Lost in Space – the unsettlement of interdisciplinarity

I’ve been feeling increasingly rootless over the past few months, but in a weirdly good way. Well, mostly good. I’m bringing in loads of new ideas to my work, which is intellectually stimulating but also quite tricky as the scope of those ideas is enormous. Perhaps it’s all just too big, I don’t know, I’ll have to wait and see. The reason for this is that my research is heading in a new direction, or at least adding new directions to my existing ones. It’ll probably make more sense if I explain this…

Starting point/s

Overall, I’m interested in universities, and particularly in how universities differ from each other, both within and between countries. My “home territory” in terms of focus is how students’ experiences vary, and how this is often related to who they are and their previous experiences. I could spend the rest of my career in this “niche”, a lot of people will, and they’ll contribute really important work to it. Often they’ll look at a niche within a niche, such as class or gender, sexual orientation or race/ethnicity, or religion.

Such a long-term, “narrow” focus is essential because any one of those dimensions is incredibly complex and nuanced; it’s is only through years of sustained examination that we really get to understand them more fully. Each of them also overlaps – intersects – with others, in that being a white, male, straight middle class student is different to being a black, male, straight, middle class one. The more you shuffle the combinations, the more varied it all gets, and people will often consider a few in combination. It’s fascinating and important work, as the further removed you are from the dominant group (white, male, posh), the rougher your ride will be – and it’s through no fault of your own. Making the system less exclusive is one of the most pressing social concerns we have.

New direction/s

I’m still going to be looking at identity and universities, but I’m also adding some new bits to the mix. Anyone who’s studied/worked at more than one university will know that they contrast in thousands of slightly – or very – different ways. This comes from a combination of the organisation’s history, who works/studies there, who runs it, who used to work/study there/run it, where it’s located, how it’s built and laid out, and so on. To illustrate, how you see (or feel at) Cambridge will in part be related to its rich and traditional (or antediluvian and oppressive) culture, the wonderful and gifted (or annoying and entitled) people there, and its gorgeous and inspiring (or intimidating and excluding) architecture.

There’s research on all of these areas – more on some than others – but it’s currently not very joined together, often being limited to discussions within a single discipline. Such is the nature of academic research, as areas can have their own focii, language, and ways of doing things. This means that they can be a bit like oil and water at times. Which disciplines are involved – or “involvable” in my research? Well, the world’s your oyster. In no particular order, there’s relevant work in Sociology, Geography, Philosophy, Anthropology, Politics, Management, Economics, Architecture, Urban Studies, Organisational Studies, Literature, and Art History. That’s in the first/closest circle. The second circle could involve Computer Studies, Accounting, Town Planning, Engineering, Law…and so on.

Risks and rewards

What this means for me is that I’m able to – or am having to – read really widely. I’ve always tried to rummage a bit around the fringes, but there’s often little time for this. If you’re under pressure to teach certain materials and publish at a particular rate, there can be few gaps in between; you have to be strategic (i.e. confined) in terms of what you read. If it’s not directly related to your paper/topic, it either gets ignored or goes into that folder of “non-essential things I’d like to read”. I think most academics probably have one of these. Occasionally I go back into it and pick something up or fillet out and discard the odd thing, but if it was in paper form, the pile would comfortably be as tall as me.

From one angle, I’m absolutely loving this broadness, this enormous variety. As long as it’s “on topic”, I can include it, and this allows me to follow trails of references out of curiosity, burrowing down fascinating rabbit holes. As you might imagine I’m coming across an incredible diversity of authors and ideas. It’s partly confusing but mostly eye-opening and enriching. It’s great! From another angle, though, I’m a bit lost. How do I join all of this together? Should I? Can I?

There’s a worry here that I’ll be caught in an academic no-man’s land, a jack of all trades and master of none. I could present at a conference, or submit a paper, and be called out for not having read deeply enough in that particular concept or field. (As it is, the volume of material across my topic is far too big for anyone to take in.) In my scavenging across disciplines and literatures, am I on a path towards creating a Frankenstein’s monster that doesn’t quite fit together? Most academics are generous with their insights and support, giving credit for what you’re doing and offering constructive feedback on how to improve it. Others are less so, and they delight in highlighting your shortcomings; it makes them feel better about their own expertise and defends their position in that field. It’ll be a ride, that’s for certain…

Checking my privilege

It’s really important to mention here that I’m in a very privileged position. I’m in a permanent post, in a field and department that welcomes interdisciplinary thinking, and where I’m new so I haven’t accumulated the full load of responsibilities yet. I also have external funding for the research project that forms the basis of all of this. It could be a very different story. This wide-ranging approach possibly lacks the tight focus for a PhD, and wouldn’t necessarily fit tidily within a bigger, coordinated post-doc project, either. Some disciplines are very picky about which journals you publish in, and this can limit the topics, or the research methods you can use, which can make life difficult for early career researchers who need to publish to get their careers off the ground.

In short, I’m fortunate to have this idea and opportunity at this precise moment in my career, and to be working in an area which allows eclecticism. Two years ago, it wouldn’t have worked as I didn’t have the time or space, and in two years from now I may not, either.

This post was originally published on Stuff About Unis.

Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Lancaster. He is mostly interested in how students’ experiences vary between universities and countries. His profile can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels.

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