Durham IAS

Jul 6, 2021 | IAS Director, IAS News, Transformations (Issue 3)

Welcome to the summer 2021 issue of the Institute of Advanced Study’s newsletter, Transformations which, after the long winter of Covid, emerges waving tentative shoots of regeneration. Although there are some remaining uncertainties about travel, we hope that by October we will be able to resume bringing international Fellows to Durham, thus restoring the IAS’s full capacities to host the creative collaborative exchanges that lie at the heart of its endeavours.

These endeavours will be much enhanced by the recent appointment of two new IAS Co-Directors to replace those reaching the end of their respective terms in August and at the end of the calendar year. This means, however, that the team is now facing the imminent departure of this newsletter’s editor and our much-esteemed Co-Director for Arts and Humanities, Professor Nicholas Saul, whose scholarship has long provided a guiding light in the Institute and a vital bridge with all of the Departments in his Faculty. I know that many colleagues, and especially those whose IAS projects have benefitted from his sage advice, will want to join me in thanking him warmly for his contribution to the Institute, and to the successful conduct of interdisciplinary research across the University.

Our sense of loss is mitigated by knowing that we will soon gain two new team members who will bring their own outstanding scholarship to the IAS. Selected from a very strong field of applicants, Professor Patrick Zuk, from the Department of Music, will join the team in October on behalf of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and Professor Nayanika Mookherjee, from the Department of Anthropology, will do so for the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health at the beginning of Epiphany Term. As will be evident from the brief biographies below, both will add major strengths to the team, and to the IAS’s efforts to uphold the highest standards of interdisciplinary research.

Appointing new Co-Directors – in this case two at once so that the panel could consider the composition of the Directorate as a whole – has led me to reflect on the professional and personal attributes that are needed to facilitate and support interdisciplinary research. This kind of role obviously requires a substantial professional track-record of research success and experience. But leading successful interdisciplinary research developments also calls for personal strengths that are perhaps less obvious. It requires the intellectual courage to leave behind the comforts of a ‘home’ disciplinary territory and travel adventurously across unfamiliar disciplinary mindscapes. It requires sufficient persuasive charm to bring others along on that journey, and to encourage genuine exchanges of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. It requires a capacity to see the links between diverse specialisms, imagine a common vision, and consider how this might be realised. While retaining critical thinking, and a commitment to academic rigour, it also requires a real commitment to equality between disciplines, and between diverse colleagues, and an egalitarian modus operandi recognising that research leadership is about enabling others to flourish. Another key attribute is boundless curiosity and the passion for ‘out of the box’ ideas that lift collective endeavours above utilitarian considerations.

Above all, a role helping colleagues build strong research teams requires an energy and enthusiasm for collective endeavours that overrides individual competitive aspirations, and inspires others to do likewise. In an academic context that tends to reward solo achievements more than team efforts, and which does not always encourage individual generosity in the sharing of ideas, time and resources, it is worth remembering that, as Bateson observed, successful evolution depends upon cooperation more than competition. In this regard interdisciplinary research must seek to subvert the status quo. While such ‘positive disruption’ may challenge conservative views, the capacity to share ideas to the extent that they transform the way we think is surely something to be cherished in a University.

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