By Alexander Coupe |

When we meet other researchers at conferences are we really listening? Is this meeting establishing a common language between our projects? I would suggest that we often enter into academic encounters not in the name of understanding and genuine exchange but as a way of fixing our academic identities. We might talk to a specific professor in order to be recognised as researchers working in a certain field; we might keep our ideas to ourselves with an eye toward future publication; we might deliver papers merely to build our CVs. But that does not mean those participating in the exchange have a genuine interest in learning from one another. This contradiction between the stated goal and reality of academic exchanges has interested me for a while. Just as we often do in our actual research, we need to interrogate whether the spaces and places that host academic exchanges affect how we encounter other researchers and their work.

When I discussed ways to overcome these issues with two other researchers, we came across the concept of the ‘sandpit’. More common in the hard and social sciences, sandpits are residential workshops that bring together researchers from different institutions and disciplines to discuss a specific topic or problem and present their ongoing work. In October I helped to organise a 7-day research sandpit, funded by the Consortium of the Humanities in South East England (CHASE), involving 10 PhD students studying practice and theory-led projects that engaged in the themes of ‘space, place and time’. Open to all doctoral students at CHASE institutions regardless of funding, the idea was not only that it would be productive to facilitate collaboration between those researching similar topics, but that the sandpit might provide a form that would place under scrutiny the aforementioned spaces, places and times in which normally we exchange and disseminate our research.

sandpit2We did not, however, escape pier review.

Our sandpit differed from this model in several important respects: the entire thing, from cooking to presenting, was run by PhD students. It took place in an location of geopolitical interest, the Nida Art Colony in Lithuania, close to the border with Russia and the Kaliningrad exclave. There were no rigid outcomes beyond providing space and time to discuss, plan and perhaps even produce new work and collaborative projects. We wanted to give each other time – 7 days – to properly learn about each other’s work and PhD experience in an environment that wasn’t characterised by the usual hierarchies and pressures of institutional life in HE. Without going into details about what we actually discussed, I’d like to outline what I learned from the experience, and why I think research sandpits are a useful model for humanities PhD research.

The intimacy, proximity and non-hierarchical qualities of a PhD sandpit can facilitate academic generosity. This generosity involves taking time not only to properly communicate one’s own research to non-specialists, but also to constructively criticise and engage with the work of others. Bringing together researchers from a diverse range of disciplines allows us to be freer with disclosing those nascent projects and ideas that we might otherwise withhold due to the highly competitive nature of our specific fields.


The ability to focus on the process of understanding and exchanging ideas is increasingly lost in the solitary endeavor that is producing a PhD and the attendant demand that we, in completing this work, prove ourselves to be slick academic operators. We attempt to perform ourselves as measurably competent and self-sufficient researchers. But in reality ideas arise out of a multitude of conversations – the messy and clumsy process of conveying ideas to others and vice versa. Because the sandpit encourages us to commit to discuss each other’s research, it foregrounds the fact that the PhD endeavor is ultimately one reliant on cross contamination.

I think sandpits also offer the chance for researchers to play with theory and practice. This is something we discussed a lot after our own trip. It is not that we participated in this sandpit in order to get away from academia; rather, we took part in order to reinvigorate our research. I think practice-led PhDs are perhaps better at understanding the pedagogical value of play. The material contingencies of producing an artwork always necessitates a kind of improvisation. By contrast, an essay’s unforeseen conclusion is often put down to bad planning. But discussing ideas across disciplines requires us to leave behind specifics and turn to our theoretical frameworks. Putting such frameworks in conversation, speculatively applying them to each other’s objects of study, allows us to return to and re-animate our own research and generate new practice.

The space of the sandpit itself therefore plays a crucial role in facilitating this playfulness and in bringing together theory and practice led approaches to research. As we put it in our field guide: ‘The traversal of space, crossing of borders and embodied encounters with obstacles and objects, offered us ways to explore theories such as how the bodily, spatial and social are entangled. We discussed the geopolitics of the Nida region in-situ. The journey was undertaken together, so that shared sensory experiences triggered conversation and contexts for the discussion of particular texts.’

sandbox2The space around the colony.

The establishment of a common language requires a space in which we can take time to exchange and translate across disciplines ideas and problems that arise in our research.  Speaking from my own experience, it helped me to better articulate my ideas, built my self-confidence and brought to my attention the value of certain theories to my research. I have even started collaborating on a possible conference paper! As such I feel that sandpits can offer a space to complement those in which we are under pressure to demonstrate academic competence and knowledge. In an age of TEFs and REFs, the non-hierarchical and informal qualities of sandpits allow us to be a little less worried about performing a sense of mastery and professionalism. Rather, it can allow us to refocus on the fundamentals of the research encounter: understanding, generosity and collaboration.

Alexander Coupe is an AHRC-funded PhD student in the Department of Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London. His project, provisionally entitled ‘Embodying community: politics as performance in post-Agreement Northern Ireland’, explores how the body is used to represent, enact and resist ideas of community across a range of performance contexts. He is co-organiser of the Gender, Sexuality and Violence Research Network, a project funded by the CHASE doctoral training partnership and sometimes talks about masculinities in schools. Twitter(s): @acecoupe and @chasegsv

(Cover image (c) The Space, Place and Time Research Group; Images 1 and 2 (c) Alexander Coupe)