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Collaboration across disciplines takes graduate research to the next level

When great minds come together, the possibilities for innovation and discovery are virtually endless.

This year, two doctoral candidates from the College of Social Sciences and Humanities (CSSH) have had the opportunity to join other great minds in research as part of a collaborative fellowship of interdisciplinary scholars at Northeastern.

“At the Humanities Center, scholars come from different disciplinary backgrounds. It’s interesting how sometimes we can all be talking about the same thing, just in different ways,” said M.J. Motta, a graduate fellow in the Northeastern Humanities Center’s Resident Fellowship Program.

Motta, a Ph.D. candidate in law and public policy, and Lana Cook, Ph.D. candidate in English, were selected as Northeastern Humanities Center Resident Graduate Fellows last May. The graduate students join five faculty members as the inaugural class of fellows. The program’s goal is to provide a focused period of time for the Fellows to pursue research, to collaborate with others around a common theme, and to share their work with the Northeastern community.

The theme that ties this year’s Fellows together is “viral culture.” Each scholar’s research in some way addresses the idea of virality. Then, together, they work through what the theme means. “We have been breaking down the metaphor of virality,” said Cook, “looking at where the metaphor applies and where it doesn’t.”

“I go back and forth with the viral metaphor,” Motta explained. “I try to stretch it to its limits. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Motta’s research approaches the theme from a political point of view. His dissertation considers how new policy originates and initially spreads across jurisdictional borders by examining the innovation and implementation of offshore wind energy policy in the U.S. He began his research in Massachusetts, the first state to develop offshore wind energy policy, and continued by investigating how other states learned about and adopted similar policies. By tracking down paths of knowledge and by understanding how policy makers learn, M.J. hopes to understand the viral nature of public policy.

Cook takes the metaphor of viral culture into the literary world. Her project focuses on American literature and film from 1954 to 1969 and explores the ways in which the psychedelic aesthetic spreads virally across American culture. After noticing a lack of scholarly literature surrounding the topic, she located her starting point at Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception (1954), a book that details his experiences while taking the psychedelic drug mescaline. From there, Cook has examined how this and other expressions of the psychedelic aesthetic and responses to those representations spread across America.

Both Cook and Motta have found that collaborating with the other Fellows in the Program has enhanced the way they approach their research. “I have deepened my thinking and also widened my thinking,” said Cook, who appreciated having other scholars around who could help her work through some of the social, political, and scientific sides of her project.

Another invaluable element that the Program offers the Fellows is the opportunity to share their research more broadly via a series of talks and the web. The Program included a series of works-in-progress talks, and culminated in a symposium, “Effective Collaborations Across the Disciplines,” on Thursday, April 3, where the Fellows presented their work to faculty and staff from both Northeastern and other area Humanities institutions. The symposium also featured an inspirational keynote by Kathleen Woodward, Director of the Simpson Humanities Center at the University of Washington, on models and mechanisms for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Each year a new group of fellows will collaborate around a new theme. Next year’s theme, “Space and Place,” will highlight spatial thinking as an issue that transcends disciplines.

Cook advises future graduate fellows to think through the theme. “Think about how you can contribute to and how you can benefit from the Fellowship.”

Motta said he would particularly encourage non-humanities graduate students to apply for the program. “If your research fits, it’s not just convenient. There’s a reason why it fits and that’s worth putting thought into.”

– By Alexa Torres



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