I’ve had a number of influential discussions which have helped me to formulate ideas about the themes and areas of approach that I wish to pursue in the project.
Richard Steadman-Jones, a colleague in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, has been collaborating with academics and artists on the Writing in the Home and in the Street Project. I wanted to talk to him because of his experience of interdisciplinary and practice-led approaches to research. Richard’s willingness to explore new ways of understanding his subjects of interest was a real inspiration to me in identifying an approach to the project which would be academically productive, but would also take full advantage of the benefits of working alongside an artist.
Richard’s current project explores texts in naturalistic contexts and environments, specifically in the Rawmarsh area of Rotherham. I was impressed by the way Richard thematised this work as a means – it seemed to me, at least – of laying down an intellectual framework and structure for a project which was firmly embedded outside the confines (and comforts) of the academy. Themes such as everyday textuality; power and aesthetics; memory; genre; perception; appropriation; texts and contexts; the importance of the fragment; and the tensions between participation and co-production, and aesthetics, enable a narrative mechanism which pulls together and guides the work. I wanted something similar for the Youzi Project, which I’ve attempted to summarise here. Crucially, though, Richard also talked about ‘relinquishing aims’ and there appears to me to be a productive tension between this approach and the structuring devices that I have also outlined here; that the limitations of academic methodologies can be necessarily stretched and compromised when they meet contrasting approaches from other fields.
I also shared with Richard my concerns about ‘getting lost’ in the material; the fear that I would lose sight of my role as an academic who is interested in everyday life and visual narrative, and inadvertently become something of an under-qualified ethnographer, drawing conclusions from the themes of the work rather than the interface between form and content. Richard’s advice to keep in mind ‘the idea of the text and how texts work’, has given me a mantra for the project that I seem to keep coming back to: the participants; their surroundings; their narratives, both aural and visual; and the city, enable and trigger the emergence of texts and contexts ripe for analysis.
I’ve also been influenced by conversations with my colleague here at Sheffield, Matthew Cheeseman. Matt’s thesis (currently being prepared for publication as a monograph) is entitled The Pleasures of Being a Student at the University of Sheffield and is a fascinating study of the norms of cultural experience for home students. Matt’s ethnographic approach obviously differs from my own, but his work and personal insights have illuminated a number of key areas for the Youzi project. One such area is the performance of selfhood and the rituals associated with conspicuous exclamations of ‘fun’ enshrined within the narrative projection of the University experience for home students. This has led me to consider the way in which this project might vocalise or illustrate alternative stories of student life, and how these stories might then circulate and intervene in those hitherto pervasive representations of recreation and pleasure in a University. Here, the focus on the everyday has the potential to enable a universalizing of experiences – and, by extension, representations of culture – which might enable the development of narratives which generate more inclusive understandings of the experience of University.
While my dialogues with Richard and Matt have provided me with theoretical and academic guidance and support, I’ve also enjoyed some hugely productive conversations with non-academic colleagues in the University. Deborah Green and Audrey Leadley from Student Services have been incredibly supportive – sharing with us their vast knowledge and experience of working to support Chinese students at the University. These discussions have confirmed to me the potential of the project to deliver tangible impacts and legacies. Gemma’s work with the students has enabled, in some ways, a new form of consultation to take place; here stories about everyday experience are shared and circulated in a way which might provide an educative function for other students. Students can learn about the experience of their peers through these stories, before contributing their own, developing a web of narrative experience which fosters a kind of community of experience(s). In practical terms then, I’ve suggested to Deborah the prospect of the University supporting and facilitating digital storytelling activities for international students, encouraging the telling and sharing of narratives as a means of fostering community, sharing knowledge and validating and preserving the important contributions made by international students to the life of the city and the University. With this in mind, Audrey arranged for Gemma and I to meet Wenhui, the Chinese student ambassador. Wenhui’s enthusiasm for the project was palpable, she seemed to be genuinely moved that we were interested in her stories and the stories of her peers. For me, this meeting was hugely significant and underlined the notion of the ‘power of story’ that I’ve discussed elsewhere.