Transdisciplinary Projects

Maya asked: 
English/WGS prof here and I regularly work with STEM and Healthcare colleagues on transdisciplinary projects like medical humanities. What do you think humanities and STEM people need to know about each other to work better together?

This is a great question, but unfortunately it’s not one I am particularly well-qualified to answer as I haven’t had collaborative projects involving colleagues from the humanities (or from the biomedical fields, for that matter). However, I trust that some of our readers have!

Wise and worldly readers, please share your thoughts and experiences with Maya!


  1. If you’re working with people who practice medicine *and* do research, try to be understanding about their schedule and be flexible. No, I cannot “just be flexible” and meet with you on an OR day because I literally cannot step away from my duties. The non-clinical person is going to have to accommodate, sorry. Also, on my OR days I undergo a nearly complete brain dump, and it takes about a day to fully recover and reorient to what I was working on before. It is also nearly impossible to respond to emails in a thoughtful or timely fashion when I am in between caring for patients, yet that is the expectation, and in order to keep things moving, I have to anyway.

    Clinical medicine is utterly exhausting in a way that most other jobs are not. I have to take call 2-3 times per month, during which time I am awake for 26-28 hours in a row working on my feet the whole time. If I refuse to meet on a post-call day, please don’t think that is just laziness — it’s because I have been awake all night and I a) don’t want to torture myself, and b) I’d like to remember the meeting. I also have to wake up at 5:30 in the morning when I am in the OR, and 12 hours is a typical shift duration for us. Other clinical specialties may be less physically demanding, but they may also need to chart or call patients after hours, which is a large distraction, I am told.

    My other frustration with working with non-physician collaborators is that they sometimes discount my perspective about a clinical situation that I encounter on a regular basis because it’s not how they personally imagined it. The real value in collaborating with a healthcare colleague is that they intimately understand and know how things really work with patients and their workflow, and honestly if you don’t listen to them, we are all f*cked because some PhD is going to design a system that makes no sense because they have no clinical frame of reference. In fact, we have seen that a lot in medicine already, and in case you hadn’t noticed, we *are* already f*cked because of it. 🙂

  2. I’ve been involved in some medical humanities curricula. There are a lot of weird dynamics between the STEM people and the humanities people, and a lot of condescending behavior in both groups. So I would say, if you can’t find some respect for what the other side does, just step out of the project.

    I love the humanities. One of my undergrad degrees is in the humanities. Some of my best friends are in the humanities! But I hear a lot of comments from my humanities counterparts that drive me nuts. Not understanding the importance of experimental design and statistics in assessment. Irrational fear of numbers (both rational and irrational). Snide comments about content-based courses and facts. My all time #1 pet peeve: Humanities teaches empathy. Do you think STEM people lack empathy? Does omdg who’s killing herself with clinical duties lack empathy? Finally, it really seems like the humanities are a hostile place for people on the autism spectrum, many of whom flock to STEM. It would be nice to extend some of that empathy to people on the spectrum.

  3. I once wrote a proposal with faculty from humanities. The biggest difference was that my approach to writing it was very structured, but not theirs. I would deal with a concept in a section and then move on to another concept. But the humanities person wanted to deal with all concepts all the time. For me it was messy, for the humanities it was all-encompassing 🙂 We didn’t get funded.

  4. Thanks for this, all!

    OMDG–I work and live with an E.M. physician–I agree with everything you’ve said. Thanks for doing what you do–the only way to redress the the lack of physician input in clinical systems is enable more physicians to get involved.

    Anon–I’m going to think more about your points about empathy and people on the autism spectrum feeling more at home in STEM. I doubt anyone thinks people in STEM *lack* empathy–but I do believe the humanities are set up to *teach* empathy.

    Lucy–Your anecdote made me laugh. I hope it didn’t make you swear off working with humanities colleagues forever!

    Thanks for hosting my Q, Xykademiqz!

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