Celebration of arts and humanities research showcases power of collaboration across diverse academic disciplines at Trinity College Dublin
“A future based purely on technology is not compelling”
How do the arts and humanities engage with society’s most complex issues, and how is the research relevant to the way we live now and to our planet’s future? These were the questions behind the Trinity Long Room Hub’s research showcase on Tuesday 27th October 2015 when scholars from across the university were invited to present their interdisciplinary arts and humanities research in front of an invited audience.
Chairing the event, BBC News presenter and Trinity alumnus, Martyn Lewis, opened by humorously citing the adage that “there is no academic speech that cannot be cut in half without losing any of its force” and this set the tone for a fast-paced and intensive two hours. The twenty-two researchers restricted their contributions to under 4 minutes, and the nine PhD students to one minute, and Lewis entreated the audience not to applause to save time - though this proved difficult given the quality of the presentations.
Guests and speakers arriving at the event were greeted by Michael Gallen, artist-in-residence at the Hub, playing his own compositions on the piano in the lobby and by student volunteers whose t-shirts bore messages – ‘Who am I? And why so many?’, ‘What would you say if no one was listening?’, ‘Does the medium make the message?’, 'Ageless Questions. Cutting Edge Tools.', 'Understand Ireland, Understand the World' – related to the university’s five interdisciplinary arts and humanities themes: Identities in Transformation; Digital Humanities; Manuscript, Book & Print Cultures; Making Ireland; and Creative Arts Practice.
As researchers came forward from each theme, the audience was invited to engage with the issues and come to an understanding of their impact on society and our future. The breadth of the research on display was astounding, ranging from the fate of writing and reading in the digital age to releasing people from the identity labels that society or history imposes on them. A majority of speakers were drawn from the university’s nine arts and humanities schools, but a significant number came from the STEM disciplines, because many of the themes are cross-faculty as well as interdisciplinary.
In the short time available to them, speakers posed questions, raised challenges, and approached their research from novel angles, so that the audience viewed issues afresh. Some of the researchers drew on their personal experience - Dr Daniel Faas, from the Department of Sociology, speaking on ‘Identities in Transformation’, referenced his own experience of migrating “from Germany to the UK to Greece to the US to Ireland” and spoke of the challenge for multicultural societies of “balancing diversity with social cohesion”. On ‘Creative Arts Practice’, Professor Brian Singleton from the Department of Drama spoke of growing up in a rural area in Northern Ireland with minimal access to the arts or culture until “one day a white transit van pulled into the schoolyard” and out came a traveling theatre company, who constructed, in their performance “a transformative alternate reality”. Also in Creative Arts Practice, Catherine Conlon, Assistant Professor in Social Studies, explained how after years of traditional research on hidden pregnancies, creative arts practice allowed her to use the power of story-telling through opera to give life to these social policy narratives.
Other speakers focused on the particular strengths which Trinity can bring to global themes. On ‘Digital Humanities’, Dr Seamus Lawless from the School of Computer Science and Statistics noted that the global challenge is “to develop a common vocabulary between the humanities and computer scientists” - this has started to happen in Trinity thanks to collaboration on targeted projects, where “computer scientists appreciate the real-life problems raised by humanities, since technology should always have end-users in mind.” Digital Humanities theme co-convener and CENDARI lead Dr. Jennifer Edmond emphasised that in Digital Humanities “access to far-flung research materials is only the tip of the ice-berg.” The Collaborative European Digital Archive Infrastructure (CENDARI) is a 4-year, European Commission-funded project led by Trinity College Dublin, comprised of a partnership of 14 institutions across 8 countries. It brings together historians, computer scientists and information scientists to deliver a digital research infrastructure of the highest quality for historical researchers, making Trinity a centre of excellence for the Digital Humanities.
On the ‘Making Ireland’ theme, Professor Christopher Morash from the School of English noted that Irish studies is a fast-growing international research area – ‘Ireland is a laboratory for an advanced modernity.’ The President, Michael D. Higgins recently opened an Irish Studies programme in Berkeley University – but Professor Morash noted that “Trinity has particular advantages”. Not only is the university highly ranked in the traditional disciplines for Irish Studies - history, politics, drama, English, Irish - but geneticists and geographers are currently doing ground-breaking research into terrain, and into the genetic origins of the Irish people. Professor Morash outlined the requirements of a modern Irish studies programme to examine ‘a globalised Ireland in which the cycles of boom and bust, the emergence of a multi-cultural society, the fluid relationship with the diaspora, the dismantling of what seemed like once immovable pillars of culture – are all changing.’
Trinity’s strengths also bring responsibilities. Jane Maxwell from Trinity College Library, speaking on ‘Manuscript, Book & Print Cultures’, noted that “research questions change from generation to generation, and to answer new questions scholars have to go back to the original records” so the challenge is “to find ways of preserving and contextualising original source material to enable each new generation of scholars to reinterpret anew”. This is an essential challenge for Trinity Library which has 25,000 unique collections, some of them works of art as well as documents of social, economic, cultural, and religious history. Prof Anna Chahoud from the Department of Classics and convener of the Manuscripts theme left the audience contemplating a pertinent question ‘what is the fate of writing and reading in the digital age?’
Speaking on ‘Creative Arts Practice’, Professor Linda Doyle from the School of Engineering and the SFI centre CONNECT, said that she was currently working on one of the key emerging challenges of our age, creating the Internet of Things (IoT), and that she was delighted to be able to draw on Trinity’s strengths in humanities and the creative arts, because “a future based purely on technology is not compelling”. Professor Doyle said that through the creative arts she has been able to ‘look outside the traditional engineering toolbox’ and find new ways of solving problems.
Following immediately on the articulation of the five interdisciplinary themes, Martyn Lewis invited the Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer; the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Darryl Jones; and the former chairman of Accenture and current Trinity Long Room Hub board member, Terry Neill, to talk about why the arts and humanities matter to society.
Professor Ohlmeyer focussed on the importance of understanding the present through knowledge of the past; she made the connection between the current humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees and the Irish dispossessed by the wars of the 1640s, her own particular research field. Both Professor Jones and Terry Neill agreed with Professor Ohlmeyer that the recent decision in Japan to shut down the arts and humanities faculties in fifty universities was alarming for that country’s future and its capability to address human challenges such as migration and multiculturalism, freedom of expression and privacy, welfare and wealth distribution, which all countries have to face.
Terry Neill - speaking as a graduate of physics but also as a leading management consultant –noted the importance, for all individuals or institutions, of “building on the strengths you already have” and said that it made sense for Trinity to focus on an area where it had already made its reputation, arts and humanities. Professor Jones corroborated, pointing out that in English, Modern Languages, History and Political Science, Trinity is ranked in the world’s top 50 in the latest QS rankings, making these the highest performing of all disciplines in the university.
The event concluded on speed dial, with nine PhD students speaking for one minute each on their research, which ranged broadly from music in the Travelling Community, to online browsing of cultural collections, to the reclusive Irish poet Biddy Jenkinson, to the mid-20th century North Carolina experimental arts college Black Mountain.
To see summaries of presentations on the five themes please click here
Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer |Trinity Long Room Hub | firstname.lastname@example.org | 01 896 3895