Academic moonlighters: a bit on the side

Those who cross distant disciplinary boundaries are seen as unusual and viewed with suspicion. A handful of scholars tell Matthew Reisz why it suits them to stray

January 18, 2018
Blooming brain
Source: Getty montage

Rivka Isaacson is something of an authority on the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (pictured above). She has delivered papers about her at conferences, published two peer-reviewed articles and contributed a chapter to a book. She now feels “part of a community” of Murdoch scholars and is often asked to chair relevant events. Many in that community are surprised to learn that her academic post at King’s College London is not in the English or philosophy department, but in chemistry.

Kay Redfield Jamison is a clinical psychologist and Dalio professor in mood disorders at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine. She has co-authored a standard text, Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression, and published an account of her own experiences of mental illness, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Yet her latest book is the biography of a poet, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania and Character

One of Lennard Davis’ titles is distinguished professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He started his career by writing some obviously relevant books, such as Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. Yet he has since strayed well beyond his home territory: “I have published in a law journal, medical journals and philosophical journals, all of them peer reviewed,” he tells Times Higher Education. “I have lectured in various hospitals, mainly in areas of psychiatry, and to medical students. And disability studies is now one of my core interests.” 

This is reflected in Davis’ other two positions at Illinois: professor of disability and human development and professor of medical education. Although he has sometimes written about topics regarding which he is “clearly an amateur”, in other areas he feels that he knows “as much as those in the field – I can at least match my knowledge to the knowledge of a professional”. 

It is not uncommon for academics to sometimes stray across borders into neighbouring disciplines. Indeed, such interdisciplinarity is positively encouraged in today’s challenge-focused research policy environment – even if academics heeding the call can still struggle to receive due recognition for their efforts when it comes to appraisal time. But taking scholarly holidays in completely different academic hemispheres remains highly unusual – and, to some, highly suspicious, signifying arrogance and dilettantism. In an era of enormous workloads, fierce competition and a glut of literature to keep up with, isn’t entering a completely new discipline a fool’s errand, with a huge opportunity cost in terms of time consumed and reputations risked? Why would anyone even attempt such a thing? 

Isaacson, now senior lecturer in chemical biology at King’s, has always been keen on fiction. While working her way through Murdoch’s novels, she got into the habit of checking what the novelist and critic A. S. Byatt had said about each one in her 1965 book Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch. This “looked at the theme of power struggles and who is in the grip of what regime” and, perhaps surprisingly, Isaacson found the approach “very resonant, because I was doing my PhD on thermodynamics and it was more or less the same idea”. 

When she had read all of the novels covered in Degrees of Freedom, she started googling to see if Byatt had written elsewhere about Murdoch’s later novels. In doing so, she also discovered the existence of the Iris Murdoch Society and paid £5 to join. She sent a few thoughts to one of the professors involved, who suggested that she submit a paper. Although “completely shocked” to be asked, she also “realised I had nothing to lose”. 

Davis offers both a personal and a disciplinary perspective on his own intellectual path. When he got his PhD in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1976, he recalls that “people were very specifically focused on literature, and doing other things would have felt like straying from the fold. My career tracks a general trajectory in the US, whereby English really expanded to cover almost everything. The methodology of linguistics and semiology allowed you to study anything [by treating it as a text].”

There is also a more personal angle. Davis’ mentor, the Palestinian American literature professor Edward Said, often encouraged his students to produce politically engaged work, such as his own Orientalism. The trouble was, as Davis saw it, that Said had the moral authority that came from speaking on behalf of the whole Palestinian people. “It never occurred to me that I had an equivalent,” he says. But then he had “a kind of conversion experience”. Being the son of a deaf father and mother, he accepted a journalistic assignment to attend a conference about the children of deaf parents, thinking that it was rather a pointless idea and that they would have nothing in common. 

At the end of three days, though, he realised that “the thing I was running away from, the deafness, was actually very important. I thought I could do with deafness and then disability what Said did with Orientalism. [My book] Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body came out of that.” He has gone on to produce several more academic books in the field, as well as a touching edition (and spin-off radio programme) of his parents’ love letters, Shall I Say A Kiss?: The Courtship Letters of a Deaf Couple 1936-1938

Samuel Beckett
Getty / iStock montage

Another academic to have a foot in two very difference academic camps is Matthew Broome, professor of psychiatry and youth mental health at the University of Birmingham. He works as a clinician and carries out research that often draws on neuroimaging and cognitive neuropsychology, but he also has a keen amateur interest in the works of Samuel Beckett (pictured above). This led to a collaborative project with two former colleagues at the University of Warwick: Elizabeth Barry, associate professor of English, and Jonathan Heron, a director of graduate studies who is also a theatre director. The three of them have explored both Beckett’s own interest in psychiatry and neurology and the value of his work for those treating mental disorders today.

Broome admits that shifting between disciplines can lead to culture clashes. He recalls having to adapt to a style of academic writing in English studies that involves “more foregrounding, less referencing” and “a different pace, different expectations”. 

For her own first English conference, Isaacson “prepared a series of PowerPoint slides to ad-lib around” and created some animations to illustrate the complex sexual entanglements that are a common feature of Murdoch’s novels. She was surprised to see that most of the other speakers had “written out their papers in a very elegant way and then read them out”, always remembering to say “quote” and “unquote” at the right places. 

But there are also more serious problems associated with discipline-hopping. When Isaacson was still trying to obtain an independent position, she remembers people warning her that contributing to other disciplines “wasn’t a selling point and that I should keep it quiet”. 

Similarly aware that academic careers are partly about “focus” and that “having a simple story can be easier when applying for jobs”, Broome has been careful to publish enough papers in peer-reviewed clinical journals and to treat his ventures into literary studies and philosophy as “a kind of bonus”. Nonetheless, he does not see himself as an academic and clinical psychiatrist who pursues an interest in Beckett merely as a spare-time hobby. 

“It’s more integrated than that, in the sense of how I think about myself and what I want to do,” he says. “It’s not that there are two halves of me, but [it’s] more about navigating the structures to allow me to do what I want. I am aware of the rules of my academic discipline and the need to incorporate [my non-core interests] into my career.” 

Jamison, for her part, has long “used Lowell’s work in teaching residents and medical students about mania and depression and the suffering of those who are mentally ill”. But she, too, understood that she had to “earn my spurs in my own academic field before being given the latitude to wander”. Hence, she was initially “somewhat nervous” about how “mainstream” Lowell scholars and poets would respond to her interpretations of the American Pulitzer prizewinner’s works. 

Perhaps Davis has taken the boldest approach to his academic adventurousness. For example, despite his lack of medical training, he once posted a blog advising people not to take the antidepressant drugs known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). When contacted about this, his response is always: “I’m not a doctor, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I do know the information.” Yet he is also aware that some doctors have responded with comments along the lines of: “What does this guy know? He’s an English professor: don’t listen to him.” 

Despite the challenges, Davis emphasises that there are many pleasures and benefits to crossing academic borders. He believes that “part of the job of [academic] outsiders is to amplify a critical approach that can be silenced or disregarded within professional organisations…In some weird way, you don’t want to become the thing you are writing about. You don’t want to become too immersed in that world because then you lose your perspective as a visitor – and the visitor has valuable perspectives that the resident or the native doesn’t have.” 

Although she stumbled into literary studies almost by accident, Isaacson “definitely gets a kick out of the credibility I’ve established for myself in that world, even though I’m not trained in it”. She also believes that she can “ask different questions about Iris Murdoch because I’m a scientist” and has found ways of using her talks to inform literary scholars about science. On one occasion, she drew on a Murdoch novel called A Word Child to “explain the molecular mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease”. Just as a character called Hilary Burde keeps going round and round the Circle line on the London Underground, getting into trouble when he stops off for a drink at either of its two bars, so there are two “points of vulnerability” on a particular protein, which can get chopped by molecular scissors and form invasive threads called amyloid fibrils. The point could be neatly illustrated with a slide of the Circle line transformed into the relevant protein. 

Isaacson also believes that her literary excursions can add value to her science. “The more exposure that you have to things outside your field,” she says, “the more ideas you have: the more you open your mind to thinking differently about problems.” 

Don’t box me in! Should disciplines be abolished?

Those whose work is deeply interdisciplinary can take varying attitudes towards traditional academic silos. 

Rita Charon, executive director of the programme in narrative medicine at Columbia University, has no desire to “dispense with disciplinary boundaries”. It’s just that she has a foot in two camps, and wants to act as “a hinge or a bridge between them”.

For 35 years, she saw patients as a specialist in internal medicine. Yet she also acquired a PhD in English from Columbia, specialising in the novels of Henry James, and sometimes contributed
to the relevant journals. 

“I am a literary scholar,” says Charon. “I do not think like a philosopher. I do not think like a historian. I think like a literary scholar. And then, in medicine, we have our disciplines, too. I think like an internist. I’m not a paediatrician. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’ve got two disciplines, but each of them is a pure one.” 

From early in her career, Charon saw the value of “bringing literary ways of knowing into the medical school”, and she attempted to “embody the point that they need one another”. She became a pioneer and leading figure in narrative medicine, described on Columbia’s website as “the ability [of doctors] to recognise, absorb, interpret, and act on the stories and plights of [patients]” in the pursuit of “humane and effective medical practice”.

Charon is currently seeking funding to carry out research on “weight bias”, explaining that “people who are really fat are treated badly by physicians and nurses. Their healthcare suffers because they end up staying away from doctors. We are doing a project to help clinicians recognise and work on their prejudicial bias. I think we can do that through narrative and storytelling.”

But if Charon is a firm believer in disciplines, of which she just happens to have two, Cathy Davidson, distinguished professor of cultural history and technology at the City University of New York, would like to challenge them far more radically.

She has pursued much of her career in English departments and, early on, published Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Yet she has “never been one of those ‘disappear-into-a novel’ kind of English professors” and initially sought to situate literary texts in the broader context of “the last information age – the one spawned by new steam-printing technologies and machine-made paper and ink that brought down the price of books”. She has continued to be “interested in relationships across technology, expressive culture, political action and education” and has published on everything from love letters to brain science and Japan.

As well as ranging widely herself, Davidson has devoted considerable energy to helping others do the same. In 2002, she co-founded Hastac (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) and still co-runs it. This is a network of more than 15,000 humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists and technologists that “privileges a kind of radical interdisciplinary connectivity and networking”. It also aims to ensure that careers “unconventional in ideas and in discipline” can still be “validated in recognised places: conferences, refereed journals, university and commercial presses, and so forth”.

Her commitment to moving beyond disciplines is also a central theme of Davidson’s latest book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. One of her aims, she says, is to make the case for “moving away from the hyper-accreditation of specialised knowledge that was the founding purpose, in the 19th century, of the modern research university”.

Matthew Reisz 

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Reader's comments (1)

As a late-comer to the academic pursuit of Computer Science (with a commercial and FE teaching background) I also have two hobbies in which I am regarded as world-class - the study of orders, decorations and medals of the world and role-playing games (the pen&paper sort such as Dungeons & Dragons). I contribute to both fields but so far only the role-playing has strayed into academia, when the Business School asked me to participate in a conference on the use of games in teaching!