Overseas Institutional Visit:  OIV to the University of British Colombia

Matthew Perry, Politics, University of Manchester (2018 Cohort)   

One of the challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic was the lack of conference and networking opportunities. With in-person events cancelled or replaced by zoom alternatives, there were few chances to see how universities run in other countries, to network, build skills and talk informally with other researchers. I was grateful for my OIV to the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, Canada, because it gave me the opportunity to do the things that I couldn’t during the pandemic. I stayed in Vancouver for three months from September to December 2023. I loved my time there – British Colombia is a stunningly beautiful area. With beaches, mountains, and the famous Stanley Park, it was the perfect location for an enthusiastic runner and hiker like me to visit for a few months.

While I am based in the Politics Department at Manchester University, I decided to visit the Philosophy Department at UBC. On the one hand, this was so that I could work with a particular scholar at UBC, Prof Kimberley Brownlee. Kimberley is an ex-colleague of my PhD supervisors, Dr Liam Shields, and Dr Richard Child, which allowed us to set up the visit. I was excited to work with Kimberley – she is one of the foremost academics in the field of human rights. On the other hand, my research closely touches on many philosophical questions and the Department of Philosophy at UBC is world-renowned, so I was looking forward to seeing what other philosophers were working on and making connections with those in a different discipline.

This matched my work well, because my research focuses on the question of whether we should extend human rights to nonhuman animals. I had already focused on the problems with excluding nonhumans as bearers of dignity, which is the concept normally used to justify and explain the possession of human rights. My research had been successful in characterising a new concept of dignity beyond the human. The next step was connecting this back up with “human” rights (with nonhumans included in the picture). Kimberley was wonderfully helpful for this due to her expert knowledge in human rights – knowledge that she has herself used to argue that we have social rights in her recently published book with Oxford University Press, Being Sure of Each Other.

During my visit, Kimberley provided feedback on two papers I was preparing for publication, commented on my previous PhD work, helped me develop ideas for the last chapter of my PhD, and discussed my ideas for future work with me. Her kindness with her time really exceeded my expectations, and her fresh perspective on my work in the late stages of my project will help me to prepare it for review by examiners when I submit. I have a large number of notes from our meetings which I will still be working through and referring to in the coming months.

While at UBC I attended the weekly Centre for Applied Ethics (CAE) seminars, a bi-weekly reading group, as well as the regular Graduate Colloquia and Departmental Colloquia, and a few Professional Development sessions. All four of these exposed me to new ideas and encouraged me to gain new confidence in asking questions and having discussions in new, unfamiliar contexts. I presented the ideas I worked on while at UBC to members of the CAE and the Philosophy Graduate Colloquia and received very useful comments and feedback, as well as having informal discussions with many people in these communities about my work. The CAE seminars, in particular, were eye-opening. Since these seminars bring together many academics from different fields, their interdisciplinary nature allowed me to learn a lot about the practical role of philosophical reflection in other disciplines. A few other visiting scholars joined these sessions, so I have also managed to connect with academics from other institutions.

My visit also gave me a chance to learn more about a particular approach to the practice of philosophy that I am interested in. Most philosophy departments are generally focused on Western, Analytical Philosophy. However, many philosophers at UBC focus on what the department terms “Cross-Cultural” approaches that incorporate scholarship from philosophers around the world, with a big emphasis on indigenous perspectives. This diversity is important, and makes for better scholarship, so it was encouraging, inspiring, and extremely useful to see it in practice.

The time I spent at UBC has been one of the most valuable parts of my PhD. A visit abroad is challenging but also very rewarding. As well as improving my project and expanding my network, it allowed me to broaden my understanding of what it means to work within my discipline, understand how academia functions outside of the UK, and to gain renewed confidence and inspiration that I would not have found elsewhere.

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