Did you hear about the one about the academic?

Matthew Reisz celebrates the scholars engaging with film, personal experience, the creative arts and even jokes

October 30, 2017
Source: istock
Academic analyses of humour can be surprisingly revealing

I have long been fascinated by the different forms that academic research can now take.

The development of practice-based research and doctorates mean that painting, pottery or graphic novels – even stand-up comedy or an inaugural lecture dressed as an elf – can now officially count as research. And there are many fascinating developments in film for carrying out, promoting and popularising research projects.

When I was asked last year to be a judge in the Utopia category of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s annual Research in Film Awards, I liked the sound of the glitzy reception but was very unsure whether the films would be stimulating and exciting or fairly pedestrian and “unfilmic” descriptions of research projects. In the event, I was amazed by the standard of entries and delighted to shortlist some very thought-provoking and moving films looking at how people interact in public spaces; the role of food in different religious traditions; how coastal communities cope with climate change; Taiwanese pop music; and (the eventual winner) how artistic projects help ex-addicts to recover. All eloquently made the case that researchers can both ask different questions and reach out to non-academic audiences through skilful use of film.

This year, I was invited back to judge the Doctoral and Early Career Film Award. The shortlisted films (and indeed several of the others) proved equally rewarding and incisive, whether exploring the “queering of memory”; Northern Irish masculinity; plans to destroy and “redevelop” a shopping centre in South London; a small parish church and community under threat from high-rise housing in East London; and the trend for some people constantly to self-monitor themselves in order to optimise their health.

I am under pain of death not to reveal the winner until the official announcement on 9 November.

Meanwhile, in this week’s issue, I have profiled the academic Devorah Baum, lecturer in English and critical theory at the University of Southampton. She has also pushed the boundaries of research in a powerful film called The New Man, which she directed with her husband Josh Appignanesi, about a pregnancy that went tragically wrong.

They apparently still find it too painful to watch and it is distinctly uncomfortable for others to witness such unhappy events and the emotional turmoil of a marriage in crisis. But she also rightly argues that it raises a number a broader issues about late pregnancies, new reproductive technologies and family life – and she may well submit it to the next research excellence framework.

But another of Baum’s projects is equally challenging to some of our conventional notions of what we mean by research. She has just published a very scholarly book called Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) with Yale University Press. This argues that certain feelings such as guilt, self-hatred and paranoia have traditionally been associated with Jews but, in a world where we are constantly under surveillance and pressured to display idealised images of ourselves online, have now become much more universal.

This, of course, is a classic example of a major research project in the humanities. But, at the early stages, Baum submitted a synopsis to the trade publisher Profile Books that incorporated jokes alongside references to novels, films and philosophers. The editor told her that the big serious book definitely ought to be published by a university press, but why didn’t she also write a spin-off book about Jewish humour?

The result is The Jewish Joke: An Essay with Examples (Less Essay, More Examples). This is full of great gags, several of them included in my article, but also draws on great knowledge and learning in its sharp but accessible analysis of how jokes work. Could this be a pioneering example of a joke book as research? Much academic writing could certainly do with a few more laughs.

Matthew Reisz is books editor at Times Higher Education

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