An interdisciplinary research event which explored the impact of interdisciplinary research
13 Jul 2016
The speakers, Professor Andrea Cornwall, Dr Deidre Osborne, and Lara Torres, gave engaging presentations in which they critically analysed what it means to be ‘interdisciplinary’ and what they understood by the term ‘impact’ in the context of academia and beyond, relating their understandings to their own research experience. This was followed by a roundtable discussion session involving speakers and research students which considered the prospective benefits and challenges which may be experienced by researchers who apply an interdisciplinary approach.
The event, which took place on 10 June, 2016 had 26 attendees. 19 PhDs (first and second years from Techne consortium universities); four Brighton Research staff; and the three speakers. The event took the format of an initial presentation by the speakers in the morning, followed by the group discussion in the afternoon.
Summary of Presentations:
Lara Torres began the presentations by describing the way in which she uses self reflection in her work and how she seeks to define the way in which her personal facts – her ‘self’ - influence her practice and views. She described how, as a result of her reflective approach, she became involved in research in academia. She defined the hybrid nature of fashion practice which brought her to explore clothing that is ‘unwearable’ in the form of sculptural fashion.
Lara described how she presents her work in gallery spaces and that the context of presentation is an important feature in defining her work, as her research is informed from outside academia and brought into academia. She also uses video to conduct her practice. She described how she has been subject to a Design v Art dichotomy, and how the subversion of limits and boundaries has added a new element to defining her discipline. In this way, she has been able to argue that there is more to fashion function than practical considerations. Lara showed how she has situated her research by mapping her position between and at the intersection of disciplines. In Lara’s work, impact is brought from outside, from the context of her presentation and from an interdisciplinary situated challenge to limits and boundaries.
Deirdre Osborne approached the question of impact through interdisciplinary research by describing how she has sought to de-colonialise the curricula in academia. She described how a colonialisation of the curricula in terms of race, gender and class has effected how and who enters academia and so determined exclusions. She argued for the need for an activist approach to affect change and the power of an interdisciplinary voice which speaks across boundaries.
Deirdre described how in her work she has brought together humanities and sociology on the basis that expanding interdisciplinary research will open up borders and seams that have contained and excluded. She gave the example of bringing writers and people from the local borough (Lewisham) into the university context to debate the teaching of black literature and the potential of this. In Deirdre’s work, impact has been achieved through questioning the form and maintenance of boundaries and borders and she has used her interdisciplinarity as a reacting, activist force.
Andrea Cornwall gave the final presentation in which she defined interdisciplinarity as ‘a meeting place of disciplines’ and impact as ‘making a difference’. She described herself as an ‘activist academic’, and identified the context of academia as giving the ‘radical’ possibility to act. She discussed impact by giving examples from her work in Africa, India and Sweden. She described how she developed an explanatory education method in sex education projects in Africa which used feedback and illustration to create a beneficial programme for communities. She described how at the time this had some local impact, but that her report had no immediate impact until some years later when her approach was taken up in South Africa. Her approach is now widely used, but she described her difficulties in trying to evidence the impact by identifying her publication as the origins of the approach.
In Andrea’s work, impact has been evident outside academia and has only become visible after time. She explained that this form of social or political impact cannot always be evidenced in academia. She gave the example of how her work with government departments in Sweden has influenced policy, but that she cannot lay claim to it academically. The academic value is negligible as her work could not be published. Andrea explained that activism and academia do not always fit together and that meaningful impact may take place which is external to the research process, or a by-product, and it may only be visible after some time.
Discussion and Feedback
The roundtable discussion that followed the presentations considered questions of how to maintain a ‘valid’ self-reflective approach; how to identify with interdisciplinary research, given disciplinary boundaries; the constraints of university departmental structures; the requirements of REF which channel research output; and the problematic of defining, demonstrating and measuring ‘impact’. Speakers and researchers discussed how interdisciplinarity has the potential to create, change and affect both inside and outside academia.
Four feedback questions were circulated by email following the event. These questions and the feedback received have been detailed below:
1) Were the presentations and discussion about interdisciplinary research and impact helpful to you in your research? Please could you give details.
· I particularly enjoyed Andrea's presentation and the great coherency and commitment in her work. It was also helpful to hear (for once) a practice-led researcher (Lara) speak about their perspective on academic work.
· the chance to open up these debates was important.
· The presentations were very encouraging in terms of putting the various bits of research, e.g. business and cultural, together.
· it's been a thought-provoking one, particularly the idea of an impact that can hardly be predicted.
· The word ‘economy’ was used in such a way that it made me think about what it could mean, economy of self, culture, community and beyond. We are never operating in one single identity or situation. We are multiple selves, and we have multiple roles that overlap with our principles. It made me realize that boundaries within the institution are only one way of seeing myself within a much larger context of my life. I think ‘impact’ is important to consider for respect, value, change, integrity and ethics that come with a holistic way of participating in the world.
2) Would you be interested in developing this discussion further in other events or conferences? If so, have you any ideas about the form of these?
· I think certainly the concept of Open Access needs to be a priority, as a practical measure that isn't hard for postgrad students to be involved with.
Could be interesting to follow up with a discussion around ways of resisting the ref mentality in the first place.
· I definitely would. It'd be great to have more speakers and panels.
I have always been an activist in ways of learning and moving within a community; I often dismiss the value of small projects I have done and what the impact of the outcome might be. I plan on researching the history of a project I did a few years ago to see how, if and what impact this may have had on the individuals involved. I’m interested in developing a broadening of understanding of the way in which our actions affect others and our personal narratives.
3) Have you any comments on the format of the event?
· It might have been good to have a few minutes for questions in-between presentations rather than one common session at the end.
· The discussion group afterwards was useful, although might have benefited from some structuring/talking points, perhaps.
· It was very friendly. Next time it'd be great to announce it to a wider audience and have a live Twitter of the event and generally bigger presence in social media.
· I appreciated the short symposium. It had quality content, and it wasn’t overwhelming. This kind of platform is a great format.
4) Are there any further comments that you would like to make about the event?
· It was a very well-organised event and all the presentations were of a very high level.
· I really enjoyed the group discussion in the afternoon. Pity Andrea could not attend.
· It was a really good event, very interesting, informative and fun
Students found the event helpfully explored what it means to be interdisciplinary inside and outside of the university context and the benefits and constraints of this. It also explored impact in a practical form and discussed the terms of measuring this in relation to REF.
As there is an increasing call for researchers to undertake interdisciplinary research practice in academia and to measure their impact, this event demonstrates the need to further define how this takes place, how it is enabled and how the terms of measurement are identified and made relevant. The event also identified a need to explore further the relationship between impact in academia and impact external to academia and how synergies can be developed between these.