Will Tattersdill, Multidisciplinarity

When I asked “what am I doing here?” at the start of my PopPalaeo presentation, it was a rhetorical question – or it was supposed to be. Later, when one of the other delegates took me aside and asked (not, I think, maliciously) if there had even been a hypothesis in my paper, I began to wonder all over again. It is both a privilege and a curse of study in the humanities that questions of purpose continue, time and again, to present themselves.

I’m a literary critic. I write about and teach popular fiction, but I’m especially interested in thinking through the ways in which our culture narrativises science (and vice versa). The complex interactions crudely articulated by the ‘Two Culture’ model are, in a way, themselves my subject. Whilst working on my last book, which was about the relationship between science and fiction in the pages of 1890s magazines, I slowly realised that dinosaurs were the ideal way into the research questions I wanted to answer: enormously and persistently popular, they are impossible without both highly rigorous science and a decidedly artistic imagination. They are also – and I hope that the palaeontologists reading will not grimace too much at this – extremely human things, and to tell their story is also, as any museum display will confirm, inevitably to tell the story of how it has come to be told.

I suppose I mean by this that dinosaurs are interdisciplinary. Thinking about them necessarily entangles not only a spectrum of scientific pursuits but a broad range of cultural and artistic ones, and the list only grows if we consider the history (itself, of course, a disciplinary concern) of how they have been imagined. Geology, sculpture, evolutionary biology, museum studies, archaeology, architecture, information technology, comparative anatomy, fine art, climatology – these are only the broad strokes. For somebody whose intellectual project is the scrutiny of the Two Cultures model, this subject is a gift: no reasonable approach to the idea of ‘Popular Palaeontology’ allows us to leave separate domains of scholarship which have, historically, been separated.

To study the popular, though, is not to become it. My publisher is keenly aware of this, which is why my book costs £64.99. By the same token, to study disciplines – the ways we in which we relate knowledge, in every sense of the word ‘relate’ – is not to become interdisciplinary. To imply that I could, in time I have spare from teaching Victorian novels, develop an expert knowledge of vertebrate palaeontology would be the deepest insult to both fields, as if nothing worthwhile proceeds from the former (I worked hard to develop an understanding of Victorian literature and I don’t regret it) and as if the latter can be compassed without a lifetime of study and dedication. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is a fraught concept anyway, and I’m far from convinced that achieving it is either possible or desirable, however much universities like to say the word. We all have our competencies and need to be proud of them.

It’s thinking like this which has turned me into an enthusiastic proponent of multidisciplinarity. A room full of people with the breadth of experience to take on something as complex and multimodal as ‘the dinosaur’ effectively, meeting on common ground with as little prejudice as possible, has the potential to provide insights into much more than Mesozoic life. With such a rich subject, and such a rich range of approaches to it, we can begin critically to think about how our culture processes knowledge of all kinds – and about how the politics of disciplinary division shape the ways in which we think, teach, and understand the world.

I think we began to see a hint of what this might look like in the final discussion session at PopPalaeo, and it’s the reason I’m excited for whatever happens next. I lack the army of competencies and character virtues which would make me a Shaena Montanari or a Darren Naish, but if there is indeed to be a multidisciplinary table discussion about palaeontology and popular culture then it could be useful to have along for the ride somebody who is thinking about the table itself.