James West | Reflective Blog

A few thoughts on my contribution to the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project, which has been developed in collaboration with the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre – an extension of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust which was established following the racially motivated killing of a student at Burnage High School in Manchester. (If you aren’t aware of the Centre and the incredible work it does please take the time to visit their website.)

This project is composed of three main elements – a series of seminars offered to Manchester schools affiliated with the Race Relations Centre which tied into the current A-Level curriculum, screenings of a series of documentary films, and the establishment of an online archive feeding into the work of the Race Relations Centre and influenced by my own field of research which focuses on African American history.

The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project has been a great experience and really broadened my ideas of how to expand a public engagement project. Before attending any of the Afterlife events I had a nice neat little idea for a project in my head focused on schools, but seeing the really innovative ideas of other participants was a real challenge to try and make the most out of the Project and broaden its appeal. Some of the ideas really blew my mind – in particular Becky’s plan for a social history trail in the forest where she focuses her research was something I thought was great, in large part because it made me realize how predictable my original ideas had been. It was also great to engage with people who were so enthusiastic about their research (or at least good at pretending to be enthusiastic!)

I think that a lot of PhD students like to get drawn into the ‘woe-is-me’ vibe that lurks ominously in many postgraduate common rooms. It made me realize that quite often the reason people get in a funk about their own research is because they can’t see how it’s making an impact in the real world. From speaking to other participants I think if we had just developed these projects on our own, a lot of us would have come out with pretty similar results – maybe a couple of workshops in schools, or a one-off event – and that would have been it. Working alongside other participants and seeing the breadth and variety of project ideas on display really opened up a lot of new avenues for thinking about how to challenge ourselves to make better, more interactive and longer lasting projects.

A key component of the Afterlife project for me was the challenge of establishing some kind of lasting impact from whatever public engagement events or projects we developed. From past experience it is relatively easy to drum up initial support and to run successful one-off events, but establishing a longer lasting connection that continues to develop and prove beneficial is often difficult. Very early on in the project we established an online presence through a blog and research archive which has fed into the related features of the project – http://americanstudiesarchive.wordpress.com/. This has continued to expand and develop, and has started to become more of an interactive process which is really exciting.

To date a total of 6 seminars have been delivered in high schools and colleges around Manchester. These sessions were developed to give students an idea of the learning process at University, to supplement their own AS and A-Level study in the humanities, and to establish connections with the schools which could then be continued online. The feedback we got from students and teachers was really positive but also pointed in the direction we hoped – towards a more interactive student role in the development of the seminars. Through the website students have offered suggestions for future seminars and workshops they would like to see delivered in their schools. What we had hoped for was that the relationship established in individual workshops and events would be maintained and expanded through the website, and early indications are looking promising.

In September we will be hosting the first documentary screening ‘In the Land of the Free’ which focuses on racial inequalities within the US Prison system. We are hoping that the director will be able to attend the screening and give a short talk and a Q&A with the audience which is a big bonus! We are really looking to make these screenings appealing to the general public – one of the concerns we had was that by developing seminars and workshops for high schools or colleges we weren’t doing enough to engage with the general public, which is the main aim of the screenings. The Race Relations Centre has strong connections within the local Manchester community and this project should help develop those links further and engage more people with the website.

To be continued…


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