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I'll begin by introducing my project: this summer, I am working with an oral historian and playwright in London to collect the oral histories of delivery workers that we will then use to write a verbatim play for the stage. I arrived in London last Friday—hard to believe I've only been here for a week! So much has happened already. In the week leading up to my departure, I attended a virtual course on writing oral history-based plays, taught by my mentor in conjunction with the Oral History Society. Tragically, these four-hour Zooms began at 4 in the morning because they were on London time. I expected it to be a bit of a torment (and did, in fact, consume an ungodly amount of coffee this particular week), but the discussions and exercises were truly so interesting that I had to pinch myself awake only once!
On Friday, my mentor picked me up from Heathrow and we drove to his house for some coffee, a delicious omelet, and our first in-person chat about the project. The original plan had been for my mentor to get started on collecting oral histories two or so months before my arrival, but he elaborated now on his earlier email to me calling this the most difficult project of his forty-year career. The main problem, he explained, was that the interviewees simply weren't turning up. He'd set a time and place with fourteen different delivery workers—only one had showed up. Others had declined from the get-go. Part of this had to do with the nature of delivery work itself: because it's a gig-based job, every hour of the day we requested from them was an hour they lost of potential gigs. Even if the delivery worker was willing to make this trade, their schedule was so unpredictable that they often couldn't make the time they'd committed to when the day actually arrived. The other major component, though, was that the delivery workers my mentor approached simply didn't trust him. My mentor is white, in his 70s, and sounds like the Cambridge-educated man he is. Most of the people we want to interview are of color, immigrants (some likely undocumented), and perhaps not fluent in English. As my mentor put it, they see him as a face of "the establishment." My mentor explained, then, that I might be part of the solution, which excited me because it truly means this project is a partnership: I am the mentee, yes, but I also have skills, advantages, and insights that are distinctly my own to offer.
On Tuesday, I attended another course, this one full-day and in-person at the British Library, also taught by my mentor. (I'd quickly like to add that I was the only university student in both this course and last week's, which has actually been a privilege because I got to meet professionals from various fields who all want to incorporate oral history into their work and, incidentally, were eager to meet the one young person in the room!) This course gave me a broader introduction to the oral history discipline as a whole and, more pertinently, made me realize that interviewing for this project was going to be far more difficult than I'd expected. I developed the suspicion (and indeed, had this suspicion confirmed when I interviewed my mentor for practice the next day) that my experience in journalism wasn't necessarily an asset—in fact, it could even be seen as a burden because I now had to unlearn all the journalistic interviewing habits I'd picked up over four years. (Who would've thought oral history interviewing was so disparate a practice?) Still, learning about the unique technical and ethnical intricacies of oral history has already been just as fascinating as I'd hoped it would be when I first cold-emailed my mentor about working with him, and I couldn't be more thrilled to see how the rest of the summer unfolds. My last update of the week is that I finally got the green light to go out and scout interviewees of my own, so I walked around an unofficial delivery worker rest spot near the Stratford Westfield mall today and was able to schedule five interviews for Monday. I did jot down phone numbers so I'm planning to call each interviewee the night before to confirm, but only time will tell if the story turns out differently for me than it has for my mentor.
Final note: I am actually working on my project for ten weeks, all the way through to the end of July. Since I have more time I'll be spacing out my posts a bit more, so bear with me if I skip a week or two—I haven't forgotten!
- What new ideas, challenges, or other issues have you encountered with regard to your project (this might include data collection, information that contradicts your assumptions or the assertions of others, materials that have enriched your understanding of the topic or led you to change your project, etc.)? How have these ideas or challenges shaped the bigger picture of your research? Has the scope or focus of your topic changed since you began this project? If so, how?
One significant challenge I faced was data collection of bills regarding LGBTQ+ rights, both negative and positive. Unlike other topics, this one is harder to narrow down, since many terms can be used to refer to the LGBTQ+ community, and because a large amount of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is obscure. For example, a bill whose primary title and summary only describe an act for further defining what constitutes a charity can have a clause in small print indicating that contributions to LGBTQ+ organizations are not considered charitable donations. This situation is difficult, but it has directed me to other useful resources, like the Congressional Record, and it has made research much more rewarding.
- What research resources have proven particularly useful to you as you continue your research?
Proquest Congressional is a LIFESAVER. I've used it to access Congressional Journals and the Congressional Record, which have been super helpful. Also, I've used Congress.gov to cross-check bills in certain years. It's an awesome tool and I definitely recommend it to anyone needing to search through federal legislation.
Hi Alisha! The example you gave about the fine print of a bill delineating the qualifications for charity status is absolutely fascinating. I can see why it would be difficult to come up with reliable search terms for your research. I'm curious to know— have you developed any useful strategies besides reading everything carefully and hoping you strike gold?
1. My research has definitely gained a lot of ground in these past few weeks. As opposed to singularly interrogating the intellectual genealogy between B.R. Ambedkar and his professor John Dewey, I am now interested in creating a more expansive ideological roadmap around the figure of Ambedkar. I have been flagging specific figures such as Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Friedrich Engels, as well as specific terminology like "surplus women," used not only by Ambedkar in the context of castes but also contemporaneously in post-WWII England, in American cities where unwed women presented "an unmitigated disaster," and even by a Japanese political leader calling for the U.S. to accept more immigrants. I will continue this research for the rest of the summer and hope to someday present my work in a digital humanities initiative of sorts—perhaps an interactive online exhibit—that future researchers at the Ambedkar Initiative can continue adding to.
2. I have relied primarily on RBML collections, newspaper archives including The Spectator's and The New York Times', databases listed in the Columbia research guides, and books/academic articles available on CLIO.
- While all Laidlaw Scholars will be presenting their research at the Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium in the fall, what are the more immediate expectations that you have for your research? Are you writing a paper you hope to get published? Will your research be part of a larger scientific study? Is your research now the first phase of a project you’ll continue to work on throughout the year, and/or next summer? Now that we are nearing the one month mark of the program, please write about your expectations for your research.
I am spending this summer building a foundation for research that I would like to continue through the school year and into next summer. Right now, I am working on an annotated bibliography, which will likely end up turning into an historiographical essay, in order to collect sources and have a solid background going into (hopefully!) some field work. My end goal is to produce a paper, but that will likely not happen until next year.
- Why does your research matter? Explain the significance of the question you are investigating, and why you are interested in it.
Even though I am focusing on a specific place and time, I think that the themes of memory, trauma, and both the endurance and revival of culture are relevant and meaningful beyond my particular subject. Studying these topics allows me to understand humanity better as a whole. In addition, I am reading much about how Western paradigms of memorialization are often imposed upon Cambodia, which often does not serve to facilitate memory-building in a culturally appropriate or natural way. Understanding the damage that international efforts can cause, even under the guise of "helping," has been significant beyond the scope of my project.
Hi Bryley! Your work on memory, memorialization, and trauma sounds fascinating and reminds me of some of the questions I grappled with in a course called "The Ethnographic Imagination" this past spring. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this over lunch, and I'm super curious what kind of field work you have in mind as well!
1. My research is part of a larger, ongoing initiative that has many moving parts. While I plan to continue my work for at least the rest of the summer, my expectations for the Laidlaw period includes digitizing important paper/microfilm archives so they can be accessible to people who are not on campus (including me later this summer!), and developing a strong understanding of at least two figures (John Dewey and Charlotte Perkins Gilman) in the larger network of influential intellectuals I've been trying to map around the figure of B.R. Ambedkar.
2. It is critical that the ideas of Ambedkar, a change-maker and trailblazer outside the Western tradition, receive the same due recognition and academic insight his American and European intellectual forebears receive at institutions like Columbia. I am fascinated in studying Ambedkar both as a formidable legatee of some of the most prominent Western thinkers, and as an original intellectual in his own right. Because of his ideas about radical democracy and engagement with social justice movements beyond his own anti-caste mission, Ambedkar appeals to me as a multidimensionally fascinating figure with a legacy that stretches far beyond India and his own lifetime.
- What are some of the ethical issues that you are grappling with in your research? What are some of the ways in which you are responding to these questions?
Since I'm conducting research on a vulnerable community, one key ethical issue is the exploitative relationship between academia and the population. In particular, one of the more prominent fears is the use of a community as a tool of personal professional advancement, a sort of study from a privileged position without fundamentally relating to or identifying with the community. A way I try to avoid this exploitation is by contacting people within my own community and reaching out to personal networks so there is less of an external academic study and more of a resource for uplifting within an in-group.
- As you continue your research, have you considered alternative viewpoints in your investigation? If so, how have these alternative viewpoints enriched or changed your project?
Unfortunately, the literature base is quite small to the point where the capacity for "alternative viewpoints" is quite limited -- there's very limited space for alternative viewpoints if the original viewpoint is not well established. Still, I try to keep an open mind during oral history interviews, especially since some go in a different way than I expect.
Hi Jeffrey! Your concerns about inadvertently excluding the actual communities whose stories are scrutinized in academia from your research definitely resonates with me and is something I've been thinking a lot about, too. I'd love to hear more about how you've been navigating this and the oral history work you've been doing.
1. What are some of the ethical issues that you are grappling with in your research? What are some of the ways in which you are responding to these questions?
I've been thinking a lot about how to make my research more accessible to a public audience beyond Columbia. I'm interested in learning more about digital and public humanities, and potentially creating an online exhibit or contributing to the Ambedkar Initiative's podcast at the end of the summer in addition to making a poster. Because my research involves examining the ways in which various American intellectuals informed B.R. Ambedkar's own ideas and activism, I've also been wary of inadvertently minimizing Ambedkar's legacy as a pioneering intellectual in his own right.
2. As you continue your research, have you considered alternative viewpoints in your investigation? If so, how have these alternative viewpoints enriched or changed your project?
To be frank, I've spent the last two weeks doing preliminary research as the microfilms I needed for my assignment only arrived yesterday. I haven't made enough progress to have a firmly established viewpoint yet, but I'm keeping the bias workshop we did our first week of Laidlaw in mind as I dive deeper into my work.
Last week the trainings and discussions we had cut across the disciplines. How does the interdisciplinary nature of this program, the fact that students are focusing on such a diverse range of projects, help you think about your project and/or your academic interests more broadly?
Participating in an interdisciplinary program allows me to expand beyond the typical boundaries of both my research project and academic interests. I am not only focusing on specific subjects but I am exposed to others, which creates a powerful learning experience, broadening my worldview. For example, when thinking of Political Science from an interdisciplinary point of view, I not only take into account one dimension of it (political institutions and actors, etc.), but other factors such as economy, psychology, and more. This multidimensional view for subjects allows for more innovative, critical, and creative thinking and problem-solving, which could aid me in both my research project and academic pursuits.
As you begin your individual research projects this week, do you anticipate any challenges in getting started? If so, what are they?
I have already begun my research! I did anticipate a challenge in finding House and Senate journals last week, but that was resolved over the weekend!
Hi Alisha! I definitely agree with you that the interdisciplinary nature of this program has broadened my insight in my own field of research—history, in my case. Economic, political, and scientific developments are all major impetuses that shape the course of human history and I'm excited to see how my conversations with other Laidlaw scholars will give me a more holistic understanding of my own research subject. I would love to learn more about the progress you make with those House and Senate journals at some point!