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To Finland and Back Again: SOHP Director Rachel Seidman Returns from Fulbright

Hello!  It’s good to be back!

As many of you know, I spent last semester in Finland on a Fulbright Fellowship.  I was based at the oldest university in the country, the University of Turku, a lovely place in the west of the country that hugs the banks of the Aura River, a tributary to the Baltic sea.

While I was there I taught a course called Voices of the U.S. Women’s Movement, which used many SOHP interviews to help students understand the depth and complexity of U.S. feminism in the 1960s and 70s.  My students—a wonderful mix of Finnish and foreign exchange students—found the stories deeply compelling, and loved talking about the similarities and differences between the movements in the two countries.  Although I had been warned that it is hard to get Finnish students to talk in class, in fact many of them were eager to discuss the issues.

I also had a research agenda; I set out to understand how Finnish scholars approach the field of medical humanities and the role that oral history plays in their research there.  As we enter the second year of our Stories to Save Lives project, I was seeking new models, new ways of thinking about the questions we ask and the answers we hear, and I wanted to learn as much as I could from an international and interdisciplinary set of scholars and contacts.  I shared our research with many different audiences, and was pleased by the responses I got.  While there are historians in Finland who use oral history as a method, they do not have robust centers for oral history like the SOHP and others around the country here—so they were impressed by the scale of the work we can do here.  They were also surprised—some, perhaps, even shocked—by the degree to which we share our interviews publicly. The European Union has privacy guidelines for research which Finnish authorities interpret as strictly as possible, making it difficult for oral history interviews to be made public.

I learned a great deal from the many researchers I spoke with, and made many wonderful new contacts and colleagues in Finland, and I am looking forward to the unfolding of new collaborations over time.  I am delighted that Kaisa Vehkalahti, a researcher from the University of Oulu, where I visited in April, is already planning a trip to the SOHP this spring.  She recently received major new funding from the Academy of Finland for a project called “Rural Generations on the Move: Cultural History of Rural Youth, 1950–2020.” She aims to identify important cultural and social shifts in the construction of rural youth and rural identity formation from World War II up until the present. She was struck by what she called our “innovative approach to oral history sources – particularly the policy-relevant uses of rural oral history collections” and thinks they can “offer a very fruitful model for creating new ways of both collecting and using oral history in Finland.” In addition, two Finnish Fulbright fellows will be on UNC’s campus this year: Anna Koivusalo, a post-doctoral researcher studying “The Culture of Feeling and Historical Change: Emotional Practices and Experiences in the U.S. South during the Civil War Era;” and Nikko Heikkilä, who is working on his dissertation on “The Cultural Politics of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan.” I’m looking forward to building on our relationships and increasing the ongoing exchange between our universities.

In addition to the intellectual richness of my experience, of course, I also had a lot of fun!  My husband, Benjamin Filene, also had a Fulbright fellowship and was based at the City Museum of Helsinki.  We explored the country and also travelled some in Europe.  We both kept blogs about what we were learning and experiencing; you can find mine here, and Benjamin’s here.

I’m excited to be back, and am looking forward to a fruitful and productive year at SOHP and with all my colleagues and friends in the Center for the Study of the American South and at UNC.  Sara Wood, Hannah Gill, Malinda Maynor Lowery, and Terry Rhodes made it possible for me to take advantage of the amazing opportunity I had, and for all that they did to support me and the SOHP while I was gone, I am profoundly grateful.