From herding cats to an ordered workshop: how a common goal can cross discipline boundaries to make academia more than the sum of its parts

The social psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted a series of famous experiments to illustrate how group identities and conflicts could be constructed. One of his most interesting discoveries was revealed by accident, in what was intended to be a baseline condition. In this version of the experiment Tajfel did not encourage any sense of group identity or conflict, but merely assigned two groups two different labels. The A group, and the B group. Even in this condition however, members of each group responded as if their group members were superior to those of the other group. In a series of more elaborate conditions, Tajfel found he could easily enhance this sense of within group identification, and between group conflict. Importantly Tajfel found that whilst group divisions could easily be created, the most effective means of breaking these divisions was for both groups to work towards a common goal.

In academia we have divided ourselves into something much more potent than the A and B group, we have the sciences and the humanities. Of course, labelling is inevitable and useful, but Tajfel’s work teaches us that the construction of group labels and identities can elicit unintended consequences. Group labels can facilitate division, and cause us to lose sight of potential common ground.

As someone who labels himself a cognitive neuropsychologist, the idea that I might find useful common ground in a meeting with a historian, a latinist and physicists had certainly not occurred to me. Indeed, this line up would have sounded more like the set up for an elaborate academic joke, rather than the basis for an inspiring and thought provoking workshop.

An early 14th century image of Grosseteste
An early 14th century image of Grosseteste

It therefore came as a great surprise to me that an event focused on translating the work of a medieval scholar would prove to be one of the most intellectually stimulating and inspiring academic meetings I have ever attended. In my experience up until now, scientific workshops and conferences often have something of a tower of babel feel to them. Many people give talks, but it is quite literally unclear whether people are talking the same language, and there is little formal sign of any genuine dialogue. Reflecting on this point, I sometimes wonder why so much money is spent paying for academics to be in the same place at the same time at conferences, when most of the interaction could just as easily be achieved watching the same presentations and talks online. Many academics defend IMG_1932conferences by arguing that the real discussions happen outside of the formal programme (by which they mean in the bar after the talks). In my experience, this is sometimes true, but, this argument has always struck me as something of a cop-out. If we know the formal structure of our conferences doesn’t really create the dialogue needed, then why don’t we change that format?

In my first experience of a workshop in the ‘Ordered Universe’ series, I also had my first experience of an academic meeting in which the coming together of many individual minds seemed to generate something that was much more than the simple sum of its parts. This workshop focused on translating and understanding a short medieval text written by Robert Grosseteste that considers the generation and perception of sound, and how (hypothesized) motion mechanics used to generate vocalized sounds might be related (in a very speculative way) to the potential for sounds to be written as letters. In discussing this text, I’ve never seen so many people sitting round a table focused so intensely on a common goal for so many hours. It was fascinating in itself how everyone took something, and contributed something.

Our journey into this text was guided by two medieval historians, and their initial translation of this text. As these guides explained however, this process of translation was fraught with ambiguity, particularly as different scribes throughout the ages misunderstood, misinterpreted, or simply missed certain parts of the text. Indeed, rather than simply translating one canonical version of the text, we were really attempting to reconstruct the original thoughts from a lost text that had only been maintained via different translations scattered across different parts of Europe. This was a fascinating insight in its own right (at least for a scientist) to see how much of our inherited intellectual heritage was so susceptible to such circumstantial factors.

As the group grappled with the apparent logic of the medieval Grosseteste, we became convinced that certain features of the initial translation could not be consistent with his argument. Indeed, the more geometrically inclined mathematicians provided an excellent demonstration that the motion dynamics being described by Grosseteste had to be referring to a particular letter, but the reference to that letter was missing. This forced our medieval scholars to look back, and find that actually, in certain versions of the manuscript, the letter we were looking for was maintained, but it had been neglected or corrupted in the version initially used for our translation. This illustrated perhaps more aptly than at any other point, just how important the joint contribution of scholars with different backgrounds was to this endeavour.

20140320_105325Just as Tajfel would have predicted this experience also caused me to revaluate my identity as a member of the A-team (sorry, I may as well be honest, I implicitly assume the scientists would be the ‘A’ team…). Indeed this was the first time that I felt that scholars from the humanities and the sciences were part of a common intellectual endeavour to understand the world and our place in it. It was, the first time in my career I felt like an academic, rather than a scientist.

IMG_2796In contrast the many of the meetings I’ve attended (or organized) myself, this meeting felt like a well-tuned orchestra (an analogy primed perhaps by the use of a violin bow during the workshop to demonstrate the effect of different sounds on a physical medium). It also challenged me to think how so many academics from different disciplines were able to have such a genuine dialogue, when most conferences (even within the same discipline) only seem to achieve this in the bar after the formal proceedings, if at all. As already hinted at above, I think a major factor here was the definition of a clear goal that united us in cooperation. This cooperation was also facilitated by a certain atmosphere of humility, as it was obvious that different members of the group were experts on different topics, and that no one needed to pretend to know everything. This atmosphere was partly cultivated by the organizers, who emphasized that there was no such thing as a stupid question in this context, because what might have been obvious to some members of the group was legitimately not obvious to others, which opened a space to ask challenging and thought provoking questions.

Despite being one of the most successful examples of ‘cross-disciplinary’ research, the Ordered Universe project also has to justify the funding it receives (rightly so). In doing so, the principal organizers not only refer to their more concrete achievements (in terms of better translations, and insights leading to new empirical research), but also genuinely point out (at least DSC_0653informally) that this collaboration is a lot of fun. Fun might seem likeDSC_0647 a frivolous motivation, but I actually think it is very important. Academia doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in the minds (and communities of minds) of researchers. When so many of those researchers feel trapped on a ‘publish or perish’ treadmill there is a genuine risk that the excitement and adventure that brought them into academia will slowly dissipate. This is not just a pity for those researchers, it can also kill off the creativity and innovation that could lead DSC_0639to genuine advances. The importance of maintaining motivation and morale is something that is acknowledged and encouraged in other sectors. Giving scientists the chance to work with historians to translate the texts of mediaeval scholars could be seen as the ultimate academic alternative to a corporate team building away day.

More earnestly however, I think academia needs to do more to celebrate the fact that one of its purposes is to enlighten, to lift the human spirit, to enable us to understand the world and our place in it in new ways, ultimately offering us the freedom to act in ways we might not have conceived as possible before. It often feels however like academia is supposed to justify its existence only in terms of its benefits to the economy. Partly this is well and good, academia does have a lot to offer, and this ‘translation’ should be supported and facilitated. But fundamental research should not be sacrificed to, or seen to serve only ‘the market’. Our needs as human beings are not simply material. Man (apparently) cannot live by bread alone. When the organizers of the Ordered Universe justify their collaboration as fun, I think we should take them very seriously.

Lee de Wit