The meeting of minds from different disciplines can spark vital new insights and discoveries. Richard Lofthouse asks just how the latest Oxford initiative is encouraging joined-up thinking.

In touch through TORCH

By Richard Lofthouse

What’s this latest acronym-on-the-block? Apparently TORCH is symbolic for the light it is spreading. ‘Launched in May 2013, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) stimulates and supports research activity that transcends disciplinary and institutional boundaries,’ its website announces.

The one-year-old TORCH is based at the Radcliffe Humanities Building, formerly the Radcliffe Infirmary. It has already hosted 374 events, supported 300 affiliate researchers, 24 early career fellows, 21 networks and eight programmes, and raised about half a million in grant funding. A major spring lecture series, ‘Humanities and the Public Good’, considered the role of the humanities in addressing great challenges of our time.

In touch through TORCH

Here Oxford Today asks TORCH Director Professor Stephen Tuck (pictured right) to explain this significant initiative at Oxford.

Oxford Today: Isn’t interdisciplinary conversation the essence of what has always gone on at Oxford, because of the way scientists and arts fellows have always talked together at high table?

Stephen Tuck: Absolutely — one of the great strengths of the collegiate system is to enable students and fellows to talk across disciplines. In terms of actual research projects, though, that’s another matter. Through TORCH I became involved in a new research group on race and resistance in the twentieth century. Although I’ve been in Oxford for nearly ten years, I had not even heard of colleagues who work in my area but were based in other colleges and departments (including English, Classics, Anthropology, Psychology) — colleagues whom I now work with closely.

When I heard Oxford was going to introduce a new centre in the humanities, I had a wary eye too. So, at TORCH we are careful not to reinvent the wheel, and only to add value to the existing structure — by supporting research that reaches across disciplines and colleges, or connects with the non-academic world (viz, most of it). We are delighted to promote existing collegiate interdisciplinary research. In many cases, TORCH has enabled college projects to extend across the University and to non-academic partners — without losing their college identity.

By the way, the person who came up with the acronym did indeed see TORCH as a verb, to torch outmoded ways of research. We adhere to the noun — illuminating — version, though.

Oxford Today: Your first annual review explodes with initiatives. Is the underlying objective to face down Westminsterites who have concluded that lots of researchers, especially in the humanities, have little or no relevance to the outside world?

Stephen Tuck: No, but it has been a clear outcome. We’ve steered clear of rehashing that old, frankly pessimistic and inward-looking defence that the humanities still matter to public life. But a surprising number of our projects, such as on the environment, compassion, social mobility, war crimes, demonstrate that they do.

Oxford Today: The 21 networks that TORCH hosts range hugely from one concerning the Danish playwright Ibsen to more traditional labels such as ‘Early Modern Catholicism’. Is there any overarching coherence?

Stephen Tuck: We set no central agendas. All the new networks have been suggested by teams of Oxford researchers, and then selected on grounds of quality and potential by our management committee, which is drawn from across the faculties, including the sciences.

We support research networks for two years, by which stage they should be self-sustaining, or feel free to stop. In other words, TORCH is a place where humanities researchers can take risks. We do give particular support to projects that have very wide and enduring appeal. Dozens of researchers, for example, work on aspects of the environment, or on dance, or on women and gender — and so we try and bring researchers together in these areas.

Also, we choose a headline series of events for each year — again in response to emerging interest from within and beyond Oxford. Last year it was humanities and the public good, next year it is humanities and science. This is in response to researchers working on these themes already, but also because there is clearly potential, and strategic value, for more to be done.

Oxford Today: Free platform here: give us some examples of how cross-disciplinary conversation, sponsored by TORCH, has transformed an enquiry that would have otherwise remained confined to a particular mentality or faculty boundary.

Stephen Tuck: So many to choose from. Here’s a recent example. The head of the mental health research unit (a global leader, up the hill near the hospitals) got in touch to say they were keen to work with people in the humanities — were there any in this area? We put out a call and heard back from over a dozen humanities researchers, from literature, English, theology, history, philosophy and other disciplines, who are working on aspects of mental health — and didn’t know of each other. Collaboration in this area has the potential to deliver transformative research.

Oxford Today: What’s the biggest surprise thrown up by TORCH so far?

Stephen Tuck: The enthusiasm from within the humanities, from the sciences, and from beyond the University — be that inner-city schools or multinational banks. Also how many younger scholars have taken a lead in various projects.

Oxford Today: Finally, tell us about the conference on the purpose of the humanities held in January. Are we to believe that the humanities are in a state of global crisis?

Stephen Tuck: We invited a scientist, politician, journalist, as well as some of our own, to discuss the question: With a limited funding stream, how much should go to the humanities? The scientist argued most strongly to increase humanities’ share — because he felt so many major breakthroughs in scientific research came when people asked questions across disciplines.

We deliberately avoided the ‘humanities in crisis’ narrative, and instead held sessions looking at what’s wrong with standard defences for the humanities, and their potential contribution to issues such as sustainable development, working with science, or promoting virtue.

What I found most fascinating was our concluding conference, which brought together scholars from every continent. In so many parts of the world, the pressing question is not what to do about the decline of the humanities, but an eagerness to bring the humanities in to higher education systems that are almost exclusively science-based.

Image from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam by gnuckx via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence. Stephen Tuck photograph by Stuart Bebb is reproduced with permission.