Impact, inspiration and interdisciplinarity: An interview with Charlotte Mathieson

Dr Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow with the IAS at the University of Warwick. Her specialism is 19th Century Literature. Interview by Thomasin Bailey, PhD student in English & Comparative Literature.

Why is collaboration important?

For me, collaboration is important for a few key reasons and the main one is interdisciplinarity. Collaboration is the main way that you can get truly interdisciplinary work. It’s a great way of opening up new frameworks in which to articulate your research and to think about the ways in which your research is important, and to potentially expand the reach and impact of your work.

I work in Victorian studies, which means I’m always working between English and History, and perhaps History of Art, or Geography, and other frameworks as well. Working with scholars based in those disciplines is really important for us to understand those different frameworks and methodologies, and also the different historical approaches that we might take. For Arts and Humanities it can be important to go outside that discipline and work with Social Sciences, for example. It’s a really key way to think about cultural impact and cultural values.

Talk about a collaborative project you have been involved in.

One project I’ve been involved in is the Travel and Mobility Studies Network. It’s an interdisciplinary research network that was set up a year ago, and it draws together scholars from across the university, working on travel and mobility studies from different disciplines. It provides a forum for discussion across those disciplines, about the cultural meanings of travel, travel literatures, and other things produced through travel.

What are the benefits of working with others?

It’s a brilliant way to generate new ideas and explore new directions in your research. It’s very inspiring working with someone else because you can constantly bounce ideas off each other. It’s a great way to build networks of contact , especially if you’re working with someone from another discipline, you’ve immediately got a whole new area to explore. It can help you articulate your ideas better as well, particularly if you’re co-writing. You’ve got the kind of rigour you get from peer-review coming in at a much earlier stage because you’re constantly reviewing each other’s work. That can be really beneficial. For early career researchers it can be particularly beneficial because it helps you get through that post PhD lull, perhaps you don’t know what to do next, maybe you’re suffering with time and motivation. Working on a number of collaborative projects in those early days helped me get my inspiration back again.

What are the pitfalls of collaborative work?

I suppose everything has its complementary downside! Sometimes you can have too many ideas. It can be difficult to hone it down and get a good argument. Especially in the Arts and Humanities, where so much of our writing is about argument. It can take time to build up a good working relationship as well, so taking the time to get a really effective partnership is worthwhile. It’s different with everyone you work with and it may take a bit of time to feel your way into how best you’re going to work together. If you’re doing interdisciplinary work then finding a common language can take time.

What is your favourite historical collaboration and why?

Today we think about novels as being very much single-authored, and this one big volume, but of course in the nineteenth century, people like Dickens, Collins, Elliot, were writing often in periodical form or for weekly or monthly journals, so their work would actually appear alongside other types of writing in a very fragmented form. There’s a flavour of collaboration inherent in that because you’re reading your Dickens alongside articles about this that and the other. In Nineteenth Century journals like Household Words you often have co-authored pieces. One particularly interesting relationship was between Charles Dickens and Wilke Collins. It’s not necessarily a model of good collaboration, but it is an example of two strong personalities, and two well-known, literary authors, working together. You get a lot of personal tensions in there as well.

How could a service like Piirus help you?

I think it’s going to be really useful in helping to find collaborators. I think it will be particularly good for finding unexpected collaborators. People you’re perhaps not aware of. To be able to search across different universities and internationally as well to find people you’re perhaps not aware of. I think the international focus is going to especially useful for finding collaborators.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, one of the things I’m trying to develop further is our Travel and Mobility Studies Research Network. This is an expanding network of scholars at the University of Warwick who are interested in travel and mobility studies from all different disciplines. We’ve also got a number of contacts at other universities, and we’re looking at more international collaboration. This will be a particularly good area to be able to use Piirus to help us to identify further collaborators.