By Carla Plieth, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

On 29 Nov. 2019, 30 students from the Faculty of Education visited the University of Oxford’s for the annual collaborative exchange between both university’s Education Faculties/Departments. The aims of the exchange are manifold: we not only want to bring Education students together to socialise and network in an environment where work is often done individually but we also want to create specific academic knowledge outputs in the field of education.

Our Location: Lady Margaret Hall. Photo credit: Carla Plieth

In the beautiful Lady Margaret Hall, 50 participants from various stages in their respective Master’s and PhD degrees presented their research topics and progress in the form of 3-minute thesis presentations in order to identify areas of shared interest and future collaboration. It was wonderful to see everyone’s enthusiasm and the breadth of projects and approaches. Projects included desk-based research and empirical projects in various parts of the world, in schools, institutions of higher education, and other environments where children live, play, and learn. The first aspect of the agenda aimed at helping the students identify other participants with similar research interests with which to socialise, network, and exchange ideas. The busy chatter during the lunch, afternoon activity, and drinks reception indicated: everybody was here to collaborate and eager to do so.

After a lovely lunch at the Department of Education, Dr. David Mills, Associate of Pedagogy and Social Sciences, gave a short keynote on the topic of collaboration. In a short brainstorm exercise, Mills asked the participants to note down three words that describe their graduate experience. Replies included ‘daunting’, ‘isolating’, and ‘scary’. In some ways, these answers were to be expected, but they are not overly positive about our graduate experience. Thus, Mills posed the question, “Can our academic life be more collaborative?” He suggested that collaboration can help counter the experience of feeling isolated during graduate research and beyond. Certainly, we collaborate with other researchers in our field, particularly through the process of peer-reviewing as publication always needs a collaborative effort. Seminars and meetings can also offer opportunities for collaboration. But can collaboration go even further for us in the humanities who do not work in larger labs but often on our own, behind our desks, or alone out and about gathering data? Mills advocated for research groups and centres. After all, we are all interested in creating knowledge. Furthermore, he called the exchange a great opportunity for collaboration. Also addressing the current UCU strikes, Mills said that in the context of the actions campaigning for equal pay and against changes being made to pension plans, collaboration is even more important, especially across University borders.

Prof. David Mills delivers the short keynote on ‘collaboration’. Photo credit: Carla Plieth.

And collaborate we did! We continued on working in small groups build by the participants on basis of similar interests. In these, everyone developed plans for projects to be worked on throughout the year. Suggested knowledge outputs included videos, blog posts, lesson plans, and online reading groups on topics such as critical issues in higher education or social learning in education for refugees. 

Group work phase. Photo credit: Carla Plieth.

Short presentations of each group’s work at the end showed originality and enthusiasm.

Organising this exchange together with Kelsey Graber and becoming part of FERSA again has provided me with an opportunity to reach out to other students, to expand my knowledge when it comes to research in Education, and open possible pathways for work in the future. Moreover, it has brought me in contact with staff from the Faculty I had not met before and furthered my understanding of the workings of our Faculty. Although it was at times not always easy juggling the organisation of the exchange, my own research project, and other activities, seeing how well the day in Oxford planned out, how engaged everyone was, and the amazing plans the groups have for the future make it all worthwhile. Collaborating with the Oxford committee and our own internal Cambridge Exchange committee has once again shown how much we can achieve if we work together as a team, both drawing on everyone’s personal strength and challenging ourselves to take on new and unknown tasks. Without the help of everyone involved, we would not have been able to pull the exchange off and it was great to see how engaged people can become, not only when it comes to their own research but also to joint projects and aims. 

Getting involved with FERSA or other student associations and organisations is a good way to get in touch with others, be it students, staff members, and lecturers, all of which can widen our horizon, contribute to our acquisition of knowledge, and inspire us. As David Mills’ short brainstorm activity emphasised, as a graduate student, one can often feel isolated despite – or maybe especially because of – the busy Cambridge life. During my MPhil last year, I had the support of an amazing group of fellow students who I saw regularly in class and outside of lectures. During my PhD, however, this structure is missing in my life. Despite the occasional EdRes classes and meeting my fellow PhD students, most of my day-to-day life is spent sitting in front of a screen, maybe surrounded by others in a library but still rather secluded. Therefore, collaboration is important, both for our academic career and, maybe even more importantly, for our mental well-being. You might be surprised how much you actually get out of even casual conversations. As one of our participants said after the exchange day, “I think I’ll actually stay in touch with these people”.

This year, for the first time, the exchange will include visits to both Faculties within the academic year – we will host our Oxford colleagues for a visit in May where all participants will present the projects worked on throughout the year. We are looking forward to the results of this collaboration with the Oxford Department of Education, their students, and also within our own Faculty during this year’s exchange and in the long run.

Carla Plieth is a first year PhD candidate in the Children’s Literature route of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She completed her Master’s in the same route just this year, and was then involved with FERSA as the Master’s welfare representative. This year, she is one of the co-leads of the FERSA Oxford Exchange.

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