Interdisciplinarity Isn’t Just a Word by Ellie Roberts

Journals are an essential part of academic life. Publishing articles isn’t a mere box-ticking exercise to carry out as part of an academic career or the requirements of a university (though obviously, it’s quite important for both of those reasons) – it’s also a way of sharing research with a wider audience. As current co-editor of Track Changes, the postgraduate journal of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield, I’m involved in a journal that covers diverse research areas from across the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. For many postgraduate students an article in Track Changes offers a first chance at honing ideas and presenting them in a familiar and friendly environment. For me reviewing and editing offers useful experience in the realm of publishing, the opportunity to learn more about research in other disciplines such as Music, Drama or Archaeology, and the chance to reflect on my own approach to writing as an academic. Interdisciplinarity is more than a buzzword, and it starts here…

Track Changes was founded in 2011 and publishes two editions per year. Articles cover a dizzying range of subject areas and epochs, from the architecture of neolithic Britain to bilingualism in modern-day Tatarstan and beyond. There are also reviews and interviews, showing another important but overlooked aspect of research – those experiences of events and interactions with people which provoke thought and stimulate the mind.  I’ve been a peer reviewer for the past two editions of Track Changes as a Masters student and then as a first year PhD student. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about how a journal works and reading about very different research areas to my own. In particular, I’ve found that it has helped me focus my own writing: checking other postgrads’ work for clarity and coherence makes me more aware of how to achieve it in my own papers or chapter sections.

I’ve also learned an important lesson: no matter how unfamiliar the research area or the approach will be to your reader, it’s still possible to hold the reader’s interest if you know how to construct a logical argument and keep difficult terminology to a minimum. Michael Billig has recently objected to the ‘jargon’ used by his fellow social scientists, complaining that academics increasingly take refuge in important-sounding but meaningless nouns such as ‘mediatisation’ or ‘individuation’ .

Billig particularly criticises the way this habit has been passed on to students, noting that “the students will not be using specialist terminology because they have discovered the inadequacy of ordinary words, but because the big nouns are the entry ticket into the academic world of the social sciences”. This isn’t just a problem among social scientists, however. Postgraduate research in any discipline relies on a specific terminology, a particular intellectual toolbox for putting together that well-oiled machine the doctoral thesis. (Or so we hope, anyway.) The interdisciplinary journal is the ideal medium for cutting out the jargon and reducing your research to what really matters – sharing exciting new ideas with interested readers.

This week my co-editor Kate Davison and I will be discussing the newly-submitted articles and setting the Summer edition of Track Changes on the road to publication. I look forward to seeing what exciting research is going on in the Faculty. I’m sure the next edition will prove the point I wanted to make here: that interdisciplinary journals such as Track Changes are not just useful in helping postgraduates to understand each other, but also in helping those outside academia to understand us.

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5 Responses to Interdisciplinarity Isn’t Just a Word by Ellie Roberts

  1. Ruthie says:

    This is a really interesting piece, Ellie. I was actually thinking along the same ideas the other day whilst reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. She somehow manages to combine a strong feminist argument within a hilarious autobiographical rant and I was thinking about why so much literature that is published in academia has to be so inaccessible. I wasn’t in agreement with everything that Moran said but the fact that she was engaging with feminism in a forum that would be easy to read for anyone really caught my attention. Academics in the Arts and Humanities are forever lamenting that their audience is so small, but in some ways, what do you expect when you make it so difficult to read? I know that there are some ideas that are complex and can only be expressed in a complex way but there are many more simple ideas that are deliberately made complicated. And in some ways, this has to be seen as elitism, in my opinion.

  2. elroberts says:

    Definitely Ruth, whatever you think of Moran’s views the way she explains things really resonates with people. Academics sometimes cling to jargon as if it’s some kind of proof of their overwhelming intellectual superiority. If anything, I think it can show remarkable stupidity…why would you not write something in a clear and concise way, if you could? People (including myself) can be cynical on the subject of ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’, but if it forces some academics to get off their high horse and present things clearly and concisely, I’m all for it…

  3. lstewart says:

    hi – really enjoyed this post and so have shared it on the facebook page for Forum: The Univeristy of Edinburgh’s Postgraduate Journal of Culture & the Arts:

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