CharlieP

Charlie Pullen
BA English (Graduated 2015); MA Writing in the Modern Age
I grew up in Brighton before coming to Queen Mary in 2012 to study English. I enjoy studying twentieth century literature and theory, particularly modernism and psychoanalysis.

Interdisciplinarity and why it matters for English studies

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Dakine Kane, ‘Philosophy’: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ltobrooklyn/ (CC BY 2.0)

What does it mean to study English? It is obvious that the term English implies a lot, perhaps too much, for a single degree course. Necessarily, much is implicated in its reach. Among other things, on your degree you might encounter art history, politics, philosophy, film studies, psychology, linguistics, even science. A strong English course, though, should not shy away from the breadth of what lays before it, but should excitedly square up to the range of approaches, styles, and methods of study that are required to yield the most rewarding results.

In her book Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword shares an anecdote demonstrating the benefits of learning from another field of work:

In 2006 surgeons from the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital invited a team of Ferrari Formula One pit stop mechanics to observe them at work. The mechanics noted a number of key changes, particularly in the areas of synchronization, communication, and patient relocation. The doctors consequently developed new surgical protocols forged new lines of communication with nurses and technicians, and even designed a new operating gurney to smooth their patients’ transition between the operating room and intensive care.

The moral of the story is this: whatever your discipline or area of study, be prepared and eager to develop and change from what others, with their experience and expertise, can teach you. Although there appears to be little in common between the work of paediatricians and that of mechanics, in this case the Ferrari team’s ability to carry out precise repairs quickly and harmoniously became useful for the doctors. These two disparate professions found a connection through a method of working. The doctors are still experts in medicine, they operate on children not cars, but their style of working has been improved. This is an example of interdisciplinary working. Medicine and mechanics really are in many ways incompatible fields, yet one was able to be improved by the other while remaining distinct.

Working in an interdisciplinary way is about maintaining a sense of the particulars of a subject, and at the same time being attentive to the common ground it shares with others. This is because in many cases the boundaries between subjects are not as clearly defined as we might think.

‘Knowledge is not created in a disciplinary vacuum’, says Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith in her Radio 3 essay ‘The Human Copying Machine’, where she explores the connections between 19th century theatre and psychology. Literature, too, does not exist in a bubble. Literature is about the world and the people who live in it, and to fully appreciate and engage with a literary text requires thinking beyond the narrow parameters of what some might presume English consists of, just as we know to look beyond the words on the page when analysing a poem or a novel. Along with Sword’s example of how interdisciplinary working can be practically useful, it allows for new ways of studying and looking at literature, which are intellectually stimulating.

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This cartoon shows Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche (known as the Masters of Suspicion) sitting at a table, each with their uniquely characteristic facial hair, looking in different directions. If I may be allowed to crudely read a little too much into this image, I will explain how I see it as a metaphor for English as an interdisciplinary subject. We might see the table in its own right as the study of English literature, while each of the thinkers have a seat at the table, sharing the space, bringing something of their own to it – a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a cigar ( as well as those brilliant beards). If we say the table is Hamlet in this instance, Marx may be seeing the economic and political struggle at work in the Danish kingdom, as Freud points out the divided impulses and desires in the protagonists, while Nietzsche could recognise the characters’ will to power and/or nothingness leading to its deadly climax. Regarding English as an interdisciplinary subject means to share a space where unashamedly diverse views come together and sit alongside one another.

Within our own department we have academics, to pick a few, who research the cultural history of science, continental philosophy, cartography, and fashion alongside and in conjunction with their literary studies. English is a malleable subject that allows – even demands – what Elizabeth Dzeng calls ‘methodological promiscuity’. Working in a closed subject can lead to confined thinking, and studying English should be about maintaining openness and curiosity. We know that the study of English takes us beyond England into a global context, but it should also take us beyond the study of the literary text on its own. The interdisciplinary scholar is not a jack of all trades, master of none. Often the trades themselves are revealed to be arbitrarily divided, and the mastery comes by way of working at the interface of those diverse materials and ideas.

Mastering a Masters (or trying to)

RJC_1616-700x412Graduation 2014 at Queen Mary University of London.

My three years at Queen Mary is flying by, and for me and my friends it’s time to start thinking about the Future. Grim. For me, it’s the pursuit of a postgraduate degree, and since I’ve begun researching and applying for masters study I thought I’d offer some advice.

What follows is not the wisdom of someone who has completed postgraduate study, but a selection of tips and bits of information that I’ve found useful, crucially as a final year student still in the process of mastering the search for a masters.

 The personal statement

‘This is far too meek and please-sir-can-I-have-some-more. The idea should be to bust down the doors, jump on the table and shout “I am something very special indeed”.’

These are the words of a very trusted friend of mine, a doctor, who read a shoddy draft of my personal statement over Christmas. For many of us, such a task has not been undertaken since our UCAS application, which I wrote three years ago. As much as it was then, it’s a tricky business trying to score the perfect balance between professional modesty and proving your worth. And there’s little assistance to be sought from reading over your old statement; I cringe to think back to my opening line (how proud I was of it at the time!): ‘In the words of Virginia Woolf…’

Oxford’s advice guide states that ‘A statement which indicates the likely dissertation research area the candidate wishes to pursue is more useful than one which presents personal interests, achievements and aspirations.’ At graduate level it doesn’t matter whether you’ve achieved Duke of Edinburgh Awards or play polo – what matters is that you like studying English and, more importantly, that you’re good at it.

Leave out the hobbies, but don’t leave out the showing off. On the contrary, says my reviewer, ‘Bring out intellectual fireworks and do some serious boasting about all the stuff you’ve done’. Your dissertation should be the non plus ultra of your degree, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about how great an independent researcher and thinker you are through a discussion of your project.

Finally, do not be embarrassed about getting people – clever people – to read it. Ask lecturers, PhD students, good undergraduates for help, and don’t worry if they say, as mine did, to rewrite it – your application will be better for it.

Be clear on funding

After undergraduate loans and grants the world of postgraduate study can seem a very scary place. As it stands there is no state funding for masters students, and very little funding from the universities, especially for arts and humanities students. There is, of course, the odd bursary here and there, as well as fee discounts for continuing students (at Queen Mary, for instance, we get a grand off if we stay).

Last year, however, I woke up to news on my phone that the chancellor had announced the introduction of postgraduate loans of up to £10,000 set to start in 2016. And in that moment it seemed all of my worries had gone away. Considering that I’d become so disillusioned at the reality of current postgraduate funding (the lack of it), the prospect of ten grand certainly cheered my spirits.

This is a very important development in higher education, but don’t give up hope on 2015. For those of us who are graduating this year, and who pay the nine grand tuition fees, universities are offering some incentives in the form of bursaries to encourage students to come along in September.

Maybe there is some hope.

Cast your net wide

When I began looking at postgraduate courses I had pretty definite ideas about the kind of places I wanted to study, and even firmer ideas about where I didn’t want to go. I knew I was at an up-and-coming institution, with a vibrant forward-thinking English department, and in east London, not a traditional setting for a Russell Group university. I wanted to avoid universities I perceived as being stuffy or boring (the kind that don’t teach loads of critical theory), and where loads of posh people go.

What I was guilty of, however, was being too closed-minded about many of these institutions. Consequently, I forced myself to look up courses in, make enquiries at, and research as many different universities and departments as possible. At this point, I made the courses and the departments my point of interest, not the preconceptions I had about the institutions.

As I look at all these English departments, north and south, British and international, old and young, I find each offering something particular and unique that makes me want to study there. Many of them are different, even opposing, in outlook and style. We should be excited by different options, though, and investigate these places as a way of trying to figure out what it is we actually want when we apply to study somewhere.

Do you want to learn there?

If we’re not going to base our choice of programme on what is familiar to us or what we thought about the university, what can we look out for? Ask if you want to learn at this institution, in that department, with these people.

It might work to begin by looking up the academics that work in the department, whether you know them or admire their work, and if they seem to offer the kind of ethos you want to work with. In my applications, I have noticed that some critics I have referenced in essays pop up here and there, and this was a good way for me to judge what kind of work gets produced in these places, and whether I want to be part of that. There are also, of course, those celebrity academics we’d all jump at the chance to work with. A word of warning, though, there is of course no guarantee that you would be taught by any particular academic, and, as I learned, they do tend to move around. Having written why I wanted to study under a lecturer at one university, she subsequently (and very inconveniently) moved to another.

Another way to gauge the character of the department in question, without looking to individuals, is to check out their research environment. All departments will list their current projects, and their research strengths and interests. Does their research look helpful to you and does yours look complementary to theirs? Look out for graduate seminars, whether they host conferences, and if they explicitly favour an interdisciplinary or comparative research culture. Do these fit into that you want to study?

More than ever before postgraduate study is about what you want, so investigate how each English department works as well as what it works on. Have you preferred being taught in lectures or in seminars? Queen Mary, for instance, teaches only in seminars, whereas Birkbeck incorporates both.

Do they want you there?

Are they too busy pouring water to have a proper conversation with you? This is a question I had to ask myself when I attended a postgraduate fair at Senate House last year. A member of a university admissions team really didn’t seem bothered in having to sell their institution and wasn’t very helpful. It is so important to think about whether that university wants you there, whether they value you as a contributor to their intellectual life, or if they regard you merely as someone privileged to be studying with them.

This final point relates to all of the previous. You are paying a lot of money to be at your chosen university, you are beginning to work as a mature and independent learner, and you want to choose somewhere you want be a part of. You have to sell yourself in the application, but a good university will try to sell itself to you, too. Think about whether they seem to value their students – do they offer you as much as you offer them?

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