Always Learning: Organising a Workshop on Holocaust and Second World War Comics
As a PhD student, you are constantly learning.
Of course, you learn about topics specifically related to your thesis, but, in the day-to-day, you are learning all sorts of new general skills: analysing, presenting, teaching, communicating, leading, organising, and problem-solving, to name just a few.
Learning the ins and outs of organizing a research workshop is one such skill I developed during my time as a NIOD Junior Fellow. This is invaluable experience for any aspiring academic, and it is more complex than meets the eye.
In this blog post, I will share some of the outcomes of a workshop I organized on Holocaust and Second World War comics during my time at the NIOD. However, alongside this, I also want to offer an insider view into the process of planning an academic workshop. Too often in academia, information is only given on outputs and final products with little insight into what goes on behind the scenes. I hope here to allow for some transparency, and to provide a window into the life of a researcher.
Choosing a Topic
When you come up with an idea for a research workshop, you want to be sure that the topics covered are fruitful for attendees in addition to yourself and your own research. I also wanted to be sure the workshop was helpful for NIOD researchers and their interests, to add to existing knowledge and foster the institutional research community.
Even prior to my time in Amsterdam, I had noticed through my research that the Netherlands has a notably high concentration of people interested in depictions of the Holocaust in comics. This includes researchers such as NIOD’s own Kees Ribbens and museums professionals such as staff at the Anne Frank House and Westerbork.
My own research looks at the use of Holocaust comics specifically within the educational programming of museums and memorial sites. This was my starting point for the workshop topic, but, like in any PhD project, these parameters are very narrow and needed to be widened to allow for more diverse interests.
So, taking into account the research interests of myself, the NIOD, and the wider Dutch community, I settled on a topic wider than but close to my PhD: the Holocaust and Second World War comics.
Networking and Collaboration
In addition to being a space for exploring research topics and developing ideas, a research workshop can be a place to meet like-minded people and to network. The opportunity to network was a significant reason behind holding the workshop in person instead of online. Many of those attending the workshop, while having similar research interests, had not met previously. Making new connections and forging new working relationships in this way can help lead to collaborative research projects, or provide new avenues for gathering data.
Some of the attendees had already collaborated previously and were able to share this work with the rest of the group. One collaborative project which was discussed was But I Live, an anthology of three graphic novellas about the lives of four Holocaust survivors. This project, based at the University of Victoria, is international in scope, and includes project partners such as the Anne Frank House (present at the workshop), the Arolsen Archives, and Yad Vashem. Another collaboration which was shared was the edited volume Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and the Holocaust: Beyond Maus. This volume was edited by workshop attendee Ewa Stańczyk and included contributions from two workshop attendees, Kees Ribbens and Diederik Oostdijk. It was exciting to see the networks and collaborations which had already been formed among the workshop attendees, and it is every workshop organiser’s hope that bringing researchers together will help facilitate further networks.
Even small, informal research workshops take a long time to plan. Considering the workshop had to be planned and held within two months, there was not enough time to request attendees prepare extended presentations on their research. To help combat the time constraints, as members of the host institution, Kees and I each gave a 20-minute presentation on our work, allowing for questions and open discussion at the end. I presented one of my case studies, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s CHUTZ-POW!: Superheroes of the Holocaust comic series[LINK?].
Presenting and receiving feedback is an essential (though sometimes very nerve-wracking!) part of academia. The feedback you receive when you present your research often helps you to look at your topic in a new way. You get so close to your work that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees at times, and presenting can help you to take a step back, to see your topic from another point of view.
Let me give you an example.
Prior to the workshop, I had always considered CHUTZ-POW! to be in the style of American superhero comics. This is perhaps understandable considering the title, and, for example, the cover of the first issue in which Les Banos. The cover depicts a Jewish-Hungarian agent for Allied intelligence who infiltrated the SS during the war ripping off an SS uniform to reveal a Star of David - a clear reference to Superman.
However, some of the workshop attendees noticed a disconnect between how the comics are advertised, i.e. as superhero comics, and the content of the comics, which would best be described as graphic biographies. Indeed, the stories within the comics are true stories of rescue and resistance. They are not embellished for narrative effect. None of the characters have any inhuman superpowers. Even much of the art is not in American comic book style, as each issue is a collaboration of many artists. All of this being said, in essence, the CHUTZ-POW! comics are anthologies of graphic biographies within a superhero package.
These helpful comments from the workshop made me realize that I need to provide a more detailed analysis of my case study comics, to delve deeper into each disparate aspect: the covers, the stories, the art styles, the artists, the writers - it is only by taking all of these factors into account that I will be able to provide a complete and meaningful case study.
My experience with the workshop at the NIOD showed me that neither you nor your research project are ever finished developing and improving. Organizing the workshop helped me to grow as an academic, developing my practical skill set as well as improving my thesis. As isolating as the research process can sometimes be, it is crucial to remember the importance of collaboration and peer support within research, and that we always can and should be learning from one another.