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Sciences and


Humanities


OF TWO MINDS: BRINGING TOGETHER THE SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES


We at the UC Davis Humanities Institute are especially attuned to the challenges of doing work that crosses disciplines. That is why in 2012-2013, we began a series of conversations aimed at helping faculty and students work more effectively across boundaries and in collaboration. In spring 2014, the Humanities Institute, in partnership with the Department of American Studies and the Mellon Digital Cultures Research Initiative, presented a sequel to an earlier interdisciplinary roundtable and assembled experts to discuss the practical and philosophical implications for faculty and students whose work bridges the social sciences and humanities with the sciences.


Associate Professor Charlotte Biltekoff, who has a joint appoint- ment in American Studies and Food, Science and Technology at UC Davis, emphasized the deep-seated differences between academic disciplines, which are not simply ideological, but also institutional and methodological. Things like what counts as evi- dence—and just as importantly—what counts toward promotion and tenure, are disciplinarily determined. Biltekoff faced just such challenges learning how to communicate the humanist perspec- tive of her first book Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Dietary Health to her scientific colleagues.


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The panelists, each of whom have one foot in the sciences and another in the social sciences and humanities, came together as a key session during The Contours of Algorithmic Life conference to discuss the challenges of living a double academic life. The language of bridges and connections was at the heart of the panel’s concern about the difficulty of doing interdisciplinary work. The problem with bridges, the panel seemed to concur, is that they con- nect things, but they don’t offer any critical synthesis of the divided parts. In the place of bridges, the panelists each described their own process of developing two, and often more, disciplinary minds for dealing with very different types of academic work.


At the end of the day, Professor Joe Dumit, director of science and technology studies at UC Davis, offered some sage advice about how to get involved in fruitful interdisciplinary projects, saying not to underestimate the power of just getting together face to face— through ongoing projects, conferences, on a train, or over lunch. Simply spending the time to interact with our colleagues from other departments helps us understand their methods and their language, and even more, helps us identify what we don’t yet know about them.


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