Why would a biochemist decide to write a paper on the novelist Iris Murdoch? What would lead an expert on the early English novel to stray into disability studies and even post a blog urging people to stop taking the antidepressant drugs known as SSRIs? Can it ever make sense for academics to moonlight in disciplines not their own?
In a feature this week (to be published on 18 January), I explore the appeal and pleasures of such moonlighting. Yet isn’t “taking holidays in completely different academic hemispheres” often seen as a sign of arrogance or dilettantism? If someone is ambitious to build a career within a particular discipline, isn’t it a terrible waste of time and energy to learn the “rules” of a different field and try to make a mark there too?
The people I interviewed while researching the article acknowledged some of these challenges, but all felt that there were significant benefits that outweighed the disadvantages.
Some felt that their new interests arose fairly naturally out of their day jobs, or were delighted to find ways of incorporating a wider range of their interests into their work. One might cite, for example, several cases of specialists in neuroscience and/or mental health who developed a sideline in literary topics such as the poet Robert Lowell, the playwright Samuel Beckett and the creation of Peter Pan.
Rita Charon is both a literary scholar and an internist, and she combined these interests to become a pioneer in the area known as narrative medicine. A current project uses storytelling to help many doctors face up to their prejudices against fat people – something that can cause real suffering if it leads the obese to avoid seeking medical help.
Yet Charon is emphatically not opposed to disciplines. It’s just that she has two of them. This means that she thinks like a literary scholar (but not like a philosopher or historian) and like an internist (but like not a paediatrician or psychiatrist). Bringing these two perspectives together, she believes, can prove highly illuminating.
Other scholars I spoke to took different lines. One wanted to break down disciplinary barriers altogether. Another felt that well-informed outsiders can stimulate established fields, since “the visitor has valuable perspectives that the resident or the native doesn’t have”. A third believed that excursions often enriched her primary area of research. It may not always be very comfortable to sit on the fence or between two stools, but many scholars have found a way of making it work.
Matthew Reisz is writer and books editor at Times Higher Education. His feature will be published online here from 18 January.