To explore the online exhibition, see: Then & Now
The Then & Now project was conceived by Dr. Kathryn Woods, formerly Director of Student Experience for the Arts Faculty, to coincide with the faculty’s move into a new building in 2021. The main research aim of this student-led project was to explore the experiences of Arts and Humanities students at Warwick from 1965 to the present. In addition to tapping directly into the experiences of current and former students through oral history interviews, the project examined the art and architectural heritage of the Humanities building, the evolution and expansion of the courses and departments within the faculty, the extra-curricular sides of student life (socialising, sports and societies, student politics) which contribute so much to the vibrancy of Warwick’s campus, and attitudes towards inclusivity and widening participation. A variety of research materials were exploited, including interviews with current and former students, university archives and student publications held in the Modern Records Centre, and the Student Union archives. Social media was actively and strategically used to promote engagement with the project and collaboration was sought with key figures associated with the new faculty building, such as artist Matthew Raw. The project straddled the Coronavirus lockdown, an unforeseeable hurdle which posed significant challenges to the students and necessitated some changes in direction but which made the completion of the project all the more enriching and worthwhile.
Students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, were recruited from across the Arts faculty as of October 2019. The project aimed to promote a greater sense of learning community within the faculty and recruiting a diverse cohort of students to engage in teamworking was an effective way of doing this. Hopefully, the success of this project will encourage more student-led and interdisciplinary research projects within the faculty in the future, perhaps even embedded within students’ curricula.
The interdisciplinary make-up of the group brought a far wider skill-set and more diverse approach to the table than if the students had all come from one department. For instance, where History of Art students are perhaps more at home with material relating to the faculty’s art collection or the building’s architecture, History students are perhaps more used to documentary sources or interviews. The students involved in the project were:
- Lu Chen, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
- Emma Foottit, School of Modern Languages and Cultures
- Christopher Hofmann, Politics and International Studies
- Angela Kim, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
- Alejandra Lechuga Alvarez, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
- Nannan Liu, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
- Emma Lovell, History of Art
- Eilidh McKell, History of Art
- Malina Mihalache, History of Art
- Shai Mitchell, History of Art
- Hannah Oliver, Global Sustainable Development
- Louise Olof-Ors, History of Art
- Yu Peng, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
- Elena Ruikyte, Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
- Meg Russell, Film and TV Studies
- Anna Clara Semenzato, History of Art
- Lauren Sleight, History
- Madeleine Snowdon, History of Art
- Hannah Tickle, Global Sustainable Development
The students were supported by Elizabeth Woods, Assistant Archivist at the Modern Records Centre, and Melissa Downing, Widening Participation Officer at the Library. The experience of such senior colleagues was of great help to the students, for instance in learning to use archive material.
The Project Process
With the students recruited, the project began in earnest. Initial steps in the autumn term included familiarising the students with the resources they would be using, such as the Modern Records Centre archives. It was necessary to establish the particular interests of each student to enable the division of the group into smaller teams focused on particular aspects of the project. A Microsoft Teams space was set up and regular in-person meetings convened to facilitate collaboration between the smaller teams.
The main groupings were Digital Team, Interview Team, and Research Team. The Digital Team focused on developing a coherent social media strategy for the project and on initial plans for the exhibition; this would leave them well placed to pull together the material accumulated by the other teams when the exhibition drew near. The Interview Team was tasked with uncovering the student experience from amongst alumni and current students. Before any actual interviewing, this required liaising with the university’s alumni services to find potential interviewees, refining which topics interviews should cover, learning about oral history interviewing technique, and preparing documents for ethical clearance and participant consent forms. The Research Team focused on the various archives held across the Modern Records Centre and the Students Union, as well as the Mead Gallery..
By the spring term, the project was in full swing. The Digital Team had a timeline in place counting down to the exhibition and a style guide for social media to make posts about the project look professional (both pictured). The entire cohort had collaborated on initial ideas for how the exhibition might be laid out and what format a launch party might take (pictured). The themes being discussed for the exhibition were the fruits of the materials the Research Team had discovered across the various archives. The Interview Team, meanwhile, had prepared the consent forms, secured ethical approval, decided which topics to focus the interviews on, and were making arrangements for conducting face-to-face interviews; it was at this stage that I came into the project, to provide guidance for the Interview Team.
Fig.1: Digital Team’s timeline
Fig. 2: Digital Team’s style guide for social media/project branding
Fig. 3.: Proposed designs/layouts for the physical exhibition.
The Impact of Coronavirus
As the spring term drew to a close, however, the Coronavirus pandemic was becoming increasingly prominent. Shortly after the end of term, the university closed the campus and the nationwide lockdown quickly followed. It was soon apparent that any hopes of face-to-face contact in the summer term were faint, with consequences for how the students would work on the project and the project outputs. Alongside this disruption, the students had to get used to a different project leader when I took over from Kathryn in April.
Continuing the project’s momentum depended on successfully focusing all the work around Microsoft Teams. The students already had some experience of this, having used it to share their work in between the face-to-face meetings, but it would now be their only point of contact with one another. The lockdown necessitated a rethink of the exhibition itself, restricted any further archive work to the materials available digitally, and forced the Interview Team to find a workable way of conducting and recording interviews remotely. Luckily, the Research Team had already collected a great deal of archive material so were not caught too short. The Interview Team settled on Skype as a substitute for in-person interviews, as it is possible to record calls for subsequent transcription.
In the face of these unprecedented circumstances, the students showed remarkable resilience in continuing to work effectively as individuals and as a team to compile the material needed for the exhibition. The circumstances even led to the students broadening the project’s scope, incorporating a ‘Behind the Scenes’ section about their work (both pre- and during lockdown) and a section on experiences of the Covid-19 situation, both of which effectively capture the ‘Now’ side of the project. The Behind the Scenes reflections were a good barometer of how the students as individuals, within their smaller teams, and as an entire cohort had developed and grown across the project, what they had learned, and the challenges they had faced – not least due to the lockdown. Soliciting reflections on the Covid-19 situation from both themselves and the wider university community, meanwhile, chimed with a huge national (and, likely, global) interest in documenting the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on people’s everyday lives and routines. For example, Mass Observation used its annual 12th May call for contributions to ask people across Britain to keep a single-day diary about life under lockdown whilst Historic England asked people to share photographs of how they were coping with self-isolation and social distancing to create a time capsule for future generations1. Warwick’s alumni team, meanwhile, invited former students from across the world to tell them how they were experiencing – or even in some cases fighting – the pandemic. 2
When first conceived, the key output of the project was intended to be a physical exhibition in the Modern Records Centre from the start of June 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic, unfortunately, derailed this ambition, though there is still hope of staging the exhibition at a later date. Further down the line, the intention is to place the exhibition materials in the foyer of the new Arts building itself so that the long and rich history of the faculty’s original home is not forgotten.
Despite the disappointment over the postponed physical exhibition, the project still has a number of exciting outcomes. First and foremost is the online version of the exhibition. Whilst the online format is limiting in some ways (most obviously, in terms of visitors not actually being in the room with the exhibits), it has provided a greater freedom when choosing what to include as more material can be accommodated. It has forced the students to be adaptable and think in different ways about how to engage their audience, for instance through the layout of the content on university webpages designed primarily for text rather than visual appeal and the format of a virtual launch event, itself another output of the project. Several students looked closely at how other platforms more geared towards visual exhibitions, such as Google Arts & Cultures, allow material to be presented. The move to an online exhibition necessitated the creation of a Website Team, tasked with transferring the material compiled in research and interviews to the site itself, as well as designating an individual student to oversee each theme.
Very much linked to the online exhibition is the project’s ongoing social media presence, which has been providing output for several months and has seen a successful engagement with a wide audience. In recent years, universities and academics have come round to the advantages of social media (notably Twitter) for promoting their work and engaging with their wider community. This project being image-heavy and produced by students for students has lent itself very well to Instagram’s focus on images and its popularity amongst young people. According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2019 Instagram was used by 67% of US adults aged under 30, rising to 75% for those aged between 18-24.3 2020 figures for the UK suggest adults aged 18-34 make up 56% of Instagram users.4 A study quoted by LSE claims that fully 90% of Instagram users globally are under 35.5 With the move to an online exhibition, the project’s social media has taken on a new importance as it is the primary vector, along with emails to staff and students, for advertising the exhibition’s launch.
In terms of more “traditional” output, the students will contribute to a special edition of the journal Exchanges, to be edited by Kathryn Woods. The contributions will mix scholarly analysis of the project’s findings, explanations of the different methodologies employed, and reflections on the experience of contributing to the project. One student, Malina, has already had an article about the project published in the Spring 2020 edition of the Art Space journal which gives a flavour of what will appear in Exchanges next academic year.6 The interview transcripts, as archive material generated by the project itself, will hopefully be added to the Modern Record Centre’s collections, making them available for future researchers looking into the evolution of student experience at university.
Project findings and lessons learned
The best way to understand the project’s findings is to explore the website. The students’ research has picked out the story of the Arts faculty and, in doing so, brought attention to a narrative that many current students (and staff) are likely largely ignorant of. Some events in the faculty’s history stand out as shocking, surprising, funny, empowering. There are themes which recur in students’ experiences across the period, some less unexpected than others. Throughout, there is a sense of students’ desire to make Warwick University their university. There is also a clear sense of the extent to which the everyday, the mundane, the routine, contributed to the development and growth of the campus, the faculty, and the university. In the end, the findings were divided into the following themes: Art & Architecture, Behind the Scenes, Covid-19 Diaries, Degree Timeline, Interactive Campus Map, Interview Repository, Student & Alumni Voice/Experience.
Notable findings include:
- The almost exponential growth of the faculty since 1965. In its first year, just 6 degree courses were offered: History, History & Politics, French Studies, English & European Literature, French & European Literature, and English & American Literature. Today, there are over 100 options available, a big factor in this increase being the rise of joint degrees, noticeable in the expansion of joint language degrees since 2015.
- Complaints about the old Humanities building are nothing new. Much maligned by students today for its visual appearance and long, narrow corridors, E. P. Thompson was already criticising its build quality in Warwick University Ltd (1970) and, in 1985, the student-produced Alternative Prospectus described it as ‘one of the ugliest buildings on campus’.7
- Of all the university’s artwork and sculptures, perhaps the most iconic is the Koan (formerly standing sentinel outside the Arts Centre; now relegated to relative – and unjustified – obscurity at Gibbet Hill). The 1990s saw the formation of an unofficial Koan Society, a marriage between the Koan and a female student, sales of Koan memorabilia, and offerings of pizza and beer made to the Koan as part of nights out!
Alongside these findings, many lessons and new skills have been learned during the project. Again, the project’s website is the best place to understand these, primarily through the students’ ‘Behind the Scenes’ reflections. These reflections emphasise the challenges and – particularly – benefits of working as part of such a large team, of meeting and developing relationships with new people who they would otherwise been unlikely to meet, and of sharing the different approaches that people from different disciplines brought to the project. The need for creative solutions in the face of the lockdown is a recurrent theme, too. For some, the project has pushed them outside their comfort zone in offering challenges and opportunities not ordinarily part of university studies. Crucially, the reflections underline the enjoyment the students derived from learning more about their own campus and university – even just the everyday ‘groovy hairstyles and somewhat questionable fashions’ of yesteryear!
The students have built on skills they already possessed through their studies and acquired new ones which complement these. They have acquired new academic and research skills, such as working with archive materials, preparing and conducting oral history interviews, synthesising the most pertinent material to engage an audience through an exhibition, and using social media to promote their work. Most degrees, despite the inherent sociability of campus, halls of residence, sports and societies, etc., involve a great deal of individual study. Ultimately, the success of the degree in academic terms is down to the work of the individual. This project, however, was firmly rooted in teamwork: between the individual students in their smaller Digital, Interview, and Research teams; between the smaller teams as a whole cohort; between the students and university staff such as Kathryn, myself, Liz, and Melissa. Unlike their academic assignments, the students were not in control of all the material required for the finished project. They have had to learn to delegate responsibilities and trust their peers to undertake the work required. Adapting to online remote working due to the lockdown was a further test of their teamworking abilities. It is testament to their trust in one another and their dedication that they were able to continue the project so successfully from afar, as shown by the quality of the content on the website.
1 Yvonne Roberts, ‘Diary entries will chart the mood of Britain in coronavirus quarantine’, The Observer, 10.05.2020, (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/10/diary-entries-will-chart-the-mood-of-britain-in-coronavirus-quarantine) ; Lanre Bakare, ‘Historic England launches lockdown photography project’, The Guardian, 01.05.2020, (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/may/01/historic-england-launches-coronavirus-lockdown-photography-project). For more on Mass Observation, see: http://www.massobs.org.uk/
2 For some examples of the experiences of former Warwick students, see: https://warwick.ac.uk/alumni/news-events/news/
3 Andrew Perrin, Monica Anderson, ‘Share of US adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018’, (10.04.2019), (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/)
4 Instagram users in the United Kingdom (UK) as of March 2020, by age of users’, (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1018012/instagram-users-united-kingdom/)
5 London School of Economics and Political Science, ‘Social media platforms and demographics’, available at: (https://www.the360mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/A-Guide-To-Social-Media-Platforms-and-Demographics.pdf)
6 Malina Mihalache, ‘Then and Now: Warwick Faculty of Arts’, Art Space, 53 (Spring 2020), 16-17, (http://lsa-artists.org/Artspace/Masters/Issue53.pdf).
7 I personally find this critiques rather harsh. Brutalist its architecture may be but it captures the essence of Warwick and is far easier to navigate than the labyrinth that is Social Sciences…