Fostering Interdisciplinary Research: A Conversation with Mary Robson

Interview by Giorgina Paiella

Interdisciplinary research is a powerful, dynamic mode of research that allows researchers to integrate paradigms, methods, theories, and tools from several disciplines to innovatively approach research problems and inquiries. While interdisciplinarity can powerfully explore solutions and imagine outputs beyond the scope of a single discipline, it is not without its challenges, and therefore requires careful thought, planning, execution, and sustained commitment.

            As Creative Facilitator to the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University, Mary Robson has a wealth of experience facilitating interdisciplinary conversations and research projects. Robson is the Creative Facilitator of Hearing the Voice, an interdisciplinary project that explores the phenomenon of voice-hearing based at Durham and funded by the Wellcome Trust. The large, interdisciplinary study consists of an international team of researchers from a diverse range of academic disciplines, including anthropology, medical humanities, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, psychology and linguistics, who work closely with voice-hearers and clinicians on the experience of voice hearing. 

            This past week, Robson visited the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she gave a talk on her work with Hearing the Voice and ran two workshops for UCSB students, staff, and faculty. The first workshop focused on the design and facilitation of interdisciplinary projects and how to facilitate dialogue, research, and teaching spanning the humanities and sciences, and the second, “Mapping the Knowledge,” invited participants to create blueprints of their knowledge of their own discipline and its relationship to other disciplines. Throughout these events, Robson discussed best practices for working with interdisciplinary teams and how to create positive working environments that flatten hierarchies and foster creativity, camaraderie, and cutting-edge research.  

            I sat down with Robson during her visit to discuss her role as Creative Facilitator on Hearing the Voice, what has been most rewarding working on an interdisciplinary project, and best practices for running interdisciplinary teams.  

Can you tell me a bit about Hearing the Voice? 

Hearing the Voice  is a very large, interdisciplinary research project investigating the phenomenon of hearing a voice when there’s nobody there, when there’s no physical presence. Oftentimes, that’s just been seen as a symptom of schizophrenia, for example, as a profound mental health problem, but as a project, we are much more keen on seeing it as part of human experience. We have a lot of disciplines involved, from cognitive psychology and neuroscience through to narratologists and postmodernists from the English department, theologians and others from religious studies. We’ve worked with philosophers, medievalists, historians, anthropologists, and lots of permutations therein. The project has taken both a long cultural view, for example, in terms of medieval studies, and also an experimental view, in psychology. It has also tried to maintain meaningful contact with those people who have the experience of voice hearing. 

What does your role as Creative Facilitator on the project entail? 

I was written into the bid of the project—it was such a large and complex bid, and because of my experience in the Center for Medical Humanities, as it was called then at the university, people had seen me facilitating events and groups and had seen what was possible.  On one very simple level, my role meant that the project’s principal investigator and co-director could be fully participant in the research groups, because if you’ve got to run a project and attend to the dynamics of how people work together, that in itself can be more of a problem than not. My job was initially to build the community of the researchers.  I think that was substantively different from a lot of other superficially similar roles, which have more to do with coordination, or project management. My role was perceived as something around the dynamics of how we work together, but always with the rationale that we want to make cracking good research.

What has been most rewarding working on an interdisciplinary project like Hearing the Voice? 

Good question. I think for me, there are a number of things that I’ve got out of it. I’m a very curious person, and whilst you can facilitate without getting subsumed by the subject, I have become very, very interested in the subject, and also in the particulars of people’s research. I think that’s probably made me a better facilitator of the project, but it’s also meant that I’ve accrued a whole heap of knowledge that I otherwise wouldn’t have, which is very nice to have around—it’s not onerous at all—so I’ve felt that to be very rewarding. The other thing I think is, we’re probably very fortunate, but it is an exceptional group of people—or a group of exceptional people I should say—and there is great camaraderie, and I think we can still be properly critical of each other and of our work and yet, very fast friendships have been made. You don’t have to be really pally with everyone you work with, of course, but I think it’s fair to say there’s a great working atmosphere, so it’s great to do work you like with people you like. 

What do humanities scholars that you have worked with bring to the table that you find unique to their humanities training?

I think the people are unique. We have a psychologist on the project who is one of the best read people I’ve ever met, for example. I think sometimes, we automatically tend to lean towards possibly stereotypical views of disciplinary attributes. We have Professor Patricia Waugh on the team and she’s a renowned modernist in English literature. She is hugely knowledgeable about turn of the century, nineteenth and twentieth century psychoanalysis and brings a huge wealth of knowledge and a very, very lively intelligence to debate, so she can properly join in with the likes of Professor Louis Sass who visited us recently on the topic of madness and modernism. There’s a great conversation between them that we’ve just put up online, and in that, you just hear the wealth of knowledge that they have, but how it’s applied, and how lively it is—that is what it brings to the debate. Other literary scholars who bring in narratology, who bring in knowledge about cognitive literature and cognitive literary studies, or if they study nineteenth-century literature, that just opens up conversations and debates to new levels. 

What are your top tips for successfully running an interdisciplinary team or project?

My job is to be a facilitator, so the literal meaning of the word is supposed to make things easier, and I think it’s about flow. I think attention has to be paid not only to what you do but how you work. And again, we’re fortunate because we are funded accordingly, but we’ve been able to be reflective about what we do, and we have overcommitted ourselves on occasion—you know, capacity is ever an issue—but we’re always able to reflect on that and look at what we can learn from it and where we can go to next. I think we’re fortunate in that we can be flexible, to make a cut where necessary and to use our resources to the best advantage. 

Mary Robson is Creative Facilitator to the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University and the Creative Facilitator of Hearing the Voice and Life of Breath research projects. Trained as a theater designer, her work consists of convening and running research groups on large, interdisciplinary projects and working with researchers and research participants to produce creative outputs, including short films, participatory theatre pieces, audio pieces, and arts workshops. Robson places a particular emphasis on interdisciplinarity and transferable methodology, and her recent work as a creative facilitator also includes projects with Exeter University, Trinity College Dublin and Kings College London. She has received a Royal Society of Public Health award for “innovative and outstanding contributions to arts and health.”

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