PGR journeys with the Institute of Advanced Study

Sep 29, 2023 | Postgraduate, Transformations (Issue 10)

PGR journeys with Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study

Ms Chimwemwe Phiri
I am a PhD student in medical anthropology and visual history, and my research explores historic and contemporary meanings of historic medical collections relating to Malawi and Sudan. Given the interdisciplinary nature of my work which encompasses anthropology, history, museum studies and medical science, I was naturally drawn to activities hosted by the Institute of Advanced Study. In this piece, I will share some key moments of my engagement with the IAS during the 2022/23 academic year.

Visiting fellows and scholars
The IAS hosted a roster of distinguished scholars who gave stimulating talks and held workshops. One notable event was the roundtable discussion in October 2022 titled ‘Thinking Through Photographs’ featuring Professor Elizabeth Edwards, a leading photohistorian and visual anthropologist. Her work has been a significant inspiration for my research. The discussion primarily focused on her most recent book which sums historical thinking and approaches to writing about photography. The event co-hosted with the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture (CVAC) also included other eminent scholars such as Professor Nayanika Mookherjee and Professor Jonathan Long, who shared their perspectives on the place and role of photography in their research.

In June 2023, the IAS organised a workshop with the renowned anthropologist Phillipe Descola.  I had the privilege of presenting a paper which focused on visualising scientific knowledge and made connections to Descola’s lecture held the day before. The workshop was limited to a small group and encouraged students to submit short papers for presentation leading to stimulating discussions and detailed feedback. My paper was linked to a thesis chapter, and received constructive and careful feedback was tremendously helpful. The questions from the audience which comprised of scholars from various disciplines helped shaped how I can present my work to diverse audiences. The willingness of scholars like Descola to engage with postgraduate students like myself and provide constructive feedback on our research was a testament to the supporting and nurturing environment fostered by the IAS.

Walking tour and archive visit at Durham Cathedral
In May 2023, I was invited to participate in a walking tour and archive consultation related to holdings in Durham Cathedral.  The tour facilitated by Professor Mookherjee and led by Sean Creighton, an independent historian, built on previous research into Durham’s Black history examining the cathedral’s links to slavery and how to address the absence and presence of Black voices. The tour and subsequent discussion prompted me to perceive the cathedral in new ways and to think critically about how to engage with this history in both public and academic spheres.

What truly set the IAS apart for me is its inclusive nature: activities cater and bring together scholars across the entire spectrum of the university scholars including MA, PhD, early career scholars and senior researchers. I see support provided by the IAS as ongoing: the IAS has created a transformative intellectual space where students can grow, learn from a wide range of experts and continue to benefit even after completing their studies.

Ms Akshita Mathur
Attending sessions hosted by the IAS has been an enriching academic activity and, perhaps more importantly, it has been a place that anchored my first-year doctoral experience. The first workshop I attended at Cosin’s Hall was soon after I’d started my program at the Department of Anthropology and had only barely begun to settle into the cold weather of Durham. One day my supervisor Professor Nayanika Mookherjee told me about a workshop on ‘The Politics of Refugee Reception: Mobilization and the Law’ (which I later got to know was part of the IAS’ Politics of Credibility project) and encouraged me to attend. What first seemed slightly intimidating to a newcomer however soon became an engaging and immersive experience. Packed in the cosy seminar room of the IAS, professional researchers and scholars discussed the methods and ethics of researching topics that may be potentially sensitive but were nonetheless important to study. Conversations slipped in and out of different themes and were punctuated not only by theoretical insights but with captivating accounts of real-life experiences. As the first academic session that I attended in Durham, coming out of it was both utterly warming and invigorating. It was also the first session (among many) that opened me to the fascinating delights of tea-time conversations held in between the IAS sessions!

After my first session, there were various other talks I attended, including Professor Jacqueline Stevens’ lecture on The Alien Who is a Citizen, which stood out to me because of her experiences with the practicalities of citizenship and deportation policies in the US– a topic I knew very little about and so riveted my attention. Another notable seminar was Waylon Cunningham’s talk on the merging of academia and investigative journalism. This stemmed from my own professional interests and experience in academic and digital news publishing in India where I have often tried to combine the two worlds using audio visual media. I also attended Sohel Rahman’s masterclass on ‘Socially Engaged Filmmaking’ which included a screening of Rahman’s award-winning film The Ice Cream Sellers. From covering the life of migrant workers in Lisbon’s fruit farms to the life inside Rohingya refugee camps, all of Rahman’s films that we, as the audience, had the pleasure of seeing were eye openers.

I began my first year as an audience member of an enriching workshop and had the opportunity to end my first year as a presenter at one. I was grateful to have my abstract selected for ‘Visualising Worlds: approaches to the study of figurative forms’, a workshop with Philippe Descola, organised by the Anthropology Department in collaboration with Centre for Visual Arts and Culture and the IAS. Here, I presented my paper titled ‘Visualising the woman in conflict’ in the presence of researchers, scholars, colleagues, friends, and my supervisor Prof Nayanika Mookherjee. As my first academic presentation, though I felt nervous, I was eased by the fact that I was able to present to an audience that was friendly, encouraging, and most of all, gracious with their patience and thoughts on my presentation– even when it went slightly over time! In July 2023, I also assisted in hosting a cross-disciplinary event as part of the South Asian Heritage Month in the University, focused around the 1947 Partition Archive’s book ‘10,000 memories: A lived History of Partition, Independence and World War 2 in South Asia’. The event was graciously hosted at the IAS venue.

Thus, from the first month when I was still acclimatising to the winter months of Durham to the end of my first year when I was able to present at the same Cosin’s Hall on a perfect sunny day, engaging with the IAS has been both a personal journey and a professional one. I am incredibly thankful that a friendly space like the IAS is available for scholars to present important work, engage in meaningful conversations, and meet each other!

Ms Dilshaad Hossain
Being involved with the IAS over the last one year has been an enriching experience for me. The various workshops, seminars and the insightful discussions have constantly challenged me to think more deeply and to explore different perspectives of my own research. I fondly remember my first introduction to the IAS through my supervisor Professor Nayanika Mookherjee and the Durham academic space as a whole was a talk by Professor Catherine Besteman of Colby College on her book Militarized Global Apartheid (2020). It introduced me to a whole set of ideas and knowledge that I later incorporated in my work. There was no looking back after that, I grabbed every opportunity that came by my way and looked out for spaces where I could engage myself with the IAS. I feel extremely fortunate to have contributed ideas and gained knowledge and solutions on various occasions, the prominent one being with Professor Jackie Stevens and Professor Engin Isin at a roundtable conference discussion on issues of citizenship, belonging and identity politics. It guided me into the fascinating world of their respective research which ultimately is contributing to my PhD project in a major way. The journey became better when I gradually started getting opportunities to exchange my research ideas in workshops conducted by the IAS. I was grateful to receive the opportunity to present my PhD research in the presence of the Honorary Professor Philippe Descola which aided me so much in developing and facilitating my work, pushed me to consider further avenues of thinking and writing, helping me improve on my capabilities as a researcher. Even beyond these spaces, the IAS has introduced me to fellow researchers across the university that has led to critical discussions, enlightened me about various research projects and ideas, equipped me with strong interpersonal skills and motivates me to thrive for what I am passionate about. Events such as the screening of award-winning films like The Ice Cream Sellers had a refreshing approach, discussions surrounding such socially engaged filmmaking is always inspiring. My participation in these events and workshops has supported me in developing my competence as a researcher, providing ideas and feedback in ways that challenge and help me to grow. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the IAS members and fellows who bring their talents, knowledge, expertise, and inquiry to address research areas that need focused and critical discussions. The IAS has always been very welcoming, inclusive, and supportive and I look forward to more exciting years of involvement with the Institute during my stay at Durham.


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