Presenting Interdisciplinary Research

This winter term, I double compsed (for any non-Carleton readers: “comps” is the equivalent of a senior thesis or capstone project – it stands for “comprehensive exercise”). For both of my comps, one in computer science and one in English, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do digital humanities projects, but this posed a problem when I was required to give a presentation for each project at the end of the term.

For both presentations, my audience was a mix of humanities people, computer science people, and people who lie somewhere in between. How do I give a presentation that accommodates my entire audience? How do I explain the tech to the humanities folks, and contextualize the humanities for the tech folks?

Here are some rules for interdisciplinary presentations that I created for myself while planning my comps presentations:

Either explain jargon or put it in a black box. Combining tools from multiple disciplines is going to cause a vocabulary problem. You can’t say, “I ran text files of each novel through a Python script that used the NLTK’s POS-tagger to tag each word, then iterated over the tagged tuples to count occurrences of different parts of speech,” and expect anyone who’s never coded before to follow. Either take the time to explain what the NLTK’s POS-tagger is, or just say “I used a tool to get the part of speech of every word in the text.” The same goes for humanities lingo – make sure your entire audience clearly understands what close reading or deconstruction is before using those terms to contextualize your results.

Signpost. In an interdisciplinary presentation, it’s not unreasonable to expect that at least part of your audience is going to get lost at some point. Unless you’re going out of your way to explain every STEM concept and humanities context (which would make for a very long, very boring presentation), at some point someone is going to get lost. But that’s ok! Divide your presentation into clearly defined sections, and at the beginning and end of each section, talk about what you’re going to or have just explained, so that everyone can grasp the broader concepts. Even if someone gets lost within a section, with signposting they’ll hopefully be able to jump back in in the next section.

Include something for everyone. If you’re giving an interdisciplinary presentation, it should be truly interdisciplinary! Acknowledge the different subgroups of your audience and make them feel like they are a part of the conversation by including details from each discipline of your project, and not over-explaining as if they weren’t there. This rule almost contradicts my first rule, and the two can be hard to balance. The goal is to find a happy medium for each discipline between including enough interesting detail for the experts and enough explanation for those unfamiliar with the discipline.

Trying and Learning New Things

As this term draws to a close, I’m pausing to consider the work I’ve done this term. As I stop to consider it, this term has been an interesting mix of both new tasks and at the same time the continuation of previous tasks. A small example of this is social media. I’ve been in charge of the DHA Twitter account for a little while, but this was the first time I began to use a tweet scheduler – same task, but a new method. (Side note: I love the tweet scheduler! I can write up tweets once a week and not have to worry about forgetting to send them at the right time!)

My work on Team Workhouse this term is similar. I’ve been involved in Team Workhouse for almost two years now, but this term I took on new tasks in the Workhouse project. The first new task I took on was being a Teaching Assistant (TA) for the History course, Bringing the English Past to Virtual Life (explore the course blog!), and as part of that I both attended class and held office hours for student help. Attending class as a TA and providing in-class help were both totally new experiences for me, and I explored some thoughts about being a TA in a recent blog post that you can read here! This term I also continued working on the Virtual Workhouse Digital Archive Omeka site, which last term and over winter break I did extensive work with the metadata of the collections housed on the site.

A draft mock-up of a possible layout for the Virtual Workhouse Digital Archive Collections page

This term, however, I had a go at wireframing for the site. If you don’t know what wireframing is (which I didn’t before I did it), it is essentially sketching out the basic layout of a website in order to have a concrete idea what you want it to be before actually working on website itself. I tried it out using Balsamiq (a wireframing tool) and really enjoyed it! It was fun to not just react to technology but think more purposefully about what the goals of the site were and how to design the layout to best accomplish those goals.

Carleton’s Undergraduate Journal of Humanistic Studies

Something entirely new I’m about to start working on is learning LaTeX. I am now a board editor on Carleton’s Undergraduate Journal of Humanistic Studies and I’m going to be working on the website (which I know how to do) and typesetting the papers chosen for the journal – this uses LaTeX, which I don’t know how to do. I don’t have any experience with LaTeX, but I’m excited to start learning. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from my work as a DHA, it’s that there’s always something new to learn!