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Signalling Resilience: Living Inquiry Through Radio Memoir

October 22, 2020
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By Allen M. Quinn

Overcoming unexpected personal obstacles and persevering when times get tough has been graduate student Elaine Harder’s motto throughout her life.

Graduating this fall from the Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Education with a Master’s in Arts Education, Harder’s foray into autobiographical research during her program led her on a fascinating life-changing personal and academic journey into her past, while also shaping her future as a teacher and researcher.

Prior to studying at SFU, Harder worked as both a sign language interpreter and stand-up comic until the unexpected death of her mother. “My mother died suddenly… and everything just stopped,” says Harder. “I took a few years off and rethought my life.”

Re-evaluation led to the realization that she needed to be involved in the arts and to go back to school. In 2005, she came to SFU taking a Bachelor of Arts (BA), followed by the Professional Development Program (PDP), before deciding to continue her education further with a Master of Arts (MA) in Arts Education.

“The MA in Arts Education appealed to me because it asked students to explore lived experience as a starting point and explore not only my teaching practice but my artistic practice as well.”

This blend of teaching and art would come together for Harder in the most unexpected medium: community radio. Harder attended a weekend workshop in New York City, called “Making Your Dreams Happen” with facilitator Barbara Sher, author of Wishcraft, where it was suggested she start her own radio show.

“I didn’t think it was possible as I had no background or training in media or radio production. Barbara Sher assured me that I could get someone somewhere to train me. But where? Barbara said, “watch for a sign”. Two weeks later, at SFU, I got off the elevator on the wrong floor. Within minutes, I was standing in front of CJSF (the SFU campus/community radio station) and within the year I was producing my own radio show that would become the action site of research for my thesis.”

Producing, hosting, and creating The Arts Edge weekly was a challenging yet life changing experience for Harder. “It was not only exhilarating but also empowering. I’ve met so many interesting and inspiring people through radio and have also discovered my flair for storytelling. I absolutely love radio and producing radio, and from the get-go, I knew that radio was taking me somewhere great!”

While working on her show, Harder began a new segment called “Radio Tales”, inspired by the music she was playing. “I found myself frequently “on air” playing music in which I discovered that many of my memories were held within music,” says Harder. “I realized that I have a personal musical soundtrack that chronologically spans my lived experience. As a result, with each show, she began writing down these memories as they surfaced while the music was playing, later sharing these personal narratives in her thesis and on the show. These discoveries lead her to research community radio, story, and autobiography.

Unfortunately, a major accident forced Elaine in to a five-year period of multiple surgeries, significant pain, and home-confinement as she recovered. The silver lining was that radio, through the power of home production, could travel with her as a companion during this difficult time. What some may have seen as a major setback, Elaine chose to treat as a period to enrich her research. “Had this medical debacle never happened, I would likely have written and defended inside of two years. Instead, my thesis and my ideas got to simmer for an extra five years – I think this has made the world of difference in what I have written.”

In 2020, Harder finally defended her thesis, once again overcoming another unexpected obstacle: COVID-19.

“When Elaine asked me if she could bring radio into her thesis, and I said yes, we immediately were excited,” says Lynn Fels, SFU Education professor and Harder’s supervisor. “We didn’t know the medical challenges that Elaine would face, her continued commitment to complete her thesis, nor that COVID-19 was just around the corner and that she would be defending her thesis on Zoom, but she did it.”

It has been a long and, at times, difficult journey for Harder to get to graduation but her story demonstrates that anything is possible through passion, perseverance and the ability to see the silver linings.

“When our artist practice, and our teaching, is informed from a place of lived experience, we create and teach from the inside out which in turn, makes creating, teaching and learning an authentic practice.”