Impressions of a Postgraduate Student Workshop

Early May, the Centre for Religion and Public Life organised a two day off campus training workshop for postgraduate students in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Two participants – Alan Benstock (MA student) and Kristi Boone (PhD student) share their impressions.

‘The best academic training experience’ – Kristi Boone

Everyone knows that completing a PhD is a challenge, as it should be. What you don’t know until you’re in it, is that it can be quite isolating and difficult to navigate. I joke that the process is like completing a very complex, one-of-a-kind, puzzle (which no one has ever seen the completed solution of!), in an utterly dark room. It removes the sense of confidence and comfort you bring into the process as an accomplished student and leaves you feeling vulnerable and unsure of your footing. In offering the residential training workshop for postgraduate researchers, the Centre for Religion and Public Life offered us not only a torch, but examples of erected puzzles at different phases of completion.

A dozen researchers from enormously different backgrounds, with equally fascinating and unique ideas and approaches, presented elements of their work, some for the first time in front of a questioning academic audience. First year researchers shared goals full of ideals and hope for wide swaths of impact; and right in the room, you could see them evolving toward a more focused, achievable sample or seeing new potential methods through our conversation. Researchers in the final stages of their projects shared how previous mistakes led to modifications and changes in method and direction that moved them into a much more interesting and stable result. Sociologists, theologians, biblical scholars and researchers constructing archives of disappearing religious history presented together in common context; allowing us to see completely different approaches to common topics and ideas and the intersections of our research possibilities.

It was a tremendously enlightening and validating experience. In the first years, the third years could see that where they had been was not as odd or uniquely scattered as it felt at the time, and in turn, they could offer hope and tools for progress to the early researchers. I can’t speak for them, but I think the early PhD and MA researchers also found benefit in the processes of those further along.

Of course there was laughing and comradery over (many) shared meals. Because of the isolated rural environment, we could decompress from the grind of technology, breathe in the lush country air and absorb the fresh ideas we were surrounded with. It was easily the best academic training experience I’ve had since I came to Leeds.

‘A worthwhile learning exercise’ – Alan Benstock

Those undertaking independent research, whether for a PhD or MA, often say they feel isolated and disconnected from fellow researchers, particularly if they a located away from the University and  only visit the campus for supervisions. It brought together twelve PhD and MA researchers in a safe and convivial space in which they could present extracts from their research projects and receive feedback.

Building on their own experiences during recent visits to the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa, Dr Adriaan van Klinken and Dr Caroline Starkey, as facilitators ensured the discussions were focussed on student contributions and responses rather than from themselves. During the feedback sessions, everyone agreed the workshop had been a worthwhile learning exercise and appreciated the opportunity to hear of the research being carried out.

First built in 1755, Parcevall Hall, the retreat house of the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, was the ideal venue for the workshop. However, it was not without it challenges  as it was a “dead zone” with  no mobile signal and very limited wi-fi. The extensive Anglican iconography and texts in the library  did present some of the attendees with interesting first-time  experiences. After a most enjoyable evening meal, there was much talk  of  the resident non-libation spirit much to the consternation of the allottee of the four-poster bed. At breakfast on the second day though,  everyone was safely accounted for. By way of compensation, the honesty bar did offer a not unexpected excellent selection of sherries  and the ninety-year-old baths were a size and depth rarely seen in today’s modern house. Despite the overcast and damp weather walks in the extensive gardens offer time for reflection on the papers presented and understand the valuable learning outcomes of the workshop.