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Building bridges over disciplinary boundaries

This April, Northeastern University and College of Social Sciences and Humanities faculty research—with collaboration across departments, between universities, and across borders—will be on display at three interdisciplinary symposia hosted on campus. The symposia are the results of three Northeastern Humanities Center Collaborative Research Clusters funded last fall, as well as the entrepreneurial spirits of the participants involved.

Three Northeastern faculty members—Associate Professor of Sociology Linda Blum, Academic Specialist in Political Science Natalie Bormann, and Assistant Professor of English Kimberly Juanita Brown—are each spearheading one of these exciting collaborative projects, which are bringing together scholars from a host of disciplines.

Blum is coordinating the symposium Vulnerable Bodies / Embodied Boundaries on April 18, 2013 at the Egan Research Center with the participation of the Center for Gender Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. The symposium will showcase international and interdisciplinary conversations between scholars from Northeastern and Uppsala that have been taking place informally since 2008-09. Blum, who was previously a visiting scholar at Uppsala University, cultivated the inter-university relationship that has endured for three years running and formalized monthly Skype meetings with scholars in Sweden to exchange ideas across disciplines regarding gender theory and the lived body.

“The connection between the two universities is an incredible resource for Northeastern,” says Blum, especially “in terms of the centrality of gender research [at Uppsala]. For me, it has opened cross-national perspectives.”

In addition to the April symposium, the Northeastern-Uppsala connection has also led to the edited collection, Vulnerable Bodies / Embodied Boundaries, featured as part of Springer’s “Crossroads of Knowledge” series (forthcoming 2013). Blum adds that the scholars’ contributions benefited from “a lot of time [spent] on intensive discussions of each other’s projects.”

Though a sociologist, Blum has been “emboldened by the group to address the age of neuroscience.” Her exposure to alternative ways of thinking has added surprising new dimensions to Blum’s work, and she hopes “to develop more individual research and writing projects that could come out of getting to know each other intellectually in this way.”

Another group, the Critical Social Theory (CST) Research Cluster co-organized by Natalie Bormann, will present its monthly intellectual discussions to a public audience on April 19, 2013. Celebrated literary critic Paul Bové of the University of Pittsburg, author of A More Conservative Place and editor of the postmodern journal, boundary 2, will join the cluster and deliver the keynote address.

The cluster is made up of a wide array of disciplines: communication studies, international affairs, political science, philosophy and religion, and sociology and anthropology. The collective aims to “trace the relevance of critical social theory through space and time to arrive at today,” says Bormann.

Each month, participants have identified a particular set of readings around a specified theme and analyzed the tools of critical social theory in particular moments in time. After launching the sessions last fall with a special issue of the New Left Review on the protests of May 1968 in France, the cluster will culminate with the April 19 symposium dedicated to the present-day role of critical social theory.

Bormann has located recurrent themes in the cluster’s discussions with implications for today’s world.

“We were able to tap into the Occupy movement every time we talked in any of these themes,” Bormann says, and reflects on “the role of the intellectual [and] what kind of responsibility we have as an intellectual.”

She has found the dialogue particularly eye-opening in terms of learning how others read the texts, and “how to approach what we discuss and what ought to matter.” Bormann hopes that the reflections on key themes at the symposium will lend themselves to a publication, perhaps a combined commentary in a critical social theory journal.

Kimberly Juanita Brown’s Race and Visual Culture Research Cluster has likewise been meeting on a monthly basis to discuss academic works. Brown has grouped scholars from a variety of disciplines in the Boston area and beyond “to sustain the conversation” on critical race theory and visual culture.

Brown’s own challenges with disciplinary rigidity led her to the idea for the cluster. She wanted “to bridge the gap between literary studies and visual culture” that tend to be treated as discrete disciplines, often isolating photography studies from literary analyses.

Through these reading discussions, Brown discovered that not only are the texts themselves interdisciplinary, but there are significant gains from linking photography studies with literature. The dialogue has revealed interesting reactions from the group. For example, members have deemed certain methodologies dubious for archival research while other methodologies have proven more flexible.

Scholars from Brown’s group will extend their conversations to the public at a symposium on April 26, 2013 at the Cabral Center, as well as on Twitter. Columbia University English Professor Saidiya Hartman and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will give keynote addresses at The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Studies Seminar.

The group is brainstorming possible future collaboration among Boston area scholars of race and visual culture, which Brown’s cluster has already begun to foster.

Last fall, the Northeastern Humanities Center named and funded ten Collaborative Research Clusters for 2012-13. These working groups bring together scholars, artists, activists, and practitioners, both within and outside the university community, around a common theme of interest. They are meant to facilitate productive discussions and collaborations amongst the participants. Each working group is supported, by the Center, with a modest yearly budget for expenses and the possibility of additional funding for conferences, symposia, workshops, or publications that grow out of the working group.

– by Burleigh Hendrickson

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