The Green Room: Dr Karen McAuley

The Green Room is a new blog series from the research community at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It’s both a response to the impact of Covid 19 on the arts, and a way of starting new conversations about the future. Each week colleagues will share their personal reflections, insights, challenges and hopes as we begin to map out our next steps together.


Stepping Out of the Georgian Era into a Pandemic

by Dr Karen McAuley | @Karenmca and @ClaimedStatHall

This blog is part of a new publication, Knowledge Sharing and Exchange in a Pandemic, published by The Centre for Cultural Capital Exchange (TCCE).

I’m 70% an academic librarian and 30% postdoctoral researcher; perhaps a similar balance as for a teaching academic. Librarians have conventionally been office-based, and my recent musicological research likewise, so working from home isn’t my usual practice. Ironically, with my current interests having moved relatively closer to the present day, I’ve also been contemplating ethnographic research with living subjects a new direction at an inopportune time.

I’m based in Glasgow, once considered the second city of the British Empire. It was the home of several music publishers in the late-Victorian era through to the mid-twentieth century. I can do preparatory research online for now, but I should also like to reach out to elderly local musicians, to capture some of their memories of the now long-gone music shops that these publishers traded from. Balancing a more conventional historical narrative with living memories would make the research more meaningful both to the research community and to wider audiences.

I succeeded with my first funding application, an AHRC networking grant. My second attempt failed, so I’m still looking, and the lockdown now presents unexpected problems. Apart from the small-scale research I did for my teaching qualification, my subjects have hitherto been long-dead, so the ethical clearance process poses a new challenge. I’m well-aware of the issues around shielding and social-distancing; clearly I can’t interview the elderly face-to-face in lockdown. Skype and Messenger video-calls may be unfamiliar, whilst phone-calls can be misheard (by me as much as by interviewees!), quite apart from losing sight of participants’ reactions.

Moreover, whilst reminiscence is generally both pleasurable and stimulating for the older generation, I’m worried that my potential interviewees and those concerned for their wellbeing – might feel less enthusiastic than usual about engaging with an unknown researcher. At least talking about old Scottish music isn’t likely to be too emotive for most people. A recent blogpost by Alan Donnelly from Sheffield Hallam University, flags up issues around interview participants’ wellbeing, privacy and confidentiality in connection with web-based interviews, questioning how well technology replaces live interviews, and suggesting some interviews should be postponed. [1]

Donnelly’s interview context is different, though; he’s interviewing students. Interviews with elderly participants come with their own challenges. The very people I’d like to talk to are more vulnerable today than at any time in the past. Donnelly’s posting is amply referenced, and includes Deborah Lupton’s Google Doc, ”˜Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic’, already cited by TCCE.[2]

Is anyone else contemplating writing a grant for a project which will include an ethnographical element with vulnerable participants? Or working on such a study? Any quick tips on best practice would be very welcome!

[1] Alan Donnelly and Sheffield Hallam University, ”˜Eat, Sleep, Research, Repeat? Conducng Cognive Interviews In A Pandemic | Student Engagement, Evaluaon and Research @ SHU’, 2020 [accessed 27 April 2020]. [2] Deborah Lupton and Sydney University of New South Wales, ”˜Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic – Google Docs’, Google Doc, 2020 [accessed 29 April 2020]. Covid-19! Impact on People of Colour

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