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The How Do I? Blog

The How Do I? Blog

#TakeFiveWith Robbie Campbell

Take Five With Robbie Campbell - pictured is Robbie playing a type of xylophone music from Mozambique called timbila, with two people standing behind him

Take Five With Robbie Campbell - pictured is Robbie playing a type of xylophone music from Mozambique called timbila, with two people standing behind him

Could you tell us about yourself and your job role? And one hobby/fun fact?

I’m currently a PhD student at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which is part of the University of London. I’m in an ethnomusicology department. This means we look at the relationship between music and culture, kind of like an anthropology of music. I was in my final year but have just had another extension so it’ll actually be a little over a year before I have to submit my final thesis. I also do some teaching and help with workshops.

I’m part of a regular Buddhist meditation group, so when I’m not working on my thesis, I spend a lot of time doing meditation and mindfulness practice. It really helps me concentrate.  


What is a typical day like for you?

I try to have routines, but because the research process is made up of different kinds of tasks, I have multiple routines I sort of drift in and out of depending on what I’m doing.

Sometimes, when I’m working on a particular part of my thesis, I have to do more conventional research and focus on academic tasks. I’ve recently been working in the Wellcome Collection Library. They have a nice variety of work spaces and right now I’m in an assistive technology room, which is very quiet and peaceful and helps me focus.    

Sometimes I play music. I lead a small group that plays a type of xylophone music from Mozambique called timbila, which is what my research is on. When I’m doing that I’m at the university in the music rooms.

At other times I work from home on a laptop. I like to use audio-visuals to present my research, so I’ve done a lot of photography and filmmaking, as well as other things like audio narratives. My thesis is going to be a website, rather than a written document so that you can explore all the media alongside the written findings. This is a really important part of the research, which is all about Neurodiversity and Ethnomusicology, and how information is experienced in cultural systems.

My typical day depends on what kind of information I’m working with, on what my routine is, and where and how I want to work during that particular phase. I always try to work in the morning and am a morning person in general! By about 3pm I’ll have stopped functioning super well when absorbing academic information, so I tend to slow down a bit before then and focus more on emails, admin, meetings, or just do other things.


Could you tell us how you got into your role?

I worked for over a decade in the television industry as a Location Sound Recordist. I hadn’t done an undergrad degree as I started that job when I was nineteen-years-old. I knew I wanted a career change and was thinking about going back to study, but I knew there were some issue with my academic abilities. I was thirty four-years-old when I was diagnosed with dyslexia, and it really changed my whole thinking.

I’ve always been a musician, so as soon as I started looking at what dyslexia meant, and what it meant to me, I was immediately interested in the relationship between dyslexia and music.

At the beginning it was really difficult just to engage with the academic process at SOAS as I’d gone straight into Higher Education at Master’s level without an undergraduate degree. I think the process of working out how to go about it started to feed into my research, which was already on music.

By the time I got to the end of my Master’s degree I was thinking about doing a PhD. I’d become more and more interested in things like styles of learning, neurodiversity, dyslexia, and how information is transmitted and experienced. So that became the topic of my musical research and I just went into it from there.

I feel really lucky this topic fell into my lap. I didn’t pick it, it just chose me. I wasn’t really thinking about my PhD in terms of career, I was just really interested in exploring these themes.


What motivates you to do a good job?

I have a few reasons I want to do a good job. Partly I feel like it’s not just my own PhD research, not only my own project. It’s important for any anthropological or ethnographic research that involves working with indigenous communities, in my case a community called the Chopi in rural Mozambique, that a good deal of consideration is given to how the research represents them.

Their genre of music is called timbila, and it’s endangered. The masters of this tradition are now in their 70s and there’s only two or three left alive. When they die, which will certainly be in the next decade or two, it’s going to mean this genre will face irreversible change.

A part of the work I’m doing is about trying and help them preserve elements of their culture. The agreement I have with them is that I will represent what they do, and document it. I also have a scholarship from the university so I feel a sense of commitment to them as well as to the department and my supervisor, who’s been an incredible support since the beginning.

I also feel that making the research accessible by presenting it through a website is important. Not only am I trying to consider people who don’t speak English, such as those in Mozambique, but I also want to make it accessible for people from different academic disciplines, as well as outside academia altogether. I have a transdisciplinary approach to the website with audio, video and photography, as well as things that are more specific to academic disciplines, so I’m hoping there’ll be something there for everyone who’s interested.

I also want the website to be available for people who are neurodivergent, dyslexics particularly, because one of my aims is to present the information in the research through multiple ways, and visual media has a core role in this.

The number one thing that motivates me overall to do a good job though is that I really enjoy doing this research, as it feels important to me. I’ve been given a really precious opportunity to do it so I want to take it and do the best I can. 

How do you learn at work?

I think this is one of the fundamental things I’m exploring in my research, so based on my own experiences of trying to learn how to do academic research, I had to understand what my process is and what different processes there are. Basically, I had to re-learn to understand what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at.

The whole research had been a process of exploring all my strengths and weaknesses. I use quite a lot of different methods and strategies and a few different pieces of software. For example, I use software called Scrivener. It’s a narrative writing tool that lets you arrange your text in different orders, so that’s my main text editor. I also like to record verbal narratives using another piece of software (AudioNotetaker) that helps you visualise the speech and lets you colour code it.

I had some support from Disabled Students Allowance so they gave me some assistive technology, such as mindmapping software. You can create mindmaps and organise your ideas in hierarchical ways. But I also use non-linear and non-hierarchical mindmaps where you can make note of an idea and explore how it goes off in different directions just to get a picture of what your mind’s process is. Then I’ll use physical models, card, or pieces of paper to visualise different relationships between different ideas. I also use PowerPoint quite a lot, not just for presentations but also to storyboard my ideas.

Part of the research process was also to go to Mozambique, so I spent a year there learning how to play timbila with traditional masters. I used my experience with cameras and made two films there, and I’ve been working with those materials.             

I use quite a lot of different processes and find that some of them work for some tasks and others are good for other things. I’ve learnt to recognise that if I’m trying to express something, sometimes it works better as a visual image or a series of images, and sometimes it works better as a narrative.

The reason I think presenting my research through a website is so important is because I can include all these processes in my thesis, which I wouldn’t be able to do in a purely textual format. There are some logistical challenges with copyright, data protection and archiving but I hope this is going to change the way universities think about how ideas and knowledge are created and shared, as well as about issues of accessibility.

Through my PhD thesis I’m trying to help contribute to the idea that university assignments don’t have to be presented in one format, we should be able to use different formats depending on what’s right for the project or the individual. Neurodiversity is the perfect vehicle to explain why we need this approach. People think in different ways and so their work needs to represent that.


What are your aims for the next year? For example, if you work in accessibility do you have any plans to help make workplaces more inclusive? If you work in Learning and Development how are you going to promote workplace learning?

My aim for the next year is to complete and then submit my PhD thesis. I’ve been having extended dialogues with my university about how to manage the submission because of the logistical issues I mentioned, so it will be a great success if I can do it the way I want to. SOAS also wants to, as they see the value in what I’ve been suggesting. But it’s also been a considerable challenge and has highlighted how limited academia is just generally in engaging with anything outside a conventional model.

Also, the restructuring process that many higher education institutions are going through right now has led to major disorganisation. The extension I’m now getting is actually due to this, as SOAS weren’t able to come to a decision about how to technically support me for many months, so I wasn’t able to progress. Like many people, the problem I now have is funding, as the university has offered me extra time, but no extension of my scholarship which ended in 2017. This is the major obstacle for me right now so I’m even wondering about trying to crowdfund in order to finish it.

Overall, the hope is that any success my thesis has will demonstrate that neurodivergent thinking through different formats has much to offer universities. It hasn’t been done before at my university, I’m not even sure at others, so the impact it might have could be enormous. For example, other students at SOAS who’ve heard about my research have already asked if they could present their thesis as a website, or do multimedia online assignments, so I’m hoping my work will open up a space to allow others to do what I’m doing.  


SOAS University website:

SOAS University Twitter Account: @SOAS


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