Show and Tell @ QMUL

A new and exciting series of talks for school and college students hosted by the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.

Show and Tell brings together influential academic teaching staff and industry professionals to deliver engaging and accessible talks for young people interested in working in the arts and possibly studying humanities subjects at university. Queen Mary staff working in a range of disciplines will share their cutting-edge research in short, thought-provoking presentations, and they will be joined by alumni offering insights into the work they do now in jobs across the creative sector.

Much like a TED Talk, these events are designed to be as entertaining as they are informative: they will provide a unique experience for school and college students to learn about the research being produced in universities and the careers graduates pursue after their studies.

Over the course of one evening, students can expect to hear from four speakers working in university disciplines including English, Drama, History, and Geography, and from industries such as journalism, theatre, fashion, and museums and galleries. They will also have the chance to network and meet the speakers and their peers over refreshments at a reception where they can discuss the evening’s talks, ask more questions, and find out about the journeys that current and former students have made to university and the world of work.

Show and Tell is primarily aimed at students aged 16-18 who are currently studying at A Level or equivalent at schools, sixth forms, and colleges, but we would welcome GCSE students too. This is a widening participation project and we hope it will encourage students who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in higher education to think of applying to study arts and humanities degrees at Queen Mary and other Russell Group universities.  

We are keen to hear the views of teachers so that we can make this project as effective as it can possibly be. Please help us make Show and Tell a success by getting in touch and telling us what you think makes university outreach events work for you and your students. You can tell us what you think by completing our questionnaire here: https://goo.gl/forms/EkmXCKC5m9hN4kxS2

If you are student who would like to attend, or an alumnus who would like to speak at a Show and Tell event, please also contact us to find out more.

You can register your interest by emailing showandtell@qmul.ac.uk 

Mind the Ironic Gap: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library

Alan Hollinghurst is not a prolific novelist, with only five novels to his name, but he is an important one. His first, The Swimming-Pool Library, burst onto the scene – the gay one and the literary alike – in 1988 just as Thatcher’s third government was introducing the Section 28 laws. The infamous clause prohibited local authorities disseminating material deemed to be endorsing homosexuality, and attempted to silence teachers who dared instruct children that being gay was a normal lifestyle. At the same time, the AIDS crisis had devastated lives around the world, and the World Health Organization began its effort to promote awareness, founding World AIDS Day.

Neither of these two traumas, though, made it into Hollinghurst’s seminal depiction of gay lives, a novel which now makes up a great deal of my dissertation. The presence of these national and international crises is felt throughout the novel, however, which is principally set in London, 1983, but looks back and further afield to Britain’s colonial exploits in the Sudan and to the post-war ‘gay pogroms’ in the 1950s. Hollinghurst quite flippantly said that Section 28 boosted the sales of the novel, and threw a lot more publicity its way, an example of his particular dark, serious humour that runs throughout his work.

I first read this novel for ‘pleasure’ – whatever that means – before I came to Queen Mary, and now at the close of my undergraduate years, I’ve dedicated a year to studying and writing about it. Just as much fun as it was when I read it as a teenager, I decided to revisit it with academic lenses on, focusing on the politics of the 1980s, issues of representation, and invocations of the past. For me, thinking about all of this within a novel I never read in a classroom has been a great way of getting to know it better – and I will excommunicate anyone who says studying a book makes you hate it. What I’ve found is that so much of what I really enjoyed in ‘casually’ reading the novel comes up again and again in what I think provides the potential for ‘formal’, academic discussion.

In The Swimming-Pool Library, the narrator Will Beckwith recounts his leisured life as a 25 year old gay man in early 1980s London, a period he describes as his ‘belle époque’, a kind of prelapsarian golden age for gay men before it all went wrong. Still, he senses disaster amidst the summer of fun: ‘all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.’ A novel of nostalgia, however, this is not. And Hollinghurst is careful to put pressure on any notion of a sentimentalised gay past, since the wealthy Will from an aristocratic family is brought up against different working-class and black gay men who remind the reader that such hedonistic experiences were exceptions to the rule. More than this, after a comic encounter in a public toilet with an old Lord, Will agrees to undertake the task of writing this man’s biography. Through the diaries of Charles Nantwich, Will comes to know a complicated and unsettling history of homosexuality in Britain and its empire.

Indeed, the novel balances the main sections of first-person narration in the aesthetic and affected voice of Will with passages of Nantwich’s Oxford and Sudan journals from the 1920s. Hollinghurst’s intention was to explore ideas of ageing, and the tension brought about by the two styles of narration suggests what has changed and persisted across the twentieth century for gay men. With this compare and contrast of Will and Nantwich, two gay men from opposite ends of an age of extremes, what is seen to persist most clearly is their appetite for men.

Often labelled as ‘brave’ and ‘unapologetic’, The Swimming-Pool Library continues to be regarded as an important text in depicting gay sexuality and desire for men, and is almost treated as a ‘coming-out’ case in itself. But for all the reviews which praise his defiance as a ‘gay writer’ showing ‘gay sex’, what is most exciting about Hollinghurst’s novel is its refusal to sentimentalise his characters, or feel pressured into depicting all gay men either as allies, heroes or victims of a common enemy, that is, the heterosexual world. In fact, there are remarkably few heterosexual characters in it, and nearly no women. What Hollinghurst achieves in shaking-off is what James Baldwin called the burden of representation. This is unapologetically a novel about a white, rich gay man who lives in west London, and who develops ‘a taste for black names’ and working-class boys, rather than a story which attempts to tell all gay men’s stories.

The first lines of the novel neatly offer the measure of Will, a bright young thing detached from the reality of most people’s lives in Thatcher’s Britain, yet he is physically caught up in the cosmopolitan mix. Hollinghurst makes great use of trains to show off this kind of close detachment, and the Underground often becomes a way for Will to eye-up men or even find a fling:

I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the state heart of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives

Will’s curiosities as to how the other 90% live, since he ‘belonged to that tiny proportion of the populace that indeed owns almost everything’, function as an ironic gap through which we read his peculiar and often uncomfortable perception of black and working-class figures. As his thoughts wander along with his journey, he comes to feel ‘a kind of tenderness’ for the black worker who he imagines going home after a hard night’s graft.

Will in many ways is a pretty unpleasant character, but Hollinghurst maintains that these are the really interesting ones, and makes the point that it ‘doesn’t mean that you can’t find them sympathetic’. Will is, though, a terrific snob. On more than one occasion he travels to the East End to conduct research for Nantwich’s biography or to visit ex-lovers. Going to see Arthur, a seventeen-year-old from Stratford East, Will feels a striking ‘culture shock’ that leaves him disbelieving he is in the same city. As he walks about the tower blocks, he feels an alien: ‘Away to the left a group of kids were skateboarding up the side of a concrete bunker. I somehow expected them to shout obscenities, and was glad I had come ordinarily dressed, in a sports shirt, an old linen jacket, jeans and daps.’

The buildings he sees around him seem to disregard ‘anything the eye or heart might fix on as homely or decent’, and he finds the estate defaced with National Front graffiti: ‘“Kill All Niggers” or “Wogs Out”.’ It is at these moments, in which Will’s ignorance and distaste for the working-class areas comes through, that he is at his most political in revealing the massive divisions that remain in British society. Travelling around on the tube, Will does not so much mind as confront the gaps that exist between races, classes, and subcultures in 1980s London.

For a story belonging to Will, a man who alights at Tottenham Court Road to go home to the flat his grandfather bought for him, the novel has a surprising reach to it. Will is equally fascinated and appalled by the places he visits. As one of many larger instances of Hollinghurst furnishing the novel with references to earlier writers, Will, an Oxford graduate, looks on at east London with a kind of literary sensibility of its divergence, seeing it through ‘Dickensian or Arnold Bennettish’ lenses. Yet, the novel makes no claims to the kind of panoramic perspective that we might expect from an older realist novel.

The Swimming-Pool Library is, I think, one of the great contemporary representations of London, and surely right up at the top in gay men’s writing. Hollinghurst’s fiction is stuffed with vile characters, as anyone who has read his most famous novel will know – the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty of 2006, which was also made into a not-unsuccessful BBC series. They are hilarious novels, too. His fiction has been criticised for being parochial and short-sighted, but what really succeeds in Hollinghurst’s depiction of London is his ability to confidently show the city in all its divisions and inconsistencies, partially rather than omnisciently, and as multiple spaces. London can seem like cities within cities, and I’ve often been struck by that strange feeling of dislocation, popping up in Victoria or Bloomsbury, when travelling by tube. It’s a view of London Hollinghurst wants to offer up in his first novel, a feeling illustrated nicely by a cameo made by something not so unheimlich for us, Mile End:

The City had already evacuated, and though the train was crowded to Liverpool Street there was only a scattering of us left for Bethnal Green, Mile End and beyond. All the other people in my car – Indian women with carrier-bags, some beary labourers, a beautiful black boy in a track-suit – looked tired and habituated. When I got out at Mile End, though, other passengers got on, residents of an unknown area who used the Underground, just as I did, as a local service, commuting and shopping within the suburbs and rarely if ever going to the West End , which I visited daily. I felt more competent for my mobility, but also vaguely abashed as I came out into the unimpressionable streets of this strange neighbourhood.

A High Price to Pay: QMTC’s Love and Money

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how apathetic students are, but Ema Boswood’s direction of Love and Money by Dennis Kelly just one play in Queen Mary Theatre Company’s excellent End of Season Festival – is an entertaining and provocative rebuttal to any suggestion that young people aren’t interested in energetically engaging with political ideas. And Love and Money is all about Big Ideas. Not just the mingling of romance and finance promised by the title, the play is a scathing indictment of contemporary capitalist society, furnished with existential predicaments – a morally ambiguous parable about how we live now.

From Love and Money performed on 21 March 2015
From Love and Money performed on 21 March 2015

Kelly plays on what seems an endless number of embedded clichés to do with what can and can’t be purchased with money – happiness, love, etc. In his vision, though, the characters seem to have forgotten what so many songs and greetings cards remind us. The central figure Jess ‘believes happiness can be bought – but it doesn’t come cheap in a world of easy credit.’ The extension of these kinds of financial metaphors – the idea that we all have to pay for our decisions or that a person can be morally bankrupt – is at the heart of this twenty-first century morality tale. A play about a marriage ruined by debt, it’s also about the debts we have to other people.

Martha Pailing’s handling of the erratic big spender Jess is striking – a funnier and more sinister shopaholic than Sophie Kinsella’s Rebecca Bloomwood. The play, unlike the world, revolves around Jess and her suicide, setting off backwards from her widow David’s disturbing explanation of her death during an email conversation with French colleague Sandrine. Melenik Milmano and Moa Johansson kick the play off on its reverse journey with David and Sandrine’s snappy online exchange, an early indication that seemingly everyday occurrences will pretty sharply be revealed as moments of the weird and shocking. From David’s awkward attempt to start the email – something we all can relate to – the flirtatious chat begins, before Sandrine’s refrain, ‘Tell me of your wife’, leads to the revelation that the rest of the play recounts.

The breakdown of one relationship is symptomatic of an entire global culture’s collapse. If charity starts at home, then, so does economic failure. Though the play’s themes have grand implications, political speeches and debates are swapped for scenes comprised of emails, job interviews, chats; everyday manifestations of the economic system we live in. And written in 2006, Love and Money has proved popular owing to renewed debates around capitalism triggered by economic crises and the so-called banker-bashing anger of the public. But unlike a play set at the heart of power by David Hare or James Graham, for instance, Kelly is much more interested in dramatising neoliberal ideologies at work on the small scale.

This is a play about death and Big Ideas and what Ed Miliband might call predatory capitalism, but it’s really funny, too. And I don’t think that’s an accident. The Godfather of modern political theatre Bertolt Brecht believed laughter and fun were essential to the political power of theatre, and this production certainly makes the most of the dark humour which accompanies the vitriolic critique.

We get the measure of this kind of comedy early on from Jess’ parents, played by Billy Gurney and Maria Pullicino, as they reveal their distaste – and envy – for the ‘flash’ and ‘vulgar’ grave of a Greek woman next to their daughter’s. We can only laugh as the Father has his outburst about the price of the headstone (the Mother scorns him for mentioning VAT), but, as they keep saying, they’re not rich. Amongst the taboo humour, and probably the reason why we’re laughing, are the uncomfortable truths of just how hard death is to deal with. And even though we feel we shouldn’t worry about the (financial) cost, death, too, is a business. The spending goes on after Jess.

Love and Money is full of awkward encounters. David’s job interview with his ex Val (Annabelle Sami), and her catty, Audi-driving assistant Paul (Peter Walker), relishes the discomfort and sourness of the situation. It’s time for Val to get her own back on the desperate English graduate David, who now hopes to pursue a career in sales. She wants to do him a ‘favour’, but it won’t come easy. Beneath her mocking and bitterness, she reveals a nihilistic heart: she loves and worships cash. She used to believe in religion, just as Paul believed in socialism – he still votes Labour, mind – but now wealth and power fill their dreams.

In a ‘shitty pub’, Debbie (Tilly Bungard) seems to be pestered by the tipsy Duncan (Jack Ridley), in another strange meeting that goes far beyond where we expect it to. As so many weirdoes in pubs promise, Duncan wants to make Debbie famous – well, everyone’s thought about being on TV nowadays. Typical of the whole show, this scene is saturated with swearing, and becomes an air raid of C-Bombing.

From foul language, though, the actors do well to perform Kelly’s often jagged, staccato lines, which look more like poetry on the page. Kelly’s script is written carefully to depict how real people speak, drawing attention to hesitations, breaths, mistakes, and the performances follow suit with an obvious consideration of the text. It’s an achievement in any theatrical performance to follow a clever script, while at the same time encouraging the audience to forget that the broken and muttered and spat-out lines are actually printed on a page. This could be improvisation, except the language is so well-worked  and intentioned; it’s constructed, as great writing often is, to seem fluent, mundane, and inconsequential, as if every word were spoken at random – as we tend to think we speak – when actually it’s all strictly penned and rehearsed.

Martha Pailing and Menelik Milmano as Jess and David
Martha Pailing and Menelik Milmano as Jess and David

‘I’m just so / looking forward’ are some of the last words of the performance and Jess’ final speech, but in the world of the play they are the first, since we’ve ended up at the beginning of Jess and David’s relationship, before everything goes wrong. It is a strength of Pailing’s performance that we meet Jess halfway through the play with her frenzied love of shopping in full bloom, announcing that as a child she discovered she was an alien, and we watch her manic personality gradually shrink until we are left with only the seeds of what we know will become her addiction. As she speaks, more quietly now, (and places her make-up in a bag) we can see she will become a woman standing outside a shop transfixed on a handbag, but, crucially, we also see her when she looks like all of us, that is, just liking ‘things’ and wanting a ‘neater’ life. Her acting matches the tragic effect of Kelly analeptic tale, where we finish with what actually turns out to be a really crushing sense of sadness as Jess tells of her excitement for the future.

As a piercing keen starts to drown Jess out, her final words signal her enthusiasm to begin her new life, but it’s already been written, and the audience knows how it will turn out. There’s no room for manoeuvre in this world, and closing the show, she says, ‘That’s it.’

On Reading Books You Don’t Like

At the beginning of my second year, during a compulsory module I didn’t much want to be doing, a tutor said to my class: ‘I’d hate to think of you spending your degree just reading what you wanted to read.’ On the contrary, at the time I didn’t think I could imagine anything better than working my way through my degree reading nothing other than modernism and Marx. That’s what I liked, so that’s what I wanted to read. And I had no time for a module which required me to read Wordsworth or editions of The Spectator from the eighteenth century.

Moving from first to second year, I had a very fixed idea of the kind of books I liked, the ones I thought were important, and the ones which I believed were most worthy of study. Personally, and as unpopular as it may sound, I’m of the opinion that we should be studying less Shakespeare in first year, and probably focus more on critical theory. This is most likely because, for my sins, I like reading critical theory a lot more than Shakespeare. On the one hand, of course, it’s very important to feel dedicated to what you’re studying, but I was probably too chauvinistic in regarding twentieth-century literature as far superior to any other branch of English studies. What I’ve learned since, however, is that it’s good for you to read things you do not want to. More than this, it’s crucial to getting the most out of an English degree.

On an English degree you will encounter texts you do not like, spot titles on reading lists that you dread, and be tempted more than once to skip reading books you just can’t stand. This is neither the course’s failure, nor yours. It is not a sign that you aren’t cultured enough to appreciate or ‘get’ the books, or that the course is out of touch with your interests. Given the wide range of books you will be required to engage with on your degree, it is ineluctable that you will dislike some. Again, this is not a problem. These can be some of the most fruitful opportunities for study because we must ask why we did not want to read it, why we didn’t enjoy reading it, and why we wouldn’t want to read it again. On an English degree negative feelings towards the material we encounter can be just as – if not more – provocative and stimulating than positive ones.

It seems an obvious point to make that being prepared to engage with new texts and ideas is important for anyone wanting to be a critical and open-minded English student, but it’s certainly something I needed reminding of. When it came to choosing my third year modules there were plenty I would’ve loved to take, but I was prompted by my personal advisor to take something outside of my comfort zone. Even if that course didn’t sit comfortably alongside my other modules and reading, I might learn new skills and methodological approaches which would enhance my learning in other classes. Much more, though, the very fact of learning new things would be really important in itself.

In the words of Hector in The History Boys, study is never general. And in many ways the point of a degree is to take knowledge from the general to the particular, and specialising in your field is both a natural and desirable consequence of learning in higher education. The journalist John Rentoul advises that acquiring, and being known for, specialist knowledge is fundamental to pursuing a career in the media. But more than a practical and useful tactic of navigating your degree which makes you more employable, developing expertise in a particular field is a very fulfilling and rewarding activity.

I always seem to look back on modules that I didn’t enjoy with a feeling that it was actually pretty useful. Hindsight, they say, is a beautiful thing. Or, perhaps, it’s simply that pain seems less acute at a distance. And the second year module in question was no exception, even though I certainly don’t venture down to the eighteenth century anymore. It seems to me that there is enormous benefit in learning about topics that we might honestly say we don’t care about. Not only from that practical viewpoint, whereby we build versatility and an inclusive attitude to fresh experiences, but more importantly – I would argue – in fostering a critical mindset optimised to open thinking and getting the most out of any text laid before us.

Mastering a Masters (or trying to)

My three years at Queen Mary is flying by, and for me and my friends it’s time to start thinking about the Future. Grim. For me, it’s the pursuit of a postgraduate degree, and since I’ve begun researching and applying for masters study I thought I’d offer some advice.

What follows is not the wisdom of someone who has completed postgraduate study, but a selection of tips and bits of information that I’ve found useful, crucially as a final year student still in the process of mastering the search for a masters.

 The personal statement

‘This is far too meek and please-sir-can-I-have-some-more. The idea should be to bust down the doors, jump on the table and shout “I am something very special indeed”.’

These are the words of a very trusted friend of mine, a doctor, who read a shoddy draft of my personal statement over Christmas. For many of us, such a task has not been undertaken since our UCAS application, which I wrote three years ago. As much as it was then, it’s a tricky business trying to score the perfect balance between professional modesty and proving your worth. And there’s little assistance to be sought from reading over your old statement; I cringe to think back to my opening line (how proud I was of it at the time!): ‘In the words of Virginia Woolf…’

Oxford’s advice guide states that ‘A statement which indicates the likely dissertation research area the candidate wishes to pursue is more useful than one which presents personal interests, achievements and aspirations.’ At graduate level it doesn’t matter whether you’ve achieved Duke of Edinburgh Awards or play polo – what matters is that you like studying English and, more importantly, that you’re good at it.

Leave out the hobbies, but don’t leave out the showing off. On the contrary, says my reviewer, ‘Bring out intellectual fireworks and do some serious boasting about all the stuff you’ve done’. Your dissertation should be the non plus ultra of your degree, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about how great an independent researcher and thinker you are through a discussion of your project.

Finally, do not be embarrassed about getting people – clever people – to read it. Ask lecturers, PhD students, good undergraduates for help, and don’t worry if they say, as mine did, to rewrite it – your application will be better for it.

Be clear on funding

After undergraduate loans and grants the world of postgraduate study can seem a very scary place. As it stands there is no state funding for masters students, and very little funding from the universities, especially for arts and humanities students. There is, of course, the odd bursary here and there, as well as fee discounts for continuing students (at Queen Mary, for instance, we get a grand off if we stay).

Last year, however, I woke up to news on my phone that the chancellor had announced the introduction of postgraduate loans of up to £10,000 set to start in 2016. And in that moment it seemed all of my worries had gone away. Considering that I’d become so disillusioned at the reality of current postgraduate funding (the lack of it), the prospect of ten grand certainly cheered my spirits.

This is a very important development in higher education, but don’t give up hope on 2015. For those of us who are graduating this year, and who pay the nine grand tuition fees, universities are offering some incentives in the form of bursaries to encourage students to come along in September.

Maybe there is some hope.

Cast your net wide

When I began looking at postgraduate courses I had pretty definite ideas about the kind of places I wanted to study, and even firmer ideas about where I didn’t want to go. I knew I was at an up-and-coming institution, with a vibrant forward-thinking English department, and in east London, not a traditional setting for a Russell Group university. I wanted to avoid universities I perceived as being stuffy or boring (the kind that don’t teach loads of critical theory), and where loads of posh people go.

What I was guilty of, however, was being too closed-minded about many of these institutions. Consequently, I forced myself to look up courses in, make enquiries at, and research as many different universities and departments as possible. At this point, I made the courses and the departments my point of interest, not the preconceptions I had about the institutions.

As I look at all these English departments, north and south, British and international, old and young, I find each offering something particular and unique that makes me want to study there. Many of them are different, even opposing, in outlook and style. We should be excited by different options, though, and investigate these places as a way of trying to figure out what it is we actually want when we apply to study somewhere.

Do you want to learn there?

If we’re not going to base our choice of programme on what is familiar to us or what we thought about the university, what can we look out for? Ask if you want to learn at this institution, in that department, with these people.

It might work to begin by looking up the academics that work in the department, whether you know them or admire their work, and if they seem to offer the kind of ethos you want to work with. In my applications, I have noticed that some critics I have referenced in essays pop up here and there, and this was a good way for me to judge what kind of work gets produced in these places, and whether I want to be part of that. There are also, of course, those celebrity academics we’d all jump at the chance to work with. A word of warning, though, there is of course no guarantee that you would be taught by any particular academic, and, as I learned, they do tend to move around. Having written why I wanted to study under a lecturer at one university, she subsequently (and very inconveniently) moved to another.

Another way to gauge the character of the department in question, without looking to individuals, is to check out their research environment. All departments will list their current projects, and their research strengths and interests. Does their research look helpful to you and does yours look complementary to theirs? Look out for graduate seminars, whether they host conferences, and if they explicitly favour an interdisciplinary or comparative research culture. Do these fit into that you want to study?

More than ever before postgraduate study is about what you want, so investigate how each English department works as well as what it works on. Have you preferred being taught in lectures or in seminars? Queen Mary, for instance, teaches only in seminars, whereas Birkbeck incorporates both.

Do they want to you there?

Are they too busy pouring water to have a proper conversation with you? This is a question I had to ask myself when I attended a postgraduate fair at Senate House last year. A member of a university admissions team really didn’t seem bothered in having to sell their institution and wasn’t very helpful. It is so important to think about whether that university wants you there, whether they value you as a contributor to their intellectual life, or if they regard you merely as someone privileged to be studying with them.

This final point relates to all of the previous. You are paying a lot of money to be at your chosen university, you are beginning to work as a mature and independent learner, and you want to choose somewhere you want be a part of. You have to sell yourself in the application, but a good university will try to sell itself to you, too. Think about whether they seem to value their students – do they offer you as much as you offer them?

Interdisciplinarity and why it matters for English studies

What does it mean to study English? It is obvious that the term English implies a lot, perhaps too much, for a single degree course. Necessarily, much is implicated in its reach. Among other things, on your degree you might encounter art history, politics, philosophy, film studies, psychology, linguistics, even science. A strong English course, though, should not shy away from the breadth of what lays before it, but should excitedly square up to the range of approaches, styles, and methods of study that are required to yield the most rewarding results.

In her book Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword shares an anecdote demonstrating the benefits of learning from another field of work:

In 2006 surgeons from the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital invited a team of Ferrari Formula One pit stop mechanics to observe them at work. The mechanics noted a number of key changes, particularly in the areas of synchronization, communication, and patient relocation. The doctors consequently developed new surgical protocols forged new lines of communication with nurses and technicians, and even designed a new operating gurney to smooth their patients’ transition between the operating room and intensive care.

The moral of the story is this: whatever your discipline or area of study, be prepared and eager to develop and change from what others, with their experience and expertise, can teach you. Although there appears to be little in common between the work of paediatricians and that of mechanics, in this case the Ferrari team’s ability to carry out precise repairs quickly and harmoniously became useful for the doctors. These two disparate professions found a connection through a method of working. The doctors are still experts in medicine, they operate on children not cars, but their style of working has been improved. This is an example of interdisciplinary working. Medicine and mechanics really are in many ways incompatible fields, yet one was able to be improved by the other while remaining distinct.

Working in an interdisciplinary way is about maintaining a sense of the particulars of a subject, and at the same time being attentive to the common ground it shares with others. This is because in many cases the boundaries between subjects are not as clearly defined as we might think.

‘Knowledge is not created in a disciplinary vacuum’, says Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith in her Radio 3 essay ‘The Human Copying Machine’, where she explores the connections between 19th century theatre and psychology. Literature, too, does not exist in a bubble. Literature is about the world and the people who live in it, and to fully appreciate and engage with a literary text requires thinking beyond the narrow parameters of what some might presume English consists of, just as we know to look beyond the words on the page when analysing a poem or a novel. Along with Sword’s example of how interdisciplinary working can be practically useful, it allows for new ways of studying and looking at literature, which are intellectually stimulating.

 

marx_freud_nietzsche1

This cartoon shows Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche (known as the Masters of Suspicion) sitting at a table, each with their uniquely characteristic facial hair, looking in different directions. If I may be allowed to crudely read a little too much into this image, I will explain how I see it as a metaphor for English as an interdisciplinary subject. We might see the table in its own right as the study of English literature, while each of the thinkers have a seat at the table, sharing the space, bringing something of their own to it – a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a cigar ( as well as those brilliant beards). If we say the table is Hamlet in this instance, Marx may be seeing the economic and political struggle at work in the Danish kingdom, as Freud points out the divided impulses and desires in the protagonists, while Nietzsche could recognise the characters’ will to power and/or nothingness leading to its deadly climax. Regarding English as an interdisciplinary subject means to share a space where unashamedly diverse views come together and sit alongside one another.

Within our own department we have academics, to pick a few, who research the cultural history of science, continental philosophy, cartography, and fashion alongside and in conjunction with their literary studies. English is a malleable subject that allows – even demands – what Elizabeth Dzeng calls ‘methodological promiscuity’. Working in a closed subject can lead to confined thinking, and studying English should be about maintaining openness and curiosity. We know that the study of English takes us beyond England into a global context, but it should also take us beyond the study of the literary text on its own. The interdisciplinary scholar is not a jack of all trades, master of none. Often the trades themselves are revealed to be arbitrarily divided, and the mastery comes by way of working at the interface of those diverse materials and ideas.