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Blog post

You’re Not Alone

March 2, 2022
By Felicity T.C. Hamer

Can you hear me? Zoom 'screenshot' by F. Hamer

Will they listen? Will they get it? Am I even talking about anything anymore?

Reaching out can be scary. Having to articulate your ideas to others – making yourself vulnerable to their feedback – is challenging. But it’s an exciting and necessary step towards developing those ideas and seeing where they might lead.

Somebody will get it. Somebody will care. There are people out there who will support you.

You’re not alone. It just feels that way sometimes.

Into the Void

Anyone who has taken on a large writing project – a book, a thesis, a dissertation – knows how isolating it can be. To counter this, people may seek out public workspaces or writing groups. Conferences and teaching opportunities also offer reprieves from this solitude, but the pandemic has hindered many of these opportunities to gather and we’ve had to be creative.

Virtual platforms only somewhat filled this void. Conferences could proceed without the bother of travel, but it has also meant attending conferences without all the benefits of travel – without coffee breaks and all those other opportunities for networking and discovery. Sure, there were efforts to replicate this experience – some conferences inviting participants to share a glass in scheduled cocktail hours – but it was not the same. There were no free snacks (usually), and we participants were still immersed in our day-to-day lives. Joining from our respective homes and time zones, many of us were bleary-eyed and likely, half-dressed.

The virtual classroom is equally challenging. As an icebreaker, I asked students to explore Taylor Jones’ Dear Photograph and then share a personal photograph and short reflection with the class. In this virtual space, the photographs and voices of each participant felt closer, more intimate. Shyer students were emboldened – encouraged to make free use of the chat option – they and their classmates came alive in the smaller breakout groups. In these less-intimidating spaces, I often found them socializing in ways they were clearly missing during lockdown.

As an instructor, it was difficult when few, if any, had their cameras on. I often wondered if anyone was listening. But the assignments that rolled in – and the students that reached out – reassured me that this seeming void was filled with creative individuals, each struggling to stay engaged.

We’ve all done our best. Together, kinda.

Going Public

Felicity Hamer: Imaginative remembrance through photographic media. Videographer Robin Pineda Gould.

The public scholar program was a real shock to the ‘academic solitude’ that had been plaguing me since before the onset of the pandemic (having just emerged from a book project). The output required has brought unexpected challenges and gifts – a ‘detour’ that ultimately set me back on track.

In this time of diminished social activity – I was meeting people! My fellow public scholars and I got to know each other in (virtual) training sessions and then supported each other throughout 2021 as we grappled with responsibilities that pushed many of us well beyond our comfort zones.

Blogs, op-eds and open-access journals such as The Conversation, require a timeliness and accessibility of language that is unlike the academic writing PhD students are accustomed to producing. We learned to do away with jargon – to be clear, concise – and to create material that was much more accessible to friends and family! For the first time in my academic career, acquaintances beyond my closest circle had a sense of what I was writing about.

Far more challenging was the task of developing an ‘elevator pitch’ – distilling our research into three minutes to be delivered – off-page – in Concordia's 3MT competition. And if this wasn’t daunting enough, a few months later we were asked to whittle this down to a minute’s length to record a video.

As it turns out, nobody needed that clarification more than myself.

Screenshot, "Rebecca asks Felicity…Can we practice interviewing?," ARTH 388. Videographer Johnny O'Neil.

Sharing is Caring

In November 2021, each public scholar organized an event related to our research at Concordia’s 4Th SPACE. When I approached Coordinator Anna Waclawek with my topic, she – in her infinite wisdom – connected me with Dr. Rebecca Duclos.

Dr. Duclos had been looking for a venue for her students (ARTH388: Alternative Accounts of the Aesthetic Experience) to share their work. Dr. Duclos not only showed enthusiasm for my concept of hauntography (misplaced or intentionally-avoided photographs that remain connected to memories of absent individuals) but also designed the course with this concept in mind, making this theme the focus of her students’ final projects.

Our work began in the summer with the recording of several videos in front of a green screen to be shared with our students. It was such a joy to join her class in the fall. A graduate of Concordia’s Art History department myself, I was thrilled to once again be in the company of all these art students! Listening to them share stories of lost photographs, breathing new life into my topic and making themselves vulnerable, I was moved to tears.

The event, Hauntography: a discussion of the remembered experience through absent photographs, was an opportunity for me to discuss my research and other issues of memory and aesthetic response through photography with Dr. Duclos and our respective students. Final projects were presented throughout the day – interviews, dance, animation, zines, live musical performance, installations, even a listening booth designated for the (authorized) ‘Dear Photograph’ submissions from my students second class. It was an oddly intimate ‘in-person’ exchange amidst a difficult, virtual semester.

Teaching offers many opportunities to acknowledge what you don’t know. Having to convey your ideas – and their worth – to others can rekindle your passion for your topic. The challenges of this year have led to multiple breakthrough moments. Sharing my research with others has opened my mind to the many directions it might go – it will grow – it has legs.

Hauntography: a discussion of the remembered experience through absent photographs, Concordia’s 4TH SPACE, November 23, 2021. Photo by Margaret Lapp.

Alone Time

I got a new desk – the stand-up kind – it’s going to fix everything.

The kids have returned to school (again), it’s quieter around here and I’m running out of things ‘to do’ before wrapping up my dissertation. Getting back to this enormous document feels difficult, but in a way, I guess I’ve been thinking about it all year.

Somebody told me once that if you placed a book under your pillow, you would absorb some of the information overnight. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I passed Math 514. Not everything about the public scholar experience has been comfortable, but I’ve walked away with so much more to write about and a great deal more confidence.

Back in my head, I think of things my students shared, exchanges at the 4TH SPACE event, of the few shows I got to play before things started to suck again – all the lovely people I met and all the support I received.

I’m alone again, but not really.

Shhh… I’m dissertating. Photo by F. Hamer.

About the author

Photo of Felicity T.C. Hamer

Felicity Tsering Chödron Hamer is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies. She has a background in photography (Dawson Institute of Photography DEC) and holds both a BFA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Concordia University. She is a Montreal-born, recording and performing vocalist, songwriter and mother of two.

In her research, Felicity explores the relationship between photography-based media and remembrance. Her doctoral research has been supported by scholarships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Fonds de recherche du Québec - Société et culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University. In 2020 she was awarded both Concordia’s Stand-Out Graduate Research Award and FRQSC’s Relève étoile Paul-Gerin-Lajoie Award for her book "Parental Grief and Photographic Remembrance: A Historical Account of Undying Love." Bingley: UK, Emerald Publishing. (February 2020).

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