Studying for a Masters degree under lockdown

Sweary seminars, grief and #Escapril: studying(?) for a degree under lockdown

by Chloe Erin, Masters student of Literature at Cardiff University.

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Around a fortnight or so before the UK went into lockdown, blissfully unaware of what was to come, I returned to Manchester to visit my grandmother for what would be the last time. I knew this to be the case beforehand, whether that makes me lucky or not I couldn’t tell you; I rarely get the opportunity to go home and her condition was deteriorating by the day, so my mum told me I should make certain I had a chance to say goodbye. I was in the park enjoying my newly instigated daily walk under the new regulations when I received word she had passed on. Strangely, I had been talking to a friend not long before and offhandedly remarked that I was just waiting for my dad to ring me, about which they later suggested may well have been my sensing of her departure from the world, which was oddly comforting, like a kiss goodbye.

A hotly anticipated announcement that lecturers would begin transitioning to online teaching had come a week previously, so my cohort were somewhat prepared for an unprecedented impact on learning and understandably quite worried, having already missed out on four weeks of teaching due to the very necessary UCU strikes. Personally, I was predominantly concerned about having to navigate an already uncomfortable situation through the means of video calling – I am autistic, and despite perfecting a somewhat confident persona (otherwise known as masking), I find it quite difficult to articulate myself well in a classroom environment. Factoring in echoey, crackled audio, time delays and an even greater difficulty knowing when it is my turn to speak promises only further potential for anxiety, sweating, profuse apologies and stumbling over every other sentence. I am currently studying part-time for my Masters in English Literature, traversing the second of a two-and-a-half-year course with one module per semester, the rest of my time set aside for part-time jobs and occasional tomfoolery. However, I am now actively tackling the prospect of my daunting fifteen-thousand-word dissertation as well. Working on the initial proposal for my biggest project to date alongside the twentieth century women’s poetry module I get the pleasure of this term is my current preoccupation as I while away the hours ‘til tomorrow… or it would be, if I could only engage with it for more than a brief period of time after four pm on randomly selected days.

Not to add to the growing list of reasons you should feel sympathy towards me (you shouldn’t) but I’m also chronically depressed, so staying inside by myself all day is really not my cup of tea; alas, my wonderful fiancée Eve is a medical student and thus was drafted in to support the efforts of our phenomenal NHS full-time. As a result, our lovely flat and I are getting very well acquainted, and if I had a pedometer, it would probably be broken by now. I am so incredibly proud, though, that I will persevere, and keep clapping for her and every single person risking their lives for us. I primarily work for the University as a disabilities support worker, filling financial gaps as a freelance transcriptionist, so duties are thin on the ground for me in the exchanging-labour-for-money department. Luckily for you, this is not a piece about my financial insecurity! Now, reader, you might suppose that swathes of free time to occupy myself with academia would present itself as a gift, and you would be correct, but regrettably, my brain is simply not cooperating with its opportunities to thrive in education. I do not make the rules. For the seminars I have had online so far, I have managed little by way of preparation, besides trying to finish the minimum weekly reading. My class is lucky – our tutor is lovely, incredibly accommodating, and has made it her mission to help us through each class as painlessly as possible. She extended the deadline for our formative essay, even held an additional session for us to bounce ideas off of eachother over the bank holiday weekend, which she really did not have to set aside time to do. Our video chats have actually been very surprising: productive, enjoyable and of a slightly less formal note than usual, cathartic swearing generally accepted under the circumstances. My course have been issued with a proposed ‘no detriment’ outcome for all assessments, meaning our averages can increase but a lower mark would have no impact – that we have to complete them at all seems futile to me, as I don’t feel anywhere near capable of surpassing myself, but it’s better than nothing and I should count my blessings. Other students are not so lucky, forced to continue as normal under such ambiguity and uncertainty, revising for amended exams to be taken from their bedrooms or attempting to complete assignments as they were with no possible leeway. I have heard some horror stories.

Reading, though, is something I want to sink my teeth into, a task easily managed with such a wonderful selection of books shaping the dissertation I intend to write; those keeping me company include Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, and Virginia Woolf, which is quite the dinner party, isn’t it? Eve and I managed to secure an almighty stack from the uni library mere hours before it shut for the foreseeable – I usually request my copies through the online service to avoid the narrow, dusty shelves and the dreaded Dewey Decimal, but we found a smidge of pleasure competing for who could find the most before we ran out of oxygen.  Sitting on the little bench just outside our building with an iced coffee, noise-cancelling headphones, and a chapter of whatever eminent queer literature I’m trying to work through that day is the closest I can get to peaceful at the minute. Perhaps I am not making as much progress as my peers; some days, I do not even bother turning my laptop on, recognising that Animal Crossing or re-watching the entirety of The Simpsons is doomed to steal my attention away uncontested. Beating myself up for not doing enough comes easily to me, a Virgo with a deeply rooted need for accomplishment (and thus validation), and normally I would be self-flagellating every time I pause to take a breath. But I am not. Even me, the queen of neuroticism and self-deprecator of the year, can be found cutting themselves a little slack in what feels like a never-ending onslaught of unpleasant news on top of worse. I lost a family member, I postponed my wedding, I miss my friends so much that even the salve of Facetime stings because it reminds me we are apart. Everything about my usual routine has flown out of the window, so how can I expect myself to function as if it had not?

The same weekend I saw my grandma, I also created an Instagram profile to share poems. Everyone’s favourite place to pretend and I have a chequered past, having deleted my original account a few years ago because it became genuinely detrimental to my mental health. The constant influx of filtered happiness was fuelling the fire in my head that believed everyone else was fine, leaving me to stagnate alone with my severely diminished mental health. I have no idea what possessed me to start uploading poetry to the internet again that day, but I soon stumbled across Escapril, writer and Youtuber Savannah Brown’s annual challenge proffering thirty prompts for poetry to be written every day in, you guessed it, April. I had heard of it the first time around, not participating, but appreciating the wonderful work that was birthed as a result. There is no obligation to complete every prompt, nor do you have to do them in any particular order, but I have set myself the challenge of doing so, in hopes of occupying my hands and my mind every day. As I write this, we have reached day thirteen and I haven’t missed one yet; I might not have produced any particularly life-changing work, and the algorithm is determined to make it as difficult as possible to reach a desired audience, but having something both non-committal and gently encouraging to aim for each day is proving helpful. Each poem has been an adventure – some came easily to me, others needed help and one or two were clawed out screaming – purgative, beneficial and therapeutic in their individual ways. Plodding along as best as I can, without pressuring myself (as much) to meet any deadlines besides the ones imposed upon me by the University, is all I am expecting for now. The world is at standstill, now is a time to recharge and take care of yourself if you are able. To those who are not, I salute you. I hope we will see the other side, together, as soon as it is possible.

Student experiences during COVID-19: the pandemic and the end of an Erasmus dream

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by Niamh Cole, student of the BA in International Relations at Dublin City University.

The journey to higher education and Erasmus

‘The morning I found out I had been accepted into DCU’s partner university in Gothenburg, I called my mam in work, crying because it seemed like a dream come true.’ 

I have never had the best luck when it comes to education. It was always said that I did have the potential to be academic, but my teenage apathy trumped all of that throughout my secondary school years.  When my Leaving Certificate (Ireland’s final school exams) results were lacklustre, I found myself surprisingly disappointed at the prospect of not being able to experience college life. I began to search for other ways to get into university, – which is something I hadn’t even been sure I wanted until it was clear that I wouldn’t be going. I ended up doing a PLC in Liberties College, and it was there that I discovered my love for politics, and also where I first learned about the Erasmus programme. I had grown up travelling with my family, so have always had an innate desire to explore the world. When I was filling out my CAO (Ireland’s higher education application system) for the second time, not only was it much more cohesive, but my ranking of each course had also taken into consideration the Erasmus options that were afforded by each degree. International Relations in DCU was my first option, as not only did it seem like an amazing programme (and the university happened to be down the road from my house), it also came with the option of studying abroad for a year in Sweden. I buckled down harder than I ever had in my PLC in order to get into IR in DCU, and then worked day and night to ensure I would have the grades to qualify for Erasmus. The morning I found out I had been accepted into DCU’s partner university in Gothenburg, I called my mam in work, crying because it seemed like a dream come true.

Erasmus life

I moved to Gothenburg in September, 2019. Erasmus was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Many had warned me that I would find it hard at the start, and would feel homesick and lonely, but none of that happened. I settled in quickly, met friends almost immediately, and adjusted to my new life. I was enrolled to take an entire year (60 credits) worth of gender studies courses, an option that was not afforded to me anywhere else, which would enable me to pursue a masters in gender studies. At that point, two years into my degree, I always joked that while my classmates were doing a degree in International Relations, I was doing a degree in Feminism with an IR perspective. The majority of my essays at that point had been through a feminist perspective, so to actually be taught with that feminist lense, rather than having to seek it out myself, was incredible. Classes were small and interactive, which enabled an amazing amount of group discussion, with people from all over the world contributing their stories. I was excited to go to class every day, and would call my mam as soon as I got home so I could tell her what we had spoken about. It sounds cliche, but time truly did fly because I was having so much fun.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

‘This once in a lifetime opportunity, that had motivated me to take my education seriously, was over so quickly.’

However, by the end of February it became clear that something unusual was happening. COVID-19 had been mentioned in passing for a month or so at that point over drinks with friends, or at our biweekly fajita nights. We would downplay the issue, saying it was “just a flu” and reassuring each other that we would all be fine. None of us wanted to leave, and we were all adamant that we would stay until the very end, which we all doubted would come. It was easy to live in our little bubble when most news was reported in a language we could barely understand and, as would grow apparent, the government was taking a very blasé approach to the whole situation. At that point I had received two emails from DCU reassuring Erasmus students that all was well, and that should there be any updates we would be notified. As the week went on, I was also contacted by friends who were worried about my health. I am known to have a weak immune system, and have been hospitalised for regular viruses before, so many of them were concerned and urged me to be careful.

The following week is when the situation very suddenly changed. On a Saturday night, students in our building began leaving in droves, and by Sunday morning it seemed as though there would be nobody left. By Wednesday, it truly seemed as though me and my friends were the only people remaining. On the 12th of March, a Thursday morning, I was on the tram on the way to a highly anticipated seminar, when an email informed me that it had been cancelled. It was the first time I had left the apartment in a few days due to COVID-19 concerns, so I was a bit disappointed. I got on the next tram back to my apartment, which is when I got the first of what would be many successive emails from DCU over the next couple of days. By Monday night, I had come to the conclusion that it was imperative that I leave by Thursday the 19th. However, due to the fact that Ryanair was my only direct option, and they only flew to Dublin from my city twice a week, I had to decide whether I could pack up my life in twelve hours or five days. At that point I realised that I had an assignment that would be given to me on Wednesday, which would be due the next Wednesday. This was common in the Swedish education system, which did take a bit of getting used to, as I usually have my essays finished two weeks before the due date, but as we only had one module at a time it was manageable. What this system did not take into account, however, was a pandemic suddenly impacting the lives and living situations of thousands of students. Suddenly, not only was I faced with uphauling my entire life, one that I had built for seven months, and saying goodbye to friends that I likely would not see again for a long time. And I would also have to find time to complete a 5000 word essay in the middle of it! This crushing realisation caused the first of many crying fits on the phone to my mam, who at that point had been urging me to come home for about two weeks. I could tell she was relieved that I had finally decided to do so, but also that she was incredibly upset that this once in a lifetime opportunity, that had motivated me to take my education seriously, was over so quickly and without warning, and completely outside of our control. The fact that I would have to be in self-isolation at home for two weeks without seeing anybody outside my family barely crossed my mind; instead, it was thoughts of mourning for the learning environment I had grown to love so much.

Leaving Sweden and returning home

‘Knowing I had left Sweden for good, and would be landing into a situation that would be isolating and scary, was daunting.’

I sat in the empty airport alone, watching as surprisingly few people arrived at my gate. The total number of people on my flight was less than 30.  It was Saturday night, and I had written about 500 words of my essay at that point. The stress that I was feeling about this gave me something else to concentrate on, rather than the instant homesickness for Sweden, as I watched my little city disappear into the clouds. It was the next Friday morning when I finally submitted it, the first time I had submitted anything after the initial deadline in the entirety of my university education, but the lecturers for my module had afforded us an extension due to the circumstances. That Monday was supposed to be the start of a new module, but over the weekend it was revealed to us that the main lecturer was stuck in South America, with no way to get back to Sweden. She attempted to video chat with us but her connection fell several times, and eventually it was decided that we would rely on pre-taped video lectures and uploaded powerpoints until her return.

It had been hard enough returning to Ireland for the holidays when everything was normal and I had the knowledge that my little apartment was waiting for me back in Sweden, but knowing I had left it for good, and would be landing into a situation that would be isolating and scary, was daunting. The ignorance bubble that my friends and I had happily resided in for the last couple of weeks was suddenly and harshly popped. Suddenly I could understand the news again, and it was full of international struggle. A daily death toll for Ireland was announced at night, sometimes followed with a slightly morbid poem or song. In the mornings, I was also unwittingly subscribed to hearing about how many people had died in Sweden: by way of my mam peeking her head in my door to tell me, just as I had just woken up. Obviously, I was mostly aware of the situation, at least more so than those on the German Big Brother or Jared Leto’s cult following, but it was hard to not feel hopeless about how dire the situation actually was. I had always taken Twitter as a form of exaggerated news, but in this case, it felt as though Twitter had softened the blow.

COVID-19’s effect on my education

‘Where I was thriving before, I now find myself struggling.’

Quarantine has had an effect on my education in so many ways. I would consider myself a social learner, finding concepts easier to explore in essays when I can explain them verbally to others. My time in DCU is marked with late nights in the library with friends, all of us pouring over each other’s writing and dissecting it. I did miss that during my Erasmus, but seminars acted as a replacement for that kind of interactive learning. However, being stuck in quarantine removed the social element from my learning completely. Where I was thriving before, I now find myself struggling. I had always had some journal article or academic book on the go, reading it at any opportunity and discussing the points with friends. However, while stuck inside, it has been hard to find the motivation to even begin reading anything. I have managed to rope my mam in on watching my lectures with me, just so I can explain and talk about the ideas with someone, but it is a lot less gratifying than a mutual discussion. A close friend offered her ear, saying that she would always welcome a twenty minute long voice message about my interpretation of a line from one of Judith Butler’s works, but the face-to-face element was missing. The harder it got, the more anxious it made me, which created a vicious cycle. For the first time since I was a teenager, trying to pay attention to my education felt futile. I could not blame the fact that it was “boring” this time, however, because it was part of the most interesting education I have ever had. It just seemed that every time I sat down to focus on something, I could hear news alerts of how many people had died that day. It was hard to not get in my head about the whole situation, feeling that my bad luck with education had returned. Hearing my thoughts centre myself in an international crisis was maddening, so the only way I have found to help is to put my situation in perspective.

I realise that I am fortunate enough to have been able to come home with relative ease, and to have a home to come back to, which has food and warmth – which is more than many can say at this point in time. I am lucky to have a family, and that I get along with them. And I am lucky to have access to education, especially an education which gave me the opportunity of living in another country. These are things I try to tell myself when I feel my mental health struggling in this isolation, while also grieving the life I had built in Sweden. I only hope that when all of this is over, we as a society become more aware of the struggles of others to ensure that should such a situation arise again, no person is left at such a disadvantage, as so many have been during this crisis.

Windows of opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

Windows of Opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

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by Claire Turner, PhD candidate at the University of Leeds.

I started my PhD at the University of Leeds in the autumn term of 2019. As a new postgraduate researcher, I had not yet attended any conferences, nor had I presented my research to anyone outside of my institution. In April this year, I would have been presenting my first conference paper to an audience of early modern scholars at the University of York. My paper – which was a combination of my MA dissertation and PhD research – would have explored the relationships between the plague, smell, sound, and unstable boundaries in seventeenth-century London. Unfortunately, my presentation has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, an event I was due to co-organise with fellow postgraduate researchers has also been pushed back for the foreseeable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unintentionally brought my research to the fore. My thesis focuses on how people experienced and perceived the plague through their senses in seventeenth-century England. I aim to discover how the five core senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch) interacted with each other to forge and alter perceptions and experiences of epidemic disease. Recent research into the symptoms of COVID-19 has revealed that the virus can potentially reduce our ability to taste and smell. This novel research resonates with my PhD project, which will encourage historians to pay more attention to the absence of sensory experiences during times of crisis.

The paper I was due to give in York next month is also particularly similar to the situation we now find ourselves in. My paper, entitled ‘Sensing the Plague: Hearing and Smelling Disease in Seventeenth-Century London’, argues that foul smells and sounds created during plague outbreaks caused spatial boundaries to be perceived as unstable. A striking amount of the material I cover in my paper refers to the significance of doorways and windows as unstable boundaries through which people communicated diseases as well as conversations. In 2020, we once again find ourselves resorting to windows and doorways to hold conversations with our families, neighbours, and postal services. On Thursday 26th March, thousands of people clapped out of their windows to show their appreciation for the tireless efforts made by NHS staff during the crisis. This representation of the window as a place of gratitude, hope, and recovery has also been explored in recent research on the symbolic role of windows in hospitals. Victoria Bates, in her research on hospitals and the senses, argued that the modern-day hospital window represents recovery through its natural light and vibrant colours.

As a history student, I am required to visit several archives and libraries across the country. These research trips act as a valuable way of networking by inviting archivists, librarians, and other PhD researchers to explore various archive repositories and to discuss ideas and findings together. Due to government advice to isolate at home, followed by subsequent library closures, I am unable to visit archives to conduct my research or network with others.

While working from home, I have found myself spending more time exploring the possibilities of using social media to publicise historical research. In doing so, I have observed that more and more of my academic connections are promoting their research in the form of Twitter ‘threads’ or virtual Twitter conferences. Other accounts are also setting up Twitter group chats and Discord chats for specific research areas — medical historians, humanities scholars, and many other science-based disciplines. My research, which encompasses early modern, medical, sensory, and social history, does not fit within one circle of expertise. I wanted to use my self-isolation to find a way to network with people from across various circles and share my research as widely as possible.

In mid-March, I decided to utilise my Twitter account in an attempt to network via social media. The tweet (which can be found here) briefly explained my lack of experience with networking alongside a short profile of my research. I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that many new PhD students will be unable to network or share their research in person for the entire first year of their degree. 

The response to my tweet was overwhelming. So far, the tweet has been seen by just under 700,000 people and has almost 40,000 engagements (i.e. people clicking on my Twitter profile, sharing the tweet, or replying to the tweet). These statistics alone demonstrate the power of social media as a platform for sharing information. I was particularly interested to note that a high proportion of people sharing my tweet were from outside my discipline. Alongside academics working in the more familiar fields of history and English literature, my tweet was shared by researchers from disciplines including philosophy, psychology, medicine, and neuroscience. From looking at the disciplines and departments from which people shared my tweet, I have learned about the possibility of forging connections with academics in fields particularly different from my own.

As well as sharing the tweet, a lot of people used the tweet to introduce their own research. A high number of these people were PhD students or Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Over time, the number of people sharing the replies to my initial tweet also grew. It is particularly rewarding to know that my tweet has allowed other people in a similar situation to my own to network and share their research with an online audience.

Networking online has opened my eyes to the many avenues available for not only historians, but other professionals to use Twitter for networking, disseminating research, and communicating with a broad audience during the COVID-19 crisis. Before I posted my tweet, I was only vaguely aware of the usefulness of video communication software such as Zoom and Skype. I had assumed such software was only used for the likes of seminars, lectures, and one-on-one meetings. However, networking on Twitter has introduced me to numerous other avenues for communicating on these and other websites — online reading groups, work-in-progress sessions, virtual conferences, learning workshops, and general support networks.

On a more selfish level, tweeting about my lack of networking experience has helped me appreciate the value, significance, and relevance of my research within the current global climate. I received an impressive number of responses to my tweet querying if I knew that my research would become so relevant and important. Inspired by what I have learned from my experience networking online, I decided to create an informal online support network to provide a window of hope and reassurance to postgraduate students during the current pandemic. The Discord chat is open to any postgraduate student (MA, MSc, MRes, PHD, etc.) wanting to join an open discussion about academia, research, mental health, and life outside university. I hope that my experience of networking online will encourage others to share their own work, forge lasting connections with researchers from a variety of fields, and explore the potential for their research to reach far and wide.