Thinking Big, Thinking Small, Thinking Differently

The week after last, I trekked it down to London to attend the ‘Thinking Big: New Ambitions for English and the Humanities’ conference hosted at Senate House by the Institute of English Studies (where I did my MA) in collaboration with the School of English, Newcastle University. I had been asked to present a ‘provocation’ related to my research on the Digital Horizons panel. I’m good at provoking people, I thought to myself. I can totally do this. Off I went.

Despite having such a frustratingly vague name, this conference exposed me to so many interesting ideas about it means to study English and the humanities today. I learned things I didn’t know that I needed to know. I met people whose research blew me away with how innovative and interesting it was, and was humbled to see so many people engaging with publics in creatives ways that I hope to one day emulate myself. As a PhD student, it can be difficult to remember that there is a world outside of your thesis: Thinking Big showed me through its panels and their corresponding workshops (i.e. discussion-based seminars) that there are academics out there who are doing amazing work both nationally and internationally.

So, dear readers, because many of you were unable to make this conference, I have written you an overview of all that I learned at Thinking Big. This is a long one, but worth reading if you want to know about cool stuff happening within the humanities right now. Maybe you’ll get some ideas for your own cool stuff.

Read on, y’all.

Day 1, Session 1: Digital Horizons

Digital Horizons was the first panel of the conference, and I was the first one to present. Unsurprisingly, I spoke about natural language generation and its social and literary implications, but for the first time ever I presented my own primary data. The data are still in a very preliminary stage of analysis, but you can flip through my slides and look at my fun word cloud here:

My fellow panelists were Jane Winters, who discussed the proliferation and uses of digital archives and tools for textual scholarship, as well as Martin Eve, who presented some interesting findings he got through close reading with computers (he’s currently writing a book for Stanford University Press about such reading). We were a weird mix, with little commonality between our talks. Nevertheless, each was interesting (including mine, I hope!), and left us with much to discuss in the workshops.

During my workshop – which I was asking to chair – my group discussed the ‘innovative’ and ‘democrative’ expectations of digital technologies. That is, we assume that computers allow us to engage with people from around the world in democratic ways. We are all equal behind a screen. However, there was acknowledgement of the possibilities of encoded biases, programs embedded with the ideological assumptions of their developers. There was also acknowledgement of different access levels between people of varying ages and geographic locations. Participants, it seemed, were very much aware of the current conversations happening about the digital divide and the need for ethical algorithms.

What became clear as I chaired my workshop, though, was that no one had much idea of how the digital technologies we spoke about actually function. And, if my research has shown me anything, it’s that this not knowing is dangerous. We don’t need to have extensive understandings of the ins and outs – for example, not every reader needs to know the entire history of the book to engage with the medium – but we do need to draw attention to how our reception of content is informed by our use of the medium the content is being presented through.

This lack of awareness really hit me when our discussion moved towards a perceived need to enforce linear reading practices when people (i.e. undergraduate students, who participants were teaching) were using digital media. ‘Byte-sized reading’, one participant deemed the content of such websites as Twitter and Facebook, has changed notions of ‘pleasure’ and ‘leisure’ so that one no longer retreats to a calming literary text after a long day, but instead faces the more ‘difficult pleasure’ (*cough* Harold Bloom *cough*) of scrolling through a Facebook feed and acquiring information rather than long-form narrative.

I take a lot of issue with the argument that linear reading is something that we should strive for as we negotiate the potentialities of digital media. A computer (especially one with Internet access) is the not the same as a physical book: these technologies differ greatly in physical form and social/literary usage. I’m not saying that slow/close reading does not belong in our digital horizons, but that we are now able to do increasingly more exciting and different things thanks to our developments of digital media. Forcing ourselves into conventional linear reading practices associated with altogether different media may actually hinder our abilities to fully engage with the digital. Yes, we need critical thinking. We’ve always needed critical thinking. But that critical thinking need not be achieved through purely linear practice.

Day 1, Session 2: Interdisciplinarity

The next panel – Interdisciplinarity – was led by Rick Rylance and Veronica Strang. Rylance presented his notions of ‘near-neighbour’ and ‘distant cousin’ interdisciplinarity, with the former referring to collaborations between disciplines that share methodological approaches and theories (e.g. English and History), and the latter referring to collaborations between more seemingly disparate disciplines (e.g. English and Engineering). While both are useful for meaningful academic engagements, Rylance encouraged more forays into distant cousin interdisciplinarity to push us out of comfort zones and get exposed to new methods and theories that we may otherwise shy away from. Strang made a similar argument, drawing from her experience as an anthropologist to illustrate the values of such interdisciplinary work.

Of course, we all cherry-pick from other disciplines, but simply ransacking other fields does not qualify as truly interdisciplinary work. Interdisciplinary requires sustained relationships for meaningful work that engages all stakeholders and not just the imperialistic primary investigator and his/her associated discipline.

In the workshop I was in, we discussed how we could evaluate interdisciplinary work in a world divided into disciplines. If an English academic collaborates with an Engineering academic, for example, does output need to be disseminated in two different formats and languages to appeal to those in the two different disciplines? If a PhD student is doing an interdisciplinary project (like me!), how can we evaluate the quality of that work? In short, what are the criteria and evaluative methods for interdisciplinarity?

Spoiler alert: We didn’t even come close to reaching a conclusion, but the conversation was interesting anyway.

Day 1, Session 3: International Research

The final panel of the first day – International Research – was led by Lyndsey Stonebridge and Charles Forsdick. Now, I’ve never thought much about international research in the field of English, or even in the humanities, which I realise might sound ridiculous to those who know that I did an undergraduate minor in Anthropology. Lyndsey Stonebridge’s work, though, might be the coolest work with literature I’ve ever come across. Stonebridge spoke about her involvement with Refugee Hosts in Lebanon and Jordan; in discussions with Syrian refugees, she and her team would ask migrants what poems they brought with them in their heads when they fled their homes. Asking these individuals about their poems, rather than directly about their traumas, permitted the researchers access into their narratives through texts that were selected as both personal representations of the self and the self in relation to society, as well as communal comforts that could be freely shared. This poetry thing blew my mind, folks. It’s such a simple question, but so powerful.

As both Stonebridge and Forsdick made clear through their talks, and what was affirmed in our workshop discussion, we live our lives through language. Forsdick in particular focused on the need for translations of texts written in lesser-known languages so that we have some kind of access into cultural understandings of the groups that speak these languages. Through language, we reinvent spaces, and transnational conversations through translated texts give us myriad opportunities to both learn from each other and share with others what we think we know. We don’t need to save people through our own literature; we need to start understanding people through their literature.

Day 2, Session 1: Partnerships

The Partnerships panel comprised Dinah Birch, Andrew Chitty, and Kate Spicer. All of the talks emphasised the importance of proactivity in initiating partnerships – Spicer’s job at the University of Liverpool’s Knowledge Exchange, for example, is all about helping researchers establish connections with external academic and commercial institutions. Panel members also emphasised the importance of sustaining a relationship once it’s been established. To sustain relationships, researchers appreciate that they are never collaborating with an organisation, but are instead collaborating with actual people within that organisation. This basically means that you have to be nice, folks. It means you have to listen to what people are saying. You have to be willing to truly open yourself up to new ideas by delving into different perspectives and considering arguments against you. I know it’s hard, but you can do it. I believe in you.

Andrew Chitty in particular noted that a partnership doesn’t necessarily have to mean that all parties are working towards achieving the same goals. Good partnerships often work through co-production wherein each entity pursues its own goals that are in line with the more overarching goals of the research project. Each entity fills in the gap that it is best suited to fill. People complement one another, rather than try to do the same job.

In our workshop, we talked about how to create spaces for interdisciplinary networking and discussion, and how we could integrate partnerships into common academic practice. (Humanities research can, after all, seem a bit lonely when all one does it sit at home alone and pore over Word documents.) While we didn’t reach any conclusions, we did discuss a number of what we felt were successful partnerships between academic institutions and local organisations. I was particularly impressed when Dinah Birch noted the University of Liverpool’s collaboration with Comics Youth and TATE Liverpool to demonstrate how comic books could be used to promote youth mental health. We discussed the power of storytelling and immersive experiences to express complex ideas and encourage interpersonal understanding.

I have, as a result of this panel and workshop, never been so convinced of the value of partnerships with those outside of the academy. We can connect research and learning in so many fun ways. We are not living up to our potential.

Day 2, Session 2: Public Engagement

Comprising academic bad-ass Sarah Churchwell  and QI co-creator and head researcher John Mitchinson, the Public Engagement panel was truly the cherry on top of this conference. I was so excited by their knowledge and forward-thinking that I even tweeted this fangirl thing:

Churchwell talked a lot about how we use serious – and often inaccessible – language in our academic writing because we think that’s what serious research necessitates. But it’s not, she argues: English scholars understand the importance of play and humour, and yet they often refuse to use it in their work. Injecting a little bit of fun into our writing won’t hurt our credibility – it will make our work more accessible, engaging wider publics in the conversation. Mitchinson agreed. We over-reference and over-reverence. We tell, rather than discuss. Specialism is important, but we can’t forget the greater cultural contexts within which we live. Those cultural contexts are filled with people – generalists, or specialists in fields different from our own – with valuable insight that we cannot reach if we are too busy engaging our colleagues in mutual masturbation through convoluted academic jargon.

The ultimate question of this panel, and the workshop following, was one of form. What form is most suitable for your research?Who do you actually want to be speaking to? How can you meet your intended audience where they are? It’s okay to use real-people language sometimes. It’s okay to throw a joke in.

Conclusion

Thinking Big happened at a time when I needed to be reminded that there is more to life than my PhD thesis. It got me thinking about the future of my academic career, as well as the future of English and the humanities more generally. It instilled in me a sense of hope: the humanities are hardly as irrelevant as funding cuts make them out to be.

To be sure, the conference wasn’t perfect. The main issue I had with Thinking Big was the overall lack of postgraduate representation. I was one of only two PhD students who attended the conference, and the only PhD student to present a provocation and/or chair a workshop. There was hardly any mention of PhD students at all, actually, and one of the few mentions was a joking side-remark about how supervisors could always send their PhD students to other institutions to do experimental work and then blame the students if things went wrong. I understand that this was said in jest, but couldn’t help but think that if there had been more PhD student representation it would not have been considered an appropriate comment. I was especially frustrated at the lack of PhD student representation (in attendance, and in consideration by panel members) because these are the people who are going to fulfil the ambitions that were being discussed throughout the conference. Supervisors should be engaging them in research projects now, embedding them with this big-picture thinking that will lead to systemic changes within English and the humanities. We should be considering ways to engage PhD students, rather than relegating them to side-remarks about how they make good scapegoats.

Another issue was that not one person of colour presented on a panel or chaired a workshop. Looking back, I can only recall a single person of colour in attendance at this conference, and not even for the entire thing. This lack of representation is particularly concerning for an event focused on engaging with different perspectives and considering narratives on national and global scales. We cannot think big in academia without considering people of colour’s voices – and, likewise, the voices of those who do not live according to the gender binary – as these individuals face unique issues that must be addressed by the academic community as a whole. Country-wise, we were lucky to be joined by a group of Polish linguists, but other than Poland only English, Canadian, and American scholars appeared to be represented.

Finally, ‘Thinking Big’ as a title was not taken for granted. Some conference participants – Jennifer Richards and Martin Eve in particular – made the very important argument that ‘thinking big’ need not only refer to breadth. Thinking big could also mean thinking differently and, often, thinking differently means thinking locally. Small changes, slight shifts in perspective, can make big differences. ‘Thinking Big’ seems scary because we are all afraid to fail by reaching beyond our means. However, it’s important to remember that incremental change is still change. New ambitions can only really be achieved when we understand the cultures in which we live, and subsequently are able to consciously shift our gazes to new horizons.

P.S. You’ll be delighted to know that, despite this not being a book history conference, I got a Bingo on my ‘Book History Conference Bingo’ card.

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