Oral Histories of Voluntary Action

Humanities Research Centre University of York

Humanities Research Centre University of York

On Friday 7th February 2014 I co-organised a workshop at the Humanities Research Centre, University of York for PhD students and practitioner researchers who use oral history or interviewing methods as part of their research. The event was funded by the Humanities Research Centre and supported by the VAHS New Researchers Committee. The day comprised of six papers from PhD students, volunteers and voluntary sector researchers, including myself. The day ended with a roundtable panel where more established researchers helped us to problem-solve and reflect on some of the intellectual and practical issues involved in interviewing methods.

Susanne Martikke from GMCVO comparing academic research with her previous experience as a voluntary sector researcher

I was really pleased with the mix of papers we had on the day. Myself, David Ellis and Jessica Hammett, formed the first panel. We talked from an academic viewpoint on oral histories. David and I discussed why we had used these methods and in what ways, with Jessica offering an interesting paper on re-using oral histories that have already been recorded for a different purpose.

The panel after lunch offered a different perspective. Susanne Martikke from GMCVO talked about the differences between the ‘Quick and Dirty’ interviewing she has done previously and being involved in a more academic project. Katrina Foxton reflected on her experiences as a volunteer conducting interviews on a local heritage project. Lastly, Lucy Binch talked about the difficulties she experiences doing interviews with people involved in sex work, via a charity she volunteers with.

Lucy Binch giving her paper on accessing marginalised groups

Lucy Binch giving her paper on accessing marginalised groups

We had a real mixture of papers and discussion from a range of areas: historians, social scientists, researchers from within the voluntary sector, PhD students, Professors and people who had experiences from more than one of these standpoints. This was one of the real benefits of the day. Not only could more experienced researchers offer their advice, but other people’s perspectives also offered a chance to think through issues from a range of viewpoints, enabling us to learn from each other as well. 

Our Roundtable Panel in full swing

Our Roundtable Panel in full swing

One of the strengths of the day was that it provided a constructive place to talk over issues and discuss problems. While we did not always come up with solutions, it was reassuring to know that some of the challenges of interviewing methods are common. We spent time discussing the often overlooked practical issues of interviewing, from arranging interviews to how the way we will present our research, such as in our theses, affects the approach we take.

I was also particularly glad that we spent some time talking over the personal and emotional impact that this type of research can have on researchers. Many described how they felt that interviewing was a unique and intimate interaction which required an emotional engagement with the interviewee as well as a great deal of the researchers attention. Examining the personal and emotional in research was something academic contributors acknowledged was less familiar to them and perhaps something they could learn from their counterparts interviewing within and on behalf of voluntary organisations.

While there were differences in approach, I think these only helped me as they challenged my previous training on oral history and interviewing which had been rooted in academic practice. On this topic,  I found Professor Paul Ward from the University of Huddersfield particularly engaging as he discussed shared authority and co-production. This is something I have not thought of much to date, but which I would like ponder regarding my oral histories of youth clubs.

Overall I thought the day provided advice and peer support with the practical, intellectual and emotional aspects of conducting oral histories, while providing a positive atmosphere for discussing this research, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Some more highlights of the day:

Our great venue, the Treehouse, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Our great venue, the Treehouse, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Our workshop hashtag, check out #OHVA2014 for more details

Our workshop hashtag, check out #OHVA2014 for more details or our storify 

Never underestimate the importance of conference cake

Never underestimate the importance of conference cake

Central Hall and Lake, University of York

Central Hall and Lake, University of York

All photographs © Charlotte Clements, February 2014

Supervisor Absence

My PhD supervisor has written a couple of blog posts about her experience of pregnancy and motherhood having spent the last term on maternity leave. However supervisors can be absent for a number of reasons, such as illness, research trips away from the university etc. Reading my supervisors pieces got me thinking about it from another perspective which might be valuable to some of you. How do you cope when your PhD supervisor is away? I think I can offer some advice having considered over the last few months how her absence has affected me.

Change can be worrying. The news that my supervisor was expecting came as I was preparing for my upgrade (a very stressful time for me) and as the person whose own research interests drew me to the department, I wondered if her absence in particular during my final year would be a problem. Luckily we had the months beforehand to talk extensively about how it would work. I felt reassured and confident that if I held up my end of the bargain everything would be fine. Below are some of things we discussed, plus my own tips.

1. Don’t panic. Don’t worry. There are plenty of things to worry about as a PhD student, but this scenario should not be one of them. Academic staff can be away for many reasons. Departments know this and plan for this. There is no reason why your research should suffer, and if for some particular reason this does not seem to be the case, there are ways to handle that too. Panicking is unlikely to make things any better. Take a deep breath and instead think about what you can do.

2. Plan ahead (if possible). In my case we had plenty of warning that my supervisor would be away. I appreciate that this may not always happen, but for me it meant that any specific questions were handled months ago.

We talked through the timetable for my research and writing up, and who would be doing what during the leave. This was in fact quite useful. It is only too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you are deep in research mode. Thinking through the practicalities  made me plan my work more holistically, and think about what will be required in terms of support and supervisor time over a substantial chunk of the rest of my PhD.

Planning ahead also allowed me to bring up specific worries and concerns. I would recommend this in this case, but also more generally too. Without sharing anxieties about what would change and how, they remain unresolved. Talking them over provided reassurance and helped us to plan the best way forward.

3. Arrange alternative supervision. The main worry for many may be who will be looking after you in the meantime. Will they have expertise in your research area? Will you get on? Can they offer you the support you need at that point? Here is where I have been quite lucky as my department supervises PhD candidates in teams. I have three supervisors who I have already been meeting regularly for two years, so to temporarily be down to two is a lot less of an issue. This is one of the main benefits of team supervision.

If this is not the case for you, I’d say that making sure you get to know the academic staff in your department before any such situation arises is a good thing. It is useful for networking too, but existing relationships within your department mean an absence will not leave such a big hole. It may help you to quickly build a good relationship with your stand-in if you already know them, indeed you may even be able to identify the right person for the role and talk to your existing supervisor about this. It also helps with more general support to have familiar faces around you on campus.

4. Alter your timetable. One of the biggest changes has been a change to the way I work, which is no bad thing. My supervisor outlined that she was still happy to read and comment on my work, but that her previous super-quick turnarounds were no longer realistic. Therefore we decided to work to a two-week turnaround for written work for the duration of her leave. Again, this had a significant upside; making me more disciplined in getting writing done. During a PhD, this is no bad habit to cultivate. 

5. Communicate. In the case of maternity leave in the UK there are ‘Keep in Touch’ (KIT) days, which do exactly what the name implies. They are for my supervisor to keep in contact with the department, including her PhD students. KIT days meant that, in the end, my supervisor only missed one formal supervision during her maternity leave. KIT days apply to maternity leave, but similar arrangements might enable you to maintain contact, perhaps where a staggered return to work is planned.

In addition, if it is appropriate to the situation, other forms of communication can be used. Email can be useful, especially if you have previously discussed the time frame you can expect a reply within and remain flexible. You could use Skype too. Make use of the tools you have available, while keeping in mind what is appropriate in your situation.

If communicating with your supervisor is not an option, talk to someone else about what is going on. It might be best to try the person in charge of research postgraduates in your department, or someone else within your department who you know can provide a friendly ear. Communication beforehand and during leave has been crucial to my experience. If things are not working out as well for you, communication is also part of the answer. Talk to someone about it.

Finally…

7. Have a little faith in yourself. I can understand a certain feeling of anxiety about coping without the feedback  and guidance of someone who is part of your PhD process. Supervisors can be an important compass as we conduct our research. However, it is important to remember that you are the one doing the PhD. Have a little faith in yourself. Do not be afraid to ask questions, put forward a plan or take a bit more control than perhaps you are used to for a while. Be the one scheduling meetings and sending documents well in advance. There will still be plenty of support available to you if you need it.

In closing, I’d say that all of the above notwithstanding, I am glad to have my supervisor back. Her leave has not had any significant impact on my research at all, except maybe to make me a little more organised, which is hardly a bad thing. While I had some anxieties, these all proved to be unfounded and merely a distraction from other, better-founded anxieties about PhD and post-PhD life.

What do you think? What have your experiences been like? Do you think it makes a difference where in your PhD you are? I’m always willing to find out if there are things I can do better, and as I said earlier, I am neither the first nor the last PhD student to have had supervisory absence. How have you handled this? Supervisors – what is your take? What can your students do to help themselves?

Charity Closures and Changing Fortunes

This post originally appeared on the VAHS blog in January 2013.

In all of the pre-Christmas frivolity you may be forgiven for having missed an article in the Observer late last year, detailing how one in six charities could face closure this year. In the cold light of a New Year when many households are tightening belts and we have already seen some high-profile casualties on our high streets, it is striking to think that we may lose such a large proportion of our charities. When so many voluntary organisations provide much-needed services in straightened times, this raises a question of how society will fill the void they may leave and what the voluntary sector will look like by the end of this Parliament.

Frank Prochaska

Frank Prochaska

While concern about the future of the sector is valid in the face of a stagnant economy and budget cuts, history shows that voluntary action adapts and rises to the challenges of circumstance. More recent literature on voluntary action history, for example from Matthew Hilton in his edited collection on The Ages of Voluntarism, tends to stress the diversity and adaptability of voluntarism. It seeks ‘to tackle specifically the decline narratives’ and ‘champion interpretations of continuity and change’. One of the ways recent historiography on voluntarism has done this is by shedding light on previously neglected areas and inviting us to consider voluntary action in a wider sense.

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

By seeing the history of voluntary organisations as one of ‘constant renewal and adaptation’ we can perhaps more optimistically anticipate what the sector may look like in the future. For people within the sector, the call by Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck, for voluntary organisations to ‘return to their roots’, might provide a starting point for this latest renewal.

Despite the bleak outlook, even from Colin and Meta in their recent review of 2012, there is hope that the sector will once again prove resilient and innovative. There has also always been a vibrant, though little understood, swarm of informal voluntarism which may yet soften the blow of fewer organised voluntary services. Whatever manifests itself in the short term, in the longer term the ‘big society’ and the new emerging welfare economy will appear to historians as parts of the same continuity and change which have always characterised voluntary action history. This, at least, should offer us some reassurance as most of us start the New Year, like many charities, with a bit less money in our pockets.

Matthew Hilton talks about his research into Non-Governmental Organisations.

Breaking new ground or digging up the past?

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in March 2013

I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme ‘Secret Millions’. The programme is a step on from the popular C4 format ‘Secret Millionaire’ where wealthy people give some of their money away to shocked recipients and the good causes they have been working with. The new show is about the distribution of Big Lottery Fund funding to voluntary organisations for ‘innovative and ground-breaking projects’. It uses a line-up of well-known C4 personalities looking to tackle some of Britain’s most pressing issues, working on pilot projects with voluntary organisations, with the prospect of the Lottery windfall hidden until the end.

The first episode featured C4 regular George Clarke tacking the issue of youth unemployment and empty homes. He worked with a local London youth club and the organisation London Youth getting young unemployed involved in renovating a disused house with the help of retired mentors from various areas of the building trade. The programme followed the young people on trips, highlighted some of the social problems they face and showed them working on a house to get it renovated within two weeks. At the end the big announcement was made that they had been awarded funding by the Big Lottery Fund, £1.7 million over two years, aiming to help 1500 young people into work. I really enjoyed the show. It was a really interesting way to look at the work of small voluntary organisations, raises several social issues and came with a big feel-good factor at the end.

However, the historian and critic in me was not quite sure how new, big and bold, the innovative idea being tested was. Surely this was just reality television gloss? Then today in the archives (my research looks at youth voluntary organisations in post-war Britain) I discovered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs working with the Manpower Services Commission and the Job Creation Programme on a scheme where unemployed youth were trained up in the trades, in 1974. Admittedly these youngsters were renovating youth facilities and George Clarke has long campaigned about empty homes, but I was still struck by the similarities in the scheme: Both used youth clubs to target vulnerable youths, both looked at practical work experience, both projects took place during times of high youth unemployment, where many young people lack opportunities to get into work, neither set of youngsters appear to have been paid for their work. Of course it is unlikely that C4 undertook extensive archival research prior to recording and I am sure all involved thought they were on to something new.

The innovation role of voluntary organisations has often been praised and it’s been an important justification for their place in the contemporary welfare system. But how many other examples are out there of ‘innovations’ that have merely been forgotten and rediscovered? How new does an idea really have to be? And if it works, does it matter? What do you think?

New Researchers at #VAHS2013

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in July 2013

I hope that my positions on the New Researchers Committee and as co-publicity secretary for VAHS do not stop you from taking me seriously when I say how impressed I was with new researchers’ presence at #VAHS2013.

My overriding impression was of the size and strength of the new researchers’ cohort in this area. The conference programme deliberately left out titles, so I was left to do a bit of sleuthing but have found at least 15 papers delivered at the conference by new researchers. One of the most striking things about this was that it was very difficult to differentiate between those papers by established academics and those by new researchers. Indeed, a number of people commented to me that they could not tell them apart. This speaks volumes about the quality of new researchers’ papers, in a conference, where the outgoing chair’s closing remarks stressed how high the overall standard had been.

Because the standard and content of papers was almost indistinguishable most new researchers were only identified where speakers alluded to their paper as part of a wider PhD project. Where this was so, and again echoing a conference-wide theme, there was a great deal of support, helpful questioning and suggestions coming in from other academics. There was a real sense of trying to support and encourage new researchers whilst still taking their research as seriously as that of anyone else speaking.

While it was great to see new researchers so firmly embedded in the main conference programme, a series of events to introduce the work of the New Researchers Committee were also held. A registration meeting, invitation to attend our breakfast committee meeting and what turned out to be a somewhat pub-centred Shut Up and Write all helped to demonstrate the work of the committee. Indeed what better advert could they have had than the announcement on the final day that they had just been awarded full funding to run their next interdisciplinary workshop on Oral History and Voluntary Action in the coming few months.

Finally the bursary and paper prize winners were the icing on the new researchers cake! Emily Baughan, winner of the EHS Bursary and Marie-Luise Ermisch, winner of the HWJ bursary have both blogged for VAHS recently and it was great to see them at the conference presenting their work. In the closing plenary it was announced that Claudia Soares had won the CGAP New Researchers Paper Prize and Gareth Millward had won the VAHS New Researchers Paper Prize. Overall it was a great conference for showcasing the doctoral and early career research being done on Voluntary Action History across centuries, continents and disciplines. Especially exciting are the opportunities for the field in the years to come as demonstrated by our new researchers. I am already looking forward to our next conference, by which time many of these new researchers (hopefully including myself) will have completed projects to report back on, or perhaps will have new ventures underway.

Were you a new researcher at #VAHS2013? Did you hear new researchers’ papers? I’d be really interested in your comments and feedback on the new researchers’ papers and sessions.

Applying for PhD funding?

It is the time of year when prospective doctoral candidates are polishing research proposals as they go off in search of the rarity that is a fully funded PhD place. My department has just announced this year’s deadlines. It is a time I remember only too well and now I can reflect on it from the safe position of having secured full funding from the ESRC. I am also prompted to think about it by a friend who having returned to do her masters this year, is in a very similar position to the one I was in. She asked me what it was like applying and for some advice. I’ve been asked by two other people since. Here are my thoughts.

In some ways I was lucky. I had taken a taught module during my MRes for which the assignment was to produce a research proposal. This meant I had a draft of sorts already in the bag when faced with the blank space where this needed to go on the multitude of forms I filled in. I was also lucky to receive some good advice from supervisors, fellow students and friends. But I did not feel lucky. I felt positively overwhelmed. I felt my chances of securing funding were microscopic. I knew that I wanted to do a PhD. If I did not get funding I was not sure what I would do with myself. Go part-time? Look for work? The prospect did not fill me with hope.

I started by looking for potential supervisors, academics whose research interests were similar to my own. I narrowed down my selection and started getting in touch with people. Here is where my advice begins; contact as many people as possible, send your draft proposal out widely for feedback, talk to people and go to events relevant to your field. You never know who you might meet or when an offhand remark at a drinks reception might lead somewhere. Over one post-seminar glass of wine I met someone who had recently finished her PhD. She gave me the name of somebody to contact. To cut a long story short, that somebody is now one of my supervisors and was crucial to my funding success.

Start early. Start now! My departmental deadline is at the end of January. Many departments may be similar, though I have seen one which is December 6th. However, the more time you spend communicating with potential supervisors, honing your research proposal and planning your research, the better. It takes time to familiarise yourself with the relevant literature and distil your ideas into coherent, scholarship-winning form. Give yourself time to do this thinking. Write a scrappy draft of your research proposal soon. You can reflect on and return to it once you have something on paper.

At the stage where I had identified prospective places to do my PhD, worked on my research proposal, been to lots of networking events while doing a full-time masters degree as well), things did not really get much easier. This was not something I had anticipated. I knew what I wanted to do. I had a working draft of my research proposal and was working on the feedback I had received. I started on the paperwork and the one-to-one work with the potential supervisors from the departments I had decided to apply to.

Except it was not that simple. Institution A required the research proposal in 4000 characters, looking at several different aspects of the research. Institution B wanted one A4 side and used different criteria. Institution C wanted 10,000 characters maximum and a third set of criteria on what to include. As a piece of advice on what your proposal should concentrate on, I would say common criteria for all of my applications were; the ability of the proposed research to make a unique contribution to the field, fit with potential supervisor/departmental research, and feasibility of carrying out the research within three years. All funders want to fund well-supervised research which will make an impact and be done on time.

Part of this interminable form-filling and proposal re-jigging was down to three different selection processes, even where the application was to one of the same main funders for my discipline, the AHRC and the ESRC. Some had online forms, some email attachments, two interviewed, one did not. One required me to withdraw all other pending applications to make an application to them. I was unwilling to put all my eggs in one basket and so did not pursue that application. All had different deadlines close together. Each supervisor suggested revisions to my proposal based on their experience and what they felt more likely to receive funding at their institution/in their department. If am honest, in at least one case, I am not sure the supervisor themselves really knew what was being asked for. All in all, I spent the whole of January that year in a state of utter confusion and stress about the entire process. Many of my fellow students felt similarly. Be organised in the face of potential disarray. Keep a folder for each application and make sure you keep a copy of anything you have submitted in an online form.

Once the applications were in there was a period of helplessness as I waited to see if I made the cut. The first disappointment was simultaneously swift and brutal. Swift, because it was the first application I had submitted and without an interview stage the answer was final. Brutal because at the time this would have been my most obvious choice, the answer was no and there was very little feedback on what I could have done better. Even the supervisor who had helped me prepare this application acknowledged that the system was crushingly competitive and the decision had come down to the tiniest things.

Here began an exercise in picking myself up and dusting myself off quickly, something I have come to realise is a useful ability in an academic. I had an interview for somewhere else in a week. I had to find a way to cut myself off from this disappointment, and be ready to sell a re-branded version of myself to a panel of people who could pick only a few of the able applicants they interviewed. I responded fairly literally – I got a new haircut and interview outfit and headed off to the interview. I felt it went quite well, but had to put it out of mind. After all there was nothing else I could do about this application now and the next interview was quickly approaching.

A note on interview preparation: firstly, know your literature and your research proposal inside out. You cannot know it too well. Be confident about the place of your research in this literature and your ability to get it done. Secondly, do some research on your interview panel. Find out what their research is about and what else they do. It might help you anticipate standpoints or questions, or even just help you avoid putting your foot in it. It is also useful to have some questions ready. Questions on the rest of the process are fine. However, I would advise asking questions about things you are interested in about that department; projects or research clusters, support and training for students etc. Show the panel you are interested in what it will be like to be a PhD student there. Finally, dress smartly and be confident. You have nothing to lose from either, even if you do not feel particularly confident beforehand.

This definitely helped me in my final interview. I had to give a presentation and answer questions. I did so calmly and confidently. By the end of the interview I did feel confident. I even almost enjoyed the experience and I was sure that I could have done no more. I received my offer the next day. My confidence was something that was fed back to me positively. Apparently me believing I could do it, helped convince others. Who would have thought it?

After going through all of this though, I am sorry to say, there is still a strong chance of coming away empty-handed. Even if you repeat the exercise the following year. Award-winning students on my masters course found this out the hard way. However, do not lose hope. If the PhD is really the way forward for you, you will find a way. Many courses will let you study part-time while you work. One alternative comes from a former King’s College London student who has written the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding about how to use smaller bursaries and charity funds to finance your PhD in smaller amounts.

Getting funding for a PhD is tough and feels like a big game of chance sometimes. But there are things you can do to help swing those odds in your favour. Even if you come away empty handed, don’t give up. There are ways and means if you are determined enough and that resilience will stand you in good stead as you do your PhD.

Want to share any of your experiences of applying for or giving out PhD funding? Questions about something I have not covered?

BBC Radio Merseyside: Appeal for Oral History Participants

Today, 25th November 2013, I spoke on BBC Radio Merseyside about my oral history project. I appeared on the Sean Styles morning show, where he talked about the youth clubs he went to and got his listeners to phone in with their own stories. I discussed the people I am looking to interview for my oral histories of youth clubs in Liverpool and also asked people if they had any photos of their time at youth clubs that they would share with me. For the next few days, you can listen again by following this link. My part is about an hour and ten minutes in.

The BBC iPlayer link will not work any more so I have removed it. I am hoping at some point to get the segment uploaded as an audio file on the blog, with full credit to BBC Merseyside of course.