For one night only!

A Medievalist, a Romanticist, a Modernist and a photographer walk into a bar together.

It sounds like the start of some really bad academic joke. It could have been. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was the start of a surprising and exciting collaboration.

Imagine it – 11am in Aberdeen. It’s a cold, clear November morning. The sort that tells you winter is on the way. Twenty-two individuals from different institutions, all at different stages in their different projects which range across pretty much every field within the Arts and Humanities, are shut in cellar. No sunshine for them! They have less than 6 hours to get to know each other, form working groups and put together a 5-minute presentation for ‘research cabaret’ to be staged that evening as part of Aberdeen University’s contribution to the Being Human festival. And they have to eat too. And some of them have been awake since 5.30am (It was a lovely sunrise.)

After some introductory exercises and advice with the fabulous Helen Keen, we were left to create our own collaborative groups. In no time, I found myself in a group of four, all of us from different universities and complete strangers to each other. All we had was the gut instinct that our four projects could be worked together around a single theme.

Still not quite sure where that instinct came from though. Agnese from Aberdeen is working on visual representations of illness and disability in modern photography…thinking about this within the context of mental health isn’t a massive leap to make, so a fairly obvious link with the work of Blue Devilism. However, throw into that mix Sibyl from Edinburgh (exploring immigration through the travel writing and fiction of 20th century Muslim women) and Ioana from St Andrews (representations of gender fluidity, gender ambiguity and sexuality in medieval religious representations of the Crucifixion) and it becomes far less obvious!

Sometimes though, it just works. And this worked. There was a definitely a collective ‘Aaah!’ of a shared lightbulb moment when we realised that sharing stories and emotional experiences was our common thread, the theme that linked all our work together. From there, it all fell into place. I suspect the other groups went through a similar process.

By 4.30pm, those twenty-two researchers emerged blinking into the streetlights (the nights are fair drawing in, aren’t they?) exhausted but exhilarated. Five very different presentations have been crafted, refined and rehearsed. Academic alchemy in action!

That evening’s event, with Helen as host and opening act, was a resounding success. Feedback afterwards from the audience was incredibly positive, with a real appreciation for the work that had gone into the day, the enthusiasm and passion of the group, and the sheer genius evident in making it all fit together.

It’s only now, having had a weekend to process everything (as well as catch up on lost sleep and get over a horrible head cold) that I can really appreciate what we achieved. We came together, took the best of what we all had to offer and came up with something that made us all look at our work in a new way. That room was a microcosm of what academic research is all about– building on existing knowledge to create new understandings.

And surely coming together to work collaboratively in overcoming a challenge is a definitive aspect of being human? Even if it sounds like a bad joke at first.


*There may be a video emerges at some point….

The morning after...a few bleary eyes!
The morning after…a few bleary eyes!
(Photo courtesy of @RDUAberdeen)



What’s the point?


Don’t worry! The long gap since the last post isn’t because I’ve fallen into the depths of research despair. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s been a busy month for Blue Devilism but the best kind of busy.

A big chunk of the time has been spent on background reading, particularly people who have already written about Burns and his health. There’s lots out there, which is great as it helps build a really full picture of how our current views on Burns have been shaped, what’s been done well in the past and how this project can improve on that work. But it also presents the challenge of identifying the most relevant material and focusing time and energy on really pulling it apart without getting too distracted by other avenues. Not to say I might not wander down a tangent or two occasionally…

However, by far the highlight of the first few weeks has been speaking about the project with other people. I’ve done quite a few training workshops and attended seminars which has let me meet researchers working in a wide range of other fields. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing what people are doing and looking for opportunities to build new links with other researchers.

Perhaps more exciting for me though has been speaking to non-researchers. We’ve probably all seen a story on the TV or in the newspaper about some research project which makes you think, “What a waste of money!” or “I could’ve told you that, it’s just common sense.” So whenever someone asks about my project, I wait to hear, “But why?”

And I’m still waiting!  I’ve been amazed by how positive people are when I talk about the work. They’re excited about the possibility of new insights into an already-intriguing life. They’re fascinated by the possibility that some of Burns’s brilliance (and notoriety) might be influenced by mental disorder, and they’re interested in the better understanding we’ll gain of Burns’s inspirations and creative processes.

Even more encouraging is the appreciation for the wider value of the project. They see the potential for a very positive impact on the wider understanding of mental health issues and the stigma which can been attached to that.

They see the point.