My trandisciplinary research is firmly grounded in the humanities as well as the sciences. When I write, science, philosophy, literature and art constantly bump into each other causing disequilibrium. The challenge is to construct intellectual spaces in which scholars in the humanities and researchers in both the social and physical sciences can imagine the possibilities of creating new understandings that necessitate sources of knowledge and expertise that are different from those traditionally expected. The task is to facilitate access for scholars in the humanities and social sciences into the ways of thinking in the physical sciences that are embedded in highly evolved disciplinary metatheories which are further parsed into sub areas of specialization, each with signatures of practice so esoteric that only those within the sub-specialty can fully understand their significance. At the same time, the task is to expand the possibilities for scientists engaged in Earth system science and global change research through access to the many ways of knowing in the social sciences and humanities. Essentially the challenge is to use the humanities to breathe life into the actual doing of science, and to infuse the humanities with knowledge and understandings that can only be gained from Earth system science. When philosophers, novelists, poets, and playwrights join the scene, the prism through which we view people and the planet shifts dramatically, becomes multifaceted, and engages us in consideration of the affectual and relational dynamics of life on Earth.
This research has resulted in three books all nearing completion. The work on these texts has been challenging. I began the first book, Earth’s Children in Crisis, in 2008. The second book The Great Acceleration: Human Life on Earth from Adaptation to Transformation, or Annihilation? was originally intended to be a short paper in response to the ICSU/ISSC Visioning Open Forum at UNESCO in 2010. The third began in Spring 2012 in a similar way, in response to a scientist whose research focuses on climate change asking the question Can Science Save Us? These books are interrelated, the research for the one informs the other, and vice versa. The research for these books is the foundation for the short monograph, Can the American People Avoid Disaster? Seminars and symposia have been based upon the work and aspects of the work have been presented in the form of readers’ theater.
Given my own trajectory through the arts and sciences and based on many years of field research, I regard the transdisciplinary task of working across the sciences and humanities not only as an exciting challenge, but also a highly “doable” one. The emphasis is on the co-construction of knowledge that can be acted upon. The task becomes more complex and more compelling when the humanities are included, and when an attempt is made to view in situ our natural and social world. My life as a researcher, scholar and teacher has always been one of crossing disciplinary borders. Grounded in both interpretivistic and empirical research, I have used language analysis to open doors in the humanities and in the social, physical, and biological sciences. These days I am as comfortable reading Science as I am the London Review of Books. During many years of continuous study and transdisciplinary scholarship, my intent has been to work in the spaces that can be found or created in the margins of paradigms and metatheories, that release the imagination, nurture original thought, emancipate ideas, and prepare us for an uncertain future.
I am indelibly marked by my undergraduate education. I graduated from Whitelands College, London, (now Roehampton University), one of the oldest institutions of higher education for women in London. The central tenets of my approach to teaching and learning were formed at Whitelands. Championed by John Ruskin, the political economist, and William Morris of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the intellectual and artistic life of the college was an extraordinary environment in which to spend my undergraduate years. I have no doubt that my passion for scholarship in the social and physical sciences, my commitment to issues of social justice, and my deep love of literature and the arts were imaginatively shaped and strengthened during my years as an undergraduate at Whitelands College.
I taught in the U.K., New Zealand, Spain and the United States before beginning a Masters degree in the Psychology of Reading. It was a great disappointment. I found many of the basic assumptions about science empirically indefensible. It was a pivotal moment that sharpened my interest in critique, deepened my interest in the language of ideas, and taught me about the intellectual possibilities and perils of discipline and paradigm border crossings. In my interdisciplinary ethnographic doctoral research at Teachers College, Columbia University, I combined anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and psychology, and my dissertation, Family Literacy, was subsequently published by Heinemann. It was one of ten dissertations recognized by the IRA committee for the Outstanding Dissertation Award. At the reception I was told by one of the committee members that the committee had had several heated arguments about my research and committee members either ranked it at the top or the bottom of the list. In retrospect I am grateful. I recognize that as a scholar I value my thinking being unsettled, in disequilibrium. I am comfortable with ambiguity and very uncomfortable when ideas are fixed or under lock down. The piece “Can the America People Avoid Disaster?” that I have just finished writing exemplifies this approach to scholarship. I work hard to create spaces in which we can question our basic assumptions, and in which we can keep reimagining, rethinking and reinventing.
You never know when you write if the work will be published or if people will read it. I have been fortunate that many of my research projects have ended up as books. Growing Up Literate received the Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize of the MLA, Toxic Literacies was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and in 2004 I was inducted into the IRA Reading Hall of Fame. I am grateful that my research and writing is considered of some merit; although I take no comfort from it when I sit down to write. This is particularly true of the present time. I have been writing now every day since 2008, not knowing how my work will be received. The research and writing have become inextricably linked; writing is inseparable from the analysis and the analysis inseparable to the writing. There are days when I know I have pushed my thinking further, and days when the research documentation that I am analyzing is so complex I am left thinking I know nothing. The challenge for me is what my research and writing might become. My hope is that my research and writing will inspire the young scholars who are in my doctoral classes and who read my books to take up the challenge, to push their own thinking, and to find ways to continue the work of the many scholars and activists who have gone before them who have worked in the margins of U.S. society, struggling for human rights and social justice. Lest we forget, all we can do is pass on to the next generation the clear understanding that equality is not only a right and a moral and ethical responsibility, but it is also essential for the global sustainability of human life on the planet. This is the clear finding from the last four years of daily writing, which is supported by more than forty years of ethnographic research.