In June I attended a research seminar at which Professor Joanna Story, Principal Investigator of the Leverhulme Trust funded project, The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain: Evidence, memories, inventions, and Professor Sarah Tarlow, Principal Investigator of Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse project funded by the Wellcome Trust, spoke about logistics and strategies for large research projects. Both speakers discussed the importance of space. Professor Story spoke about the importance of having space on-campus for a project team to work together, such as proximate or adjoining offices. In these spaces, quotidian conversations and interactions often support the development of new ideas and the identification of intersections between different research strands. The physical proximity creates the opportunity for frequent engagement, both formal and informal that can significantly improve the quality of the research experience and research outputs. Professor Tarlow noted, however, the tendency for research collaboration to involve scholars located at significant distances from one another. This kind of collaboration, often driven by close interests and longstanding research relationships, is certainly valuable but sometimes comes at the cost of looking closer to home and developing funding proposals with colleagues down the corridor. At the University of Leicester, a key benefit is our tight-knit campus located near the centre of a busy and diverse city. We are never more than a few minutes walk from fellow faculty and researchers – in our own departments or others – and with the rejuvenation of facilities on central campus, are more likely than ever to meet up serendipitously at one of a number of popular campus cafes and eateries. Both projects employed the two spatial tactics – close project working space and making connections with scholars ‘down the hall’ – in the development and execution of their projects, and the significant successes of Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse and The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain certainly suggest they’re getting a lot right.
Here at The Carceral Archipelago, our spatial approach to research has come to include both of the elements described above. The workspaces of our principal investigator, postgraduate students, project administrator and affiliated researchers are located close to one another. Our regular informal interactions in the hallway, kitchenette, and the doorways of each other’s offices contribute to making our building a dynamic and welcoming work environment. Having team members at different career stages engaging so regularly and informally also contributes to creating a research culture around us that has become exceptionally supportive and constructive. Though the project started with only our principal investigator, Professor Clare Anderson, located at Leicester, the team has grown through project recruitment, successful studentships, postdoctoral applications, and by the development of close relationships with University of Leicester scholars working on areas that intersect with ours. But The Carceral Archipelago is also as international in its practice as it is in its research agenda. We currently have team members located in eight different time zones.
To work remotely for The Carceral Archipelago project, a good wifi connection, decent laptop, and a flexible boss are key. But location is important not just to the logistics of research, but also to research responsibilities. This disparate spatiality has benefits such as proximity to a wider range of useful sites and research collections and experience of different institutions and national (or regional) disciplinary expertise. It also makes it more difficult to have spontaneous exchanges among the project participants – our interactions are always structured and mediated. We make use of virtual spaces for our monthly meetings, using videoconferencing so that geographically distant team members can participate actively in research discussions and in project business, but we converse across time differences (as some project members are waking up, others are ending their days, or even rising in the middle of the night to join us), and we deal with the signal delays and scheduling conflicts inherent in these sorts of communication.
Perhaps I am moved to consider issues of spatiality in research in part because I have been living a distinctly transatlantic life of late. Thanks to opportunities and impediments, plans and serendipity, I have lived between Leicester (home of Richard III in the United Kingdom) and the Niagara Region (Haudenausaunee and Anishinaabe territories, Canada) for the past year. Indeed, I am writing today from a tent in a garden in Thorold, Ontario, Canada – about 15 minutes from Niagara Falls. It is a surreal sort of ‘here and there’ experience. Sometimes I am in the project offices, remotely coordinating the work of far-flung researchers around the world, while other times I am the one halfway around the world and yet feeling still very much ‘at home,’ both personally and professionally.
Leicester feels like home, and indeed I am returning there in just a few weeks, but this corner of Canada on Haudenausanee and Anisihabee territories also exerts strong forces on my life and research. Education, work, family, research opportunities, border controls, finances, and opportunities have all played significant roles in where I have worked and researched in the past decade. It makes me think in new and different ways about the tension between the research patterns described by Professors Story and Tarlow at the outset of this post. Perhaps it would be ideal if we could all see each other everyday, interacting as researchers without the mediation of screens and with the spontaneous serendipity of the coffee conversation that leads to fantastic insights and outbursts. But would we in fact be the people that we are, whose expertise is so valuable and perspective so unique to our collaborative projects, were we not where we are? I work differently depending on which side of the Atlantic I am working from, and I cannot be sure how much of that is owed to the exigencies of technology and time zones, and how much is because I am a different person here rather than there. My relationships to these places are complex and inextricable from my work, and I have yet to find another place – a place outside my personal and professional lives – from which I can see myself clearly enough to disentangle self from space.