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What we took away from our conversation with Dr Chris Millard.

For our third event, we had a stimulating conversation with Dr Chris Millard, who is Lecturer in the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities at the University of Sheffield. We don’t have the space to summarise all the great insights Chris shared with us, but the conversation is available to listen to as a podcast.

We do want to share some of the key messages we took away around the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary research, Chris’s previous collaborations with Ian, and the notion of ‘experience’ and what it means in different contexts in healthcare.

History of medical labels

Chris spoke to us about his training as a historian, which offered an established pathway to engage with medicine through the history of psychiatry – a subdiscipline that can be traced back to at least the 1960s. Interestingly, at the time of Chris’s postgraduate studies, “medical humanities” was not yet a commonplace label in the UK to make sense of this kind of research. This is in part because the Wellcome Trust was yet to relabel its relevant funding remit from “history of medicine” to “medical humanities”. Chris’s own research into the history of self-harm and suicide examines exactly how such labels come and go, how they frame medical experience, and who has the power to legitimise them.

We had an illuminating discussion about the history of the label “parasuicide” – the focus of Chris’s PhD research – and what impact the absence of appropriate categorisation of illness experiences has on the provision of care. We were struck by how Chris’s historical research shows us that we ought to be prudent and critical in the present, as the past demonstrates transience of labels in medicine and healthcare. Chris’s research highlights that we cannot take for granted the concepts we use to make sense of life, death and illness.

And yet, there was a lingering anxiety that the methods of humanities research may not always be fully intelligible to people in other fields – that the process may appear unstructured, especially compared to medicine. However, in our joint debrief, we discussed that research in medicine also often proceeds in an unstructured way – and that we shouldn’t overstress the differences between arts & humanities and medicine & STEM in this respect.

The value of humanities

The anxiety that humanities research appears more unstructured than medicine brought us to the elephant in the room. Healthcare professionals typically don’t have to justify the value of what they’re doing, while arts & humanities are often dismissed as fanciful. Recently, the UK Education Secretary proposed a 50% cut in financial support for higher education in arts, humanities and media subjects, explicitly stating that the Office for Students should “reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy.” Of course, we hope that our own Conversations series contributes to challenging this careless and mistaken dichotomy – but that doesn’t make its threat less real, pressing and dangerous.

We discussed several collaborations between Chris and Ian – around post-natal depression and physician burnout – which clearly demonstrate how humanities research can support the NHS and wider healthcare policy. Nevertheless, although humanities research clearly has instrumental value, for example in supporting healthcare, Chris rightfully warned that we should not exclusively frame the value of humanities as instrumental. There is intrinsic value to humanities research like history. Historical research is intrinsically valuable, in part, because we value knowledge about our past for its own sake. Imagine a world where history doesn’t exist… That’s exactly what Orwell did in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Knowledge for its own sake is a traditional credo in humanities research. Hence, humanities scholars typically didn’t use to consider the instrumental value of their research – or its “impact” (again, a testimony to both the power and transience of labels). However, although humanities research can be instrumentally valuable, we shouldn’t say it is only valuable when it has instrumental impact. Doing so would promote a harmfully narrow view of what humanities research is and why it matters. Much like with research in pure maths, we often don’t know what instrumental impact humanities research might have. That’s one reason, but not the only one, to foster arts & humanities for the sake of it.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity

Throughout our conversation, Chris not only resisted simplistic narratives about the value of humanities, but also the fetishization of interdisciplinarity. Although Chris often works in an interdisciplinary setting, he was keen to stress the value of traditional disciplinary boundaries. Reflecting on his collaborations with Ian, he championed being firmly rooted in a home discipline to anchor fruitful interdisciplinary exchange. Yet, interdisciplinary collaboration should never be an end in itself; there should always be a clear reason why it’s the right choice.

Interdisciplinarity is also not always pragmatic, especially not on the job market. Academic jobs in the UK are typically offered in specific disciplines. It is therefore prudent for early career academics to first establish secure footing in a particular field. Interdisciplinary research also often takes time to set up – and even more time to pay off – which is often incommensurate with precarious employment status at the start of an academic career. We are particularly grateful to Chris for voicing these critical thoughts, as they so well reflect the realities of contemporary academia.

Listen to the podcast

We recommend you have a listen to our podcast to hear the full story.

If you have any further questions or comments, do contact us at aestheticsandhealth@kent.ac.uk.

Dieter and Ian