Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Notes from the field: Critical Juncture at Emory

by Lindsey Grubbs

Early in April, Emory University hosted the third iteration of Critical Juncture. This annual(ish) graduate-student-led conference focuses on intersectionality, examining interconnecting dynamics of systems of oppression including racism, sexism, ableism, and classism. This year’s conference, while maintaining a broader focus on the complexities of identity and oppression, took as its theme “representations of the body”: which bodies are, and perhaps more importantly which are not, represented in science, politics, the arts, and the academy, and what forms do these representations take?

From its beginning, the conference has links to neuroethics at Emory. One of the co-founders of the conference, Jennifer Sarrett, was a past Neuroethics Scholars Program Fellow. This year, I—one-time managing editor of this blog and current intrepid neuroethics blogger—served as one of the co-organizers.

The focus at this year’s conference was on increasing opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement. The disciplinary backgrounds of our organizational team made this possible: we had one doctoral student in English and bioethics (me), one in public health (Ilana Raskind), a third in microbiology and molecular genetics (Kellie Vinal), and (now Dr.) Jennifer Sarrett stepped in as faculty mentor from the Center for the Study of Human Health. We arranged for a variety of presentation and conversation formats in the hopes of inspiring more cross-talk and examination: seminars with established thinkers at Emory, a poster reception with flash talks (and plenty of food and drink), and interdisciplinary panels arranged, when possible, with an eye to disciplinary diversity. For example, one panel brought together speakers from the medical school, English, history, and Behavioral Science & Health Education to tackle intersections of race, gender, and medicine.

Altogether, the conference drew participants nationally and even internationally for a day and a half of exciting conversations and connections that will hopefully thrive in the months and years to come. Although the conference wasn’t focused specifically on the brain, we solicited presentations investigating representations of mental illness, biological psychiatry, and the mind-body connection. The vibrancy of talks verging on the “neuro” serves as a reminder of how these questions transcend and bridge disciplines, and the ways that these interdisciplinary encounters can spur interesting questions for work on the mind and brain.

A seminar with Emory neuroscientist and feminist theorist Deboleena Roy, for example, drew an attentive crowd to discuss her recent article interrogating the uneasy intersection between neuroscience and feminist theory—the lively discussion pulled together participants from women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, English, psychology, the medical school, immunology, the visual arts and beyond.

Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon
from Wikimedia Commons
Interestingly, the panel most explicitly focused on mind and brain was populated almost entirely by literary scholars, highlighting what a robust exciting field literary and cultural studies approaches to the brain has become (references for this kind of work can be found here and here and here). Hardly an easy incorporation of pop psychology and neuroscience into the humanities, these thinkers showed how medical or scientific concepts have charted uneasy paths—simultaneously integrated and resisted—through arts and culture.

UCLA English doctoral candidate Jess Horvath looked at the relationship between psychiatric disability and literary form, for example in the schizophrenic break of Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Emory’s Corey Goergen read William Wordsworth’s poem “Peter Bell” as a literary case study challenging dominant discourses about embodied cognition and metaphor as articulated by philosophers Lakoff and Johnson and their theoretical descendants. In this way, he highlights the complex contributions literary texts—deeply idiosyncratic and unique—can make to cognitive theory.

Chandler Batchelor, from UNC Chapel Hill’s graduate program in Literature, Medicine, and Culture, spoke in the same session about how people involved in the Hearing Voices Movement forge individual challenges to medical narratives of pathology and normality without simply falling under the rubric of anti-psychiatry. By paying close attention to the language used by voice hearers, Batchelor advocates for more nuanced, individualized approaches to care. (Stay tuned from a post by Batchelor later this summer!)

Photo courtesy of Full Radius Dance.
Photo by Bubba Carr.
Neuro-discourses even cropped up in the unlikely venue of an evening performance by Full Radius, an Atlanta-based dance company integrating wheelchair users and able-bodied dancers. Director Douglas Scott set up one piece by commenting on the power of partnership and touch in dance. He said, “I wanted to know what about touch is so powerful. What's the science behind touch?” The answer led him from initial contact, to pacinian corpuscles, to the vagus nerve, the heart, to oxytocin, and beyond. This reminder—that curiosity and inspiration extend beyond narrow disciplinary bounds—was one of the most exciting things to witness at Critical Juncture.

Perhaps fittingly (though admittedly not by design), the final panel of the conference was the one focused most explicitly on interdisciplinary endeavors and initiatives. Though none of these talks were neuro-specific, they captured the spirit of mutual inquiry and creativity that makes fields like neuroethics thrive. One exciting example was the collaboration of art theorist Charissa Terranova and biologist David Wessner on the digital exhibition Gut Instinct: Art, Design, and the Microbiome, which emerged from a collaboration through the SciArt Center of New York. (They also kept a joint blog as part of this project that’s worth a read!)

Another exciting project came from Kym Weed, who talked about her work in the HHIVE lab (Health and Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration) at UNC Chapel Hill. Specifically, she introduced a collaboration between English and Occupational Therapy students on gathering and analyzing narratives of falls in older adults. She shared both the interesting results they gathered and equally interesting perspectives on the logistical and theoretical challenges of working across disciplines.

Neuroethics is of course already thriving as a uniquely interdisciplinary field, composed of laboratory scientists, philosophers, social scientists, and beyond. The excitement and engagement I witnessed through interdisciplinary ventures and conversations at Critical Juncture (while occasionally hitting snags of language or methodology) felt vibrant and generative, and served as a reminder that neuroethics must continue to explore new interdisciplinary methods and interests: generating projects across disciplines, co-writing articles with strange bedfellows, and embracing the creativity and idiosyncrasy of the arts. (This recent book by Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald provides a frank, illuminating discussion of interdisciplinary possibilities in the neurosciences and humanities.)

Santiago Ramón y Cajal's drawing of Purkinje cells
Judging from even the small percentage of talks that emphasized the neuro-fields, I can easily imagine a future iteration of Critical Juncture—or some other conference/workshop/organization entirely—fruitfully focusing specifically on interdisciplinary approaches to mind and brain (I leave it to you, organizers of the future, to generate some witty wordplay relying on synaptic junctions).

Beyond just talking between academic disciplines, conversations could link the academy with local artists and community-based movements (perhaps in the vein of Sickle and Flow, a project Christopher Lewis discussed at Critical Juncture). Such an event could draw together neuroscience and cognitive science researchers, visual and performance artists, activists and science communicators, scholars of the humanities and social scientists. Through mutual inquiry, perhaps participants could come away with new perspectives—a deeper sense of the historical context of a contemporary field of research (and why that might matter in the first place), a demystified understanding of the process by which colorful images are crafted from magnetic imaging, or a clearer awareness of the concerns and priorities of patients with neurological conditions.

What might emerge from a panel discussion of representations of mental illness including a mad pride activist, neuropsych researcher, science journalist, and a sociologist of health?

How might a conversation with a neuroscientist provide inspiration for piece of visual art? How might that art in turn help the neuroscientist see or teach their research in a new way? How might co-curating an exhibit, as Terranova and Wessner did, help people with different disciplinary training find mutual ground?

Could community-based projects and partnerships be initiated or strengthened through connections with new networks? (Eddie Gonzales, of StoryCorps Legacy, spoke on a panel at Critical Juncture, showing the emotional force of testimony and connection, but also calling for researchers to make use of the huge bank of archival documentation this project has amassed.)

A project of this kind need not take on a utopian or uncritical tone to be of use. As transdisciplinary team Des Fitzgerald, Melissa Littlefield, Kasper Knudsen, James Tonks, and Martin Dietz articulate in their fascinating article, “Ambivalence, equivocation and the politics of experimental knowledge: A transdisciplinary neuroscience encounter,” such encounters are not universally productive and can be hotbeds of negative affect. My own attempt to work across disciplines leaves me with significant anxiety about what is “lost in translation” as I try to render myself legible to a variety of readers or listeners—do I bastardize the specialized knowledge of my home discipline by oversimplifying or cutting jargon that has developed through decades of scholarly inquiry? To what extent is it possible to incorporate the insights of a field I don’t have five years of graduate training in? Interdisciplinary encounters, though, don’t need to ignore or sidestep these problems, but can make space to talk about them freely and collaborate nevertheless—to receive mentorship from others who have succeeded (or perhaps more productively, failed) in prior attempts to tackle these problems. I, for one, would love to attend a roundtable titled “my biggest interdisciplinary failure.”

Ultimately, it seems that one of the most concrete benefits emerging from sharing interdisciplinary spaces is the reminder of how our “home disciplines” are put together—their strengths, weaknesses, and methodologies. Other than the occasional sobering attempt to define our research interests at family gatherings, many of us end up spending a great deal of time with people who share our training, and hence, often, our assumptions about how the world works. Unless you have a special gift, trying to explain the tenets of your field to someone who hasn’t taken the same “methods” course as you is a humbling endeavor, but, I think, a crucial one. Our own ideologies and organizing principles have a way of becoming invisible to us, and at the very least, it’s worth shining a light a little brighter on them.


The conference is organized by graduate students each year, and only takes place when two or three students take on the task—so if any of you out there are reading and are interested in taking on the conference in years to come, this could be you! Feel free to reach out to me with questions.

Want to cite this post?

Grubbs, L. (2016). Notes from the field: Critical Juncture conference at Emory. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/05/notes-from-field-critical-juncture.html

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