‘The Odd Ones’: Early Career Workshop in Science and the Humanities

Last week, I attended a one-day workshop at the University of Reading for early career scholars in Science and the Humanities.  Funded by the British Academy, the workshop aimed to bring together a group of scholars working primarily in history or English with an interest in science to discuss making connections – be they intellectual or methodological, or practical – including approaches used by and issues facing interdisciplinary scholars working in the cross sections.

Following David Stack’s introduction (to which the title of this blog post is indebted) we launched into the day with Charlotte Sleigh’s keynote address: ‘Scientifiction: Methodological Problems’. Charlotte moved through a discussion of methodological approaches to the study of literature and history and on to the idea of ‘scientifiction’ – a term coined by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 for stories that offered the pleasing combination of scientific facts and stories.  Sleigh led us through the 1930s science fiction landscape, highlighting difficulties of exploring this period – the objects themselves are not necessarily directly available – and also interesting period-specific aspects – the interconnections of writers who formed networks such as the British Interplanetary Society, and the nature of the technology available to them in publishing for a select audience.

One of the most effective aspects of the day (aside from the tea and coffee breaks, which provided delicious snacks and the opportunity to meet and talk with the other delegates) was the breakout sessions, which enabled the discussion of key ideas in the study of science and the humanities in smaller groups.  In the first of these sessions, ‘Comparing Methodologies and Assumptions’ our group began with a discussion on the materiality of objects and the way this can affect the way in which we approach and explore our texts – for example, the placement of advertisements in 19th century periodicals – and moving on to the approaches we could take to images or objects within our research, alongside levels of intentionality in promoting science.

Following lunch, Neil Messer spoke on ‘The Research Funding Context’, offering us an overview of humanities and science funding sources such as the AHRC, British Academy and the Wellcome Trust, giving an outline of the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme (more information here) and general pointers for research funding applications.  Neil was followed by John Holmes on ‘Impact and Interdisciplinarity: Finding Pathways’ who examined alternative pathways to research funding in science and the humanities, expanding on his own experience, indicating a range of funding options, the potential of funding from scientific bodies and the importance of impact for these applications.  The second breakout session consequently focused on ‘Designing an Interdisciplinary Research Bid’, and our group entered into a discussion on the definition of the finer points of writing and presenting research bids, including the approach of museums and learned institutions for collaborative work.

The day finished with a roundtable plenary on ‘Science and the Humanities’ chaired by Michael Fulford with contributions from Peter Bowler and Martin Willis as well as the day’s other speakers.  Michael noted that small grants could be used as pilots for larger bids to come later, Martin argued the case for being an expert in both fields for interdisciplinary scholars, and Peter warned against hero-mongering in the history of science. That literature and science and the history of science pull in slightly different directions in the questions they ask should not be a disadvantage; instead, the panel indicated, we can use this to ask questions from both approaches.  Also, as Neil pointed out, bringing scientific understanding into the debate too provides another perspective altogether, with a view of science from the inside.

All in all, a day which made me proud (and excited) to call myself interdisciplinary.  With thanks due to the speakers, the British Academy for funding the conference, the Reading conferencing staff, and David and John for putting the day together.

Katherine Ford

Science and the Humanities Workshop

Last Friday Reading played host to a British Academy funded workshop entitled Science and the Humanities for Early Career Scholars. Here the workshop organiser, Prof. David Stack explains the purpose of the workshop and the importance of support in the post-PhD period.

The truism that the first step is the hardest is not, as any toddler could tell you, always true. For wannabe walkers the first step is relatively straightforward; it is the third and fourth where the pace quickens, balance falters, and the bipedal experiment ends with an unceremonious slump onto a nappy-padded bottom. A similar pattern characterizes the early stages of many academic careers. Gaining a degree and then a Masters are relatively straightforward steps, and the momentum of the brightest and most determined carries them forward into doctoral study. The end of a PhD, however, is often a moment of uncertainty as well as achievement.

It is not just the uncomfortable mathematics of a job market in which candidates and posts are frighteningly disproportioned that one has to contend with. The cold turkey of completing a project that has dominated three years of one’s life is frequently accompanied by a loss of both institutional affiliation and the mentoring support that a good supervisor provides. And yet it is precisely at this moment that the newly titled ‘Dr’ would be well advised to develop a new project; win a book contract; and submit a funding application! Little wonder, therefore, that this is the point at which many a ‘career’ teeters from noun to verb – without the comfort of a padded backside on which to land.

The need for support in the post-PhD period has long been obvious, so I was delighted when the British Academy invited me to apply for funds to stage a one-day event to support early career scholars. The decision to make the day interdisciplinary was equally easy. The post-PhD period is particularly precarious for those whose work is self-consciously interdisciplinary, not least because they have to convince appointment panels whose default is to recruit in their own disciplinary image.

The unifying theme of our Science and the Humanities workshop was ‘making connections’: both intellectual and practical. Rather than a day of conventional academic papers we had a keynote address from Charlotte Sleigh (Kent), which explored the methodological problems of combining historical and literary techniques, and further sessions on the AHRC and interdisciplinarity (Neil Messer, Winchester), and how humanities scholars can best exploit opportunities for impact (the IRHS’s John Holmes). Alongside these, Martin Willis (Westminster) discussed how his own work combines the historical and the literary, and Peter Bowler (Queens, Belfast) shared a lifetime’s experience working on Darwinism. The aim, however, was not an asymmetrical advice session, but a genuine interaction between established and early career scholars, which would leave the latter better equipped to navigate their post-PhD path.

The workshop attracted delegates from Oxford, Cambridge, QMUL, Imperial, Birmingham, Exeter, Warwick, and, of course, Reading. What united the delegates was the verve, enthusiasm, and the sheer intellectual excitement with which they approached their topics, often in intriguingly innovative ways. Throughout the day I was struck by the breadth of work being undertaken and how well equipped this next generation of scholars is to articulate their research agenda both to each other and the wider public.

There is, of course, a limit to what days like these can achieve. That the University sector faces an uncertain future is probably a more valid truism than the ‘first step’ one with which we began. But the day ended on two positive notes. First, many delegates expressed a desire to hold further events and to develop a mutually supportive network. Second, Professor Michael Fulford, Vice-President of the British Academy, who chaired our plenary session, restated the BA’s commitment to its Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. Over many years this programme has helped generations of scholars through that faltering fourth step and enabled them to go on to make great, confident strides through academia.

PhD studentship on literature and zoology

A reminder that the University of Reading is offering a PhD studentship based at the IRHS to study the relationship between zoology and literature  in relation to the Cole Library of Early Medicine and Zoology. We welcome applications from students with backgrounds in either literature or biology or both. The studentship covers full fees and a bursary of £2000 per year. The project will begin in October, and the deadline for applications is 29th March. For the full details, click here:

Nature’s Stories PhD

Literature and science at the Cambridge Science Festival

Science as the spark: literature inspired by science

Anglia Ruskin University, Thursday 20 March, 7:00pm – 8:30pm

How has scientific inquiry lead to literary works? Why is the literary presentation of science relevant to scientists and society?  John Holmes will be discussing these questions at a panel sponsored by the British Society for Literature and Science, including Chris Beckett, Dave Clements, Laura Dietz and Kelley Swain. We will skirt the ‘inspiring science!’ cliche to ask why scientists and historians who can communicate in any genre, and artists who can draw on any inspiration, choose to structure their work at the intersection of these fields.

To find out more and book a ticket, visit the Cambridge Science Festival website.

Science and the Humanities workshop

We held our  for early career scholars working on science and the humanities yesterday. Thanks to all the participants for a stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable day of animated discussions,  to the British Academy for giving us the grant to host the workshop, and to David Stack for organising and chairing the event. We will be posting a couple of blogs at least about the workshop in the next few days, so for more news on what we talked about and how the day went, please watch this space…

Science and Humanities for Early Career scholars

There are still spaces free for historians of science on the one-day interdisciplinary workshop on Friday 14th March, funded by the British Academy, to bring together scholars working in the history of science with those working on literature and science. The workshop is aimed at PhD students, postdocs, and those in the early stages of their academic careers working in History and/or Literature with an interest in science. The workshop will explore the challenges (intellectual and practical) in developing historical and literary studies of science, and ask how early career scholars can present their work most effectively. Participants will:

  • compare methodologies and assumptions across disciplines, with a view to fostering more rounded and reflexive approaches to the study of science in culture in different time periods;
  • hear from established scholars about developing successful research projects and presenting historical and literary studies of science to a wider audience;
  • receive guidance on constructing interdisciplinary research bids; and
  • benefit from the opportunity to build mutually supportive networks with other early career scholars.

Confirmed speakers include Charlotte Sleigh (Kent), Neil Messer (Winchester), Martin Willis (Westminster), Peter Bowler (Queen’s Belfast), David Stack (Reading) and John Holmes (Reading). There is no registration fee but places are limited and participants must register in advance. Early career delegates can also claim travel expenses up to £50.

Any enquiries should be directed to Professor David Stack at d.a.stack@reading.ac.uk. To download a registration form, click here: BA Early Career workshop

Literature and Geological Knowledge

Dr Alison Martin of the University of Reading German department and the IRHS  will be giving a paper entitled ‘The Shores of a Turbulent Planet’: Literature and the Shaping of Geological Knowledge in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain at a conference on Coastal Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century at the Oxford English Faculty on 14th to 15th March.