What does collaboration mean in the CDA?

As a member of the student organising team for the recent conference What’s it Worth the Value and Potential of the Collaborative Doctoral Award, I was nervous that an event on this theme would become introspective, anecdotal, personal and inaccessible even to those were attending through a mutual interest in the funding scheme.

And therein lies a problem with the CDA degree: bringing together a mammoth national funding body, a national museums network, local museums, and individuals – both educators and students, the meaning of ‘collaboration’ is vaporized across a sea of highly specified purposes, expectations, experiences and emotions. How can a CDA degree be anything but personal and inaccessible and what does this mean for a discussion of its overall value and future progress?

At the conference we learned from Ian Lyne, Associate Director of Programmes at the Arts and Humanities Research Council that the kernel of inspiration for collaborative research in heritage and culture arose from a reflection on its value in the disciplines of science. The Wellcome Trust introduction to collaboration resonates with our own expectations of the CDA: “Collaboration promotes the development of new ideas and can bring disciplines together to speed the pace of discovery.”

In the innovations session we were presented with the fruits of such collaborative progress in the arts and humanities. Current and past students demonstrated how new ideas have been emboldened by the inter-disciplinary environment; discoveries could be made unexpectedly; how new techniques could be mastered; and problems overcome through collaborative effort. I couldn’t help but feel though, that our panel were unrepresentative: not because their innovations are exceptional to others not on stage, but because any innovation in the CDA is unique, project-specific, and elevated by the few people responsible for it. Again, how does a funding scheme endeavour to improve for the future when learning acquired in the process of its implementation is ad hoc, idiosyncratic and local?

On progress and lasting value we heard in the legacies session that the CDA could provide museums with new resources and contacts, and in turn underpin an institutional resilience. We heard how the development of skills bridging many sectors could be mutually enhancing, and set the tone for the future of public engagement. Legacies also reach further than the intended collaboration, extending to local communities and other participants. Still I came away with the feeling that all this value was simply the product of special relationships amongst individuals whose group dynamic is such that it produces innovation and legacy no matter the environment.

The main criticisms we heard about the CDA scheme surrounded funding allocation and rationale, respect and support for the students, concern for research integrity, and interest in the longevity of relationships. In those CDA projects that have worked really well, these issues have been evident, yet surmountable – and have therefore been celebrated as ‘successful collaborations’. But perhaps those successful projects were instances of the right people, making the right relationships, with the right tools, at the right time. Perhaps the word collaboration is a fallacy in the arts and humanities.

There was a sense that the success in collaboration ultimately emphasises monetary concerns: museum resilience translates as footfall, innovative research as impending funding applications, and student experience as future salaries. Rather than the acquisition of skills and knowledge, to produce tangible outputs and allocate resources, might we alter our view of the process? Perhaps the PhD research undertaken in a CDA is about germination and fertilisation in the arts and humanities landscape. The value of such activities brings to mind laying the foundations of a strong research culture; bedded in excellent learning and teaching abilities; providing the sustenance for such processes to continue; and to eventually outlive the foundations from which they arose.

This might sound just as simplistic as the definition of collaboration above, but in nature there is an all-seeing eye that directs the course of development. In this sense cohesion that is sometimes lost in personal moments of the research project, might be brought to the CDA via such an ‘eye’. I hope these questions will be considered during the AHRC tenth anniversary celebrations this year.

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Why I’m fed up with my ‘self’

Anyone working on, or studying oral histories will be thinking about self and subjectivity in the interview.[1]

An archaic criticism (though frequently expressed) is that oral history is not ‘real history’ because it will never achieve objectivity on the past. In other words, oral history can never tell the ‘truth’ about history. Luckily, various scholars have shown that:

  1. No history can ever claim to be objective or tell the ‘truth’;
  2. when acknowledged, the subjective nature of an interview can enhance the research not hinder it.

Listening to subjectivity, interpreting cautiously, can tell us about how one person experienced being part of the ‘many’ people at a moment in time. It can allow us to hear how one person has lived, endorsed, acted on, changed, and defied many cultural, social, intellectual and political trends and systems.

Subjectivity is an asset to the oral historian – as long as we take care with it. In a nutshell, remember that the person being interviewed and the interviewer arrive with emotion, spontaneity, purpose, preconception, and susceptibility. Both people have philosophical approaches to the recall and vocalisation of their memories and opinions, the space between these two worlds of thought needs to be accounted for.

What does that have to do with history? All of these subjective and ‘inter-subjective’ interview aspects will colour the way in which the past is interrogated, how it is remembered and relayed, and how it is discussed between the two people. The history, usually written history, should be such that it reflects this as a conversation with the past, traversing the years between the topic in question, and all the issues that might have been incorporated in memory to the present day.

Needless to say then, that the question of subjectivity, and ‘self’, is always on my mind. Ah, yes: my mind. The language of our minds, is deservedly, an important part of our daily lives in the twentieth century. Modernity has occurred, according to many sources, to the detriment of our mental wellbeing.[2] Psychotherapy, psychiatry and psychology are all sciences of the mind that took full shape in the modern era; a process of inevitable introspection.

This language has infiltrated the way many people talk about their everyday experience, including me. We talk about closure, mindfulness, self-acceptance; a lexicon of pop psychology has entered everyday parlance, including the way in which the media now reports news.

Don’t get me wrong: I ‘over-analyse’ as much as the next person. And this is why I’m fed up with my ‘self’. As an oral historian I want to be aware of subjectivity in the interview, without letting my own analysis cloud my conversation with the interview participant. I don’t want to come away psycho-analysing our conversation with pithy language learnt from crass teen mags and Friends episodes as a sixteen year old.

I suppose what I’m asking is how much of my ‘self’ do I mean to bring to this research? As I become more and more frustrated at trying to draw the line between meaningfully interpreting what two subjectives are, in an interview, and the wider world of psycho-speak that I can’t help but be a part of, am I wilfully directing my research? Or am I simply a product of a current mode of thinking and being – the research impact of which is unavoidable?

[1] For starters read Alessandro Portelli, Penny Summerfield, Lynn Abrams.

[2] Starting with studies that correlate low wellbeing indicators, to high national GDP and ‘modern’ (read Western) states: http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/jul/25/wellbeing-happiness-office-national-statistics