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Claire Warden – Interdisciplinarity: Variety Is the Spice of (Academic) Life

In this post Claire Warden, lecturer in Drama at Lincoln University, returns with another guest post, this time looking at the issues surrounding interdisciplinarity. You can follow Claire on twitter here. Recently I went to an Iron Maiden gig in Nottingham. Earlier in the day I had attended a yoga class and had then grabbed some sushi for lunch. Not owning an ‘Eddie’ top I decided to wear my Peter Gabriel 2003 tour t-shirt instead. An insightful friend called me ‘eclectic’ and I must admit that in all areas of life I rejoice in my slightly unusual day-to-day combinations: a lover of progressive rock but also a former classical soprano, a devotee of professional wrestling but also a reader of verbose Victorian novels. My friend is clearly right…I am nothing if not eclectic. This approach (call it eccentric if you will) actually impacts my work daily and I am starting to feel its effects more and more keenly.

In my last article for ‘PhD2published’ I briefly mentioned the importance of developing an interdisciplinary approach, of connecting our work with (or at least reading it alongside) the ideas of others outside of our immediate field. In this article I want to briefly begin to explore why and how this can be done.

Why Interdisciplinarity?

More and more universities are encouraging lecturers to work together, collaborating across traditional disciplinary barriers. At my own institution we are thinking about a ‘low wall’ strategy, schools and departments that are inextricably connected together. To develop this perspective early on in our work means that we are already tapping into university agendas.

Going down dark alleys (in the scholarly sense) was a crucial part of my PhD. For me it meant two weeks reading books about Mancunian social history for no other reason than I had become obsessed with Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class. I find that, amidst a sea of marking, funding deadlines and the impending REF (in the UK), we can lose this spirit of adventure. Developing an interdisciplinary approach forces us to retrace our steps down these alleys or find new paths.

There are surely few things worse than a lecturer who can only teach one topic, trampling over the same ground time and time again, and whose yellowed lecture notes are dragged out of a dusty filing cabinet year after year. Given that most people reading this are probably at an early stage in their academic careers, this is unlikely to be you…yet. But if one day you find yourself in a beige cardigan owning no book published in the past ten years and bemoaning the loss of the ‘good old days’ then don’t say I didn’t warn you. Interdisciplinarity forces us out of our (many apologies for the cliché) ‘comfort zone’ and compels us to engage with new material. This spirit of exploration also impacts on our teaching. As a postgraduate I was privileged to enjoy the lectures of one particularly wonderful, now retired, faculty member who, despite his advanced years, produced some of the most vibrant lectures I had ever attended. His secret? Keeping his lectures exciting, relevant, and contemporary, drawing his inspiration from a myriad of disciplines across the academic spectrum.

But how?

Getting published in peer-reviewed journals is becoming increasingly competitive; in fact the whole process is akin to a strategic military battle. I’ve recently been thinking about why I send my articles to specific journals, and have been contemplating branching out slightly. I realise that this might be a dangerous approach and may well bear no fruit, but I’m going to direct some of my future papers to journals outwith my field (drama) in an attempt to situate my work next to other papers from a range of different disciplines. If nothing else, the process of researching new journals will at least broaden my knowledge and provide an opportunity to consider new areas.  I love the way that juxtaposing divergent papers cause the reader (and the writer) to rethink approaches, themes and methodologies.

Coming from a similar spirit of exploration, I’m hoping to attend some different conferences in 2012. Publishing projects have meant that my 2011 conference schedule has been extremely limited. In fact, I don’t think I’ve got any further than Hull this year, not of course that there is anything wrong with Hull! But in 2012 I’m aiming to get to more conferences, and specifically conferences that will force me to reassess my work in light of other disciplines. While I love theatre conferences (inevitably there is one inspiring evening performance and one totally mad panel) I am hoping to branch out into the humanities, visual art, social sciences and beyond.

Now I am certainly no expert in grant applications but it seems that all the major funding councils are encouraging the ‘low walls’ perspective I mentioned earlier. Projects are now expected to cross over a range of barriers: national borders, the often large brick wall between the university and the local community, the boundaries between academia and business and, of course, the gaps between disciplines. In developing an interdisciplinary approach in our own work we will already be tapping into these ideas.

I find that a lunch break with something unusual is all I need to kickstart my week, whether that be an hour’s wander through an art gallery, watching a Revolutionary Russian film or listening to something a little mad on Ubuweb (a website that every academic should frequent). After spending an hour or so in a different, challenging medium I find I am full of new ideas. Some of these are consigned quickly to the brain bin but some actually become something tangible.

I used to call myself a ‘Theatre Historian’ as if this title was as static and authoritative as ‘Prime Minister’, albeit (sadly) without the power. Now, however, I am less inclined to categorise myself so definitively, aiming instead to leave myself room to continuously change, embodying a joyous sense of eccentricity in my work. Whether any academic publisher will ever be interested in an original study into Iron Maiden and the Principles of Yoga in the Victorian novel, however, remains to be seen.

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