Warning: Pointless rant.
Much of my work is multi or cross-disciplinary which means that I get to meet lots of fascinating people in different departments and from different disciplines. It all began when I moved from law to technology. I needed to learn new theoretical frameworks, new canons of literature, new methods and approaches etc.
I had moved to provide valuable insights from a different perspective to the department but in reality I needed to learn their language and culture to be able to talk. In doing so I lost some of the language and culture that made me unique and valuable to the department.
One of the problems with multidisciplinary work is that it can easily fail unless both disciplines are open to accept new ideas.
Once I had left my comfort zone I realized that I might as well continue to roam about and have been lucky enough to join in several fascinating discussions from the perspectives of many different disciplines. The people and arguments I have met have enriched my own thinking in ways that single disciplines could not.
But every now and then the nasty face of dogmatism appears. Someone at some department challenges me: you do not belong here, you do not belong in our discipline, and your ideas are less valid since your undergrad degree comes from the wrong field.
In a recent episode of Big Bang Theory, Sheldon asks Penny for acting lessons to improve his teaching:
Penny: Let´s take you out of your comfort zone
Sheldon: Why would we want to do that? It´s call the comfort zone for a reason
But I digress.
Strangely enough the most common form of attack is to find an obscure theoretician within the field, often some great thinker to whom everyone refers (but few bother to read) and attempt to hit the invader over the head with.
A typical situation is to engage the invader in a discussion on an obscure (and often irrelevant for the main discussion) point in the works of the great. The goal is to either get the invader to accept the speaker’s mastery of the subject – or even better an admission of ignorance! Ah the joy when the speaker can smile knowingly in shock and horror to signify that your discipline lacks all value.
This is an academic pissing contest. And from experience there are four strategies: attack, counter, deceive, evade.
To attack is to meet the speaker head on. This is an “all in” strategy. It looks brilliant if you win by flattening the opponent. You are king of the little pile – the alpha male in the seminar room – but it is not a long-term strategy. You can never be best at everything and it does not support cooperation.
Counter is to attack but not on equal terms. Instead of meeting the opponent with his or her own weapons you bring out your own armies. Dust of a dead theory from your own field and force the speaker into a battle on your own terms. Less impressive and still crap for long-term cooperation.
Deception is another strategy. This is basically faking it (partly or completely) you have no idea what they are on about but you might get away with it. This approach is massively horrible if it fails later. It is also damaging for the ego if you succeed in pulling it off. Not good for long-term cooperation. It is the grown up version of lying to the teacher about doing your homework. It is pissing in your own pants when it is cold outside (warm at first but cold in the long run). It is strangely also the most commonly used strategy. In my more pessimistic periods I believe all of academia is filled with people faking it.
Evasion is basically letting the running bull pass the flag. Admit to not knowing of this academic giant. Ask the speaker to explain briefly and question on why that particular theorist is relevant to the discussion in hand. Don’t be put of with comments like “I will send you an article” – if the speaker wanted a fight, give him/her one. But make sure he/she does the work. Demand to know the relevance of the theory, be polite, inquisitive, learning and hoist the s.o.b. on his own petard. Its not good for long term collaboration, but why on earth would you want to work with the little shit anyway?
I leave you with the Omid Djalili demonstrating effects of different cultures in an argument: