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Alumni profile - Dr Victoria Grace Walden

The thing I most enjoyed about my PhD was the ever-expanding community it exposed me to, from colleagues and peers at Queen Mary, many of whom I have retained friendships with, to wider academic and professional networks. It gave me the confidence to reach out to institutions working in Holocaust and genocide memory and education to form partnerships that we hope will push forward socio-cultural change. 

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Why did you decide to study a PhD in Film Studies at Queen Mary?

There was one deciding factor in my applying to Queen Mary to study a PhD in Film Studies and that was the potential to have Dr. Libby Saxton as my primary supervisor. Dr. Saxton’s book Haunted Images (2008) is one of the most theoretically astute monographs about Holocaust film.

What was the focus of your PhD research?

My PhD focused on the haptic in Holocaust cinema. Much writing about the Holocaust and film focuses on representation and questions of whether the Holocaust is unrepresentable or not, and if it is, what moral rules should be followed in visualising it in popular culture. I wanted to move beyond this representation paradigm. I was particularly interested in how materialities such as archival footage, survivors’ voices and historical sites were experienced by audiences when they were digitalised in screen media, including documentary films, animations, installations, and apps.

My intellectual interest in genocide probably stems back to having a pen-pal in Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. I learned about the conflicts there through the letters of an 8-year-old and it opened my eyes to a very different experience of ‘childhood’ to that I was living in suburban Surrey.

What aspects of your PhD did you find most enjoyable and was there anything that surprised you in your studies?

The thing I most enjoyed about my PhD was the ever-expanding community it exposed me to, from colleagues and peers at Queen Mary, many of whom I have retained friendships with, to wider academic and professional networks. It gave me the confidence to reach out to institutions working in Holocaust and genocide memory and education to form partnerships that we hope will push forward socio-cultural change.

I think I was most surprised by the level of resilience needed to finish a PhD. It is a long process in which you will face funding, conference, and publication rejections, alongside criticism of your work (some carefully written – like that provided by my supervisory team, Dr. Libby Saxton and Prof. Jeremy Hicks, and some not so much – often through the blind peer-review process). I have come out of it a much stronger and more confident individual, but I always warn my students interested in embarking on the process to be ready for an emotional rollercoaster! You definitely spend a long time feeling like you haven’t achieved very much (although in reality, you’ve actually done a lot!)

What did you love most about the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at Queen Mary?

When I arrived at Queen Mary, I did not know much about the department of Languages, Linguistics and Film, but I was pleasantly surprised by the collegiality, the support in my early days of Higher Education teaching, and the rigorous, original, and inspirational work and enthusiasm of my mentors and colleagues. There is so much exciting teaching and research going on here, from Prof. Janet Harbord and Steve Eastwood’s work on autism and cinema, to Dr. Guy Westwell’s collaborative project with students, Mapping Contemporary Cinema; Prof. Jeremy Hicks’ award-winning work about the first Holocaust films (made in the Soviet Union), to the Film Philosophy and ethics community developed by Dr. Anat Pick, Lucy Bolton, Libby and others in the department.

It is really difficult to say farewell to Queen Mary when you finish your studies and I say this as someone who was the first person in their family to go to university and has not always felt comfortable in Higher Education. I have unashamedly gatecrashed many a department research seminar and Christmas party since.

Your PhD and your ongoing research as an academic have been focused on the Holocaust. How did you initially become interested in the Holocaust? Can you explain the trajectory of your research around this throughout your career?

My intellectual interest in genocide probably stems back to having a pen-pal in Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. I learned about the conflicts there through the letters of an 8-year-old and it opened my eyes to a very different experience of ‘childhood’ to that I was living in suburban Surrey.

I was not sure about going to university after my A Levels, but the BA in Media Arts at Royal Holloway attracted me because it had a module on Holocaust Film. 18-year-old me could not think of enough films about the Holocaust to justify an entire module, but it persuaded me to sign up for the degree. Unfortunately, the module did not run in the year I would have been able to study it due to a staff sabbatical. However, after my BA, the restrictions of having to find an MA that I could fit around full-time work (as a Further Education teacher) led me to De Montfort University’s unusual MA, ‘by Independent Study’, which allowed me to design my own course. I decided to pursue this interest then by focusing on the Holocaust, Nazism, and cinema. I saved up enough during my MA to organise a 5-week research trip to explore Holocaust memorials and museums in Israel and across Europe and wrote my dissertation on the different modes of Holocaust memorialization across multi-platforms, from monuments to film.Holocaust memorial sculpture at the Dachau concentration camp

The impact of that research trip continues to filter through in the types of projects I do now. The PhD grappled with some of the issues that were left unanswered in my MA dissertation, notably in relation to affect, the body, historical materialities, site and cinema; and these were further developed in my subsequent monograph, Cinematic Intermedialities and Contemporary Holocaust Memory (2019).

You currently work as a Senior Lecturer at The University of Sussex. What is the focus of your teaching? What do you enjoy most about being a lecturer?

Like many early career researchers these days, I am on a teaching and scholarship contract at The University of Sussex, which means my day job is teaching-focused and my teaching is broad and has included modules on advertising, media memory and history, documentary, and critical theory. My main responsibilities at the moment include being convenor of the School of Media, Art and Humanities’ media, film and music foundation degree pathway, which is particularly rewarding as I get to support those students who for various reasons did not quite get the grades that they needed to get onto their chosen undergraduate course. I have to say our foundation degree students come into Undergraduate year 1 often far more confident and prepared than new arrivals.

Starting in January 2021, I am also Director of Student Experience for media, film, and music students. During a pandemic, I dare say this is going to be a challenging role, but I am really glad that I will be able to support students through this difficult period.

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ‘Be the light in the darkness’. What would you like people to have in mind on this day and will you be marking this day of remembrance in any way?

I am always slightly dubious about having dedicated days for memorialization, although they are needed to remind people of the past. I think the most important thing I would like people to have in mind on this day is that lighting a candle, listening to a survivor, or going to a ceremony is not enough. We need to be continually dedicated to genocide memory, education, and activism not only about historical events but also about those currently happening too. A candle is a flicking, fleeting light that goes out, if we all came together to resist fascism and human rights atrocities when we saw them then there would not be a darkness to light up.

I will attend the UK online official ceremony on the 27th January as an audience member from home. I will be also be taking part in a series of academic events. On the 27th, Latest TV will broadcast an interview with me as part of their Holocaust Memorial Day offerings. I will be chairing a roundtable on ‘the Future of Holocaust Memory’ as part of the University of Sussex and Sussex Weidenfeld Institute of Jewish Studies’s HMD programme, and will contribute to events held by Falstad Memorial, Norway and POLIN, Poland, and The University of Oxford.

With the restrictions imposed on us by the Covid-19 pandemic, this year it feels more important than ever to come together and to support each other. I have updated the digital Holocaust memory reading list and brought together recommended resources for distance commemoration and education on the Digital Holocaust Memory website, which I hope will alleviate the burden of finding sources for others.

Is there anything you wish more people knew about the Holocaust?

The Holocaust did not just end in 1945 and it did not just impact on Europe. Many concentration camp survivors died in displaced person camps due to the terrible health they were in when they were discovered. Perpetrators and Jewish refugees fled to South American countries. There was a detainee camp in Mauritius controlled by the British, and a ghetto in Shanghai. Many German-Jews living in Britain at the outbreak of World War II were incarcerated here after fleeing Nazi Germany. There were Nazi labour camps and one concentration camp on British soil – in Alderney, the Channel Islands. After Israel, Australia took in the largest post-war number of European Jews. The Holocaust was and remains a complicated global web of historical narratives and politicised memories.

After the war, survivors started new lives, and like many refugees, have made considerable contributions to their new homes. Each of these individuals is much more than simply a ‘genocide survivor’ or a ‘refugee’. In recent years, they have had to witness the popularisation of Holocaust denial and distortion, and other forms of genocide denial.

I wish people knew more about the peripheral stories – the narratives about what happened beyond the concentration and death camps, and other killing sites across Europe. I wish people knew more about the xenophobia genocide survivors often continue to face when they return home or find refuge in a new country. I also wish people knew that reciting the words ‘never again’ has not worked and that we need to re-evaluate so much about the fundamentals of our cultures to truly prevent and resist hatred in the world. The display of ‘Camp Auschwitz Staff’ and ‘Six Million was Not Enough’ as slogans adorning rioters at the Capitol insurrection in January this year illustrates that it is not just genocide denial that we need to be concerned about but a form of genocide acceptance that acknowledges it happened but does not think it went far enough.

What are some of your interests outside of your work?

I like hiking, bouldering (indoor climbing without ropes) and astronomy. In better times, I try to attend a few ‘star camps’ and meet with other astronomy enthusiasts! I am also an ultramarathon runner, which means running races that are longer than 26.2 miles. In summer 2019, I ran 77km around the coastline of Jersey, Channel Islands. Just before the pandemic hit the UK, I took part in a two-day 66-mile race in the North Downs, and even managed to fit in a virtual Everest Challenge during 2020 which covered 135 miles in 6 days, boringly just around my neighbourhood again and again and again! Victoria after Ultrarunning raceI was placed 4th woman in that challenge though of which I am proud as I have a long-term health condition and had just recovered from long Covid. Ultramarathons are still heavily male-dominated, and even more so dominated by people who do not have disabilities. I have started doing some informal coaching and hope to encourage more people with disabilities and more women to take up extreme sports.

Looking back, how did your time and study at Queen Mary help prepare you for your career?

My time at Queen Mary intellectually stimulated me. I had a severe case of imposter syndrome as a first-generation scholar. Queen Mary gave me the confidence to believe in myself and to understand that I can be taken as seriously as those with private school and Oxbridge backgrounds.

It also challenged me to constantly think about every topic from different perspectives, to get outside my own subject position and consider many possibilities.

What would your advice be to students interested in studying for a PhD in Film Studies at Queen Mary?

Do it! The faculty of Film Studies are collegial, supportive, energised, and intellectually inspiring. I am not going to pretend that the academic job market is not increasingly bleak; there are less and less jobs appearing each year it seems and more and more potential applicants. However, a PhD is not really an apprenticeship for an academic career, as it is more traditionally seen. A week in the life of an academic is far more about policies, strategy, meetings, web design, teaching and marking than like the intense research you get to do during your PhD. Taking 3-7 years to focus on a particular topic (full-time or part-time) is a unique opportunity to cherish. It helps you develop the knowledge, transferrable skills, confidence and networking capacity for a multitude of jobs in the media, arts and heritage sectors.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Victoria or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at n.grey@qmul.ac.uk.