Reflections on my Laidlaw Research Project

Over this past summer, I had the incredible opportunity of conducting research in Spain and Portugal through the Laidlaw Undergraduate Programme. My project, titled “Iberian Long Sixties? Youth Culture and Gender in Spain and Portugal, 1958-1980”, applied historian Arthur Marwick’s model of the “Long Sixties” to the Iberian Peninsula. In other words, in two countries that were experiencing transitions from dictatorships to democracies, were there “cultural revolutions” as well as political ones?

The most significant problem I encountered during my research was related to the idea of comparative studies. I struggled to find equal amounts of research for both countries. Contemporary scholars have not extensively explored modern Portuguese history, and I ran into several problems of symmetry. For example, while Spain had a prosperous cinematic tradition that allowed me to analyse cultural change through popular films, Portugal’s film industry was comparatively underdeveloped. Throughout my project, I had to continuously question when it was appropriate and fitting to compare these two countries. I also had to accept that many of the assumptions I had prior to my project were not correct. Before I started research, I believed these two countries were considerably more similar in their political and cultural history than they truly are. This allowed me to understand the difficulties historians face in the field of comparative studies. As academics, we have to continuously question: when is it appropriate and justifiable to compare two cultures?

Despite these difficulties, I was able to locate some gaps in the study of contemporary Iberian history. While there is significant research on the political changes that these two countries experienced in the 60s and the 70s, there is considerably less scholarship on the cultural effects, and how these cultural transformations affected Spanish and Portuguese citizens in their everyday lives. There is much more room for English scholarship on these two countries, and I hope to contribute in my future research plans.

Finally, my project has also taught me something absolutely crucial: what I do not want to do. While my experience with the Laidlaw Programme this summer certainly confirmed my decision to pursue my historical studies to the postgraduate level, my project also helped me narrow down my academic interests. I now know, for example, that I am more interested in an earlier time frame, and will most likely conduct my postgraduate research in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Iberian history. Ultimately, I am deeply indebted to the Laidlaw Programme for allowing me to confirm my future career ambitions, making me feel much more confident about what is to come in these next few years.

Laidlaw Blog Post- Maryam Golafshani

I began the summer with plans to uncover why reading Virginia Woolf’s literature is valuable in medical education, but what I ended up doing was stepping back to interrogate the premise I was founding my research upon: why is literature valuable in medical education in the first place? Of course, numerous academics have already made the case for this, but I was interesting in interrogating their approach through postcolonial theory. Making a clear case for what literary analysis offer medical education seemed paradoxical because literary analysis is the opposite of clear: it is ambiguous, uncertain, and unknown. Anyone who has sat in a literature classroom knows what I mean: everyone in the class has the exact same combination of words in front of them, but always struggle to reach any one clear, certain, and known conclusion about it. I became fascinated with how medicine and literature approach the known and the unknown—and how postcolonial and feminist theory give us insights about how to reconcile their varied approaches.

I know: it’s all starting to sound incredibly theoretical. But what I want to emphasise is that my Laidlaw internship experience taught me how even highly theoretical research is ultimately grounded in concrete realities.

My research took me to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where I learned with the scholars who founded and lead narrative medicine research. Chatting with the very scholars you have cited numerous times is at once humbling and inspiring: humbling to hear their insight, and inspiring to realise that they are excited for a new generation to continue building upon that insight. This aspect of my research allowed me to see how research really is a dialogue with a broader research community—nothing like the stereotypical image we may have of a researcher holed up alone in their office or lab. It was conversations I had at this conference that sparked the shift in my research, reminding me that research so often emerges from real conversations with real people—not just from the mind of some researcher who is wandering alone in some abstract clouds.

Through this narrative medicine research community, I have also come to know several incredibly compassionate and talented physicians, who I had the honour of shadowing back in Canada while conducting my research for the Laidlaw programme. This opportunity to witness narrative medicine in practice fuelled my motivation to research throughout the summer: I witnessed how these physicians’ literary practices and research translated into more effective medical practice. Research, especially in the humanities where it often verges towards theory, can often feel disconnected from the real world—sometimes bordering on feeling useless. But these clinical experiences taught me that research doesn’t have to happen in a theoretical bubble; research can—and should—be informed by real practices.

Finally, as graduate school application deadlines loom, I’m recognising how this research experience has been formative to my future. This time last year, I was skimming through applications for various Master’s program and funding bodies, thinking it would be impossible to write a research proposal. How was I supposed to know exactly what I wanted to research for my M.A. dissertation before even starting my M.A.? How was I supposed to hone all my research interests into one concise and specific proposal? The entire application process seemed daunting and backwards, but by the end of my Laidlaw internship, I had replaced these questions with new ones that would form the basis of my research proposal. The opportunity to dedicate my summer to research without the pressure of actually writing a dissertation allowed me to focus on what

particular research questions piqued my interests, rather than forcing myself to draw final conclusions—which brings me back to where I started: the unknown. Even when research answers one question, it simply leads to many more questions, thereby continuously revealing all that we don’t know.

(Submitted on behalf of Maryam Golafshani)