Depth, once again

An interesting question has been asked in the context of disadvantages of interdisciplinary work:

“how could an increase in breadth not be accompanied by a loss of depth? #HereticTweet” @patrick_sahle

I wonder if this is possible if a distinction is made between a kind of ‘active’ breadth (‘possessing’ the foreign domain knowledge oneself), or a ‘passive’ breadth where one is able to listen to the other side. While the active breadth would certainly cause a loss of depth, perhaps the passive variety would not?

The old question of breadth vs. depth has bothered me for long, e.g. in the contexts of zooming or picking. I don’t see interdisciplinarity as dangling somewhere in between, but rather as being closer to the other side, and the associated picture in my mind is a narrow lane with protruding upper storeys.

Italian narrow lane with protruding upper storeys where a clothesline spans from one side to the other.

Interdisciplinary work IMHO, would not mean living on the clothesline in between.

Of course this issue is particularly interesting in the digital humanities (DH) where both the IT side and the humanities side might mutually suspect the others as being merely shallow humanists or shallow IT people.

Recently I came across a white paper from the DH research software engineers whose roles are either embedded (within the humanities institutes) or more service oriented (in central facilities). I have worked in a central facility, at a time when some colleagues indeed did not ‘listen’ to the needs of humanities scholars. But some of us did, and the cooperation was fruitful.

It was, however, not on the basis of project contracts and specification sheets traveling from one side to the other, but in terms of gratis infrastructure, which fostered mutual listening, and flexible design decisions that might today be called more ‘agile’ than ‘waterfall’. Furthermore, the central role made it possible to identify similar needs in different disciplines, rather than believing that all tools need to be bought specifically tailored to the single topic.

Such work was, however, not suited to gain academic merits. So today, the infrastructure idea seems no more popular.

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