Monthly Archives: September 2013

Oral Histories of Voluntary Action: An Interdisciplinary Workshop

In conjunction with Bridget Lockyer, a colleague on the Voluntary Action History Society New Researchers Committee I have been involved in organising an upcoming event on Oral Histories of Voluntary Action. This is especially timely given that ethical approval for my own project came through last week and I will embarking on my own oral histories very shortly. The event is hosted and funded by the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York.

Oral Histories of Voluntary Action will be held on 7th February 2014, at the University of York, and will be free to attend. It will bring together new researchers who have used or are considering using oral history methods to explore the history of voluntary action and voluntary sector organisations. It will be interdisciplinary, welcoming submissions from history, social sciences, social policy and public policy amongst others.

Humanities Research Centre, University of York. Copyright: University of York
Humanities Research Centre, University of York.
Copyright: University of York

Papers will focus on new researchers’ experiences of using oral history methods within the field of voluntary action history research. As one of the organisers I am most looking forward to hearing about the range of projects oral history is being used for and talking to fellow PhD  students and early career academics about the nuts and bolts of how projects are carried out.

The event webpage including the call for papers can be found here. The deadline for abstracts is the 1st of December 2013.

As one of the co-organisers, if you have any queries you can leave a comment below, contact me on or you can email my fellow organiser, Bridget Lockyer,


Oral History and Ethical Approval

Today I received the notification that the Research Ethics Committee for my department at the University of Kent have granted me approval to conduct oral histories with people in and around the youth clubs I am researching for my PhD. This committee assesses proposals from staff and students planning to undertake research involving members of the public to ensure that the research can be undertaken safely and ethically by all involved.  In my submission to them I considered issues like lone working, making sure interviewees understand what it means to give informed consent, and how to make sure the information I gather is kept securely.

Going through this process involved a lot of paperwork: a comprehensive form, sample interview questions, sample consent forms, and sample information sheets. (All of these will be up on the blog soon.) However, the paperwork, though onerous, was necessary and the more work I did on it, the more I realised this. An interviewee will be sharing valuable experiences with me. Many of these will be comfortable memories, but there is a chance some of them will not be. It is my responsibility to be trustworthy, to have considered all possible risks in the research, and to have the highest respect for people who give their time freely to aid my research. Having my research cleared in this way means I can reassure my interviewees that the research is being conducted to high ethical standards and that I have considered their needs extensively. Hopefully it also means I have flagged up and resolved potential issues before getting started.

I am glad that I can now move on to the next phase of the oral history project; finding participants and arranging interviews. I have plenty ideas about who I am looking to talk to and what I want to ask them, and I am excited to now put some of these plans into action. I can do this knowing that my university have considered my consideration of the above issues ‘exemplary’. Watch this space for information about the participants I am looking for, as well as an event I am organising which aims to bring researchers like myself together to talk about doing oral histories of voluntary action.

Workshop: Teaching the History of Voluntary Action

Last week I attended a workshop on teaching the history of voluntary action at the University of Liverpool, financed by the Economic History Society. Following the recent resurgence of voluntary action history in research, this event provided an opportunity to consider how this research can be brought into our teaching and what this might look like. You can find out a lot about the content of the day by reading one of the organisers’ blog on it.Workshop funders

Being fairly new to both the research and teaching of voluntary action history, I was pleased to see fellow PhD and early career researchers not only included in the conversation, but asked to act as discussants, like myself. I talked about my experience teaching a module on social justice in my department that included voluntary placements, alongside Keith Laybourn talking about the use of new media and classroom techniques. This fed into a wider discussion of how we teach voluntary action, once we get past the what to teach and where. It provided a rare reflective space for a new teacher in an area of personal and professional development which can receive comparatively little attention.

That said, we were very fortunate to be able to draw on the experience of many more established academics as well. I was particularly struck by Bernard Harris’ opening remarks in response to the question ‘why should we teach voluntary action history?’ It was a point we returned to frequently and his answers could equally have applied to ‘why research’ as well as ‘why teach’ the topic. When we examined our own teaching it was possible to see multiple drivers; our own interest in the subject, its intrinsic importance, links to other disciplines and fields of history and importantly, for me at least, voluntary action as a social mirror. However the ‘why’ question proved crucial in our consideration of where the balance might lie in teaching voluntary action embedded within other topics, or as a stand-alone module.

What did I take I take away from the workshop? Firstly I was surprised to realise how much of the teaching of voluntary action history takes place outside of history departments; in social policy, social work, public policy, geography, politics and criminology. In terms of embedding voluntary action into teaching, it is clear that other disciplines have made important contributions to this to date. Perhaps history departments are playing catch-up a little here, as it takes time for newer welfare historiography to filter into teaching.

The event also highlighted for me a need for more discussion of why, how and what we teach, especially among those of us earlier in our careers, who can be thrown in the teaching deep-end somewhat, or who need to be teaching already to be offered support. It was a huge boost to me to be able to discuss my experience and do so in an environment where nobody had any answers, but everybody was more than willing to start thinking about the questions.

We amassed a wide range of teaching resources and practice, which many of us benefitted from looking at. We were also able to make connections to others teaching in similar areas. At the end of the workshop we discussed how to make the best use of resources and interpersonal networks to continue many of the conversations which the day had started. We are used to presenting our research and thinking about how we disseminate it, but perhaps it is time we did a bit more of this with our teaching too. Hopefully a follow-up event will help me, and other new teachers of voluntary action history to do more of this. Until then, however, I have plenty to think about.