Tuesday, February 1, 2011

what might an interdisciplinary research methodologies course look like?

This morning, I was sorting through readings by E P Thompson, James Chandler, Ian Duncan, Fredric Jameson, and Alex Dick this morning, and juggling various strong opinions on the intersection of literature and economics, literary history, and the relation of history and historicism to the formation of political economy and economics. And I'm getting somewhere good with this, rather than just somewhere horribly muddled. But I felt a bit disheartened, too, because if I think back in my coursework, I can remember a lot of discussions tremendously well, but among them, there's little or nothing about how to develop a research methodology, or choose one (or most likely, a combination of those two) that addresses the challenges of interdisciplinary research.

The closest thing to a discussion like this took place in a Textual Studies course on early printed texts, which in addition to looking at the development of print from Caxton through the 18th century (the professor was a specialist in 18th century novels and dramas), and also covered the history of the emergence of textual studies/bibliography, and its fractious relationship with literary criticism in the 20th century. And that was nice, but it didn't address the issue of textual studies as interdisciplinary, understandably, because the whole point was to valorize it as worthwhile.

What I was wishing for this morning, was the memory of seminar discussions about the challenges of writing literary history, of balancing between close readings of literature and combining them with detailed factual and statistical research, not just on issues like book buying and readership (which I think of as a fairly usual place for lit critics to go to when they want to buff up an argument with historical data), but also poverty, famine, religion, politics, agriculture.* I don't mean that I wish someone had taught me how to do it "right," because it's entirely clear that there's not one single right way -- but I wish I had memories of discussions about the different effects of choosing one approach vs. another.

Part of that is no doubt that I'm working with three fields that really do have a fraught relationship. I can point to booklength discussions about whether literary history is or isn't possible, essays on the same, and quick little daggers flung in reviews about attempts to write literary history, directed, I think, at practitioners from both lit and historical backgrounds. Meanwhile, I'm still talking with several people who work on lit and econ. about the grenade that Mary Poovey lobbed when she published Genres of the Credit Economy in her assertion that literature simply wasn't a good medium for studying economics.

Anyway, assuming that I'm not the only one who wishes that there had been a course to directly address the issues of interdisciplinary research methodologies, here is a rough vision of what a course might look like, and/or might cover.

Disclaimer: I'm in a lit. program, and for the moment, I'm imagining this course based on what I wish had existed. I'd love to hear suggestions that might make it a course that would be useful for students in other disciplines as well. I think it might work best if it were oriented towards interdisciplinary research methods in the humanities, rather than IDRM across the board encompassing everything -- but that's just my temporary, preliminary opinion.

1. I think it would start by looking at disciplines that are so interwoven with literature that we barely even think of them as separate anymore: classics, history, and psychology. It would look at the emergence of literature departments in the 19th century as a separate discipline from classical studies, and probably review the literary/historical biography/New Criticism debates.

I know that these are old chestnuts, but I'd like to think that there are worthwhile and useful questions and points to consider, in terms of the intentions behind these early disciplinary combos, and in terms of the objections that were raised to them. And at the very least, I think that they merit being reviewed as formative influences on the discipline of literature today. The same goes for theory and psychoanalytic criticism.

How much time was spent on any of these would depend on the professor, but I imagine that this would account for between 30 and 50% of the entire course.** Readings, off the top of my head, might include: E.P. Thompson, Terry Eagleton, David Perkins, Rita Felski, Martha Nussbaum, Clifford Siskin, John Guillory, a selection from Theory's Empire...this list is not definitive.

2. From there, the course would shift into a more focused look at specific areas of interdisciplinary research that are currently active. Lit./econ. would be the subject of one week, and it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to spend another week on New Historicism. Other focuses might be anthropology/social sciences, public humanities and/or activism, history of science.

This would be the most challenging part of the course to put together, because the subject material would largely consist of a couple of readings from each of the interdisciplinary areas, in which the authors made direct claims or comments on the nature of the study, or which were otherwise emblematic of the particular area. Alternately, there's no reason that source material couldn't consist of digital archives, tools, etc., where those were available.

3. An exhausted, overcommitted professor could run this course and have it be useful just by using the standard method of having the students sign up to present on the readings and raise discussion questions each week. He or she would provide perhaps the most leadership in the beginning of the course, during those weeks where the focus is on literature and its origins as an interdisciplinary field. (I suppose that if I have an agenda for the course, that's part of it - the idea that literature has always been interdisciplinary).

I don't mean that he/she could tune out for the rest of it, because I would be counting on him/her to provide the sort of guidance and knowledge that only comes with having been a professional academic for longer than grad students have been -- for being familiar with different trends in research that have risen and fallen over time. I strongly suspect, however, that if the students were given some guiding questions to use: what specific goals arise in interdisciplinary research? What types of arguments does IDR lend itself to? What relationships can we see between the disciplines that are joined? -- that they could have lively and useful discussions which might later be useful to them while they were writing dissertation chapters. There's a lot of material that could be covered, but I've had some courses, one in particular, that overwhelmed with reading, and yet the massive avalanche of material, not to mention the syllabus itself, was useful and valuable, and I can still remember it in a fair amount of detail.

4. What would students get out of this? Primarily, an acquaintance with a bunch of readings outside their primary areas, in a context which included focused discussion about methodology -- what the authors were trying to do, and why. Probably, a useful final project/essay for this class would be to undertake an interdisciplinary research project/paper in one's own area. This assumes that the students are interested in IDR, but surely that's a safe assumption. It's an opportunity, then, for the student who's interested in literature and gender, to work on developing an argument that is overtly interdisciplinary, while thinking critically about what it means to be interdisciplinary, in terms of the types of sources used, and the types of questions raised.

Secondly, I hope the class would provide students with a space to think about the politics of interdisciplinary work, and probably the politics of the humanities in general. There's lots of territory there for literature, and surely for history, and library science, and philosophy, too. It's possible that what I really want, and am not fully articulating, is a class on the politics of literary study. (I do want that class.) But what I really wanted this morning, is a class where we might read Stephen Greenblatt one week, and Bruce Robbins Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Towards a Literary History of the Welfare State the next, and later, read Amartya Sen, and ask, in each case, what are they doing, and how, and why? And what does it look like when we discuss them as part of a sustained exploration? Are there techniques that are shared between all three? And assuming that there common techniques, that there are also differences, then what are they?

This is just one way that such a course could be put together. There are tons of others. The brilliant thing is that though such a course couldn't cover everything, that it would prompt insights and questions that would be transferable to other areas of interdisciplinary research, that might provide at the very least, a starting point for thinking about choices that one makes in developing an interdisciplinary research methodology.

But this is only a rough draft. How would you improve it?

ETA: I realized that by some standards, this may not look like an interdisciplinary research methodologies course at all -- surely that would involve techniques like statistics and ethnographic research being taught, right? I heartily agree, and if someone offered that class, I would have camped out all night in front of registration, just to make sure I got in.

One reason I didn't propose that class is that at the moment, my department would say "we don't have anyone who could teach that." I think a lot of departments might be in those straits. But the other reason I didn't propose that class is that there seems to be plenty of interdisciplinary work that shows up in books and essays even without bringing in quantitative research, and yet, is quite central to the author's main argument and/or his or her grounds for raising questions. And maybe that's Cultural Studies 101 stuff, but I sure would love it if we could interrogate it in the process of constructing seminar papers, conference papers, essays, abstracts, and dissertation chapters.

*And I don't just mean how to write Marxist criticism, though that certainly would be an applicable discussion to have.
**I'm thinking in terms of quarters, since that's the only system I've worked in. Semesters might work differently.

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