Professors collaborate to study melancholy

While mingling at a party for incoming faculty in 2007, English professor George Edmondson and German studies professor Klaus Mladek got to talking about melancholy. Seven years later, that conversation has grown into an idea for their forthcoming book, “A Politics of Melancholia,” and earned them a prestigious award and thousands of dollars in funding. Last week, the American Council of Learned Societies announced that the pair had been selected as one of eight teams of 2014 collaborative research fellows.

“We just thought about what figure annoys the left and the right the most,” Mladek said. “That figure is the melancholic because it doesn’t like to enlist in movements, is not hopeful, is not an activist and he annoys pretty much everyone.”

The fellowship is designed to support small groups of humanities scholars collaborating on research projects, though Mladek said  it is unusual for the council to select recipients from the same institution. Of the eight pairs selected as 2014 fellows, Edmondson and Mladek were one of only two groups of scholars chosen from the same institution.

Edmondson and Mladek also applied for the fellowship last year but were not selected. The professors said reading the feedback on their first application helped them revise their proposal.

“It forced us to go back to the drawing board, revise, make things a little tighter and work out the relationship between melancholia and how it manifests in contemporary America,” Edmondson said.

The professors began work in their shared office where, after many back-and-forth discussions, they wrote together on one computer.

After hours of writing, Edmondson would revise their work, he said. Mladek would then “deepen” the argument, and the manuscript would go back to Edmondson to craft and mold the arguments.

Edmondson joked that the project will be “worth reading” because of Mladek and “readable” because of him.

This initial process, Edmondson said, was unproductive, exhausting and occasionally demoralizing. They now meet twice a week to discuss ideas, but either Edmondson or Mladek is in charge of writing each chapter.

Increasing efficiency will allow them to finish the project within the fellowship’s yearlong duration, they said.

Edmondson and Mladek said that the political and economic aspects of their work have led them to ask colleagues in different departments for feedback.

“They have very different methodologies, they have certain protocols, professional standards and very different ways to answer the same question,” Edmondson said.

This type of close cross-departmental collaboration is not uncommon at Dartmouth, he said, noting that faculty pursue their research interests by establishing strong ties with colleagues in other fields. Though these collaborations often involve links between similar disciplines like government and history or economics, they have also brought together professionals from seemingly disparate fields like government and computer science.

Government professor Yusaku Horiuchi said he strongly supports cross-departmental collaboration, which he believes is fostered by the College’s small size. Horiuchi recently worked with history professor Jennifer Miller on a research paper about Japan’s rapid economic growth from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Government department chair John Carey said he has worked with economists at the London School of Economics and a Dartmouth computer scientist from the Neukom Institute of Computational Science on research projects.

Carey added, however, that he believes that interdisciplinary work often becomes “fetishized.”

“As soon as you get institutions in place there is something romantic about not being constrained by those institutions,” he said. “So we like to think about ourselves as rebels against the system.”

Although interdisciplinary collaboration can be constructive, Carey said he does not agree that disciplines are inherently constraining.

“A Politics of Melancholia” will be published by the end of winter 2017, Edmondson said.

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