by Paul Cockburn, Elena Collaro, Chrysi Kyratsou
In October, Durham’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), organised the workshop ‘Leading Interdisciplinary Research’ for PhD students across the Northern Bridge consortium. The seminar was framed by talks from Professor Alexander Easton, Professor Nicholas Saul, and Professor John Sutton, and hosted PGR presentations on the lived experience of interdisciplinary research.
Professor Easton suggested a mnemonic for the characteristics of good interdisciplinary research: Curiosity, Cooperation, Confidence, and Collaboration. Karen Rann, one of the PGR presenters, added to this list ‘Creativity’ and ‘Entanglement’. Anthropology, geography and literary studies, for example, are almost always entangled with other disciplines. These principles usefully framed the experiences of the PGR presenters, and structure this report. We elaborate on the suggested mnemonic and its characteristics here:
Curiosity: Following the Topic
Professor Sutton advised that interdisciplinary research should ‘follow the topic, not the tradition’. This makes sense for Paul’s ecocritical project, ‘Concrete Jungle: Imagining Nature in the Literature of New York City’, in which he uses literature and related cultural artifacts to explore the relationship between New York City and the wider non-human environment.
Elena’s project, ‘Mental time travel in nonhuman animals: a critical approach’ uses a philosophical lens to look at comparative research in memory and prediction. It sits at the intersection of science (psychology, neuroscience) and the humanities (philosophy, anthropology), employing qualitative methods to investigate quantitative research.
‘Chrysi’s project has an anthropological focus on musicking among refugees sheltering in reception centres and explores the emerging potential for multiple inclusions (social, cultural and so on). Theoretical discussions developed by other disciplines has helped her to address various complications related to her project.
Cooperation: Speaking the Same Language
Paul offered a word of caution about interdisciplinary conferences. To avoid talking at cross-purposes, it is necessary to either establish a vocabulary that is universally understood, or to outline key terms carefully. Miscommunication of these terms (which may be self-evident to one discipline and obscure to the other) can be like navigating Manhattan with an A-Z of Liverpool.
Similarly, Chrysi highlighted the need for the researcher to familiarize themselves with discussions undertaken by other disciplines, to make space for their own argument. It is crucial to develop and communicate the project’s narrative effectively to the intended audience.
Chrysi illustrated the challenges that working across disciplines involves through her experience in the multidisciplinary Postgraduate Journal IMPACT. The team were brought together by shared goals but differences in how to accomplish these objectives made it feel like a Tower of Babel. They rescued themselves from this dead end through a commitment to listening to each other along with respecting differences. They also ensured that they are understood by considering their teammates’ individual modes of thinking.
Elena highlighted the communicative challenges posed by the nature of her supervisory team. Indeed, being having four supervisors across two institutions has proven difficult at times: exchanges among them can be troublesome, and an abundance of varied guidance doesn’t always provide clarity.
Confidence: Confronting Imposter Syndrome
Stepping into a room full of scientists can be a daunting task for a philosopher, so it was eye opening to hear from Professor Easton that people in the sciences experience the same unsettling feeling when in the company of humanities researchers.
Being across institutions is a great opportunity, says Elena, but it comes with challenges related to physical access to university buildings, and the difficulty of securing a dedicated study space while moving around. Nevertheless, the most substantial obstacle that Elena has encountered in leading interdisciplinary research has been about having severe impostor syndrome. At times she felt stranded, lacking a sense of belonging to a field and a department. One might feel as though they lacked expertise, and as though fellow PhD students can’t always relate to their struggles.
Both Elena and Paul found Professor John Sutton’s advice to be useful: impostor syndrome never leaves you, as it is merely a sign that you are aware of the things you don’t know.
Contributing to this narrative, Paul told a story about a paper, situated at the intersection of literary and architectural imagination, which he presented to architects, engineers, and urban historians. He felt that in this presentation , the value of literary studies was being asserted to a room of people for whom it might not be self-evident.
Collaboration: The Value of Research Centres
Interdisciplinary research often requires stepping outside the security of formal academic training. As well as doing the reading, it is necessary to have conversations with researchers working in your target disciplines. Some of the research centres we can think of are the IAS at Durham as well as the Centre for Culture and Ecology which are excellent examples among many. At Arizona State University, The Centre for Science and the Imagination have organized workshops at which experts in engineering and architecture work with science-fiction writers to produce speculative narratives about possible futures. The anthropology department, where Elena is based, already hosts plenty of interdisciplinary research and is a good starting point for exploring a multitude of methodological approaches. The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, on the other hand is an interdisciplinary centre at Queen’s University Belfast, which addresses global challenges and aims at societal change. These institutions and departments lead interdisciplinary research by facilitating nourishing cross-disciplinary conversations.
Concluding: Creativity and Entanglement
The quintessence of interdisciplinary work is producing results that surmount the sum of the distinct parts, blending them into a new assemblage. Navigating these intellectual entanglements requires creativity. If, like Elena, you are working across the estates of multiple departments, you might also have to find creative solutions to finding a dedicated study space while moving around.
In the aftermath of several lockdowns and isolations of various forms, coming together to share our experiences and hear that the issues we face are more common than we might think, proved a bonding and reassuring experience. It is also crucial to be able to channel any negative feeling one might have, using complaining as a positive experience, knowing that others will listen.