Specialise, specialities & the danger of tunnel vision

Specialising, narrowing your focus, honing in on something. This is something advocated in essays and fields across the spectrum from the Adventure story your four-year-old wants you to tell again, “no not that one, the one with the pirate and the grapefruit..”, to the academic dream of finding something new in a highly-specialised field. Specialism is everywhere but I’m not convinced this is always a good thing.

Ok, I’ll admit it’s handy at the supermarket if you want that special kind of flour for a recipe and likewise it’s important when you need to track down criticism with a particular angle on an author’s work. It’s not specialism per se I’m concerned about, but it’s where specialism ends and tunnel vision begins.

The kind of research I’m doing at the moment, necessitates specialism, a PhD would hardly contain the gold dust novel contributions if not. And more generally I can put myself in a fairly specialised field. Let’s take my current research project as a case in point:

Humanities-Literature and Language-English Literature-Early Modern Literature-Early Modern Drama-Shakespeare (mostly)- Women-Female Characters-Melancholy

And that’s just the start of the flow-chart.. It’s not that I’m miffed I picked Shakespeare, in fact I can pin-point just why I picked Shakespeare, and a specific part of Shakespeare studies, back to a particular lecture in my undergraduate days. My interest in Renaissance literature I can track even further back to John Donne and an IB English oral commentary exam. But, just because I’m interested in research Shakespeare doesn’t mean I’m not interested in researching anything else. I utter this confession with some trepidation. It seems to me that pure-hearted interest is the kind to be emulated, not the immaturity or indecisiveness that multiple interests appears to suggest.

Interdisciplinarity is great, I’m all for taking mathematical approaches to literature,  or considering the interchange of chemistry and history. But, while interdisciplinary approaches might, it seems, evade the traps of specialism, my experience is rather that it simply creates a new specialism, Shakespeare and Medicine slots into medical humanities, a cross-discipline network that sounds inclusive, and indeed is, but also requires high levels of specialisation. But it’s less interdisciplinary research I’m concerned with, more super specialisation and, what I see at least, as the less positive aspects of such an approach.

I’ve perhaps always been more on the side of multiple academic interests, than individual subject study, I avoided having to limit my options by taking extra GCSEs for fun after school, I chose to take the International Baccalaureate post-16 allowing me to take eight subjects in all, plus a few extra options, instead of the standard 3 or 4 A-Levels, and then when I came to picking a degree I opted for, you’ve guessed it, more than one subject. While majoring in English, I minored in French, picking up various extra modules en route so I didn’t miss out on any of the literature content. Now perhaps this makes me sound like a very boring student, but geekery accusations aside, my point is simply that my academic history would suggest I’ve evaded specialisation.

Postgraduate studies, particularly those predominantly research-based, necessitate specialisation. Although my research interests have remained broad, irrespective of the specialised research I am currently working. But enforced specialisation doesn’t mean stopping interest in other avenues altogether, though perhaps for some people it might. Love for a subject, which is, at least with English literature, a big part of the driving force behind pursing it at degree, and graduate level, doesn’t have to mean love for a particular book, and that particular book only, although it might. But what has surprised me at least since beginning my PhD is how common a story it is for many to feel that they are only interested in their specialism within a subject and perhaps, at a push, another work or two around that subject.

Perhaps I’m fickle for thinking otherwise, one of my favourite things to do as breaks from research is to attend seminars about all avenues of English literature (and occasionally some about dinosaurs..), Victorian, Modernist, Restoration, and even sometimes Early Modern to name a few. I take a similar approach with conferences. My approach has always been, “why not”. But I’m conscious that this isn’t an approach all share.

Cherry-picking in a specialism-specific way has its merits. I remember being mocked by several friends as an undergrad for reading the whole book instead of just the relevant bits, and that specific kind of approach is important sometimes, particularly when considering how best to spend research time. And I appreciate that time is the constant enemy, particularly in terms of pursing multiple interests. Sometimes you just have to work on that document rather than read that unrelated book or go and hear someone speak on an unrelated topic.

But there is a danger to having tunnel vision, researchers will be well aware that you cannot simply go in looking for something in a manuscript but rather have to go in with a, relatively, open-mind otherwise research can become tainted. Likewise going to hear a talk on something entirely removed from your field might appear a waste of time but, and if passion for the discipline and not just one aspect remains, and I’d hope it does.. It can be beneficial perhaps simply as a break, but also because it frequently offers a new perspective on your own work.

The saying, ‘Jack of all Trades (Master of None)’ might be one you’re ready to throw at me, and yes, I suppose there is a danger of that. As with a PhD process, specialism is necessary to some extent. But it doesn’t necessitate closing off interest to other subjects, texts, and areas of research, and it saddens me when I see this all to common approach.

Reading over an old essay on Henry James I was reminded of how much I’d enjoyed researching for the paper and attending a tutorial on James and it was a reminder that actually it’s English literature that I love. It’s not just about the early modern period, or Shakespeare, it’s about that but more than that. Like many my interest in English literature stems from a love of reading from a young age, anything and everything I could get my hands on, yes I had my favourites which I read over and over but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to go to the library and discover more. Nothing has changed. I think I’d be as happy researching Dickens, Pratchett, or Pope as I am researching Shakespeare, I don’t have the expertise of those which their specialists can boast but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested and keen to learn more.

Nor should we feel ashamed for liking something we know little about, or something which others might laugh at. I’ll give you an example, I plan to spend this evening working on a chapter for my thesis, reading some more of Braddon’s short stories, cooking dinner and then watching the new Star Wars movie before reading a children’s book about a wardrobe (nope, not that one, a French one) before bed. Mock all you like, I like getting excited about silly things. I’m a firmly of the read-whatever-you-enjoy camp. Sure the classics are great, but if trying to read them is putting you off reading then try something else – anything at all to get you reading.

Sadly, reading “for pleasure” is something which is becoming less and less common particularly among literature academics. It’s become something we’re scared to admit, as though having spare time is sacrilegious and spending it reading, shock horror, is even worse! Again.. Why did we get into the field in the first place? It wasn’t by reading literary criticism board books, unless you were very intelligent babies, story, and reading for the sake of reading is something to be treasured and sought after not mocked or avoided.

Exploring the intersections of fields which feed into each other is something the humanities is particularly good at, and is something that the new A-Level specs place emphasis on (captured under “context”), and certainly something encouraged at all levels in University, from understanding the political historical and social contexts of a particular text, to the sweeping literature review of a more extended piece of research. But having more than a necessitated, or polite, interest in other fields and other periods appears to be slipping off the radar.  The demands on our time may be partly to blame, and love for a particular specialist subject another, but I think this super specialism is something to be wary of, something which we should consider as much for its dangers as its merits. And reading just for the sake of reading, love for the subject just because we love it, that apparently childish approach of taking in as much as we can, shouldn’t be seen as a ‘master of none’ approach, but as a positive thing not out of politeness only, but rather out of excitement for something we know nothing about. I’d like think it’s possible to share that same excitement we have for our specialism as we do for our areas of ignorance.

Imagine you’re a member of Ghostbusters (the Originals, obviously), but it’s Ghostbusters 2 and you’ve been put out of business, so you’re most excited when news spreads of ghostly activity.

You don’t know what it is but you’re excited to find out. Well that’s what it’s like with reading or listening to others chat about their research, it’s like the ghosts lurking underground to start with but it’s connected to us in important and exciting ways, and if we follow their lead – whether the original author, or the researcher – we can share that excitement as the story spreads.

Yes, we can’t be a specialist in everything. Like Indiana Jones we have to search for the hallowed holy grail of novel ideas within our specialism, it is after all how we get our titles..

But I think there’s also a place for the humanities to do what it is great at and embrace other fields, reading not just material on our specialism but reading for fun, not out of duty or work but pure pleasure. Getting excited about literature because that’s where our love for it all began.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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One Response to Specialise, specialities & the danger of tunnel vision

  1. Pingback: Specialise, specialties & the danger of tunnel vision | The Shakespeare Standard

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