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.

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