Overseas Institutional Visit to Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS), Montreal

N. Kavanagh OIV

Niamh Kavanagh, Sociology, University of Manchester

I feel that my trip to Canada has met and surpassed all my aims and expectations. All the experience and knowledge, as well as networking will be invaluable for creating arguments and narratives for completing my PhD, disseminating my PhD findings and going forward with my academic career.

My intended work plan was centred on three key aims, which were:

  1. To extend my knowledge on oral history methodology, as well as learn about new international theoretical debates on the themes covered in my PhD;
  2. To disseminate research findings and to develop an international network beyond traditional academia, creating an international profile for myself as a researcher;
  3. To learn about alternative creative research outputs, helping to develop skills relating to knowledge exchange and impact.

I feel that this visit met all these aims by a considerable amount, as well as providing further unexpected benefits that all together have definitely made an impact on my academic career. On my visit, I did the following:

I met with my host supervisor Steven every week during my stay – each meeting lasted around 2 hours and I also saw him at other talks/events/conferences throughout my research stay on top of our weekly meetings. This led to lots of interesting discussions on deindustrialisation in North America, nostalgia and memory, and why nostalgia might be much more prevalent amongst ex-industrial working-class communities, demolition, ruination, urban blight etc. We also discussed lots on oral history interviewing, how sampling needs to be considered for how we make sense of oral history interviews, different ways of analysing life history transcripts, the positionality/role of the researcher in the interview process, , the benefits of carrying out oral history interviews for my type of research, unravelling and revealing the multi-vocal nature of displacement. This has opened the way I think about ethics in my own research, and is something I will consider with much more thought when I carry out further research that needs ethical clearance.

The timing of the visit worked out really well in the sense that I had already started developing ideas for an empirical chapter for my thesis before I left for Canada relating to demolition and ruination. I presented my research at a one-day symposium on Friday 14th February – ‘JOURNÉE D’ÉTUDES, Désindustrialisation, patrimoine industriel et transformations urbaines’ (Symposium: Deindustrialisation, Industrial Heritage and Urban Change). This was bilingual event (French and English). I was able to introduce my research to an international audience. During the Q&A I got asked some questions that have helped me think about my PhD in different ways. I listened to other people present on similar research topics of my own, and met some and exchanged contact details with people. The event was attended by people from different spheres – including academic, social and industry. People came from different disciplines, people working in industrial culture/heritage etc. and this was a really interesting event in that respect in that it got a conversation going on deindustrialisation and urban change from different perspectives which I was involved in. In other words, I got to speak with and engage in debate with people outside of my discipline and academic field from the perspectives of my own research.  During my stay I attended other talks and afterwards spoke informally with the speakers and share my research with them.

COHDS as a research centre is a productive, engaging and special environment. They have core principles and values where conducting oral histories are about creating stories together with interviewer and interviewee, and for those stories to be heard beyond traditional academic paths. In other words, they place great emphasis on getting people’s stories out in different and alternative ways and working collaboratively and ethically with people about how their stories are analysed, constructed and used. Oral histories collected through COHDS strive to be a joint collaboration, where the researcher and the participants co-construct the oral history and the outcomes of the projected together – i.e. ‘shared authority’. They have many creative ways of disseminating research, which COHDS refer to as ‘research-creation projects’ – which ‘typically integrate a creative process, experimental aesthetic component, or an artistic work as an integral part of a study’. These included including creating guided memory walks around spaces in the city, where people can download an audio files that has snippets of people’s memories organised around particular relevant spaces, video production, memory performances, exhibitions, creating material objects/memory books, artistic activities and so on. I was also introduced to the Audacity software which is a programme used by researcher to edit audio-recordings. Spending 6 weeks working in the COHDS lab space and around the members means that I was exposed to these different ways of working and thinking and have developed knowledge and skills about the research process that I can take forward in my academic career.

I attended a two-day conference – ‘COHDS Emerging Scholar Conference, Feminist Spatial Stories’. I learnt lots from this conference, and was inspired by the speakers in different ways. I was also able to participate in monthly grad-student research meetings and was introduced to other MA and PhD students who are all working on closely related issues around deindustrialisation, gentrification and oral history. We all had good chats about our research and it was interesting to see how other people were working on similar issues but in different contexts, with slightly different angles. I also got to read and give feedback on another students work.  I also spoke at great length with a particular student and housing activist who is working on displacement (main theme of my research) about his research and how he is approaching displacement.

I had a further conference – History in the Making History grad student Conference – and 2 further COHDS workshops planned, as well as a final meeting with Steven and another meeting planned with a post-doc researcher from McGill that I had been put in contact with who was working on displacement – but unfortunately given the coronavirus, as stated in the previous box – these meeting were cancelled as the universities across Montreal were closing. However I Was able to wrap up my visit over email, and the post-doc from McGill exchanged his PhD work with me and a chapter he had written so that I could get a sense of his work – so we networked ‘virtually’.

I would recommend the OIV Scheme to other students :

as I feel this OIV has really opened up my way of thinking, and given me new food for thought with what I can do with my interviews and PhD. Given that a PhD is so long, where you can be thinking about the same things over and over for months and years, I feel this trip breathed some fresh air into the PhD process and elevated my intellectual thinking in new ways. I have also been introduced to new literatures that I would never have come across if it wasn’t for this trip. Steven introduced me to different ways of thinking and literatures that were outside the realm and frameworks that I would usually read. I got to network with so many different people during my stay, and introduce my work to an international audience and receive feedback/get asked questions which has been really fruitful for thinking differently about my PhD. I also feel that the time spent away – given that I am in my third year – has been really useful as a writing retreat. After being stuck in a rut with analysis for a few months, the trip helped me think through my ideas with a different perspective, where I then was able to develop and write an empirical chapter for my PhD. I would most definitely recommend the OIV to other students – especially after their 2nd year/fieldwork stage.

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