Today was my first Encounters conference, which is an opportunity for all students funded by the CHASE (Consortium for the Humanities and Arts South-East England) Doctoral Training Partnership to meet up, hear about each other’s research, and learn about the different opportunities available to us.
This particular conference took place at the University of Sussex (it moves between the different CHASE institutions) and actually started last night with guided tours of the Royal Pavilion. I didn’t know anything about the Royal Pavilion previously, but really enjoyed learning about its history and exploring the spectacularly decorated and furnished rooms. Our very knowledgeable guide described it as a ‘pleasure palace’, and it definitely did seem like a place that was built expressly for enjoyment. I came away feeling like I’d quite like to have been an 18th century king! The tours were followed by a dinner nearby, where I met a lot more CHASE students from other institutions – there aren’t many of us at the OU, so it was great to expand my network in this way, and I had some really interesting conversations with people whose research even slightly intersected with my own.
The conference itself started with a series of presentations from students about their research so far, which covered a diverse range of topics – from colonial history and the issues encountered when working with an archive (Jade Lee), to painting conservation and technique (Alexandra Gent), to Bengali music, language and culture (Christian Poske), and the issues surrounding the installation of a women’s only bank (Kate Wall). All these talks were fascinating in their different approaches and unique subject matter. The speakers’ passion for and interest in their subjects was evident, and I found them really inspiring.
Following a break, a group of students talked about Space, Place and Time, a collaborative ‘Sandpit’ project they undertook on a research retreat in Lithuania, which resulted in working together under the principle of ‘academic generosity’ to produce outputs in a variety of media (including film, sculpture, images and performance). This sounded hugely exciting, and the students who took part had clearly made the most of the opportunity. From the various open research events I have attended, there tends to be a perception of Arts and Humanities researchers operating in a predominantly ‘closed’ way, keeping their research to themselves. Additionally, ‘open research’ tends to usually take the form of researchers working transparently and cultivating their online presence to ensure their work has maximum reach and is accessible to as many people as possible. The ‘Sandpit’ project aptly demonstrated a very different way of performing ‘open research’, which also enriched the experiences of the individuals involved. I hope there will be similar opportunities over the course of my research – or maybe I should work with others to create them.
The afternoon started with parallel sessions to showcase different opportunities on offer to us as CHASE students. I attended the ‘Arts and Humanities in the Digital Age’ session, delivered by Paul Gooding (UEA) and Francesca Benatti (Open University). I had seen their talk on this initiative previously at this year’s Digital Humanities Congress, and it was great to hear about how I could get involved this academic year. We also had a practical session using Google’s Ngrams tool, to see how usage of particular words has changed over time. However, Paul also used this session to demonstrate the pitfalls of solely relying on the outputs of digital tools as research results – the words that are used to describe the same concept can change over time (e.g. ‘pugilism’ used to be more commonly used than ‘boxing’), and names of entities such as places change, causing the previous name to fall out of use (we looked at the example of ‘Peking’ and ‘Beijing’). This was a really good introduction to a tool I hadn’t used before, and was very effective in illustrating that digital research can be extremely powerful, but it cannot replace the contextual knowledge and insights provided by a human researcher. I am hoping to attend the ‘Arts and Humanities in the Digital Age’ programme to provide further context for my existing knowledge of Digital Humanities, and to work with others to produce a collaborative project.
We then had an induction session with Rob Witt, CHASE Manager, who provided various pieces of essential information about what it means to be a CHASE student, the opportunities available to us, and what is required of us in return. This was followed by a session on wellbeing – I found this interesting as a slightly older student, as I have experienced many of the issues described, such as a skewed work/life balance, lack of structure and motivation, and avoidance, and have developed my own coping strategies. I feel I already work in quite a healthy way, as I make sure to restrict my hours to when my partner is at work so that we can spend our time off together – I probably would not have prioritised personal relationships in this way had I started my PhD immediately after my MA, and I feel happy that this is now my mindset. Hopefully this will prove to be an effective strategy for the future – obviously it’s still very early days, and I may well end up finding that structuring my time in this way might be too restrictive.
I really enjoyed my time at CHASE Encounters – mainly for the opportunity of interacting with my fellow students. There aren’t many of us at the OU and it can seem quite isolating at times, so it felt really positive to be part of a community of likeminded people. CHASE seems to do a lot for its students and I definitely want to take advantage of the opportunities available to me – I feel very fortunate that not only am I being funded to do my research, but also that there are so many other benefits that having a studentship from another source might not have provided. I look forward to attending more CHASE events and activities over the next three years!