3.2 Between the Fields: Undertaking Interdisciplinary Humanities Research
I am a doctoral student in my third year of the Humanities PhD program, which is housed in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture (CISSC) at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec. Having completed my required coursework in May 2013, I am currently preparing for the second of three comprehensive field examinations required for candidacy, one exam for each disciplinary field. But how did I get here? How did I end up undertaking my doctoral research in an interdisciplinary humanities program?
I have always found myself on the periphery of my chosen disciplines. I majored in English during my undergraduate years at McGill University, but selected Drama and Theatre as my main focus and enrolled in courses in the Cultural Studies stream, all the while eluding the (canonical) Literature stream. At the same time, I minored in Sociology where I pursued my interest in popular texts in a different manner, studying romantic self-help books and the sociology of literature. Without realizing it, I was slowly developing an interest in interdisciplinary research.
When I discovered in 2009 that the University of Winnipeg was accepting students for its new MA program, English with a Focus in Cultural Studies (now MA in Cultural Studies), I instantly knew that this was the program for me. I thought it would be the perfect combination of my English major and Sociology minor. During my time in the program, I acquired the specialized knowledge and the research skills necessary for advanced independent study, which deepened my resolve to continue my studies at the PhD level and further fuelled my passion for an interdisciplinary approach to theory and research. At the time, the program required 27 credit hours to graduate. The topics of the courses I enrolled in ranged from Victorian children’s literature to Medieval themes in contemporary film and fiction, from (auto/biographical) graphic novels to Disney and folklore, and from the interdisciplinary study of the significance of human skin (taught by a Sociology and Women’s Studies Professor) to the exploration of local, regional, national, and global modes of imagining. I quickly developed the ability to shift gears, experimented with different research objects, and explored a variety of theoretical approaches.
It turns out that this was necessary preparation for what I was about to encounter in the Humanities PhD program. Up until my current doctoral studies, I constantly found myself veering towards but always on the edge of interdisciplinarity. The English Department remained my home, even if I thought of myself as positioned on its fringes. In 2010, upon completion of my MA degree, I took the final step and applied to the interdisciplinary Humanities PhD program at Concordia University. I found this program intriguing because students can choose three disciplines/fields, one major and two minor, in which to engage in interdisciplinary research. I chose English as my major area of study and Sociology and Communication Studies as my two minor disciplines. This was the perfect trifecta that I soon realized I had always been working towards. On my original application to the program, I wrote a 3000-word proposal in which I described my anticipated doctoral research — a study of the works of Leonard Cohen that explores the ways in which Cohen incorporates ideas of skin inscription, embodiment, memory, and textuality as a means of perpetuating himself as art(ist) by concentrating on the theme of preservation. However, like most graduate students, by my second year in the program my topic, although still involving Cohen, changed dramatically.
The Humanities PhD Program offers two core courses, and the remaining 18 credit hours are to be taken either in your three areas of study or in related departments. For two years I attended courses offered in Sociology, Communication Studies (both at Concordia and in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill), Film Studies, and History. Taking courses in an array of fields pushes me theoretically and methodologically. I find myself inspired by and incorporating diverse methodologies and theoretical perspectives into my research, which allows for self-reflexivity, as I am compelled to question my own assumptions regarding my proposed dissertation research. This is evident in how my research topic has evolved since I entered the program. For example, whereas my initial focus was on the texts of Cohen, it now centres on Cohen as a media text. Let me explain further by describing my research topic, followed by an example of how a media theory course inspired me to re-examine one of the many media objects that composes the celebrity phenomenon of Leonard Cohen.
My (now revised) research question asks: how do celebrity discourses operate within a Canadian context? Using Cohen as a case study, I will expand the scholarship on Canadian celebrity by exploring how celebrity phenomena are constituted through various discourses that circulate through Canadian culture via a wide range of media channels. My intent is to investigate what these discourses (and the tension between them) can tell us about the changing constitution of celebrity in Canadian culture and beyond our national borders. In part, I aim to stage an intervention in literary studies by using an analysis of Cohen ephemera, including fan fiction, bootleg recordings, collectibles, websites, correspondence, and archival materials, to draw attention to the myriad texts, objects, and discourses that traditionally fall outside the purview of literary studies. How does the shift in focus from the content and meaning of a literary text to modes of production, circulation, and consumption open up new avenues for inquiry within literary studies? Working from Cohen ephemera and traditional forms of evidence, including selected primary texts, I plan to undertake a discourse analysis of the “extensive, multimedia, intertextual” layers that construct Cohen’s star image as well as the larger phenomenon of which it is a part (Dyer 2-3). There is a specific methodology for examining a finite set of materials that constitute a celebrity phenomenon, and while the materials explored may be similar to a biographical or journalistic study, my approach differs vastly. In analyzing the dominant discourses that frame Cohen as a celebrity, I will work to uncover how the Cohen phenomenon is made intelligible through these (often competing) discourses, highlighting the various forces, agents, objects, and discourses that constitute celebrity phenomena and questioning what interests, practices, and identities become mobilized. In undertaking this research I hope to contribute to the emerging field of Canadian celebrity studies and demonstrate an alternative method for literary studies, expanding the traditional approach of close reading by concentrating on the circulation of celebrity discourses and media ephemera. In this way, the findings of this project will not only attract scholars seeking new methods in literary studies, but will also interest researchers in sociology, communications, and cultural studies.
As you can see from this brief description, one of the major ways that an interdisciplinary program of study has shifted my original topic involves the careful consideration of what constitutes a text (i.e., Cohen as media text) and thereby challenges what constitutes a text worthy of academic study (such as celebrity ephemera: collectibles, fan texts, bootleg videos, etc.). This shift in focus from examining Cohen’s literary texts to exploring how Cohen’s celebrity persona operates and circulates as a media text was influenced by my time spent in Communication Studies courses. There, I became interested in the circulation of media objects and texts and discovered and integrated into my research a celebrity studies perspective. Incorporating this perspective allows me to take a step away from the content of Cohen’s literary work without ignoring how his literary work aids in the production and circulation of his celebrity image. Understanding Cohen as a celebrity, and thus as a media text, opens up a huge body of texts available for study, texts that are often neglected by a traditional literary studies approach, such as fan fiction, ticket stubs, or bootleg videos.
In my final semester of coursework, I enrolled in a media theory course offered by the Film Studies Department. The outcome surprised me. By the end of the term, I found myself writing a paper on bootleg videos of Cohen’s 1984, made-for-TV musical, I am a Hotel. Viewed through a celebrity studies perspective, I am a Hotel is one of the many texts and media objects that both constitute and aid in the circulation of Cohen’s celebrity persona. For the Cohen fan, I am a Hotel becomes an affective object that may form part of a larger collection of Cohen paraphernalia. It is a text that is discussed, reproduced, and circulated within fandom communities. Inspired by the media archeological approaches associated with Wolfgang Ernst, Jussi Parikka, Erkki Huhtamo, and others, I undertook a media archeology-inspired analysis of I am a Hotel, focusing on the noise of the video, rather than its content, as indexical traces of its history and circulation. While I am a Hotel first aired on Canadian television in May 1984, it was not officially released on VHS until 1996 and has yet to be officially released on DVD. This indicates that from 1984 to 1996 the primary method of its circulation was as a bootleg copy videotaped from television, and moreover, as videotape slowly becomes obsolete, the circulation of bootleg copies of I am a Hotel now occurs primarily online. In looking at I am a Hotel through a media archeology-inspired lens, I endeavored to unearth the ways each tape’s specific history becomes imprinted on the surface of the video image, aesthetically constructing its identity as a celebrity text, affective object of fandom, and circulatory object. Returning to the narrative content of the video, I then examined how the bootleg aesthetics of I am a Hotel reinforce the film’s themes of desire, nostalgia, and aging and connect to Cohen’s celebrity persona. I would never have considered a method of analysis such at this at the outset of my PhD program, but now it has become integrated into how I view Leonard Cohen as a celebrity and media text.
Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillian, 2004. Print.
Charlotte Fillmore-Handlon is a PhD student in the Humanities Doctoral Program in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University in Montreal. Working in and across English, Communication Studies, and Sociology, Charlotte is interested in popular culture, celebrity and fan culture, and media theory. Her research centres on the study of Canadian celebrity culture, using Leonard Cohen as a case study.