Update from the Annual ACT Meeting

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From October 14 to 16, 2016, the third annual ACT meeting took place in Castelldefels, Catalonia, Spain. This year, it was the ACT partner IN3 at the Open University of Catalonia (OUC) that welcomed the ACT team. Some 35 ACT members, including co-applicants, collaborators, community members and students, travelled from North and South America, Europe and Asia to participate in the meeting.

Over the past few years, the format of the meeting has been rather consistent: we meet for three days and hold a mix of presentations and discussions, all of which tend to be colloquial and informal in tone. Researchers and community members who have been funded in the past year by ACT are invited to present, briefly, on their work. This makes up the bulk of the three days. The idea behind this approach is for projects to be presented at whatever stage they may be, so as to cultivate an awareness of the projects that are newly in the works at ACT. Sometimes, ideas and rough plans are brought to the group for feedback. Researchers also present results and share publications. Updates the ACT activities in Montreal, the goings-on of the working groups, and the unfolding of the ACT-sponsored summer schools like the Women Ageing Media (WAM) Summer School and the Graz University Summer School Seggau (GUSEGG) are presented.

Since receiving funding in 2013, ACT has organized a public talk each year and invites a keynote speaker. To connect with the host locale, ACT also extends an invitation to the local university community to join the ACT group for these few hours (Montreal and Castelldefels) or combines the meeting with a local event (Bucharest). Over the last three meetings, keynote addresses have been an opportunity to build up the profile of ACT and ageing studies in our respective locales, to meet and exchange with researchers outside of the group, and to give us a collective opportunity to engage with and react to an in-depth research presentation. This year, the UOC organizing team invited Professor Feliciano Villar from the University of Barcelona. His presentation centred on the concept of generativity in later life, with an emphasis on how this concept operates within the context of Spain. As Professor Villar argued, generative ageing is one way to question current discourses on ageing, including positive, successful and active ageing, a position that sparked a lively discussion and debate.

During the meetings, and to ignite debate, discussions are organized on specific topics that the ACT Governing Board has selected. This year, two themes were identified: one on representations of age and ageism and another on quantitative methods. Inspired by the WAM Manifesto and at the instigation of local organizers, another conversation identified the need and desire to write an ACT manifesto for conducting non-ageist or age-aware research. The idea was received with enthusiasm and a working group of seven researchers from Canada, Finland, Spain, the UK, and the US was immediately formed.

At the end of each day, even when we are all tired after hours of presentations and discussions, we often find ourselves still eager to spend time together. The students, Grannies on the Net researchers and the Governing Board all hold meetings to hash out research ideas and make future plans. We share meals, and sometimes, when the conditions are just right, we dance.

Over the past few years, we have tried to develop a meeting formula that is representative of what we want ACT to be. We seek to be intellectually rigorous, critical and productive in intervening in a multiplicity of discourses on ageing, communication and technologies across disciplines. We also seek to be inclusive, to valourize a diversity of approaches and frameworks, and, especially, to foster a membership that is happy to spend time together, develop shared goals, and work collaboratively within the ACT project.

Perhaps one of the most salient markers of the success we’ve had in regard to the latter point has been the emergence of collaborations at meetings that continue to feed our activities for the next year. One just needs to listen in on a few conversations at dinner or during the breaks to see this in action: people express interest in joining projects and in replicating or adapting them in their settings. Others people are eager to borrow pedagogical tools or to invite a fellow ACT member to give a workshop or keynote. Ideas for ACT panels and guest talks are pitched. Working groups, journal issues, and books are plotted. Some of these ideas seem speculative one year, then we find out that they have come to past the next.

ACT is indebted to the enthusiasm and organizational prowess of the hosts of the 2016 meeting. Daniel Blanche, a PhD student at UOC who has been working with many of us since before ACT came to be, has put countless hours in the organization of this ACT meeting. Adrien Semail, a MA student at UOC who is a recent addition to the ACT team, did a similarly outstanding job. Finally, we are grateful to ACT Co-applicant and Director of the Telecommunication Technologies stream, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, who offered to host this meeting and who welcomed us all so warmly.

It’s never too late

Earlier this spring, I met up with my dad as he finished hiking the final kilometres of the Bruce Trail, which is a 900 km trek through South-Central Ontario. As a master’s student with a background in leisure studies, I was curious to learn about my dad’s decision to hike this strenuous trail and to know why he decided to do it now, in retirement.

Perpetuating exclusion in Wikipedia

Wikipedia has become an indispensable source of online information for students and researchers because of its ease of use as well as its reputation as a user-generated encyclopaedia of shared knowledge. But is it? Our research suggests a much more complicated and twisted tale. Wikipedia is a space of negotiation, contestation and struggles over inclusion and exclusion into “encyclopedic” knowledge.

Dr. Ros Jennings from WAM: How Music, Gender and Ageing Converge

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Dr. Ros Jennings is Head of Post-graduate Research at the University of Gloucestershire UK, looking after over 500 research students in their learning about research methods. Passionate about music, life stories, gender and ageing, Dr. Jennings is the founder of the Centre for Women, Ageing and Media (WAM) and a collaborator of the Ageing and Communication Technologies (ACT) project.

 

During a short visit to Montreal, Dr. Ros Jennings stopped by the ACT office and happily shared some of her current and forthcoming research, as well as her vision about ageing, media, and gender. “There is a tight connection between studying approaches to identities through music, memory, personal storytelling, and ageing; and I demonstrate it in my current research,” states Dr. Jennings. For her, music is a cherished topic for many people, because it can say a lot about their identity as it closely relates to personal taste and family histories (such as the passing on of values to future generations). Using soft-end qualitative research methods, Dr. Jennings prioritizes research that relates to participants’ experiences and emotions. In doing so, she gives priority to their personal voices and experiences. In addition, her research integrates feminist and activist perspectives, which, by tradition, aim to give voice to people who haven’t had the chance to speak up in society.

In 2007, Dr. Jennings, with a small group of academics from diverse disciplines, formed a research network called WAM – the Centre for Women, Ageing and Media – in the University of Gloucestershire. Interested in questions around media, film, television studies, and age, researchers started holding informal meetings to brainstorm the mission and scope of this network. WAM were awarded an Arts and Humanities research grant to run a series of workshops around the UK to raise awareness about the issue of women, media and ageing, through various themes such as visibility and invisibility, commodification, older non-heterosexual identities, media representation, and mediating the body. Given the major international interest in the topic, other experienced scholars in ageing studies joined the network, curious to learn about media and representation. This formed an even more interdisciplinary mix of academic researchers.

In 2013, WAM joined the ACT project. As one of its key research partners, it continues to share resources and interests with researchers throughout Europe and beyond. WAM has held international conferences and summer school every year, for the past three years. “It’s been so useful, pivotal in generating a set of resources of working in age studies,” shares Dr. Jennings. Focusing on the amalgamation of topics and methodologies around ageing and media, the summer school’s participants include students, scholars, and university professors who are interested in learning about implementing questions of ageing in their own research.

Dr. Jennings is currently finishing a research project on life stories related to the variety of ways people access music, including tunes they have not chosen (i.e. from a radio). Her research includes questions related to digital media, such as the (lack of) materiality in the new technologies related to music. Next year, through WAM, she is starting a major book project with her colleague Ab Gardner called EuroVision – Music and Ageing Across Cultures, which will cover personal stories of project participants from all over Europe. Stay tuned.

Marlene Goldman and Larry Switzky on Playing Age

Marlene Goldman and Lawrence Switzky

On February 27th and 28th, the University of Toronto’s Literature Department will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to ask questions, tell stories, and initiate conversations about age and the processes involved in ageing. Playing Age is an interdisciplinary symposium that will provide scholars with the opportunity to discuss and flesh out concepts of play and age, and, of course, the connections between the two.

One of the foundational ideas of the symposium relates to the way in which the performing arts “perform or rehearse age.” The conference is also an opportunity to think about how different arts represent age and, at the same time, how they challenge conventional representations of age. Keynote speakers Elinor Fuchs and Margaret Morganroth Gullette will present on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with University of Toronto (U of T) faculty members and symposium organizers Marlene Goldman and Lawrence (Larry) Switzky about the upcoming gathering. Marlene is a Professor in the Department of English who specializes in contemporary Canadian literature. Most recently, her work has been exploring narratives of illness and the intersections that fall between storytelling and medicine. She’s recently been spending time speaking to clinicians and geriatricians, researching Alzheimer’s, from both a literature and a medical perspective. Larry is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. He is currently completing a manuscript about the rise of theatre directing as an artistic profession from the 1880s through the 1950s. He has also been writing and presenting papers that focus on the capacity of video games, philosophical thought experiments, and live performances to help us differently imagine moral choice scenarios.

Our conversation, rambling in the way that good conversations are, covered a wide range of topics – we discussed the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, the chemistry that occurs at great conferences, the way in which people are always playing and performing age, the vulnerability of young and old bodies, among many other rich topics. Our lively conversation was surely foretelling of the exchanges that will happen at the University of Toronto at the end of the month.

Origins of the conference

In March 2013, Marlene and Larry watched an experimental production of King Lear. The production, which featured prominent Canadian actor Clare Coulter as King Lear, bent ideas of age and gender. For Marlene and Larry, this production of Lear evoked thoughts about what it means to play age—both on and off the stage. Conversations they were having about the play blossomed into an idea for an event that could bring other people into their conversations. Marlene even divulged that her “secret way of learning things is to hold a conference.”

Larry explained that the “relationship between the performing arts and ageing, or how we rehearse age, was one of the entry points of the initial conversations about the conference” and Marlene expanded on this by suggesting the conference will involve a “broad investigation of play in both ritual and make believe spaces.” She explained that her conversations with Larry highlighted the fact that “play” can no longer be limited to conversations about Shakespeare or classical theatre. Through technology, through representation, and through avatars, play has moved, quite dramatically, into mass culture. With hopes of keeping these conversations going, Marlene and Larry decided to initiate the Playing Age symposium, which is one event among several working groups that will be taking place throughout 2015. The symposium has been built around framing questions (found here: https://playingage.wordpress.com/) that invite scholars to explore specific ideas and texts before the gathering in late February.

Why an interdisciplinary conference?

At different points throughout our conversation, Marlene and Larry used a variety of metaphors to talk about the interdisciplinary nature of the upcoming conference. Both of them initially described the conference as a big tent event: an opportunity for scholars from different disciplines to ask questions and pull apart concepts. Later, Marlene elaborated to say: “actually, I don’t think of it as a tent, I think of it as a chemical reaction.” Larry further emphasized the way in which scholars from different disciplines can challenge one another in ways scholars from the same discipline cannot. The symposium includes scholars from literature, theatre, communication studies, sociology, and public health, among other fields. A fruitful pushback happens when scholars from different disciplines are asked to define and explain the concepts they use. This pushback becomes increasingly beneficial when scholars from both the sciences and the humanities are welcomed into the conversation. A goal of this interdisciplinary conference will be to make tiny interjections across the disciplines. Not only will the outcomes of these “tiny interjections” shape future research, they will push the young and growing area of age studies forward.

Building from an understanding that age studies is a burgeoning area of study, Marlene and Larry both suggested that critical theory in ageing studies is at a forefront. Similar to the way in which critical theorists in feminism’s early days were working to carve out new concepts and theoretical territory, age studies theorists are currently establishing new concepts. In the past few years, new organizations have come to formation (NANAS, ACT, ENAS, for example).  Journals dedicated to age studies are also opening up. Expanding on this, both Marlene and Larry emphasized the challenges of trying to build a critical discourse amidst a culture of repression: how do we best build a vocabulary for ageing within an age-phobic, youth obsessed society? Marlene referred to the work of Stephen Katz, Paul Higgs and Chris Gillard, among others who are contributing insightful critical work to the domain of age studies. In a field as complex and important as age studies, an interdisciplinary approach will contribute best to building a rich vocabulary and working through critical, creative methods.

Playing age – on and off the stage.

The concept of playing age is open to interpretation and these interpretations will be key to the upcoming symposium. In their conceptualization of the symposium, both Marlene and Larry agreed that the concept of play would have to move beyond classic representations of play that already exist in literature and theatre.

One way to understand the concept of playing age is to put the emphasis on play. An outcome of the growing dominance of mass digital culture is the shifting and redefinition of concepts of play. In fact Mary Flanagan, who recently was a guest speaker at a working group also called “Playing Age” that meets monthly at the University of Toronto, runs a gaming lab named Tiltfactor out of Dartmouth. Her work looks at the relationship between older adults and games. Larry’s work, particularly his work on gaming and ethics provides different angles into the ways we can think about playing age. Referencing the research of Mary Flanagan, Larry pointed out that the fastest growing population of ‘gamers’ is actually composed of older adults – not teenagers, as many might assume.

Themes around playing (or performing) age in our every day lives also appear. One of the fascinating areas Marlene explores in her research relates to the way in which we become strangers to our own bodies and our physical features as we age. Writers have discussed the phenomenon of “seeing the stranger in the mirror” which, Marlene explains, is a phenomenon that happens when we feel a certain age but look another. She expanded on this, saying that there is often a contradiction between how you feel and how others read your body and your chronology. In simple terms: “you feel 17 but you catch yourself in a shop window and you see a reflection of an old hag: you read yourself as a stranger.” To further expand, Marlene added that she is interested in further exploring the strange alliance between ageing and shaming: why do we have a sense of repulsion and disgust? Arguably, ageing studies scholars are carving out a space in critical discourse that can pull apart these socially bound feelings and reactions. Hopefully, to make room for conversations that can incorporate the complexities of ageing while also confronting the prejudice, stereotypes, and the processes of shaming mentioned by Marlene.

While the conference will certainly bring together a lively group of scholars, it will also become part of an important foundation for age studies – a foundation that is presently changing the way we think and talk about age.