Written by Veronica Strang
Welcome to the second issue of the Institute of Advanced Study’s newsletter, Transformations. As the New Year of 2021 unfolds, we have all become accustomed to virtual life. Along with many departments and institutes at other Universities, we have been discovering that, although online lectures and seminars cannot truly replace being able to see and interact with each other properly, it is a huge plus to be able to include people, located in far flung geographic locations, who would otherwise not be able to attend these events. We are therefore planning to continue to host many such online activities, even when – we hope – the Covid vaccination programme allows academic lives to return to something approaching normality.
The virtual lectures from the IAS Fellows last term included topics as diverse as land reform and sustainable communities; the common ground between dreams and psychosis, the politics of language in world literature; and extreme states of physical matter. The recorded lectures – and details of upcoming events – are all available on the IAS website, as are the live lectures offered by IAS Fellows prior to the pandemic. To listen to any of these fascinating and diverse offerings, go to https://www.dur.ac.uk/ias/recordings/.
The IAS strives not only to ensure that its Fellows provide a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, but that they are also embody diversity themselves, both in terms of gender (where we have achieved a good balance in recent years), and in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. Because different countries and regions offer widely varied levels of opportunity, the latter is harder to achieve. It is therefore worth stressing that the IAS warmly welcomes top quality applications from scholars, as well as from practitioners such as writers and artists, from anywhere in the world.
Having an open international Fellowship programme, and bringing to the University leading scholars from around the globe is, of course, the raison d’etre of any serious Institute of Advanced Study. The exigencies of the last year have allowed neither of these things, with Covid preventing international travel, and financial pressures pausing the IAS’s ability to support an open Fellowship programme. Although the latter pressures have meant a second year without an open Fellowship call, for 2021-22, we are optimistic that the proper functioning of the IAS will be restored in 2022-23. Thus we hope once again be able to invite world-leading scholars to apply for IAS Distinguished Fellowships, to collaborate with Durham academics, and to participate in the lively conversations that enable the IAS to act as a creative crucible in composing cutting-edge interdisciplinary research.
The IAS’s capacities to provide support to interdisciplinary research across the University have been increased recently, I am delighted to say, by the appointment of a new Co-Director for the Science Faculty, Professor Alex Easton. Located in the Department of Psychology, Alex has long been involved in projects with the IAS, and brings an immensely useful interdisciplinary background to this role. The addition of a fourth Co-Director (with the recent arrival of László Pólos from the newly constituted Business Faculty) has enabled the IAS to give Alex a new Co-Director Portfolio, which we hope will further strengthen our engagement with other parts of the University. This focuses on engaging with the University’s research office, and with Departments and Faculties, in seeking and exploring major funding opportunities that might benefit from the IAS’s interdisciplinary leadership and/or support.
Alex will also be taking a lead in reviving and refreshing the IAS’s efforts to offer some training in ‘Navigating Interdisciplinarity’. Readers who have been involved with the IAS for some years may recall that this was the name of the workshop we ran twice a year until 2017-18. Designed for IAS Fellows and project participants (and keen post-graduates), this was partly a convivial ‘let’s get to know each other’ exercise. From time to time it was supplemented by a game of Durham Bluff that – pitching a Home team against the Visiting Fellows – provided a hugely entertaining evening for many colleagues across the University.
However, the workshop also had a more seriously instrumental intention, to explore the key issues and opportunities in conducting interdisciplinary research, and to do some exercises facilitating interdisciplinary conversations. Since my Anthropology colleague, Professor Sandra Bell, and I designed the initial workshop in 2012, the IAS’s reflexive work on interdisciplinarity has developed, creating a strong strand of reflexive research in this area. A number of related publications and resources have run alongside direct involvement in UKRI’s efforts to address interdisciplinary challenges in the upcoming REF, and in a (currently underway) review of the interdisciplinary aspects of its Strategic Priorities Fund.
With so many academic colleagues still grappling with the challenges of designing, conducting and evaluating interdisciplinary research, we decided recently to collate the IAS’s publications and other work exploring interdisciplinarity, and place them on a new page on our website, which can be found here. The aim is to provide a ‘go to’ resource for people embarking (or even just interested in embarking) on genuinely interdisciplinary research. As ever, we hope that this work by the IAS will encourage, enliven and support their endeavours.