Professor Jackie Stacey in conversation with Dr Frances Pinter, CEO, MUP – On Interdisciplinarity
Jackie Stacey is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester where she is currently Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts and Languages (CIDRAL). Her publications include: Star Gazing: Female Spectators and Hollywood Cinema (1994) and Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer (1997) and The Cinematic Life of the Gene. (2010). She has also co-edited a number of books, including most recently: Queer Screens with Sarah Street (2007) and Writing Otherwise: Experiments in Cultural Criticism with Janet Wolff (2013). She has been a co-editor of Screen since 1994.
FP: As you know, Manchester University Press has an excellent reputation for in-depth scholarly monographs. When we met last year I told you that I was keen to strengthen MUP’s contribution to interdisciplinary approaches to scholarship. Is this something you’d encourage us to do?
JS: Absolutely. Maybe you could even set up a series that champions interdisciplinary projects. There is a real need for innovation in this area in the current climate, which is in danger of being too defined by REF anxieties about disciplinary conformity. I’d like to see much more interdisciplinary work, which inspires academic writing to take risks and be more imaginative.
FP: How would you define an interdisciplinary book in the humanities or social sciences?
JS: For me, it would be a book produced from a particular kind of thinking across conventional academic boundaries – one that could not have been conceptualized from within the traditions of one field. Some of the most interesting interdisciplinary work, I think, sits in between the humanities and the social sciences, perhaps combining usually incommensurate scales or registers: for example, the economic and the textual, or the empirical and the poetic. Usually, these books help us think across several fields (rather than just combining two) and they often unsettle our world views, leaving us in a new place that might reframe our research focus. Sometimes, though not always, the best interdisciplinary writing has a strong conceptual mission that literally picks us up and puts us down somewhere we had not already quite imagined through our existing academic frameworks.
FP: We’ve published specialist books that are read by more than the core audience to which it is directed. Would you call these interdisciplinary?
JS: Not exactly, no. I think there’s a crucial distinction between books, which speak to more than one discipline, and perhaps would be of interest to people beyond their disciplinary focus (for example, the work of a cultural historian might be read by literary critics working on a similar topic) and books, which are interdisciplinary in aim and scope. Often, the latter seek to mark out new spaces through which to approach intellectual questions, rather than just combining two existing approaches.
FP: Bookshops, libraries and online databases all seem to still rely on the old discipline distinctions. Do you have any recommendations as to how we should let people know about any truly interdisciplinary works?
JS: Good question. I wish I had a single brilliant suggestion to remedy this but I suspect it’s a more complex challenge, which would involve a series of intersecting interventions by some kind of alliance between publishers, academics and librarians committed to promoting interdisciplinary research. And it would be great if the AHRC, the ESRC and indeed the REF panels were all asked to set out some new proposals of how to address the continuing problems of ruling interdisciplinary work out of the main frame.
FP: The Academy is still pretty much defined by well-established disciplines. What advice would you give young scholars who want to approach important issues via truly interdisciplinary means? Will this help or harm their future prospects?
JS: Well, it’d be easy just to say that there are plenty of highly successful academics whose careers have been built on interdisciplinary work; and we could claim that many of the most influential thinkers who have shaped our intellectual landscapes today have been interdisciplinary in their worldviews (think of Marx, Freud and Foucault, for example, or think of Spivak, Hall, Haraway and Butler). But I wouldn’t want to suggest to young scholars that there are not real barriers and risks involved in not being intelligible to a disciplinary appointment committee or a funding council. I suppose in the end, the necessary skill to develop if you want to pursue an interdisciplinary research career is one which ensures your work translates relatively clearly into a number of more disciplinary fields. In this sense, it’s a question of knowing your audience and being able and willing to invite them into your way of thinking that is sufficiently interesting, and most importantly perhaps, rigorous, to engage them successfully in your intellectual project.
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