Friday, July 22, 2016

The Interdisciplinary Anthill

I went on a small hiking trip over the weekend, straying roughly three hours from Menomonie, to a place called Devil’s Lake State Park.  Five weeks into the LAKES internship, I assumed a change of scenery and pace would reinvigorate my scholarly endeavors and allow me to return to my work at Stout with a fresh pair of eyes and a renewed sense of purpose.  What I did not expect was to, through nature, uncover a more holistic understanding of interdisciplinary research.
Perched comfortably on a low-resting tree branch, as I often find myself lazily doing during hiking breaks, I observed an ant marching across the branch. It seemed to follow a series of other ants down the trunk and into an anthill not far from the base of the tree.  Dozens of ants marched purposefully into a singular hole at the colony’s opening.  My mind wandered back to grade school lessons about the individualized tasks of ants within an anthill—all entering the same hole in the ground, each ant performs a distinct task.  I was reminded of my work on the LAKES REU project.
Just as each ant enters the anthill through the same hole, each of the eleven interns on the LAKES project gather for study of a very specific problem: phosphorous pollution in the Red Cedar Watershed.  Sociologists, economists, mathematicians, geographers, and anthropologists all funnel into the same interdisciplinary anthill to explore the issue from their respective epistemological angles, but follow different paths to find a solution that resonates with their discipline.  Focusing on sociology, I follow a path of absentee landlords and the farmers who lease out their land.
Interviews and survey results give way to related, yet new and different, research topics. I find myself questioning everything—endlessly formulating new research questions about farmers and absenteeism (and about everything else I read and see!). Talking with widowed landowners makes me curious about the power dichotomy between husbands and wives that own land as joint tenancy and how that changes if the wife becomes a widow.  Talking to older farmers with young interns makes me question the evolution of farming education and how that has changed over time with the introduction of four-year bachelor’s degrees in agronomy.  Endless avenues of research questions unfold before me.            
Anthills are known for their complex tunnels that give way to systems of diverse paths.  Over the past few weeks, I have found myself on avenues that overlap other disciplines on the project.  Specifically, I joined the anthropology team at an NRCS meeting in Barron, WI and was surprised to find that many of the problems addressed at the meeting echoed the concerns expressed by interviewed farmers and landlords.  Additionally, the time I’ve spent receiving GIS training from the geography team has articulated the intersections between geographic propinquity and social capital.
Aside from working directly with Anthropology and Geography, I have spend the past few weeks sharing a table with the economics team, simultaneously working on separate projects—an unusual kind of academic parallel play that has afforded me insight into goals of the economists.
It is simple to find oneself navigating everyday life with tunnel vision.  We focus on our own goals and our own tasks, failing to integrate the crisscrossing paths of those nearest to us, even when we share similar goals. My weekend away gave me time not only to reflect on my own work, but to examine the influence of my coworkers and to reevaluate our common goal.  It is in these ways, as well as many others, that this particular REU makes work feel like leisure and time off feel like discovery.

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