July 1st, 2009

Vanitas desk

Too many stews spoil the cook

All my previous conference papers have been opportunities to explore new little topics around the edges of what I was already working on. They were based on sources I already knew well, but focused on some related, interesting aspect which I hadn't already explored. They supplemented the rest of my research. This is also why none of them have been directly on, say, anything I have publications or theses written about. They were modest little related projects, just the right size for a twenty minute conference paper.

The Stew Project is another creature entirely. It is a whole research project in its own right, only marginally related to anything I've ever done before; and by this, I don't mean it deals with other medieval documents, but with whole other disciplines and time periods. I am multiply a novice in working on this project, in the twentieth century, in children's literature, in the study of speculative literature, in the study of medievalist, and in the study of travel writing. Fortunately, there's a history of technology core to it all where I feel right at home, and, after a few years of dabbling in food history, I at least feel I'm not completely new to that, even if I still have a great deal to learn indeed.

As a result, I've been reading in all directions lately, crash courses in relevant parts of disciplines. Sadly and fortunately, the history of travel turned out to be a logical, but unfruitful direction; but the rest remained. Now I know enough to know more how ignorant I am of all these disciplines. And the conference for which I have written this paper will be full of people who know those other disciplines thoroughly. (Well, maybe not the food history part.)

This paper is also proving an object lesson in why disciplines are important, why it's crucial to repect specialization and benefit from it, to do the work of understanding what makes a discipline tick, at least a beginner's level. (Not that I'm claiming even that in many of these!) This is also why editorials arguing against disciplines, banish the departments, and yay!interdisciplinarity bother me. Not many really do interdisciplinary work, the work which falls between disciplinary boundaries and is claimed by no one.* They do multidisciplinary work, working between multiple fields. And without disciplines, you can have either multi- nor even inter-.

* I know, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary are usually used synonymously, but I think this is an important distinction to make, and gives each word a useful meaning relevant to prefix.