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Robbie Campbell has had a circuitous professional life. He started out as a location sound recordist in the television industry, and then went back to school and recently completed a PhD. (He’s also been involved in music projects throughout all of this.) I first got in touch with Robbie about an interview around his unique thesis, which may be the first entirely web-based PhD thesis ever completed in the UK. The subject? The relationships between dyslexia and Chopi timbila xylophone music in Mozambique.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Right now I’m taking my time to decide what my next professional direction will be, but I can reflect that my career so far has led me through two distinct periods. Firstly, I used to work as a location sound recordist in the television industry, which began when I was nineteen and continued for thirteen years. I then went back to study, which took me through a Masters degree and then a PhD, which I just completed this year. I‘ve also been involved in many musical projects since I was a teenager, such as playing in bands, sound engineering, producing or writing music. Photography has also been a regular part of my life.
Having struggled at school (I was only diagnosed with dyslexia in my mid-30s), I didn’t go on to higher education, but fell into a job working as an assistant in a television facility company in London. I quickly became technically proficient with the cameras and sound equipment and after about nine months, decided to go freelance so I could pursue my real interest, which was to have a career in the music industry. Over the next decade I tried to balance musical projects with the television work that was taking me to locations all over the world. I never tried to keep count, but I must have been on over a thousand filming shoots in over 40 different countries. I remember once doing a job for UNICEF where we worked in six different countries across four continents, with only one rest day in six weeks.
It was an exciting but overwhelming period of my life, especially as the work was at times unpredictable and dangerous (e.g. covering conflict), and I was also regularly experiencing and witnessing trauma. Music remained my calling, and after a great deal of inner turmoil, I finally decided to return to study so I could begin anew with my career. This was when I had an assessment and realised I was dyslexic.
Following a basic music theory course (I still can’t read music), I did a yearlong music studies programme. Despite no undergraduate degree, this turned out to be the platform that allowed me to jump straight into a Masters programme at SOAS (University of London), where I then went on to do my PhD. The SOAS music department teaches ethnomusicology, so no particular level of music theory or performance skill is necessary (although of course many extraordinary musicians from many different traditions study there).
As a mature and dyslexic student, learning how to study at Masters level was not easy, and the first year was difficult and confusing to say the least. But once I started to bring in my own learning experiences into the research I was doing on West African music, things became far clearer. Everything started to settle and I decided to do a PhD—as long as I could get funding—in order to continue to explore these fascinating topics around music, dyslexia, neurodiversity and learning. I eventually did get the funding, and my PhD took me to Mozambique, where I learned to play Chopi timbila xylophone music. I also continued to explore the nature and experience of how research is conducted, and how we therefore understand, organise and share information (hence my thesis being a nonlinear multimedia website, not a written document).
I’m deeply proud to have completed the project, which is modelled on my own ‘dyslexic’ way of thinking. It was challenging at every step, in particular as the university had no existing system in place to handle a web-thesis and it took many years of negotiation for the format to be accepted. If my understanding is correct it’s the first entirely web-based PhD thesis in the UK, which is quite extraordinary given how established web-based workflow is in virtually every other sector.
Having now completed my PhD I’m living in Plum Village in France, a Buddhist monastery and lay mindfulness practice centre. It’s a very good environment for me to rest, recover, and allow my next life project to emerge. Plum Village is famous for peace activism, deep ecology, compassionate communication and conflict resolution, and I want to train in these practices before choosing what to do next.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
There’ve been so many people who have offered their support or guided me at various times in my life, but two people in particular have had an enormous impact. The first is the veteran war cameraman, photographer and director Sebastian Rich. I began working with him when I was twenty years old and went on to have many of my most formative life experiences at his side: whether filming NGO projects across Latin America and South-East Asia; covering conflicts in Kosovo, South Sudan and Somalia; making documentaries on all manner of subjects; working on travel shows; or trying to save his life during a medical emergency in rural Cambodia. In the face of such a wide range of challenging situations, the personal and professional trust he had in me at a young age gave me a deep confidence I never knew I had. Being around him was thrilling, fun, reckless, and like nothing I’d experienced before (or since). Sadly, having left the industry we haven’t been in contact for some years now and I can only imagine where is or what he’s doing…!
My second mentor has been Professor Angela Impey, my PhD supervisor at SOAS. I first emailed her back in 2011, as she was convening the Masters programme I was interested in applying for. Despite not having any qualifications at that point, and her not knowing me, she wholeheartedly encouraged me to apply on the grounds of my life experiences. She went on to support me through my MA, and then into my PhD, being a rock beside me as I attempted to challenge the academic system we were both part of. Without fail, every time I met her for supervision, carrying doubts or lacking direction, I left feeling inspired, motivated and supported. It’s so clear to me that without her support not only would I not have completed my PhD, but I wouldn’t have gone to university at all.
Tell me about your current research interests.
Right now, because I’m living in a Buddhist monastery, my ‘research’ is of a more embodied nature. My experience of academia over the last decade has left me full of information, theories and ‘knowledge’: all with strong habit energies around analytical and head-based critical thinking. What was supporting me throughout that whole time, and what I can now invest in more fully, is bringing greater attention back into my own body. Buddhist mindfulness as a philosophy is transformational, but as a practice of simply stopping and really looking into the experiential flow of sensations inside each present moment, it’s beyond comprehension—and therefore description. For now, this is all the research I need!
Why do you find this area of research so interesting?
Well, it’s interesting to think that this is also an academic field, whether you want to call it phenomenology or sensory ethnography or something else; but how would it be if we didn’t then translate it back into the linear verbal domain of language? This is full of paradoxes of course, as I’m only able to describe it now using words. But with music, for example, as my research tried to explore (and then write about!), the organisation of meaning is through patterns of movement, of sound, and through collective participation. It’s entirely in the field of embodied experience, not description.
What’s interesting for me—and continues to be explored by many others—is where exactly the boundaries are around this: what’s acceptable as academia, and what’s not?; And, how far can we move away from words about music before it simply returns back to music-making itself? One of my doctoral examiners felt my thesis didn’t meet the basic requirements for a PhD, while the other thought it had the potential to change the nature of scholarship. It wasn’t an easy situation for me, but it makes me think I probably got it just about right.
How has your approach to your work changed over the past few years, if at all?
I think I’m learning how to bring my own wellbeing back into centre stage with everything I do. My PhD was a big lesson in how a difficult situation (e.g. being a dyslexic researcher in a scriptocentric environment) can be re-traumatising. A PhD is difficult enough as it is—everyone knows that. I’ll need to be more aligned with whatever I do next. I’ll need to be more aligned with whatever I do next. It’ll need to be less demanding if it’s to be sustainable. I also want to make a more positive contribution with the professional skills I’ve developed over the years, for example supporting the hugely successful Plum Village app here by recording and editing content.
If—and it’s a big if—we have the privilege of at least some degree of choice around how, when and where we work, there’s a deep logic in deliberately trying to earn, spend and consume less. So many people simply don’t have conditions to slow their lives down and look more deeply into the meaning of the careers they have and what’s driving them—but some of us gratefully do. Living in a Buddhist community like I do now—which does come with many sacrifices, like personal space—seems like a necessary step for me right now to better learn how to live in a more peaceful and ecological way.
What would you like to see more of in music-related scholarship right now?
I think, put really simply, we need more attention to researcher wellbeing, whether music-related or not. Whatever our working environment contains—whether toxic levels of competitiveness, stress, disconnection and disembodiment, or calmness, generosity, openness and kindness—then this is what we bring into the world. I don’t see much awareness or responsibility about this within academic spaces, especially where researchers are working ethnographically within social groups outside their own (which are often already marginalised, hence being studied). In fact, I’m not aware of any common ethical guidance or procedures about wellbeing of researchers within the sector.
What’s one tip that you’d give a student considering a life in music scholarship starting out right now?
My tip would be to regularly ask yourself: ‘am I enjoying this?’ And if not, then to look into why that is. What can be changed or adapted to offer a better experience? Don’t be afraid to challenge the way you’re being asked to do things—perhaps your own insight can bring new understandings. Each new student generation has slightly different needs and the system has to fit them if they (and therefore the institution) are to be successful.
What was the best music / video or film / book you’ve enjoyed in the past 12 months?
I watched the film Keyboard Fantasies not too long ago about Beverly Glenn-Copeland. It’s a beautiful film about a deeply inspiring human being.
Anything you want to plug?
If you’re interested to have a look at my nonlinear, multimedia PhD web-thesis on dyslexia, neurodiversity and music-making in Mozambique, you can see it here. There’s several films and audiovisual sections, as well as more conventional academic written work.
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