The Joy of Interdisciplinary Conversations

By Ashley Belyea, Class of 2014

Go to a conference. Remember the things you cared about before law school—and realize you are now equipped to contribute to the conversation in a new way.

As a feminist in law school, with an interest in national security and a master’s in international relations, I sometimes feel like a platypus: All those disparate parts would be a joke if not a biological fact. In fact, not only is it intellectually exciting to write and work at the intersection of deeply held, and perhaps contradictory, interests and identities, but the resulting creativity and intensity can yield big results.

The paper I presented at Bridging the Gap: Gender Theory in Research and Practice, was an attempt to analyze the military criminal justice system’s capacity to respond to sexual assault in terms that would make sense to a civilian, to a non-lawyer, and to someone new to the study of sexual violence. My goal was to get everyone speaking the same language. Then we could talk about a problem that receives lots of buzz every couple of years, but has seen limited progress since the first scandals broke two decades ago. The topic fascinated me. I felt like an incubator for interdisciplinary questions and headed to the conference ready to wear many hats.

It took presenting a paper at a DC conference to remember that the world’s academic and intellectual pursuits are so diverse that my “many hats” had plenty of (fascinating, engaging, compelling) company. I had conversations with people theorizing on narrative and conflict, anthropologists working in Bali, a professor of gender studies from the Naval Academy. They are working on issues that have nothing explicitly to do with the law. In the final stretch of 2L spring semester, I was delighted to get out of Cambridge for a couple days to explore new disciplines and new questions while attending other presentations, while in coffee breaks between panels, and over dinner for the keynote speaker. It was a pleasure to engage in discussions about national security, conflict, and gender that were far removed from the world of circuit splits and plurality opinions.

The joy of being surrounded by people who are passionate about their fields is getting exposed to new issues and new ways of thinking. And people passionate about their fields are eager to understand how their frame of reference intersects with yours.

One conversation turned to a PhD candidate’s work with Holocaust survivors and a French train company that transported people to concentration camps under the Vichy regime. She translates 60-year old archival documents from French to English, testified before Congress, and helps participants translate their interests and fears into terms others can understand. I was fascinated! But she was just as eager to hear from me about Alien Tort Statute litigation and the potential impact of the Supreme Courts pending Kiobel decision on the class action brought against the train company. Our discussion had nothing to do with the paper I was presenting—this was one of the serendipitous moments that abound when people meet for the sole purpose of digging deeper on a set of questions and using a wide array of intellectual instruments to do so.

Having a field is a great thing. It gives us the freedom to explore a wide range of questions within a disciplinary structure. It provides a platform from which we can survey big questions affecting society. And, if we are careful to avoid a myopic focus on the parochial interests inherent to any field, we can build bridges across disciplinary lines, learning from each other’s study. Go to a conference! It’s a surefire fix for myopia.

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