Fellow to Fellow

One fellowship ends, another soon begins. From the Center for Ballet and the Arts (at NYU), I go to the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought (known as GIDEST, at The New School).

It’s quite a life. There’s time to research, time to write, time to think. Time away from other tasks, usually teaching. But it’s also usually time together, with other fellows. I’ve been lucky to have quite various fellowships, but all of them have been defined by bringing people together from different disciplines, whether to study the African diaspora or ballet. I am always eager to be in an interdisciplinary environment and, then, the fellowship begins. And I immediately wonder what I’m doing there.

There’s nothing like interdisciplinary conversations to remind me of my disciplinary training and predilections. I do not consider myself a conventional historian, and given my odd professional home, I am not in many discussions with historians only. When I am, I often am floundering, forgetting the attention to historiography, searching for the longstanding political debates referenced in shorthand. But I am also grateful to be reminded of common questions and, perhaps even more telling, common approaches to answering those questions: a belief in lives lived as the strongest form of proof. Even so, I’m not sure I really belong among historians all the time.

I’m not sure I belong in an interdisciplinary group, though, either. At least not for a while. I started off my time at the Center for Ballet and the Arts this semester thinking that I didn’t belong because I rarely think about ballet these days. I think about the arts, about urbanism, about the past, about dance. But ballet? It’s been a long time, and I wasn’t sure what I would gain by thinking of it again. And I certainly wasn’t sure I had anything to discuss with a classicist, a choreographer, a poet about ballet. And then we met for lunch, and in the halls, and took ballet class together. And we began attending others’ seminars. I got interested in ballet through what they had to say about it, whether through Rodin’s sculptures or Indian classical dance or in Soviet-made films. When we celebrated the end of the semester together the other night, I felt I belonged in this group.

It’s not a surprise that interdisciplinarity ain’t one thing. That’s part of the point. But it does mean that the specifics of an interdisciplinary conversation need to be made one group at a time. So, on to GIDEST, where, at the moment, I am quite sure I don’t belong.