Rainbow Research: Learning to be interdisciplinary: queer(ing) practice beyond binaries

The Rainbow Research series returns to the British Ecological Society to celebrate Pride month 2022! These special posts promote visibility and share stories from STEM researchers who belong to the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Each post is connected to one of the themes represented by the colours in the Progress Pride flag (Daniel Quasar 2018). In this post, Ash Brockwell shares his story of Transgender Pride and working in interdisciplinary ways.

The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) describes its mission as ‘building a new university for those who want to shape the world, not fit in’. As a member of the founding faculty, I’ve spent the past nine months trying to figure out how to translate this ambitious goal into learning objectives, lesson plans, field trips, group projects and assessments.  It’s been a wild ride at times, but now that the academic year is drawing to a close, I’m finally finding a bit of head space to reflect on what I’ve learned from teaching at LIS and how it links to my own queer identity.

One thing I’ve realised is that interdisciplinary learning is a practice of crossing borders, blurring boundaries, and transcending binaries. That’s exactly what makes it attractive to people who have spent their whole lives trying to avoid squeezing themselves into boxes.  The aspiring interdisciplinarian must learn to operate in all kinds of borderlands – not just between disciplines, but also between qualitative and quantitative methods, between academic and everyday knowledge-worlds, and between the human and the more-than-human.  They may even need to confront the ‘paradigm wars’ – the seemingly unbridgeable divide between different understandings of the nature of reality and knowledge.  Could anything be queerer than questioning what is real, or how we know what we know?

If we trace discipline-based education back to its roots, we find them inextricably intertwined with the roots of homophobia and transphobia. The common factor in all three is the colonial mindset of ‘divide and conquer’, which thrives on separation, imposed uniformity, rigid rules and boundaries, individualism, and linear thinking.  An interdisciplinary education challenges these principles, which are all too often taken for granted. It encourages people to seek multiple perspectives (including the Indigenous, the local, the marginalised and the more-than-human) and to think in terms of networks and relationships. It calls for mindshifts from separation to interconnectedness, and from a linear to a circular economy.  It questions ‘for what and for whom?’ and probes entrenched power structures.

It could be argued, then, that an interdisciplinary degree programme provides the ideal habitat for a non-binary academic.  This is not to imply, of course, that straight cisgender people cannot be interdisciplinarians! Yet a programme that is interdisciplinary by design offers ample opportunities for people who revel in replacing ‘either/or’ with something more expansive, like ‘both’, ‘both-and-neither’, or ‘all-of-the-above-and-more’.  

Interdisciplinary thinking also reveals the joy of metaphors, which ecology can provide in abundance. What insights could we gain by thinking of an organisation as a lichen (for a wonderful article on the inherent queerness of lichens, see Griffiths, 2015) or getting curious about how a shift from parasitism to mutualism might play out in a political context?  And what about Indigenous and decolonial ecologies? How, for example, might the Potawatomi tradition of the ‘honourable harvest’ – as described by Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass – be applied in the context of UK primary education reform? (The latter is a real example from one of our first-year undergraduate group projects, which resulted in a consultancy report to The Harmony Project).

On a less positive note, the spectre of imposter syndrome haunts everyone who refuses to commit to a single box, in academia no less than in navigating the complexities of gender.  Am I even an ecologist at all?  Or am I an anthropologist, an ethnobiologist, an environmental scientist, or an education expert? (Yes, all of the above and more – or none of them, depending on who’s asking the question and how high they’ve set the bar).  Am I a Jack of all trades and master of none?  A Jill of all and mistress of none? Or even a Jick/Jall of all and mastress of… oh, never mind.  The world is messy, most problems are complex, and Jick/Jalls are useful people to have around when you’re trying to understand how everything relates to everything else. 

Even UNEP, in its report Making Peace with Nature, recently admitted that the issues of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and new pandemic diseases can’t be addressed in isolation.  Don’t get me started on the title: even the students who don’t remember anything else from my classes know they’re asking for trouble when they talk about ‘nature’ without irony.  (At the very least, I’m expecting quotation marks around it, to challenge the notion that humans are distinct individuals who can be physically and/or conceptually isolated from the rest of the ecosystem.)  But it’s progress, anyway: it looks as though the up-and-coming generation of interdisciplinarians won’t be short of job opportunities.

Ash (2nd from left) with students at an urban food growing project, Growing Underground, in London

Dr Ashley Jay (Ash) Brockwell is an Associate Professor and the Problems-Based Learning Lead at The London Interdisciplinary School. He holds an MBiochem degree in Biochemistry from Oxford University, an MSc in Environmental Anthropology from Kent and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences / Education for Sustainability from Wageningen University and Research, with a focus on evaluating environmental education.  He identifies as queer, non-binary and transmasculine.


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