Why Cross-Disciplinary Research Matters: An Interview with Christa Teston
The following interview of Christa Teston was conducted by Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme Faculty Director Wendy S. Hesford. Teston is an associate professor in The Ohio State University Department of English where she is also the director of the Business and Technical Writing Program. Teston studies how humans navigate uncertainty in technoscientific, biomedical and media-rich domains. Specifically, she researches the evidential backstage, or all the work that goes on behind the scenes when experts attempt to corral chaos. Her first book — Bodies in Flux: Scientific Methods for Negotiating Medical Uncertainty — critiques the fetishization of certainty and advocates for an ethic of care that honors human fragility and bodily flux.
Wendy Hesford: Can you tell us about your current research project on posthuman dignity? To what degree are cross-disciplinary perspectives or methods important to this project?
Christa Teston: The desire to preserve or ensure human dignity is one of those claims that gets invoked in almost every situation imaginable, whether in speeches about transnational politics or legal requirements for a local nursing home. Given all the varying scenarios in which human dignity as a generalizable concept is invoked, I’m a bit skeptical about the degree to which we can actually assume it has a stable, shared definition. For example, you often hear human dignity invoked as a warrant for opposite sides of the same debate (e.g. debates surrounding physician-assisted dying legislation). If human dignity means everything to everyone, what good is it?
As someone who studies contemporary care practices from a humanities perspective, but does so in a way that’s especially attuned to the material and discursive contributors to such practices, I’ve surmised that perhaps the best we can do is try and trace the contours of human dignity in practice. That is, what does human dignity look like in real time, or on the ground in actual, sticky situations? For example, how do doctors, nurses and rehabilitation therapists do dignified care with disabled patients who may not have reliable transportation to their appointments or who cannot afford to pay out of pocket for certain assistive technologies?
To begin to answer such a question, one of the sites I conducted qualitative research at is Ohio State’s wheelchair-fitting clinic over at Martha Morehouse. Essentially, I observed, recorded and (continue to) analyze patients’ appointments as they were fitted for wheelchairs. Based on my analyses, I’m at the beginning stages of generating a theory of “posthuman dignity,” which is a fancy way of saying: determining who gets to enjoy status as “human” has always been contentious, fraught enterprise. Moreover, one’s humanity is often structured by nonhuman things. Therefore, our definition for “human dignity” might need to be revised a bit to account for the racist, ableist, gendered, classist baggage to which “the human” was once (and in many cases still is) tethered.
You can’t really get at any of this complexity without situating yourself within cross-disciplinary collaborations. Taking the time to position yourself as a researcher within an otherwise unfamiliar space (e.g. the wheelchair-fitting clinic) among people who do something very different from you (e.g. occupational therapy) challenges assumptions you may have felt compelled to make about those people and places. There’s something quite humbling about watching people perform their unique expertise in a domain different from yours. And if nothing else, I think just being able to honor that expertise is a desirable enough outcome.
WH: What do you see as the major challenges of conducting cross-disciplinary research? What do you find most rewarding?
CT: There are always challenges to doing collaborative research, and usually they have to do with a lack of shared terminology or an agreement about research methods and/or what counts as evidence. That’s no different for cross-disciplinary collaborative research. But two additional challenges are (1) time, and (2) money. Building trust with folks from other disciplines takes time. And they’re often working within different administrative, funding networks, and hierarchies than you are. Learning about all of those differences and then figuring out a way to navigate them takes a lot of time and patience. For example, on a lot of major grants these days, funding agencies are requiring matching funds. It’s not often, though, that the humanities (especially English departments) happen to have a couple thousand dollars hanging around, unmarked in their budgets. This is just one of many barriers humanists might face when trying to obtain support for cross-disciplinary collaborations. There just isn’t an infrastructure available for doing that kind of work. That said, successfully navigating those barriers is, itself, a kind of reward. In so doing, you carve out a pathway for someone else to build those same cross-disciplinary collaborations. This might just be my experience, but I’ve actually not found it to be true that non-humanists think “less” of humanists’ approaches to problems. With the exception of one particularly grouchy statistician, my experience has been that folks who typically rely on quantitative data to make decisions do, in fact, respect other ways of collecting and analyzing evidence.
WH: Can you tell us more about the Grand Rounds in Medical Education talk that you recently presented to the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences? What were your major takes-aways from that experience?
CT: It’s all kind of a blur now thanks to the high level of anxiety I had about doing this kind of public speaking. This was the first time I’ve taken my research to such a large group of folks whose expertise is largely in medical science. I was super worried about how skeptical the audience would be. And it’s also an awkward feeling to be analyzing and talking about the very things your audience does on a routine basis. For example, what if they think I’m making a big deal out of something that, at least to them, is unimportant (e.g. the large red toolbox propped open on the floor of the wheelchair fitting clinic)? What if I get something fundamental about their profession terribly wrong? These were some of the things swirling through my head in the weeks before and during the talk. My major takeaway from this experience, though, is that genuine curiosity (rather than brute critique) sets the stage for generous readings of one another’s work. And by generous I don’t (just) mean politeness or niceness. I mean generative. A lot of folks in my field (medical and scientific rhetoric) have built whole careers out of deconstructing medical and scientific practice for all the ways it gets things wrong. That was and continues to be important work. But now I think if we start from a place of we’re all doing the best we can with what we have, more generative conversations about how to make “our best” even better can emerge. Ideally, that means opening space for an awareness of the ways “our best” (albeit unintentionally) reinforces biases or harmful norms that do not constitute dignified care.
WH: In one sentence, what is the value of cross-disciplinary research to your field?
CT: Where there may be misunderstanding, misinformation, and/or misappropriation of resources, cross-disciplinary research sets the stage for creating commonplaces that work toward a more just, livable world.