’ve learned to remember the room I’m in, or at the very least to bring a prop that will render any discipline thunderstruck. To my compatriots in interdisciplinary scholarship and making-stuff collaboration, I salute you and whatever severed heads you carry. May you always read your rooms well.


*You can totally email me if you want to go to coffee and talk about this analysis for several hours.