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Stories worth telling

Galen Watts (Cultural Studies) secures one of five top spots in the 2018 SSHRC Storytellers contest.

It’s a lot easier to listen to a good story than it is to tell one. This storytelling process becomes even more complex when you mix it with research. That is why the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada created the SSHRC Storytellers contest, posing a challenge to postsecondary students across Canada to tell their social sciences and humanities research stories.

This year, Queen’s had two students in the Top 25 of the competition. Agnieszka Chalas, a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education specializing in art education, submitted a video entitled, “Painting a Portrait of Evaluation in Art Museums.” Galen Watts, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies specializing in contemporary spirituality, submitted a video entitled, “The Spirit of Millennials: Community and Citizenship in Canadian Life.” Members of the Top 25 each received a cash prize of $3,000.

Galen Watts presenting at Congress 2018. Photo credit: Michael Bell.
Galen Watts presenting at Congress 2018. Photo credit: Michael Bell.

Mr. Watts went on to place in the Top 5 of the SSHRC Storytellers contest after presenting at the 2018 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Regina, and will further showcase his work at the 2018 SSHRC Impact Awards ceremony in Ottawa in fall 2018. The Gazette recently spoke with him to discuss his research and his passion for public outreach.

Tell us a bit about your research.

I am doing a PhD in Cultural Studies, which is very interdisciplinary. I work in religious studies, as well as cultural studies and sociology. Specifically, I’m looking at “spiritual, but not religious” millennials in Canada. The kind of research question I’m interested in is, “what does the rising number of ‘spiritual, but not religious,’ millennials mean for the future of Canadian society?”

Obviously, that’s a really broad question! Since religion has often been a source of community, I try to narrow down my thinking to, what does this mean for community? Does spirituality without religion encourage community? Does it encourage volunteering? Does it encourage positive attitudes towards redistribution?” In many ways, you could say I’m interested in the relationship between spirituality and social justice.

How did you get interested in this topic? What made you pursue a PhD in this field?

I left school for two years during my undergraduate degree, and during those two years I travelled and worked abroad. Over that period, I became really interested in questions of social justice, inequality and equity, as well as questions about how people find meaning. When I came back to school, I completed my degree in philosophy and drama. Graduate work examining questions about spirituality became a perfect means to explore these two issues of social justice and meaning.

What prompted you to apply to the Storytellers contest in particular, and how did you go about creating your video?

To be honest, it was a really spontaneous decision! My fiancée, Chantel Martin (Artsci’14, Ed’15), sent me a link about the contest and I decided to enter. So, I wrote the script, she helped with the visual aspects, and we spent an afternoon recording. The video is an ongoing slideshow, and it was a great collaboration.

What does it mean to you now that you have placed in the Top 5?

Galen Watts with fellow finalists and judges. Photo Credit: Alex Myers.
Galen Watts (third from right) with fellow finalists and judges. Photo Credit: Alex Myers.

I am very happy to get the opportunity to present in Ottawa in the fall. It will be great for my professional career, but it will also be really good to have the chance to tell the top researchers in Canada about what I’m doing and also be inspired by what they’re doing. That’s one opportunity I’m really looking forward to.

In terms of the Congress, it was a very illuminating experience. It was definitely an honour to be there with the other finalists, and it was wonderful to get to meet all of them and see all of the research projects that are going on across Canada. The diversity of research that was presented amazed me. I was really struck by my fellow finalists. The passion and dedication that they brought to their scholarship was very inspiring for me.

One aspect that was particularly nice about the whole experience was that, although we knew we were competing with one another, there was incredible collegiality among all of us. We had a Research Communications Workshop the day before, and we actually had to present what we had prepared to each other and then have everyone give their feedback. It was really clear that everyone wanted each other to do as well as they could.

You do a lot of other media outreach. Why do you think outreach about research is important?

When I came back to school during my undergraduate degree, I realized how important knowledge is for living a flourishing life. Not just for individuals, but for society in general. I think that knowledge is incredibly important, and something that we should value.

However, I am also very aware of the fact that most academic knowledge ends up completely untouched or unread by the vast majority of the population, and I think that is a huge waste. I have committed myself to being able to not just do innovative research, but also make it accessible to everyday people. I think this is an important commitment that any scholar should take up.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to be starting as a visiting student in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge this winter. While I’m there, I will be analyzing all of the data that I’ve collected so that, when I come back from Cambridge, I can start writing my dissertation. In the meantime, I’m carrying out fieldwork and engaging with public media outlets as much as possible.

For more information on the SSHRC Storytellers, please visit their website. Watch Mr. Watts' video below.