The time for post-referendum grief is over: pro-active strategies for European-minded PGRs

Isabel Stockton is a doctoral student in the Department of Economics, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the ESRC, although they are supported by the Bristol Doctoral College. 

Within the university: Fight for your funding

As PGRs, we transcend groups that are often talked about as separate entities, namely university students and academic staff. As the UK negotiates its exit from the EU, we – or future cohorts of PGRs – are likely to be affected in both of these roles. The Treasury has recently announced that the government will underwrite bids for EU Commission funding made before the UK’s exit. This is excellent news that mitigates the uncertainty about our participation in collaborative European research in the short term. However, no commitment to preserving the fee status of EU students beyond this year’s incoming cohort has been made by the University or the government. At last month’s #bristolisglobal event, Pro-Vice Chancellor International, Dr Erik Lithander suggested that the University may decide to make up for any shortfall in government funding for EU students’ tuition. As we all know, securing funding for research and for research students is no walk in the park even at the best of times. Brexit constitutes a considerable financial risk for the University, so help make the PGR case for our funding priorities.

evidenceSpread the love for evidence

Like many of the students and researchers around me, the referendum result did not worry me about any immediate change to my status as much as a change in political culture brought about by the campaign leading up to it. Whilst the rhetoric of either camp gave cause for concern, the leave camp’s anti-intellectualist argument that culminated in Michael Gove’s statement that “People in this country have had enough of experts”, should attract our particular attention as researchers. Now is the time to shout about our love for rational debate, for empiricism, for limiting the range of plausible disagreement by facts. Celebrating a plurality of methods and questioning established truths is at the heart of research. We must not allow those who would like prejudice to go unquestioned to co-opt the language of inclusion of dissenting voices. This is the time to show the public that while research may and should allow space for disagreement, it is not arbitrary.

Stand up to racism: This is our home

None of us can have failed to notice the increase in derogatory comments and hate crime related to race and ethnicity reflected in anecdotes as well as statistics since the referendum. We cannot tolerate our fellow citizens being told to “go home”, so speak up when you witness abuse and report it to the police. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published an advice sheet collecting contacts and information on your rights in this respect. But outside of acute incidents, you can contribute towards an inclusive, supportive environment for migrants, at universities and beyond. Get involved with campaigns like #WeAreInternational and #BristolisGlobal or start your own and if you can, directly support migrants and refugees by donating or volunteering.

EuropeLive the European Dream

Journalist Nicholas Barrett’s emotional statement, “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied” went viral immediately after the referendum. But the personal side of European integration that he refers to was never about directives and white papers and green papers. Freedom of movement certainly helped, but to those of us with first-hand experience of intra-EU migration it has always been painfully clear that it is far from perfect or hassle-free anyway. On top of that, as we keep being reminded of, nothing has legally changed so far. So bite the bullet and do the paperwork, now and in the future, and live a European life. Apply for funding from your sponsor, your School, the Alumni foundation, research societies, or the government (and the EU while you can). Do fieldwork, attend events, network, do a placement abroad. And if you want to really make your point and be a part of a cross-national European marriage, Twitter has seen proposals to unspecified people with European passports…

accessMake Academia accessible

The overwhelming majority of academics’ voices in the run-up to the referendum favoured a remain vote. The result, however, revealed a deep divide by education and socioeconomic status. This calls for action on two fronts. Firstly, make education accessible to more people, to make universities more representative of society as a whole. This can take a variety of forms, from getting behind efforts within the university to widen participation through admissions strategies to supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. UoB students and staff are involved in numerous initiatives and charities tackling these issues. And secondly, redouble our efforts to make sure recommendations based on academic research are both relevant to lived experience and credible. This includes being open about our assumptions and about the limitations of what we can predict. The cultural change required to achieve this can and should be driven by PGRs.

politicalGet political

If there is anything everyone seems to agree on at the moment, it’s that no-one knows what Brexit will actually look like, so it is up to us to shape it. Universities UK, the National Union of Students and UCU have all formulated demands for research and higher education in the upcoming negotiations. Continued membership in the European research network like other non-members such as Norway and Switzerland, funds to compensate for lost EU research funding and guarantees for EU nationals currently working and studying in the UK tend to be high those lists, with the first one now the subject of a petition to parliament. You will each have some demands to add to that, so make them heard and hold the negotiators to account. Speak up on social media, contact your MP, get out and organise in grassroots initiatives and encourage others to do the same.

Ain’t I a Superwoman?

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Jane at the Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel, Glasgow, Scotland. April 2016.

Jane Nebe is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol with funding from the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission in the UK (CSCUK).

On the first day of the year 2016, I woke up very sad and stayed that way throughout the day. I just kept wondering if the PhD programme had been worth resigning my dream job for. I had started my dream job in June 2015, and did not meet the requirement to qualify for a study leave by September 2015. The dilemma for me at the time was not if I wanted to do the PhD, but if I wanted to start the PhD by September 2015. Oh! I forgot to mention that I had received a prestigious scholarship that would fund ALL expenses for the PhD programme and it could not be deferred. Maybe I was just homesick. You see, every 1st January of the New Year was a huge celebration in my family home back in Nigeria. The day usually began with excited greetings of ‘Happy new year’, festive aroma emanating from kitchens in the neighbourhood, happy chattering, and visits to or from friends and family later in the day. On this 1st of January, I was alone. Park Street was quiet and my accommodation extremely quiet. This was not unusual though because some mornings in Bristol are always like that. But this morning, I felt the silence was too loud. In addition to the feelings of aloneness, was the stress of writing two essays for my assessed units that were due for submission in some weeks’ time; as well as the preparation for my next supervision meeting later that month. On that day, the 1st of January 2016, I began to contemplate dropping out of the PhD programme.

Students’ mental health is something that the University of Bristol takes seriously. We should take it seriously too. I was aware that professional counselling was available at the Student Counselling Service, but it was not an option I considered. At the time, seeking professional help meant acknowledging somehow that something was not right with me. That definitely wasn’t my persona, because I am a Superwoman.[1] Or was I not? I remain grateful to my friend and PhD colleague who sensed from our conversations that something wasn’t right and kept listening to me, while encouraging me again and again. Then, I decided to do something different from research, something to be excited about. So, I started swimming lessons at the university’s swimming pool. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while the lessons lasted. I am yet to cross the line between learner and swimmer though. Over the past few months, I have learnt to extend my life experiences in Bristol beyond the triangle enclosed by my house, school and church. It has been very beneficial to my mental health. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I take time-outs. My past exploits include visits to the aquarium and museums, taking a boat ride, walks by the harbour side, joining the gym, travelling, learning to skate, and so on. Just forgetting work and having fun! Afterwards, I return to my research refreshed and reinvigorated, to excel as always. Most importantly, I have decided that if 1st January 2016 ever happens again in the nearest future, I would seek professional help because ‘I ain’t a Superwoman’ after all. So tell me, how do you maintain your mental health?

[1] This is coined from the ‘Ain’t I a Woman?” speech that is attributed to Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), who was born into slavery in New York.

Research Roadmaps: the final phase of my Phd, by Tessa Coombes

Tessa Coombes is a postgraduate research in the School for Policy Studies. She originally blogged for us during our Year in the Life of a PhD campaign, and she continues blog on her own site, where the below post originally appeared. It’s been a pleasure to follow Tessa’s journey throughout her PhD — the original roadmapper for the BDC!

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I’m now entering the final phase of my PhD! Now that sounds vaguely ridiculous as it only seems like yesterday that I started. But I am now at the point of finishing off my fieldwork and beginning that rather daunting bit that means I have to try and make sense of it all. For me it still feels like I don’t know much, like there is so much reading still to do and so much data to make sense of, that it’ll take years to get to that end point of the completed thesis.

This middle stage, the second year, has been fun, manic, challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It’s involved talking to and interviewing people I have never met before, as well as many I know well. It’s involved taking up other people’s time, often at times that are most busy for them. It’s also involved a significant degree of personal learning, confidence, engagement, listening and energy. There were times when I have felt stretched beyond what I could cope with, completely out of my comfort zone, bombarded with information and exhausted from long days and late evenings full of meetings, interviews and debates. There have also been times when I’ve felt extremely grateful for how cooperative people have been, energised by what I have heard, motivated by discussion and a fair amount of empathy for the people who have shared their challenges with me.

There have also been times when I’ve wondered whether or not the questions I am asking are the right ones, whether the information I am gathering is actually what I need. In fact there have been many times when I have wondered about that and indeed still do – only time will tell.

I guess I’ve reached that stage now where all of those questions and self doubt begin to take centre stage, where a year to analyse data and write up just doesn’t seem long enough. For me I know what I need at this stage, I need to be able to see the story that I’m trying to tell, the story that takes the reader through my research. At the moment I’m not quite sure what that is, but gradually as I write up notes, transcribe interviews, go back to the theory and keep reading and thinking, little parts of that story begin to emerge. It’s almost like it’s there, but just out of reach! There’s also possibly too much, too many different routes I could take through the data, that would confuse the main messages and reduce the main characters to a minor role. So picking out the right story and the right main characters is all part of the trick going forward.

At the moment, there’s a story about influential people and how they operate overtly and covertly to influence policy agendas. There’s obviously a story about the importance of elections in providing opportunities for policy change, where policy priorities are debated and framed before, during and after the election. But more likely there’s a story about personalities, about key influencers and decision-makers, their style and approach, as well as who they talk to and take notice of. There’s also something there about solutions, looking at the same solutions that keep cropping up, year after year, to the same problems, but never quite seem to gain traction, but just maybe they will this time? Add to this the role of party politics and the media in influencing the policy prioritisation process and you can see that there’s a lot to consider.

Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, I’m actually looking forward to the writing process. I love making sense of information, bringing it together in a story that others can read and hopefully enjoy. The process is inevitably frustrating, long and painful at times, but that moment when it comes together, when clarity appears and the story is just right, well that’s totally worth waiting for!

I feel privileged to have been able to take the time out to do this research, to have the support and help of so many people, it’s a far cry from where I thought I would be right now and I’m loving it (mostly). Thtessa profile v3e School for Policy Studies at Bristol University have been outstanding in their support throughout. My two supervisors (Alex Marsh and David Sweeting) are just great, providing the questions, support, encouragement and nudges I need at all the right times. Others in the school have put up with me talking about my research, provided feedback, suggested reading and most importantly of all, provided me with the encouragement that says ‘yes’ I can do this.

So now it’s time to get on with it, to make sure I reach the end of my PhD journey.

#BristolisGlobal: an event invitation

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Following the wake of June 24’s announcement of the EU Referendum result, many of us in the Higher Education world – academics, staff, postgraduate researchers alike – find ourselves today with more questions than answers. As the UK’s political landscape continues to shift and adjust to the outcome, so the socioeconomic landscape confronts a future that seems more uncertain than ever. These questions affect us not only as students and staff, but also as residents and citizens of the city of Bristol, and the UK. Many see the decision to leave as a threat and stand against globalisation and a globalised world. Importantly, this international vision is something that the University espouses, as well as the city of Bristol.

Last week the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, delivered a talk in the Anson Rooms in a show of solidarity with the #WeAreInternational movement, a campaign that brings scholars together from across the globe in recognition and celebration of the diverse world of research, knowledge and academic life. While it is not known what impact the UK’s decision to leave the EU will have on us, it is clear that the decision to leave will have immediate, short-term and longer-term repercussions, at the University of Bristol. Despite our questions and our uncertainty, in the spirit of International Friendship Day, we’d like to take this opportunity to come together as a community and stand in support for a global, internationally cooperative and collaborative Bristol.

On Wednesday, July 27, we will host an open discussion from 5.30 to 6.30pm in the Seminar Room at Beacon House Study Centre. The Pro-Vice Chancellor International, Dr Erik Lithander, will attend to provide an update on current developments, respond to your questions, and engage with us as we work to find solutions. This is also an opportunity for the PGR community to voice their concerns and share constructive strategies they would like the University to engage with. Refreshments will be provided. Please register via eventbrite.

Over 1500 PGR students registered at Bristol are from outside the UK. As we face the uncertainty of the UK’s political landscape the Bristol Doctoral College remains committed to supporting all international students, partners and connections. Moving forward, we will continue to champion global research and to foster and support globally-minded researchers.

See you there!

Tried and Tested: Organising a PhD Symposium

Rachel Harris is a postgraduate researcher in Neuroscience in the School of Clinical Sciences. She helped coordinate the Bath & Bristol Science Film Festival, and organised the Bristol Neuroscience Festival, and is an active supporter of the city’s Neuroscience-related activities. As part of our Tried & Tested campaign, she spoke to us about the benefits of organising a PhD symposium and what her experiences doing so have taught her. Check out more of her musings on her blog, and follow her on twitter at @NeuroRach.GW4neuro2015

Last year I helped organise the first GW4 Early Career Neuroscientist Day. I didn’t have any experience organising an academic event but I was keen to help bring together neuroscience PhDs and postdocs from a range of disciplines and universities.

There were many roles available, from selecting and contacting speakers to choosing a venue and drumming up sponsorship. I took up a role on the scientific committee along with a team comprising of members from the other GW4 Universities (Bath, Cardiff and Exeter). A huge number of abstracts were submitted and it was really interesting see what stood out from the pack when we were selecting talks. It’s definitely something I think about when I come to write abstracts now.

The team for this symposium were all really committed and we communicated by combination of emails, calls and face to face meetings. The programme was developed over several months and it was rewarding to hear about progress from other members of the committee and see the event come together.

On the day the committee helped prepare the venue and greet attendees and speakers. Members of the scientific committee also hosted scientific symposia which included introducing speakers, managing questions, and dealing with any technical issues!

Check out the highlights from the day on Storify.

I’d recommend getting involved in organising a symposium. It’s a great way to meet other people from within your university as well in other institutions. It didn’t take up a huge amount of my time, but I still felt like I’d helped shape a successful day.

As a result of working on this event I now manage Bristol Neuroscience social media and helped out with the Bristol Neuroscience Festival, so you never know where things will lead. I’m also looking forward to this year’s symposium as I know the effort that goes in to making it work.

GW4 Early Career Neuroscientists’ Day is looking for volunteers to help coordinate the 2016/17 event in Cardiff. Email you expression of interest to Catherine Brown (catherine.brown@bristol.ac.uk) by July 18th.

Blog with us!

The BDC blog is a space for PGRs that offers advice, guidance, anecdotes and general wisdom — given by PGRs. We’ve come up with a series of campaigns that we need YOUR help with. Simply send us an email if you’re interested, with an idea of which theme you’d like to write for. If none of them tickle your fancy, suggest what you’d like to write instead.

We look forward to writing with you!

 

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The organisers behind the Careers Beyond Biomedical Research seminar series

Sonam Gurung, postgraduate researcher in the School of Biochemistry, received the Outstanding Award for her work as co-organising the ‘Careers Beyond Biomedical Research’ seminar series in the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences. We spoke to her and her fellow organisers behind the successful series, Lea Hampton O’Neil, Sandra Berlau Neumann, Alice Fodder and Rachael Baker.

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Cell slides from the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences

With a degree under your belt, while trying to navigate the postgraduate degree, looking into future careers and deciding whether to stay in academia or not seems particularly daunting. Three years ago, the Careers Beyond Biomedical Research (CBBR) seminar was created by a student, Laura Carney, to provide a platform for students to explore possible career options outside of academic research. Having had the opportunity to go to the seminars last year, we were all inspired to help when it came round to having a new committee.

With the help from the previous committee members, Anna Smith and Leila Thuma, we were quickly on our way. Prof Paul Martin was able to help us financially by getting in contact with the Wellcome Trust to ensure smooth running of the seminar series. Prof. George Banting and the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences very graciously also provided us with additional funding. Upon contact, Prof Patty Kuwabara and the heads of schools kindly offered their help to advertise the series to all the students across several faculties.

Organising the CBBR seminar was an amazing experience for all of us, as we had the full liberty to organise and curate the entire programme. As a team we were able to work together and push ourselves to come up with alternate career areas that would enable students to stay connected to science and still be able to use their degrees. This was also an eye-opening experience for us as we were amazed at the wide ranging opportunities available and how within even one field, this could be wide and varied. For this reason, we decided to invite several speakers who followed different career paths within a certain topic, which also gave us the opportunity to meet extremely interesting people from a wide range of careers.

Contacting speakers was often challenging, in particular having the courage to contact bigger names within the field. However, the positive and enthusiastic responses we got from the speakers added to our confidence. Most people were very happy to talk about their careers and help postgrads with their own. Most speakers had themselves come from a science background and therefore, understood the struggles students faced when thinking about the future.

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A collage of research images from the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences

We were truly impressed with the range of people who were interested in our events, from undergraduates to staff and from within Biomedical Sciences to Engineering and Chemistry. We felt we had given an opportunity to all the students to explore more career options, which was particularly evident during the smaller group sessions after the talks, where students got to talk with the speakers, ask questions and make contacts. Speaking to students after was always rewarding as many came out with new career ideas or how to go about following their dream one.

Organising CBBR has been a wonderful challenge which we hope helped the many hundreds of students who attended the events. The feedback, that the talks “reassured” or even “inspired” students to explore various career options, truly indicates to us that this was a worthwhile experience, which we hope will continue in the future.

Sonam received an Outstanding Award from Careers Service for her efforts in organising the seminar series. She is pictured above in the red dress.

Sonam received an Outstanding Award from Careers Service for her efforts in organising the seminar series. She is pictured above in the red dress.

Research without Borders: from the exhibitor’s stand, with Heide Busse

On Monday 9 May the Bristol Doctoral College hosted the ‘Research without Borders‘ festival, a showcase of postgraduate research excellence with over 100 student exhibits. Heide Busse, a second-year PhD student in the School of Social and Community Medicine, spoke to us about her experience as an exhibitor. Her research is funded by The Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence. Follow Heide on Twitter @HeideBusse.

On the 9th of May, I swapped office and computer for an afternoon at @tBristol science centre, where I participated in the annual “Research without Borders” event. This event is organised by the University of Bristol and provides PhD students across the university an opportunity to showcase their work to other researchers, funders, university partners and charities with the overall aim to stimulate discussion and spark ideas.

It did sound like a good and fun opportunity to tell others about my research so I thought ‘why not, see how it goes’ – immediately followed by the thought ‘alright, but what actually works to make visitors come and have a chat to me and engage with my exhibition stand’?

Luckily, help was offered by the organising team for the event from Bristol Doctoral College in terms of how to think of interactive ways to present my research – and not to just bring along the last poster that was prepared for a scientific conference. For instance, we developed the idea to ask visitors to vote on an important research question of mine. That way, visitors could engage with my research and I could at the same time see what they thought about one of my research questions!

My PhD research looks more closely at the potential of mentoring as an intervention for young people in secondary schools. There are quite a few formal mentoring programmes offered to pupils but there is hardly any research in this area to suggest whether this actually works in helping to improve young people’s health, wellbeing or educational outcomes. To provide information for different audiences, I also brought a scientific poster along, as well as leaflets about my work and the work of The Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), a UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence, which funds my PhD.

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Exhibition Stand

On the day itself, over 100 PhD students exhibited their work in lots of different ways, including a few flashy displays and stunning posters about their research. We were given different research themes and I was included in the “population health” research theme – alongside 16 other research themes ranging from “quantum engineering”, “condensed matter physics” to “neuroscience” and “clinical treatments”.

All ready to go just in time before the official event started, I really hoped I wouldn’t be left alone for the rest of the afternoon polishing the pebbles that I had organised for my live voting. Fortunately, that didn’t happen! Time flew and without realising I chatted away for two and half hours to a constant flow of over visitors and other exhibitors – and actually hardly managed to move away to have a look around other people’s exhibitions. In total, I have been told, there were 200 people attending the event.

Visitors told me about their own mentoring experiences when they were younger, spoke about the things that mentors do and asked me questions about my research, such as why I research what I research, the methods that I am using in my research and what relevance I think my research can have for mentoring organisations- all questions that I could imagine could be re-asked in a PhD viva (in which case I guess it’s never too early to prepare!). This really made me think about my research and practice ways in which I can communicate this clearly to people who might be less familiar with the field or with research in general without babbling on for too long!

Note left by visitor

Note left by visitor

At the end of the event, I was really curious to see how many people interacted with my research and to look at the results of the live voting. I had asked individuals to vote on the following question: “Do you think mentoring young people in secondary schools has long-term benefits to their health?” and was actually quite surprised to see that 22 out of 25 individuals who voted, voted for “Yes” which indicates that there is something about the word mentoring that makes people think that it is beneficial, which itself is an interesting finding. Not a single person voted “no” and three individuals voted “not sure”.

Pebbles and 'live voting' ballot boxes

Pebbles and ‘live voting’ ballot boxes

The whole afternoon went well and made me realise the importance and benefit of talking to a variety of other people about my research – I guess you never know who you are going to meet and whether questions by visitors might actually turn into research questions one day.

How about signing up to present your research at the upcoming ESRC festival of social science, the MRC festival of medical research, other science festivals, talking about your research in pubs or talking to colleagues in the public engagement offices at your university?

 

Remembering Wartime Westray: a project with Emily Glass

Emily Glass, a postgraduate researcher in the Department for Archaeology & Anthropology, is a woman with many projects on the go. Between digging onsite for the University of Bristol’s Berkeley Castle Project, preparing for her upgrade this summer, and conducting her regular research on communist Albania, she has also found time to work with the Westray Heritage Trust on a First World War community engagement event as part of the WWI centenary commemoration on the Orkney Island of Westray. We spoke to her about the project to learn about its potential impact and the value of preserving peoples’ stories in history.

‘Remembering Wartime Westray’ uses the 1916 Battle of Jutland and the sinking of HMS Hampshire as a focal point from which to explore how the island of Westray was impacted both physically and socially by the First World War.Image 5 Seaplane Station Pierowall

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Photos of Westray life from WWI: people’s memories contain the most vital and significant narrative pieces of Westray’s wartime history

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Why this point, specifically? Ms. Glass contextualises these particular events, explaining how by 1916 England had already been at war for 2 years. The Battle of Jutland brought home for the residents of Orkney “the fragile nature of being at war…first-hand”, because “the knowledge that German U-Boats had been able to get so close to the naval fleet meant that the Orcadian Home Front was no longer impenetrable. The active front line of war had shifted right up to the shores of the islands, bringing the horror and trauma home.” Across the nation, conscription became mandatory, rationing increased, and the death toll rose steadily. Stress, uncertainty and wartime fatigue overcame the island’s population: “a collective sense of vulnerability and loss was felt, but it was necessary to maintain some level of normality to cope with the daily routine of island-life”. It is particularly this tension, and the human faces and voices of this time, that Ms. Glass hopes to capture.

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Example of an embroidered postcard from Ms. Glass’s collection of artefacts.

Her project endeavours to create a display that invites the local public and visitors to reflect on the major events that took place on Westray’s Home Front, the role of WWI in shaping today’s Westray, and finally to collect the memories and stories that are still known from this particular period in time. Discussing the project with her and going through her materials, it is clear that a large part of her energy is focused on preserving stories from 1916 – which exist in the form of artefacts, wartime memorabilia, documents and people’s memories – before they disappear into the past altogether. “It is important to examine any physical remains of the First World War before they become unrecognised,” Ms. Glass explains, “and get the stories behind wartime objects while they are still known.”

The artefacts that Ms. Glass hopes to record are war souvenirs from WWI life: trench art, embroidered postcards, trophies of war, maps of Westray’s wartime places, diaries, photographs. The project will also host a series of workshops to gather these local memories and record the stories behind them, providing specialist training to Westray Heritage Trust staff and volunteers on the appropriate methods of recording wartime history. In this way, the project will contribute immensely to an increase in knowledge of the surrounding area, and provide an archive for future generations to explore.Image 1 - 1917 Wheat Fleet Propaganda Poster

All recordings will culminate in a permanent and publicly accessible documentary and photographic archive of wartime resources on Westray, and further contribute towards a planned 2018 exhibition to mark the centenary of the close of the First World War.

Remembering Wartime Westray is supported by the Orkney Islands Council World War One Culture Fund and the Westray Heritage Trust. It is aimed that this project will generate a significant increase in local knowledge that will contribute towards an archive legacy for future generations.

PGR Stories: Suzannah Young and researching the homeless

Suzannah Young is a postgraduate researcher in the School of Modern Languages. Her research aims to find out where help with language is needed in homelessness services in Bristol and Cardiff, and what support is already available to people who need it. She wrote a post for us discussing her research, its value and impact, and what her PhD process has entailed so far. 

Before starting at Bristol in September 2015, I worked for FEANTSA, the federation of homelessness services in Europe, for six years.  I am also a translator and have an interest in migration. My research project aims to find out where help with language is needed in Bristol and Cardiff homelessness services and what support is available to people who need help.

When people move to a new country, they can become vulnerable to poverty, isolation and discrimination.  If people who move country do not have access to employment or government help, or cannot find a place to live because landlords discriminate against them, they might end up homeless.  

Homeless people need to use services that give advice, defend their rights and provide material support like food, clothes and showers.  It can be difficult for people with low levels of English to use these services.  The services might not feel able to talk to these people either.  An interpreter (someone who translates a spoken message from one language into another) can help them interact with each other.  

When I was working at FEANTSA, I often came across research or reports on practice that said that language difference was a problem for homeless service providers.  It was a problem because they couldn’t communicate effectively with homeless people who spoke another language.  There wasn’t any discussion of what was done to solve this problem, though.  As I am passionate about languages and believe that everyone should have the right to a decent home, I wanted to set about finding out what was being done to help homeless people who speak other languages.

My research therefore looks at what is being done on the ground, in a context of squeezed budgets: whether people using homelessness services have access to interpreters or other types of language support, like staff who speak other languages, internet translation tools or peers (other service users) who act as interpreters.  The study compares the situations in Bristol and Cardiff.  It may discover good ways of working that services can copy from each other.

I would like to interview homelessness service users, homelessness service providers and language professionals to ask them about their experiences in this area – of accessing language support or of providing it.  The plan is also to ask service users to produce (anonymous if wished) video diaries in which they can say in their own language what they would have liked to have said if they had had access to an interpreter when using a service.  This would reflect their direct voice.  Asking participants to use visual representations also diffuses the tension of language – if they wish, they can ‘speak without words’.  

This project is multilingual because I will be interviewing people who speak a variety of languages.  This will mean that preparation and data collection will involve various time-consuming and expensive language-related tasks.  I will translate materials myself or through translators.  I will employ interpreters to mediate interviews.  I will use external transcribers to transcribe interview data and video diary entries in languages I do not understand.  I will use translators to check the accuracy of the interpreting for languages I do not understand and I will employ subtitlers to translate the video diaries for the languages I do not understand.

The results should reflect the multilingualism of the project itself.  I would like to provide a series of narratives for service users to take away, which can act as a guide to using language support services.  I will need to make this available in other languages (which would require money, time and proofreading).  The video diaries should be subtitled, and I hope the subtitles will be available in all the languages involved, not just in English.

The results of the study could be made available in a usable format to services for homeless people.  They could be made into a briefing document that gives examples of how to work with an interpreter or translator or how to deal with a communication problem.  Another briefing document for language professionals working for homelessness services can give specific guidelines about language requirements in homelessness services.