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.

Student Media: writing, editing and lots of gin-based socials

I’m probably biased but the best thing you can possibly do during your three years at Queen Mary (or any uni for that matter) is to get involved with Student Media. Whether it be The Print newspaper, CUB magazine, QMTV or Quest Radio, it’s free, easy to get into work experience. And it looks cracking on your CV. I got involved with student media properly in my second year, after spending the majority of my first year arguing I ‘never have the time’ to contribute regularly. That’s understandable – you’re in a new city (probably), Freshers’ Fair has swallowed you whole and your email account is now full of emails from the vegan society/cheerleading squad (you swore you were interested at the time, but it was really for the free cake/chocolate/pens). But it’s also a lie. In first year, and you’ll realise this in your second/third, you have SO MUCH TIME. So use it wisely, and get writing.

If I could go back and do something differently, it would be that I got involved as early as possible and gained as much writing experience as I could. But I didn’t – instead I waited until May rolled around and editorial positions opened for all outlets. I applied to be a regular columnist, named aptly: The City and the Northern Girl (very Carrie Bradshaw, I know). Cut a long story short, I got the position and proceeded to impart my North vs. South wisdom on to the entire QM population – so much so that I once got recognised in Spoons, just the beginning of my celebrity career. Not. Now I am the editor-in-chief, and I genuinely feel that every student, especially HSS students, should join the media family. We’re a fab bunch.

I’m probably making no sense to those of you who have no clue what Student Media even is, let alone what it does. So here’s the lowdown:

558314_624001094289194_2064892024_nCUB MAGAZINE. Queen Mary’s oldest (and finest) Arts and Culture magazine, currently ran by me, god help them. Sections include: Film, Music, Style, Arts, Features, Columns, London, Photography & UniSex. Publishes four times a year in print (literally the most stunning magazine you will ever see in your life) as well as boosting an online presence @ www.cubmagazine.co.uk. Fresh content uploaded daily.

1512617_802382833134651_2420543857757590739_nTHE PRINT. Queen Mary’s student newspaper. Originally named QMessenger, then Davey Brett took over and changed it forever. And made it crazily better. Sections include: News (obviously), Comment, Features, Satire, Sport & Societies. Publishes eight times a year, usually every two-three weeks, in print and is currently in the process of designing a new website to accompany @ www.theprintnews.co.uk

432258_210917425673732_910636721_nQUEST RADIO: Queen Mary’s student radio. Has seen huge changes this year under it’s leader Lucy Furneaux. Now featuring a beautiful new website @ www.questradio.co.uk and at last count, has over 40 different radio shows/hosts. Currently battling against the Students Union to be moved over into the SU Hub, and to be played in all Union outlets on campus.

QMTVLogo
QMTV: Sort of died a death this year with management difficulties. In the process of being revived. However to give you some sort of context, last year it had these ‘Bloody Mary’ episodes which reported news from campus and encouraged debate inc. the ISoc protest over prayer spaces (can be viewed @ http://youtu.be/dCuNgYZAqhM)

They’re the ‘big four’ if you like, but we also have four other outlets, so I’ll give you a brief overview of those:

1458496_201774926673144_2027577175_nPOLITICS MADE PUBLIC (PMP): A politics magazine, with an aim to make politics more approachable and understandable by people who basically don’t have a clue (aka me). Set up and managed by Matt Mahmoud and Jasper Tautorus. Published 2-3 times a year in print, also has an online presence @ www.politicsmadepublic.com

qmrQUEEN MARY REVIEW (QMR): Queen Mary’s outlet specifically for creative writing. Write poetry, short stories or other fiction-related things? Then this is the magazine for you. Headed by Bruno Cooke, it publishes bi-annually. Has a cute blog @ www.qm-r.tumblr.com

qmsciQMSCI: Queen Mary’s science magazine, Physics I think (I’m an English student, don’t judge). Mostly academic stuff, plus really clever discoveries/articles by Science students and staff. Oh, according to their description: “[it] aims to provide the brightest and the best, the coolest and kookiest of science to our readers – both on and off campus.” Well there you go then. Publishes bi-annually. Also has a cool blog @ www.qmsci.wordpress.com

941803_318967564907897_885630000_nTHE VULTURE: Barts’ own magazine. Editors remain anonymous. Don’t actually know what its content is.

 

 

So there you go. The full eight. Take your pick, get involved, boost your CV and attend our socials while you’re at it. We’re hilarious after a few gins.

Positions include: 

  • Editor-in-Chief (the big boss of the outlet, makes key decisions, is blamed when things go wrong, far too passionate about their publication)
  • Deputy Editor (helps the Editor-in-Chief keep everything running smoothly, ensures they don’t have a breakdown)
  • Section Editors (in charge of gathering and editing articles for each section e.g. Features)
  • Sub Editors (they design and layout the print issues, makes it look pretty, disguises any horrendous submissions)
  • Photography Editors (source images both online and in print to accompany articles)
  • Online Editors (in charge of the website, ensure things are copied and pasted over correctly, bombards social media with links to online articles)
  • Columnists (kinda speaks for itself)
  • Contributors (the most important position in the team, providing us with actual articles to edit and publish)

Trust me, you should get involved. You definitely won’t regret it.

Reading Literature: A Wild Exorcism of Ourselves

When you buy a book, what exactly do you own? Do you own the words on the page? No, these are the author’s, or, in the event of the author’s death, the publisher’s. What about the actual book in your hand? Great, you own some paper, a load of squiggly lines, and a Waterstones receipt. Do you own the right to read it? Yeah, as much as when you walk the corridors of the Louvre and delight yourself with the right to look at its paintings. You don’t own the Mona Lisa, you borrow it from the institution that houses it; like a Blockbusters for clever people. What’s the difference between the walls of the Louvre that house these works of art, and the covers and bindings of books? You can’t festoon the paper of a book with your ownership any more than you can carve your infinitesimal etchings into a work of art; it seems almost arrogant to try. Why then do we continue with this vainglorious delusion? If literature is art, why don’t we afford Robinson Crusoe, that brave Ikea manual that believed it could make a name for itself, with the same amount of respectful distance we afford to Guernica?

The act of purchasing and owning a book seems to be pure aporia. Regardless, we view our books with a slaveowner’s eyes, they sit in our cabinets (or strewn across the floors of our room, with our chunkier tomes tripping us on our way to the toilet) undoubtedly and rightly ours.

Interpreting literature seems to operate in the darker realm of culture because of this. We fumble messily through books, stripping them of their glory, trivialising their grandeur. We do a great violence to books that we spare the rest of culture from: to read, it appears, is to rape. That’s enough mystification and trite metaphors for one blog I think, and it’s all getting a bit morbid so I’ll get to the answer to this, and it comes from the previous owner of one of my anthologies. I brought my poetry anthology second hand from a third year, and I brought it back to my pristine (honest) Maynard House room and leafed through to read my favourite poem, a Yeats poem called Among School Children. I was surprised to see that, above the title, with a neatness that seemed to suggest that no explanation was needed for it, was an underlined cri de coeur “this poem is wanky”. I disagree with this evaluation of Yeats’ poem, but in disagreeing with it, I affirmed it. He read the same poem, in the same book, but he, like me, owned something that saves us from this terrible fate: an opinion. It’s this understanding that allows us to say that we don’t own the book, but instead own the text. The text is the humanity we bring to the book that the book can’t have, by virtue of being a book, and not a person. We all read the same book, but not the same text.

If you are familiar with the works of Jacques Derrida (if you’re not, get familiar, the guy’s amazing) you might have come across this pearl of wisdom, which has been pounded into the realm of platitude by pseudo-intellectuals (guilty as charged) “there is nothing outside the text”. He’s right guys. Among School Children will never change; it’s a cultural artefact, physical, unchanging, immutable, everything a human mind is not. Why then, do we study English? What is our profit from this endeavour? Because, when you read, you create just as much as when you write. The mind itself is like a palace and not every room is brightly lit and beautiful; there are holes in the floor of the mind. Most people who don’t read never explore these structural flaws and tumble along, leading a life unexamined. Your experience with the text, which is your own, and your own only gives you the light to make these holes magnificently, or grossly incandescent and the ladder to climb down into these holes, holes that you might never really climb out of. A common misconception about reading is that we in some way sit as high priests, with this book in front of us that we “own” finding “meaning” that lives in the text like a daemon, but reading literature is like a wild exorcism of ourselves; the literature in fact owns us far more than we own it.

And that is what makes it so much fun, and is the reason to study English at university. English at Queen Mary is not a stuffy traipse through the canon, that’d be easy, but instead it’s discourse, innovation, challenge. I sometimes listen to my seminar leader, or another student say something, and I feel the new ground crackle and break beneath my feet (or that could be the central line, sometimes I’m not sure). It is sometimes perilous and difficult, but why do the flying wallendas walk the quivering highwire? Because it’s walk that line, or plunge into the deep unmeaning below. Academic life at Queen Mary doesn’t shy away from this difficulty but embraces it, they’re with you every tentative step of the way. You will occasionally stumble, but Queen Mary cultivates an attitude that we do what we do not because it is easy but because it is hard.

But what Queen Mary does best is give you the tools to create your own texts, to actually own a fragment of the books that you buy in a way that passive reading cannot. They teach you to respect books as works of art, and to respect your relationship with them. My favourite line from Among School Children is “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” because it’s a beautiful illustration of the process of the endeavour of English students, which is that the book is the dance, we, in creating texts, are dancers. I’m proud of Queen Mary for letting us dance.

Welcome to the QMULsed Blogs

Welcome to All Things SED, the new blogging platform for the School of English and Drama (SED) at Queen Mary University of London.

The School brings together two of Queen Mary’s outstanding departments: the Department of English and the Department of Drama. The School has an international reputation for its high-quality research and its excellence in teaching. The latest REF (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), ranked Drama as first in the country and English as fifth in the country (and first in London) for the quality of their research. The latest National Student Survey revealed high levels of student satisfaction: 100% of Drama students and 94% of English students were satisfied with their programmes.

All Things SED is a platform for our students and academics to blog on cultural developments and reflect on their work and practice. The site will host regular bloggers and one-off writers. We will also host SEDcasts: video and audio interviews with members of the School.

If you are interested in contributing on a regular or one-off basis, please get in touch with the All Things SED Webmaster.