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….