I’m very new to the world of PhD-ing. Or, at least, I’m returning to university after a four-year break in the ‘real world’ and I’ve noticed that things can be very different as a Grad Student. I don’t necessarily mean the return to the inane smilies, exclamation marks and un-ironic uses of the phrase ‘roflcopters’ in emails, although that can be irritating.
(Don’t think, ‘real worlders’ that you can be smug about that – I’ve seen plenty of correspondence among government ministers and MPs strewn with pointless exclamations marks.)
Rather, I mean the practice of academic ring-fencing and disciplinary turf-wars. I’ve never felt particularly hide-bound by the demands or strictures of a particular discipline. I avoided the standard pitfall of “having to choose” between history and geography, or among foreign languages, at school by doing both. I side-stepped the need to ‘specialise’ too soon by doing a joint honours degree (history and politics) for BA and eliding any sense of specialism with an MA in ‘Australian Studies’. I am truly an academic jack-of-some-trades.
Naturally, when it came to striking around for a thesis topic I let the material guide me and chose from among the available critical lenses the ones which seemed to best suit the task. (At any rate, that’s my line and I’m sticking to it!). Where this got me was the dark, potentially career-defining interstice of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Where it actually got me was my university’s Geography Department.
I hadn’t realised the full ramifications of crossing the academic border until this week. All through my first term I had chafed against being defined as a ‘Geographer’, although that definition seemed to make sense in the eyes of my peers: it’s the answer to “what department are you in?”; it’s one of the defining factors in the arrangement of my social circle; and it explains why I have a key to the Geography Department buildings on my key ring.
But it didn’t feel right. It didn’t (and doesn’t) feel like I am a Geographer. History is what I really love. “I am a historian!”, I would bleat to myself. “The trouble is”, I found myself saying when stumped by Derek Gregory or the dreaded Foucault, “I trained as a historian: we didn’t do this kind of theory”.
Then, to my horror, this week I saw myself as others might see me. Signalling my interest in a proposed graduate lecture series run by the History Faculty here in Cambridge, I was pulled short by the organiser who notified me that the scheme is designed to encourage employability among young researchers in the History Faculty only. Ouch.
Has choosing the path of interdisciplinarity, of following the research questions that interest me with the full gamut of critical tools that seem appropriate, marked me out? Do historians, as my supervisor once said, operate a “closed shop”, blind to the useful employment of historical argument, critique and scholarship by other disciplines?
I’d like to think not. I’m comforted, at the very start of what I hope to be a long and fulfilling academic career, to note there are many academics out there, early career and established, who practice their craft using whatever tools they deem appropriate, rather than the tools that are “department approved”. At the same time, I am well aware of the need to be able to define myself within academia against other researchers and in tune with departmental or faculty research goals. Not to do so would kill any employment opportunities and with it the readiest means to continue my research.
What we really need is a Department of Interdisciplinarity. A place where researchers are encouraged to follow the leads they find appropriate with the tools they find useful and where the the “licence to practice” is not restricted with a trades-union-esque zeal. Given that, as our Director of Graduate Studies in Geography remarked, last term, “Geography is whatever geographers do”, perhaps I’ve not found such a bad home after all.
P.S. That’s not to say academic geographers don’t demand particular research practices, nor that I’m not still haunted by the question “where’s the geography?” about my research.
P.P.S. I’m still a historian, really. Really! Musty books! Mouldy smells! You can’t take them from me… No!…