On Collaborative Research and Writing
On 28 April 2013, ninety-five years after Finland’s civil war (27 January–15 May 1918), artist Kaisa Salmi created a performance called Fellman Field: A Living Monument to 22,000 People. It was a site-specific event organized at Fellman Park in Lahti. There, for almost a week in 1918, thousands of civil war prisoners were held to await transport to a prison camp. In this blog, Hanna Korsberg talks about the collaborative process that she and her fellow authors underwent together in order to bring to fruition their new research around that particular performance.
In autumn 2016 I taught a course at the University of Helsinki on academic writing for my MA and doctoral students. Arising from this course, I started an exercise with one PhD candidate, Laura-Elina Aho, and two MA students, Iris Chassany and Sofia Valtanen. Iris and Sofia started their MA studies with the course and Laura-Elina was a new PhD candidate at the time. I proposed to consider a participatory site-specific performance—Fellman Field (2013), created by performance artist Kaisa Salmi—that had interested me for a while, and we agreed to collectively research it.
Collaborative writing is perhaps not that common in the field of theatre and performance studies, though research projects often include participants with various kinds of expertise and researchers in different phases of their careers. Collaborative research and writing offers a joint learning process for all the participants. For example, in the beginning of our project I was the teacher and the initiator of the topic, but during the process my position changed: in the end I was one of the co-authors, the senior one with a longest experience in the field. In archival work I could certainly use my own expertise as a theatre and performance scholar, but using social media as a source material for our argument was something I had never done before. This was something I had the pleasure of learning a lot about from my co-authors.
One of the benefits of collaborative researching and writing is, of course, the possibility of having discussions and exchanging feedback in the middle of the process. Fellman Field belongs to the tradition of participatory performance that explores the relationship between history and memory; more precisely, the civil war of Finland in 1918. The title of the performance refers to the Fellman field, used as a temporary prison camp right after the civil war, nowadays a park called Fellman Park in the middle of the Lahti municipality. Therefore, we spent quite a lot of the time trying to understand the historical conflict, as well as different discourses of political history and memory studies, in order to help us grapple with the performance’s meaning.
Our team met quite regularly after the course ended and especially frequently in the final phase of writing. We sat together with our laptops and worked on the document in Google Docs. For me, this was a very practical way of ensuring the time allocated for research in my own timetable. Needless to say, at the same time I was in the middle of renewing our study programs and dealing with a lot of administrative work. Our commitment to the writing sessions together was, again, one of the benefits of collaborative writing.
The project included also academic activities other than writing an article. Quite soon after starting the project, we submitted an abstract to the research seminar of the Finnish Theatre Research Society. The presentation consisted of several questions and only a few answers; however, it was an important step in the process and the opportunity provided experience for us. We also participated in two other conferences, one in Finland with the theme Traces of the Civil War 1918, and the first conference of EASTAP in Paris in 2018. Our main argument in the presentations was that site-specific performances like Fellman Field have potential to promote understanding and constructively handle the complexity of a national tragedy. The participatory quality, we discovered, enabled the emergence of collectively felt embodied empathy. We divided the tasks of finding materials but shared most of the readings. Our understanding of the performance was created as a group, and the argument emerged during our discussions. It was tested and refined in the discussions too.
As well as encouraging and constructive feedback, we also received important experience in academic activities: for the MA students in this project, these conferences were their first conference presentations. Besides the presentations, reading the peer review reports together was not only one of the highlights of the project but a learning opportunity as well.
As a teacher, I found this project extremely interesting and rewarding and I am, of course, very proud of my students. As one of the authors, I hope you find our piece worth reading.
Read the article Remembering the Finnish Civil War: Embodied Empathy and Fellman Field (free of charge for a limited time) in the latest issue of the Cambridge journal, Theatre Research International.