Synergy First: An Interdisciplinary Story


Mesa Verde National Park, CO


I am an archaeologist and an ecologist who specializes in studying modern animals and animal remains from prehistoric sites.  I pursue my research and teaching interests at the University of North Texas in the Department of Geography, and through service to the Society of Ethnobiology, as its Treasurer and as co-editor of one of its journals, Ethnobiology Letters.  I have worked in areas of North America, including the American Southwest, in the Mesa Verde region of Colorado.  My interests center on these questions: what did people eat in the past, what were environments like in the past, what are the factors that cause variation in animal body size, and how can data on animal remains from the past provide information for conservation biology?  I also do interdisciplinary research on wildlife management and archaeological chemistry.  I am often asked “what are some keys to being a successful interdisciplinary researcher?”  Rule number 1: like who you are working with.  Rule number 2: be patient with the discomfort of moving outside your home discipline… with those rules in mind, here is a story about a wildly fascinating interdisciplinary project I am now involved in.

Two years ago over coffee, a poet and I sat down and decided we wanted to “work together.”  For years we had engaged in great conversations about our work, nature, education, and a range of other topics.  Working together, however, required subject matter, and coming up with such was not easy.  We decided to address our areas of scholarship using the most common characterization we could think of; we would address poems, research papers, classes, presentations, and other products of scholarship as stories.  Such stories are judged in different disciplines in different ways.  What makes a legitimate poem, film, painting, paper, or photograph?  We invited a filmmaker and a philosopher into our conversation, preparing a panel for the 2010 Society of Ethnobiology annual meeting in Victoria, BC.   There we gave short presentations on what it means to legitimate the stories we tell in our fields of study.  There was much discussion and even conflict as members of the audience chimed in with their thoughts.  As a scientist, I found the whole interchange fairly uncomfortable.   Panels and presentations are supposed to be watertight; if hypotheses are not clearly tested, stories should not yet be told…

That said, we each learned a lot about multiple perspectives to research.  However, we had not yet “done research” together; we had simply participated in interesting conversations.  For several months we let the experience marinate to the point that, though each of us saw one another on campus, we did very little to expand upon the panel―I had almost moved on.  Eight months after the conference, the UNT Office of Research and Economic Development sponsored a podcast about our Victoria panel; reconvening after such a break clarified for each of us what we had gained from the experience.  Invigorated, and responding to the journalist who created the podcast, we needed to address the question “so what?”  What should we do next?  We decided that a bold enterprise would be to tell a story together; that is, we decided to go into the field.  With CSID funding and the support of several UNT departments we have done just that.

We considered several topics and settled on The Mesa Verde Story, a story of the rise and collapse of a complex American Pueblo Society.  We surmise that the diverse scholarly lenses we use will lead to a multi-faceted rendition of The Mesa Verde Story.  The work is ongoing, but it is framed under the following precepts: we go into the field together, we hear from experts about the archaeology of Mesa Verde, we visit sites in the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado, and we tell the stories to one another as a poet, a photographer, a filmmaker, a philosopher, a Pueblo person, and as an archaeologist.  Although stories are the goal, we have suspended precise aims for the sake of preserving spontaneity.  This feels risky, because in the modern academic world, professors are supposed to have research plans with attainable goals.  We do not, and resisting the temptation to make promises about productivity is difficult. The creative freedom of not promising precise endpoints, however it might fly in the face of current scholarly demand, supplies us with a unique synergy.  It is our hope that this synergy allows us to communicate The Mesa Verde Story in interesting new ways to a broader audience.  We hope to build upon this project with new teams addressing new challenges―synergy first, products later.

We are left with writers, artists, scientists, philosophers free to explore for the sake of curiosity.  Such freedom has become so rare in American Society, that this project fills a need for each of us, that of creative expression.  We have learned that moving beyond the traditional boundaries of our home disciplines provides an invigorating challenge as well as creative inspiration.  The simple experience of working and sharing together has its own rewards.  As we create photographs, poems, films, papers, presentations… stories to tell, we look forward to sharing them broadly.

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