In the time of Coronavirus, what we can learn from dystopian fiction?

by Dr Deirdre Flynn, Lecturer in 21st Century Literature, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

 

Just before Ireland entered into lockdown, I finished teaching Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The bestselling novel published in 2014 is about a global pandemic, the Georgia flu, that wipes out 99% of the world’s population.

Had I known that a global pandemic was going to hit, would I have picked a different novel? I don’t know. But Mandel’s novel is not a depressing read, nor is it a manual for living through lockdown. Rather it is an excellent piece of speculative fiction, that asks us to examine how we live in the 21st Century. It asks us what is important in life.

I’ve taught, researched and read dystopian fiction for years. In one of the modules I taught, we would discuss what the author wanted readers to take from their novels. Was their story a criticism of contemporary society? Did it offer warnings on climate change? Technology? Censorship? Terrorism? How did these societies come to pass? Was it through social inertia? Poverty? Inequality? And what can we learn from speculative fiction?

One novel that always seemed the most likely was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, set in the United States of America in the 2020s. The students, and myself, were shocked how in 1993 Butler had in essence predicted the rise of a president like Trump. Her vision of the near future is eerie, including walled communities, massive inequality, indentured servitude, racism, political ineptitude, economy over social welfare. It is a frightening vision of the near future, and a President that wants ‘to make America great again’ (yes, that’s in the novel). It was always the most likely and most terrifying novel on that module. And Lauren, the protagonist learning to be self-sufficient, and grow her own food, could teach many of the new grow-your-own converts a thing or two.

Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale often came in for a lot of criticism because she didn’t resist in obvious ways. Her silence in the face of her torture was often called weak by students. How could she take that? Why wouldn’t she speak up? The reason was simple – because she wanted to survive. She wanted to stay alive for her daughter(s). Was her survival, and that of her child(ren) more important than her freedom? I think that is a question we are answering on a daily basis now.

However, when it came to Station Eleven, it seemed more implausible. Why? We had all heard of Ebola, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, even Foot and Mouth. In Mandel’s novel, the flu spreads quickly because of global air travel. The world comes to a complete stop. People are advised to stay indoors and stock up on essentials. It felt impossible that today this could happen, but now we know it’s not impossible.

‘Just like in the novel, the virus does not impact everyone equally’

Unlike Parable of the Sower, or The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven is told in what Philip Smith calls a ‘forwards-backwards’ style[1]. Told from multiple and interconnecting perspectives, the action shifts from before the Georgia Flu to 20 years after the pandemic. It offers an interesting criticism of social media and celebrity culture, and Mandel has often said she wanted to see what we would keep in such a scenario – would we want to keep what’s best about the world we live in? These again are questions we are asking in what has been constantly referred to as the “new normal” as if such a constantly shifting state could offer any sense of stability to be considered the ‘new normal’. And just like in the novel, the virus does not impact everyone equally. The pandemic it is not a great leveller. We just have to look at residential care homes and Direct Provision to see how the most vulnerable are treated here in Ireland.

What can we learn from Station Eleven? Well if there’s one thing, it is the motto from the side of the Travelling Symphony’s carriage – ‘survival is insufficient’. To the group of actors and musicians that make up the troupe – art is important to life. And while we can, like many other critics, argue that Mandel’s use of Shakespeare is a little hokey, if not Western and colonial centred, the message is clear. Art, music, theatre are all essential to our lives. They give meaning and hope and joy and create a sense of community. Mandel sees theatre as one of the best things society has to offer, and for the people who are left behind, Shakespeare brings something to their existence, as essential as survival. Life is not just staying alive, it is living.

‘Life is not just staying alive, it is living’

As I write this, people are gathering to watch #DearIreland from the Abbey, and there’s a CovideoParty trending on Twitter. People are seeking out art and culture. They want shared experiences, like Facebook and Instagram live, or Zoom parties. Subscription services have seen their numbers grow as those quarantined seek out film, TV, and documentary. I recently collated a blog piece for the Irish Women’s Writing Network on work during the Covid19 crisis and everyone mentioned the importance of connection. Technology is helping us have these shared experiences. With the help of hashtags and houseparty we can share our collective enjoyment of art. And yet in the midst of all this our Government’s response to support artists was paltry and insulting. Unable to see the economic merit in art, the creative process, and its cultural value, Josepha Madigan  (Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaelteacht) offered the miserly sum of €1m to cover all of it. All the closed venues, the unemployed actors, writers, stage managers, singers, techies, administration…. Would all of them have to share this pot? And if you were on the COVID19 payment, you weren’t eligible.

Station Eleven is seeing a resurgence in sales ever since the Coronavirus started making its move around the world. People are turning to dystopian and speculative fiction to help make sense of our current situation. It can offer us warnings, suggest solutions, tell us to change before it’s too late. Dystopian fiction can highlight how wrong things could go if we don’t change. It also tells us that survival after chaos is not enough. We need to make sense of the trauma. We need love, connection, and we need art, and if we live in Station Eleven, we also need electricians.

[1] SMITH, P., 2016. Shakespeare, Survival, and the Seeds of Civilization in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Extrapolation., 57(3), pp. 289-VI.

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.

COVID-19 and my Ph.D.: Missing out on a Conference and Trying to Stay Motivated

Jennifer Mooney, a PhD candidate at the School of English in Dublin City University, writes about her research, and how she’s staying motivated after missing out on her first academic conference presentation due to COVID-19.

Today, I should be giving a paper – the first in my academic career – at a conference in Wroclaw University, Poland. Right about now, I should be presenting my paper entitled Authorial Agenda and Political Responsibility: ‘Rape Culture’ in the Young Adult Literature of Irish Author Louise O’Neill to a group of international academics at the Controversial Dimensions of Children’s Literature conference. I should be learning about the research being carried out by other academics in the field of children’s literature and literature for young adults. I should be making connections, building relationships, and promoting my work in the hopes of publication and professional opportunity. I should be telling other academics about the importance of my scholarship funded Ph.D. research that addresses how ‘rape culture’, gender conflict, and conflicting views of power, sexism, and consent have become particularly relevant to Irish society in the years since O’Neill’s novels for young adults Only Ever Yours and Asking for It were published – in 2014 and 2015 respectively. I should be telling other academics that my dissertation examines theories of power and empowerment in the contemporary young adult fiction of Irish author Louise O’Neill in relation to a growing body of Irish and international 21st century YA fiction written about girls, and with girls as the implied readership, that demonstrate a shift away from the personal (the typical realm of the problem novel) towards the political. I should be explaining to those who haven’t read the novels what they are about, why they are significant and why they are problematic.

Only Ever Yours emulates Margaret Atwood’s adult dystopian novel The Handmaids Tale and imagines a future dystopia in which women or ‘eves’ are created by genetic engineers and trained within an authoritarian patriarchy to be beautiful and subservient. Each eve will be selected to be a companion (a wife and mother), a concubine (a sexual slave) or a chastity (a teacher). The text draws on global forms of gender discrimination to provide a dystopian warning about the objectification, commodification, and maltreatment of the female body with the purpose of highlighting a need to confront gender-based inequalities in (chiefly Western) contemporary society. Asking For It, Louise O’Neill’s second novel, takes a dogmatic approach to drawing similarities between emerging teenage sexuality and ‘rape culture’: cultural ideologies, as well as social practises and institutions, that eroticise and normalise male violence against women and contribute to a dominant culture which attributes blame to the victims of rape rather than to the perpetrators of abuse. It tells the story of eighteen- year-old Emma who is gang raped by four boys, whom she considered to be friends at a party after a GAA game in her local town of Balinatoom. Her assault is then uploaded on social media and Emma is blamed for her rape because she was drunk and wearing revealing clothing. She is not seen as a victim within her community or family, but as to blame and worthy of shame.

I should be arguing that O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours and Asking for It make a case for the capacity of all literature, but YA literature specifically, to challenge perceived social issues and effect change, making them significant within the tradition of Irish YA. I should be persuading other academics that while the influence and achievement of O’Neill’s work in emphasising the need for social and political change in Ireland in relation to rape and sexual assault is generally accepted, and rightfully celebrated, problematic elements of the work have been largely unexamined. Despite a number of critical essays/works published on O’Neill’s texts for young adults, no scholarly monographs have critically examined representations of female agency and sexuality in the works in terms of their potential to limit, rather than liberate. Nor have the dangers of presenting extremism, in terms of male sexual violence, as normalcy in the texts been given critical attention.

I should be explaining to all those weighty academics whom I admire, such as Kimberley Reynolds, that this is what makes my research so important: it examines whether YA texts, like O’Neill’s, that implore that they be read as social criticism, contain overt politicising feminist ideology, and act more like political manifestos than fiction really rethink freedom and empowerment for women and girls and propose new ways of thinking about power and gender or do they get lost in, or weighed down by, authorial agenda and controversy?

Right now, I could be convincing all those academics that my research illuminates the potential that works like O’Neill’s have to function as a form of literary/social fundamentalism which often undermines, rather than promotes, equality. The position the works hold as texts for young adults, and O’Neill’s very public presence in Irish society (she is both an author and a political campaigner) combined with how the texts are increasingly being used in educational settings, make them instrumental in shaping the values, attitudes and behaviours of the young people that they reach. This adds to the pertinence of my research and my contention that the works position as YA texts that are both representative of, and a functioning part of, the diffusion of radical feminist thought across popular culture means that they ought to be properly critically engaged with, not unconsciously celebrated.

Instead of doing any of this, I am in the bedroom of an Airbnb (my working-from-home partner having taking over the kitchen on a conference call) trying to motivate myself enough to continue to work on my Ph.D. Everyone, absolutely everyone – well, maybe not the Spring breakers continuing to party in Miami – has been affected one way or another by the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had to move into temporary accommodation with my partner to protect my future Mother in law’s health (she has an underlying heart condition) and re-schedule our upcoming wedding – a pretty minor impact, I know, compared to others who are without work, unwell or who have lost a loved one. Knowing this doesn’t stop me feeling sorry for myself about missing out on the conference though. While waiting for our friends who have been tested for COVID-19 results to come back, I should utilise this sudden period of isolation to make progress with my research. I should stop thinking about the lost networking possibilities at the conference and worrying about whether it, and another conference in Cambridge I’ve been accepted to, will go ahead in September. I should appreciate this sudden abundance of time – time I was always wishing I had more of when life was normal and I was juggling my full-time job with teaching university students and my Ph.D. research. I’m a primary teacher working and living in Dublin, Ireland and I am three years into my Ph.D. at Dublin City University (DCU). In September, I started teaching at university level, giving lectures to Masters students in Children’s Literature and tutorials to first year English students in DCU. This experience, along with presenting my research to peers in  DCU and being accepted to present my research at the Controversial Dimension of Children’s Literature conference in Wroclaw University and at the Let’s Talk About Sex in YA conference at Cambridge University made me feel closer to achieving the career in academia I have been working so hard to achieve.

Now, with so much free time, when I should be editing and re- drafting, I can barely concentrate: I have marked four one-thousand-word essays in two days. On the up-side, I have read two YA novels that have been lingering on my Kindle for months and I am writing this article. So, how do I utilise this time and keep striving for that career in academia? All academics love a list, right? Well, writing a blog post for Women Are Boring has been on my ‘long list’ for quite some time now – perhaps I am being more productive than I thought and maybe imagining myself persuading other academics about the importance of my research is enough to stay motivated for now.

‘Coronaviva’: Preparing for my PhD viva in self-isolation

‘PREPARING FOR MY PHD VIVA IN SELF-ISOLATION’

work from home

By  Marianne Doherty, PhD candidate, Durham University. Twitter:@mdoherty_1

Wherever you are in the world, coronavirus is going to feature heavily in your life over the coming months. In an attempt to lift the spirits of those in the same position as me during these dark times, I thought I’d share some of the steps I’ve taken to prepare for my PhD viva which will likely be conducted over Skype while I self-isolate; I’ve dubbed it my ‘coronaviva’.

Isolation is a rite of passage for PhDs, we’ve done it before, we can (and definitely should) do it again

In the weeks before submitting, the only communication I had was with whatever God would listen and the co-op self-service machine where I mass-bought packets of Lavazza. This is far from unusual behaviour for a PhD researcher. It only takes a cursory scroll through the #PhDChat #PhDlife twitter highlights to see that thousands of PhD candidates feel isolated, lonely and fearful of what is to come, regardless of coronavirus.

I am a PhD candidate at Durham University. While I regularly travelled to and from Durham, I’ve lived in Belfast for the majority of the last four years and so, I’m well-versed in remote supervision. My research area is prison-education and my thesis, ‘Supporting desistance through prison education: an exploration of the contribution of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program™ in three U.K. prison-university partnerships’, will likely be examined in the coming weeks.  Like many of my cohort, the journey has been far from straight-forward. There have been times where I’ve pulled consecutive all-nighters to meet my often unrealistic self-imposed deadlines and times where I’ve celebrated the smallest of victories with people I would never have met but for the experience. Appreciating the complexity of the PhD process and the achievement of turning a simple concept into eight chapters and 100,000 words is the first step in preparation. It provides some much needed perspective on the prospect of conducting a viva remotely: it will be challenging, but it is achievable.

How do I conquer the fear and prepare for one of the most significant events in my life during one of the most significant events in my life?

I’m used to communicating with my university via Skype but examinations following the same format constitute unchartered territory and with this, comes stress and the inevitable fear of the unknown. A clear front-runner for stress reduction is yoga, I have a yoga mat, I look at it every day – I’m sure it would love to be used. Even better than yoga, though, is using self-isolation as the prime opportunity that it is, to consider the position of the examiners. I have attempted to do this by writing and recording a lecture on my research. While it initially made for cringe-worthy relistening, it has helped hone my oratory skills and this has been invaluable. I am now a lot more confident in succinctly articulating the objectives and outcomes of my research and would recommend it to anyone preparing for their PhD viva.

Publish or perish… literally

A further benefit of writing and recording lectures is that it serves to refresh your memory and help you to identify potential titles for publication. I’ve found this to be particularly helpful. Not only has planning for the future filled the void that followed when I submitted, it has given me back a sense of purpose and momentum.

My research was a qualitative study examining interview data from twenty-two prison-based former students of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program™ and an international sample of twenty-nine practitioners of the course. I had always intended to publish about the findings of the research, but in writing my lecture, I realised that the methods I had used and my positionality as an Irish, female PhD prison researcher were also potentially publication-worthy pieces. I came to the conclusion that even if they went unpublished, the act of delving back into the data and viewing it through a different lens could only serve to give me a better understanding of my own work. A preparatory step which I may not have considered were I not self-isolating.

Read and listen to everything except the news

There is no point in worrying about that which is beyond our control. While it is healthy to keep up-to-date with current affairs, it is certainly not helpful to repeatedly refresh the coronavirus death toll on your internet browser. I am guilty of this and I tend to read the news at various points during the day. Indeed, at one point, I had a twitter alert on coronavirus, but this is a practice I have stopped and since doing so, I’ve developed a much needed sense of calm. I have replaced this behaviour with podcasts and books unrelated to law, criminology or prison. This may not sound like a preparatory step, but it is – really.  During my PhD, I met a most interesting character who, at the time was an actuary studying attachment theory. Our backgrounds and our research areas were poles apart,  but I always left our conversations having made a new connection or having had a thought about taking my research in a different direction. Listening to a diverse range of podcasts, watching the lectures fellow scholars have made publicly available and reading beyond our discipline can expand our understanding of our research and its reach.

I’ve been self-isolating for one week but I’ve never felt closer to my family and friends

Countering loneliness with scheduled family FaceTime works. There are ten of us, we are never usually in the same place and yet, at 8.30pm every night, we are altogether on one screen. This has never happened before and it’s brilliant. There’s something very reassuring about everyone being in the same boat and for me,  it is one of the few silver-linings of the covid-19 outbreak; it has brought stability amidst the chaos. It is also a reprieve from viva preparation and an opportunity to listen to other people’s stories as though we were all in one room. The normalcy of this very simple act has been hugely beneficial for me. Where it is possible to do so, talk to your people, it’s good for the soul.

You might not pass, but covid-19 will

The key steps I’ve taken in summary are: appreciate what you’ve already achieved; write a lecture on your research and listen to it; plan your post-PhD publications; use social media to your advantage; and, communicate as much as possible with your friends and family because self-isolation does not have to be lonely. While coronavivas are likely to become the new norm,  with preparation they can be managed – we are far more resilient than we think.

 

Making mistakes and owning them: How I submitted corrections to published papers and (currently) live to tell the tale

 

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by Dr. Lauren Robinson

It’s the nightmare scenario: you look back at an old bit of code and realize you’ve made a mistake and, to make matters worse, the paper has already been published. This year I lived that nightmare scenario. I had shared my code only to discover that a variable that should have been reverse scored (which boils down to multiplying the number by -1), wasn’t. It was a minor oversight that I’d made as a 1st year PhD student learning new statistics, I hadn’t caught the mistake until now, and, worse still, the code had been used in two papers I wrote simultaneously. I considered changing my name and hiding but as I had a postdoc and my mother claims to like me, I figured it was better to keep my current identity.

‘…the right decisions don’t come without risk….’

Reaching out to the senior author we knew there was only one solution: We had to redo the statistics and submit corrections. As an early career researcher, I was panicked. What if the results were drastically different, was a retraction (possibly two) in my future? Fear aside, a mistake was made, we had to own it, and if we were going to believe in scientific integrity then we had to show ours. It’s been my experience that the most difficult decisions, the ones that I’m truly afraid to make – those are the decisions I know to be right. But the right decisions don’t come without risk and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t, and continue to be, worried that not everyone would see this as a minor mistake. Science is competitive and the feeling of having to be flawless, particularly at this phase of my career, is a weight. As a woman in science I already have to fight to be taken seriously, to be seen as competent, and I had committed a sin, I had made an honest mistake that had been published, twice. Before I could find out the results of my mistake on my career, I had to find out their impact on my papers.

‘As a woman in science I already have to fight to be taken seriously, to be seen as competent…’

I somehow survived three painful hours while I waited to finish work at my postdoc and could get back to where I kept the study data. Upon sitting at my desk (liquid courage in hand) I redid the stats, anxious to find the results. Now look, I’m no slouch with numbers, I know what multiplying by -1 does to them, but panic overrode sense in that moment and I needed to see to believe. First paper: Flipped the direction of effect on a non-significant variable that remained that way. Okay, fairly minor, just requires that the journal update the tables. Second paper: Again, the only thing that changed was the direction of effect, though this variable had been and still was significant, means we had to adjust the numbers, a line in the abstract, and three sentences in the results. Not great, but as variables go it hadn’t even rated being mentioned in the discussion.

Okay, okay, okay (deep breaths, bit more whisky), this could be so much worse I told myself. I screwed up but hey, everyone makes mistakes, I was learning something new, I should’ve have caught it earlier, but it was caught now. Onto the next step, making the corrections, contacting coauthors, and letting the journals know. Time to really live by our ideals. But first! Another moment of panic while I wondered if I had made the same mistake in my two newest papers. Opening code, reading through, and…no, I hadn’t made the mistake again. Somewhere along the way I had clearly learned how to do these statistics correctly, I just hadn’t caught it while I was working on these two papers and had copy-pasted the code across them. Good news, I am in fact capable of doing things correctly.

‘I had lived my nightmare and it felt, as least in this moment…completely survivable…’

Writing the email to my coauthors wasn’t something that I was particularly looking forward to. “Oh hey fellow researchers that I respect and admire, I screwed up and am going to let the journals and the world know. PS, please don’t think less of me and hate me. Okay, thanks.” While that’s not what I wrote, that’s what it felt like. An admission of imperfection, shame, guilt, a desire to live under a rock. However, I’ve been blessed with caring and understanding collaborators, each of whom was extremely supportive. Next, I sent an email to the journals explaining the mistake and requesting corrections be published. Each journal was understanding and helped us write and publish corrections and that was it, it was done. I had lived my nightmare and it felt, as least in this moment…completely survivable. I had imagined anxiety and panic and battling my own shame and guilt. This…this was a feeling of stillness that I was not prepared for.

Prior to contacting the journals and writing this blog, I asked myself how much this would hurt my career. Would a small mistake cost me my reputation, respect, and future in the science I’d already sacrificed so much for? Would writing this blog and openly speaking to the fact that I had made a mistake only further the potential damage to career and respect? Would a single mistake, done at the beginning of my PhD and not since repeated, mean that others didn’t trust my science and statistics, not want to work with me? Would I trust my own skills, and more importantly, myself, again? There was so much uncertainty and so little information available on this experience, yet mistakes like this must happen more than we think, they just go unspoken.

‘…genuine mistakes? We have to make those acceptable to acknowledge, correct, even retract, and speak about, to learn and move on from.’

This, this is the crux of a problem in science, there are unknown consequences of acknowledging and speaking openly about our mistakes and, by failing to do so, we only further increase the chance that mistakes go uncorrected. Let’s hold those that perform purposeful scientific misconduct accountable, but genuine mistakes? We have to make those acceptable to acknowledge, correct, even retract, and speak about, to learn and move on from them. Those who don’t learn from their mistakes? Well, they may be doomed to face the consequences. As a note, if we’re going to move towards openness and transparency in science then we need to be particularly careful that those in underrepresented groups aren’t unfairly punished or scrutinized for admitting and speaking about mistakes as these groups are already under a microscope and face unique and frustrating challenges. We cannot allow openness and transparency to be used as one more excuse for someone to tell us no, not if science is to diversify and progress.

‘What kind of person and scientist do I want to be?’

Of all the questions I asked myself, deciding to write this post came down to one: What kind of person and scientist do I want to be? As an animal welfare scientist, I have long believed in being transparent and open in science, I realized that’s who I am as a person as well. Living by my ideals meant not only correcting my mistake but also talking openly and frankly about it. These choices, challenging as they may have been, are the right ones. To err is human and luckily for me I have divine friends, mentors, and colleagues that forgive me my mistakes and sins. I believe that we should all be so lucky and that mistakes should be openly and transparently discussed. For now, I live to science another day and look forward to the challenges, mistakes (which I intend to catch prior to publication), and learning that come with it.

For those interested in working with me (imperfections and all) when my current postdoc ends this January, feel free to get in touch via ResearchGate (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lauren_Robinson7) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/Laurenmrobin).

Links to published corrections:

http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2016-39633-001

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016815911830193X

Read about Lauren’s fascinating research (with lots of monkey photos!) into animal welfare and animal behaviour here.

DNA Databases: Between Crime Fighting and Human Rights

by Lauren O’ Connell, University College Dublin.

DNA

Many of us remember learning about DNA from either science class during our school days, or perhaps, our favourite detective series or film. But what is DNA? How did it get to be used in the criminal justice system in the first place? Most importantly, how is it being incorporated, used and understood by the criminal justice system? This piece provides a short introduction to this area of law in Ireland.

DNA stands for ‘Deoxyribonucleic Acid.’ A sample of DNA can be extracted from our saliva, blood and bone for example. Each person’s DNA is structured differently, meaning that our DNA is unique to each of us alone.  DNA profiling was discovered in 1985 by Sir Alec Jeffries and his colleagues in Leicester, and allowed the development of a ‘DNA profile’ from a physical DNA sample. A DNA profile looks similar to a barcode and is a digital representation of a DNA sample. Following this discovery, DNA became a prominent feature in the investigation of crime.

DNA evidence is important in the context of a crime because it can allow for the identification of a specific person at a crime scene and can help to identify unknown bodies. If DNA is found at a scene and then matched with a suspect, it places the suspect at the scene. DNA evidence has been praised because it is often seen as objective, scientific evidence. This has been considered preferable to other forms of evidence such as witness statements which are often subjective and unreliable. Despite these benefits, a problem can arise if DNA is discovered at a crime scene but there are no suspects to test it against. This limits the ability of DNA to aid in an investigation as, although it was obtained from a crime scene, it cannot be compared with anyone. In light of this, the storing or banking of DNA profiles for comparison purposes became desirable for those investigation crimes. DNA storage allows a DNA profile generated from a crime scene sample to be tested against a range of profiles which have already been collected from a pool of people. This is where the central appeal of DNA databasing originated.

Forensic DNA databases organise and store DNA information for the purposes of criminal investigations, and to aid searches for missing or unidentified persons. Therefore, theyallow “rapid comparison” between profiles collected from crime scenes and profiles collected from people who are included in the database (Bieber, 2004: 29). Another frequently mooted (and often debated) benefit offered by DNA databases is the ability to deter people from committing crime, as criminals may have a heightened expectation of being caught.This claim has been disputed however, both because of the difficulties in actually measuring deterrence, but also because criminals may merely adapt to the new circumstances by becoming more forensically aware.The storage of DNA information, even limited information such as a profile, has attracted much debate, particularly in relation to human rights. For example, while databasing is efficient in terms of managing information, a database can also be used “to track, group and classify people with or without their acquiescence” (Jasanoff, 2010: xx). People who have their DNA profiles stored on a forensic DNA database lose privacy, freedom and autonomy, and may be reluctant to engage in active citizenship (such as in protests) given the ability to identify them (Jasanoff, 2010: xxii).

The Irish DNA Database System

Ireland recently incorporated the DNA Database System into law, under the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014. The2014 Act is extensive, but the main purposes of the Actwere neatly summarised by Colm O’Briain (who also provides a wonderfully succinct synopsis of the 2014 Act) (2014: 1-2). The main purposes include an overhaul of the previous legislation and common law practices in the area of taking DNA samples (from several different groups of people such as offenders, suspects and volunteers), the establishment of the DNA Database System, along with providing management and oversight for the System, and the implementing of the Prüm Council Decision, which provides for the international exchange of DNA evidence. Part 8 of the 2014 Actspecifically addresses the DNA Database System, which is currently controlled by Forensic Science Ireland, an independent body based in the Garda Headquarters in Phoenix Park.

Given the potential of DNA databases, one of the central debates which follows is who (or what offences) should qualify for entry onto the database. Typically, sex offenders are mooted as one of the key categories which should be included on a database. However, most databases extend beyond this to include people who have already been convicted of other serious offences such as murder for example. In some jurisdictions, inclusion criteria are based on the length of the sentence which the offence might warrant (premised on the logic that the more serious the offence, the lengthier the punishment). However, it is not always restricted to people who have been convicted of an offence. A DNA database can also include ‘volunteers’, who are innocent people not convicted or suspected of committing an offence. This has led to discussion on the possibility of population-wide databases, although these are often dismissed as being impracticable both on the grounds of human rights and logistical concerns.

In the case of Irish DNA Database System, there are four main ways that a person’s DNA profile can lawfully appear on same (O’Briain, 2014: 9). These are as follows:

  1. If a person is detained for a relevant offence

A ‘relevant offence’ is an offence for which a person may be detained under Section 9 of the 2014 Act. Offences include those under the Offences Against the State Act 1939, along with drug-trafficking offences, murder, false imprisonment, and offences which may be punished by a term of five years imprisonment or more. O’Briain (2014: 8) neatly summarises that the minimum requirement is an offence with a maximum sentence of at least 5 years.

  1. If a person is an offender or former offender

Offenders are identified as those who have been convicted of a relevant offence and are either (1) serving a sentence, on temporary release or subject to a suspended sentence, (2) convicted before or after the commencement of the Act and sentenced to imprisonment, (3) serving a term of imprisonment on foot of a transfer of prisoners provision (so long as the offence involved corresponds to a relevant offence) or (4) subject to the requirements of Part 2 of theSex Offenders Act 2001at the time of the commencement or at any time thereafter.

  1. If a person volunteers to provide a sample and then allows the profile to be entered onto the System

The taking of DNA samples from volunteers is governed by Part 3 of the Act, with the entry of volunteer profiles onto the DNA Database System covered under Section 28.

 

  1. If a DNA profile was generated under the previous statutory regime, then it may be entered onto the System under transitional provisions. 

Prior to the 2014 Act, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence) Act 1990governed the taking of DNA samples. This provision therefore accommodates the transition of samples collected under the previous legislation and allows such samples to be entered onto the System.

The next debate that follows relates to how long we need to retain this information. As a result, retention periods make up a large part of the discourse on the development of DNA databases around the world. One argument for retaining the information for longer periods of time is that it may mean that detection rates are improved. However, retention of such data has also been considered an invasion of privacy. For example, the UK’s DNA database was subject to “serious scrutiny” which culminated in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) reprimanding the UK’s approach to retention of data in the case of S and Marper v United Kingdom (2008) (Kazemian et al. 2011: 49). England, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only countries in the Council of Europe which allowed for the indefinite retention of DNA data of people who were not convicted of a crime. The ECtHR held that this indefinite retention of data was a violation of Article 8 (the right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights (see Prainsack, 2010: 15-16).

Under the 2014 Act, there are different retention regimes for DNA profiles and samples depending on the origin of the sample. For example, volunteers and those who work in the forensic science laboratory have different retention regimes. It is therefore beyond the scope of this piece to explain each of these different regimes. Instead, this piece specifically considers those who are arrested for a ‘relevant’ offence. In Ireland, the retention regime for this category of persons is quite interesting. Under Section 80 of the 2014 Act,if a person is detained for a relevant offence and their DNA profile is entered onto the System, it is only removed in the following situations:

  1. If proceedings against a person are not instituted within 12 months of taking that sample (unless the reason for the delay is because the person has absconded or cannot be found).
  2. In the case that the proceedings have been instituted, then removal will occur if the person is acquitted of the relevant offence, if the charge is dismissed, or the proceedings discontinued.
  3. If the person’s conviction was identified as a miscarriage of justice.
  4. If the person receives an order under the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 for the relevant offence and they have not been convicted of a relevant offence in the 3 years following that order.

This is subject to Section 81, which allows the Garda Commissioner to extend the retention period for 12 months. This power to extend can be done up to a maximum of 6 years (so extending retention by twelve months six times). The person can however appeal this decision to the District Court. However, there is also a provision under Section 93 which allows the Garda Commissioner to apply to the District Court to extend the retention period once there is a “good reason” to do so (see O’Briain, 2014: 16). This indicates that removal is restricted to certain instances, and that retention of the information appears to be preferred by the legislation.

To conclude, DNA forms an important part of investigations into criminal activity and missing persons. DNA evidence can be highly useful, but the potential is limited if there is no source with which to compare it. To combat this limitation, DNA database systems have been established in jurisdictions around the world. Ireland has now joined this group by enacting the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014 which governs this area of law.

 

References

  • Bieber F. R., (2004) ‘Science and Technology of Forensic DNA Profiling: Current Use and Future Directions’, in DNA and The Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice, edited by Lazer D., The MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 23-62.
  • Jasanoff S., (2010) ‘Foreword’, in Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing, edited by Hindmarsh R. and Prainsack B., Cambridge University Press.
  • Kazemian L., Pease K., and Farrington D. P., (2011) ‘DNA Retention Policies: The Potential Contribution of Criminal Career Research’, European Journal of Criminology8 (1) 48.
  • O’Briain C., (2014) ‘Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014: An Overview from a Criminal Practitioner’s Perspective,’ paper presented at the 15th Annual Conference of the Director of Public Prosecutions, available online at:  https://www.dppireland.ie/filestore/documents/PAPER_-_Colm_OBriain_-_2014.10.18.pdf
  • Prainsack B. (2010) ‘Key issues in DNA profiling and databasing: implications for governance’ in Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing, edited by Hindmarsh R. and Prainsack B., Cambridge University Press, pp 15-39.

Feminist research, activism, public participation, and social change

Research needs to look towards a future of public participation and institutional disruption, writes Yvonne Kiely, Dublin City University

Research questions often come about in response to an identified problem. Whether this problem is social, scientific, political, micro or macro, researchers attend to the minutest details with their chosen methods in order to affect a change in our understanding of these problems, and ultimately the problems themselves. My own field of feminist media research has, at its core, issues of social justice and disruption; there is a conscious and deliberate aim to readdress inequalities within the media-gender relationship. For many researchers and institutions, the aim is social change.

And change does happen. Since the 1970s – since feminism was realised as a worldwide movement – feminist media research has been disrupting and enriching discussions about the relationship between gender and media in society. The first feminist critique of media was heard in Mexico City at the first of three UN Decades for Women conferences in 1975, and this milestone, where women’s representation by media and within its structures was a central issue, added another critical dimension to the wider feminist movement, and to academia (see Byerly, 2016). The beginnings of feminist media scholarship were rooted within this identification of a problem and the desire to disrupt the status quo for the sake of equality and justice. In doing so, the public, lived experiences of women within media industries became an integral part of how research was directed and articulated in policy and institutional strategy. Today, the field is still evolving and challenging researchers to investigate the structures of our media institutions with fresh critical thinking.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research. As some scholars have written about the relationship between feminist research and activism, “Many feminist researchers have been influenced by the research questions generated by women’s movements and consider it a moral imperative that their research should include women’s voices. They wish to change both the subjects and the objects of study” (Ackerly & True, 2010).

Among many academic institutions worldwide there is a strong and visible commitment to feminist research, gender studies, and the social good that can be achieved through engaging with communities. However, there is a problem within the protocols and practices of higher level education. The reality which all too often acts as a book end to huge swathes of good, painstakingly uncovered knowledge is one of inertia and stasis. From an insider’s perspective, you can see time and time again, significant pieces of research entering a normalised cycle of publication and citation with the full potential of the research itself locked behind a paywall. Uninterrupted access to the vast majority of this knowledge requires you to be a member of the institutional framework – an academic, or a student – which again comes with its own price tag. The reality of these institutional frameworks is arguably the biggest fault of academia. It is a reality that requires us to think differently about the research journey.

It is a reality that can be readdressed with the understanding that the full potential of socially impactful research resides in the encouragement and inclusion of public action and participation.

My journey from research question to publication brought me face-to-face with the stickiest catch-22 of higher level education. In the summer of 2017 I investigated gender in the music industry. Over these months I interviewed six women who occupy various roles within the music industry in Ireland. Coupled with this was a content analysis of two popular music magazines; Hot Press(Ireland) and Rolling Stone(USA). I tracked over forty years of gender on the covers of these magazines and applied a total of 8,721 individual categorisations to the people in these spaces. The result: gender matters in the music industry, and it matters in very specific ways.

It was the decision to make my research publicly available on my website* earlier this year which revealed to me the voices that academic protocols and paywalls are excluding from the conversation. They are the people to whom the research is most relevant.

The first article I published discussed my initial research question and the journey which led me to the real question that needed to be asked about gender, power and visibility in the music industry. Specifically, in relation to women music producers, the question of ‘why are there so few?’ is imprecise, and the figure of ‘less than five percent’ extensively cited by articles is inaccurate. There is a difference between what we see in the visible, widely established music industry, and what is actually there; the question we need to ask is ‘why do we seeso few?’

The second article detailed the investigation of gender on music magazine covers, and for the first time the shared transatlantic trends of how gender is constructed on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stonewere uncovered and articulated.

Combined, these two articles have been read 947 times in almost 60 countries across five continents. Within the space of six months the reach of these articles has exceeded my expectations, and their longevity endures today as they continue to be read. Since the first article was published I’ve received comments and emails from female identifying people in the music industry congratulating me on the research and thanking me for it. Through participatory spaces within online music networks, this research has travelled. Though I cannot say for sure that the people in Albania, Guadeloupe, Mongolia, or Serbia would not have read this research had it gone through academic protocols and been published by peer-reviewed journals, I can certainly speculate as to the difference in reach and accessibility.

One approach that aims to disrupt the traditional boundaries between researcher and subject, and calls for the restructuring of academic frameworks is Participatory Action Research (PAR). Through witnessing the tangible social impact of research sharing in public space, PAR has become critically important to how I conceptualise the research journey.

“Feminist principles of equality, reciprocity, partiality and valuing the voices of ordinary people as expert and authoritative on their own lives are reflected in PAR” (Pain, Kindon & Kesby, 2007).

PAR also asks us to challenge ourselves as researchers.

“PAR introduces new questions about representation, audience and product that compel us to rethink the role and impact of research. More than an epistemological shift, this approach brings commitments to action that push researchers to work in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways” (Cahill & Torre, 2007).

The argument presented by this article is directed squarely at the protocols, politics and paywalls of academic institutions. By all means, we need the peer-review system; research needs to be critiqued and scrutinised by an objective overseer before it is given the zeal of academic approval in a journal. But the cycle of publication and citation behind closed doors needs to be disrupted to allow for public engagement, to allow for the subjects of these socially significant pieces of research to become part of the conversation. For feminist researchers taking inspiration from the questions raised by women’s liberation movements and feminist activism, and for activists who change the language of gender politics and give voice to the changing needs of an equal and just society, there is a mutual interest in the creation of shared participatory spaces, and the disruption of a system which defines access to knowledge as a question of wealth, protocols and institutional status.

*Parts one and two of the ‘Researching gender in music series’ can be accessed here.

 

 

 

References

Ackerly, B. and True, J. (2010). Back to the future: Feminist theory, activism, and doing feminist    research in an age of globalization. Women’s Studies International Forum, 33(5), pp.464-  472.

Byerly, C. M. (2016). Stasis and shifts in feminist media scholarship. In C. Cerqueira; R.    Cabecinhas & S. I. Magalhães (Eds.), Gender in focus: (new) trends in media (pp. 15-27).

Cahill, C. and Torre, M. E. (2007). Beyond the journal article: representations, audience, and the     presentation of Participatory Action Research. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds),                      Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation    and place (pp. 196-206).

Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory Action Research: origins, approaches and            methods. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds), Participatory Action Research   Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation and place (pp.9-19)

Shedding Light on the Dark Universe

By Dr Alexandra Amon, Stanford University

 

Dark Matter

Shedding light on the Dark Universe

It would be easy to imagine that the Dark Universe was a malevolent force in the latest Star Wars movie, it’s leaders the enemy of the Federation, or that dark energy had some kind of demonic origin. However sinister it may sound, the dark side is entirely innocent and, in fact, it comprises 95% of our Universe.

To give this perspective, Earth is an almost infinitesimal speck in the cosmos. It orbits the Sun, one of billions of stars, swirling around and bound together to form our galaxy, the Milky Way. Moreover, there are billions of galaxies in our Universe, each boasting their own hoard of stars and planets! Observational cosmology tells us that these structures, that are made of particles whose physics we understand, only constitute about 5% of everything in the Universe. The rest is dark matter and dark energy.

Dark matter is a special type of matter that neither emits nor interacts with light, but plays an important role in the story of our Universe. More than three quarters of the mass in our Milky Way galaxy (and other galaxies) is the invisible dark matter, rather than the stars and the planets. Therefore, the dark matter creates a large gravitational effect and acts as the glue holding our galaxies together.

Dark energy is even more mysterious. It is a form of energy that drives the accelerated expansion of our Universe. That is, our observations reveal that while stars stay tightly bound in galaxies, as cosmic time marches on the galaxies themselves are moving further away from each other, and our best theory holds dark energy responsible. While we can’t see these entities, we infer that they exist from their effect on things we can see.

 It may sound like cosmologists have the Universe sussed, but there are cracks in our Standard Cosmological Model. While we understand the effect of dark matter in the universe,  particle physicists are yet to detect its particle in their giant dark matter net experiments. On the other hand the best theory for dark energy, as predicted by quantum physics, is starkly wrong. To put it politely, there is much work to be done! It is possible that we are missing something in our theory of gravity- Einstein’s General Relativity- and may need to invoke some new physics in order to solve the dark energy phenomenon. That is, just as Newtonian gravity, which satisfies experiments on Earth, was revolutionised by Einstein’s theory in order to explain measurements in the solar system, perhaps we need another upgrade to explain even larger-scale observations. We focus on observing how dark matter changes over cosmic time, which sheds light on how dark energy evolves and allows us to test gravity on cosmological scales.

 Cosmology has a vast toolbox of independent methods to understand the nature of the Dark Universe and to test the laws of gravity. Techniques include measurements of the brightness of supernovae- the explosive ends of binary pairs of unequal mass stars; exquisite observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background-temperature fluctuations across the sky from the light emitted in very early universe, just 380 000 years after the Big Bang; charting the distant Universe by obtaining precise velocities of and distances to galaxies; and meticulously measuring the shapes of distant galaxies. The latter is called weak gravitational lensing.

 Weak gravitational lensing

 As we observe a distant galaxy, we collect its light in our telescopes after it has journeyed across the Universe. According to General Relativity, dark matter, like any massive structure, warps the very fabric of the Universe, space-time, as depicted by the grid in the image below. The path that the light travels along, indicated by an arrow, also gets bent with the space-time and as such, the image of the galaxy that we capture appears distorted. The presence of dark matter or massive structures along the line of sight has the effect of lensing the galaxy- making it appear more elliptical in our images and inducing a coherent alignment among nearby galaxies.

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A depiction of weak gravitational lensing. As light from distant galaxies travels towards us, it passes by massive structures of dark matter, shown here as grey spheres. Dark matter’s gravity curves the local space-time as well as the path that the light follows. This curvature distorts the images of the background galaxies that we then observe, with the amount of distortion depending on the distribution of dark matter along the light path. By measuring this distortion, we can infer the size and location of invisible massive structures (dotted circles). Image credit; APS/Alan Stonebraker; galaxy images from STScI/AURA, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team.

The stronger the average galaxy ellipticity is in a patch of sky, the more dark matter there is in that region of the Universe, assuming galaxies are in reality, randomly oriented. Therefore, the induced ellipticity of the galaxies is a faint signature of dark matter inscribed across the Universe. If we can measure this alignment to extreme precision, and combine with the equations of General Relativity, we can infer the location and properties of the matter- both visible and dark- between us and the galaxies.  By mapping the evolution of the dark-matter structures with cosmic history and documenting the accelerating expansion of space and time, we learn about dark energy.  

I work as part of a European team, called the Kilo-Degree Survey, imaging a 5% chunk of the sky a few hundred times the size of the full moon. We have measured the positions and shapes of tens of millions galaxies, as the universe was when (at most) half its current age. While this sounds wildly impressive, we are only now seeing the tip of the iceberg for what is required to truly understand our Universe. That is because while gravitational lensing is a powerful cosmological technique, it is extremely technologically challenging. The typical distortion induced by dark matter as a galaxy’s light travels through the universe, is only enough to alter the shape of that galaxy by less than 1%. As the lensing effect is weak, in order to detect it we need to analyse the images of millions of galaxies. This entails a data challenge, necessitating rapid processing of petabytes of data. A scientific hurdle arises as the weak lensing distortions are significantly smaller than the distortions that arise in the last moments of the the light’s journey.  Due to the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere and our imperfect telescopes and detectors, instead of measuring the shapes of galaxies in images that are beautifully resolved like the Hubble Space Telescope image below, in large lensing surveys, galaxies can appear as fuzzy blobs that only span a few pixels. Just to up the ante, the terrestrial effects change between and throughout the night’s observations as the wind, temperature and weather vary, even in the exquisite conditions of the  mountaintops of the Atacama Desert, Chile, where lensing data is often collected. In order to isolate the dark matter signature, the nuisance distortions are modelled to extremely high precision and then inverted, allowing an accurate recovery of the cosmological signal. Further complications arise from the physics of the galaxies. They have an intrinsic ellipticity and dynamical processes that we do not perfectly understand, but must also factor into our calculations.

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Hubble Space Telescope image of a cluster of galaxies called Abell 1689. The larger yellow galaxies are members of this massive galaxy cluster, bound within a dense clump of dark matter that gravitationally distorts the space and time around the cluster. The small blue objects are galaxies that are behind the cluster, whose light path has become bent as it journeys towards Earth, passing by the cluster. Gravitational lensing effectuates the giant curved blue arcs that you can see surrounding Abell 1689- the distorted images of the distant galaxies . The five blue dots with rainbow crosses are just stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

 

The Kilo-Degree Survey, as well as similar American and Japanese experiments, act as stepping stones and a training ground for an epic coming decade for observational cosmologists. We are at the dawn of several major international projects that will survey the sky to greater depths and resolution than ever before. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will image the entire Southern sky every few nights, building the deepest and largest map of our cosmos, the Euclid satellite will survey the sky from space, eradicating the worry of Earth’s atmosphere and the the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument will delivery extremely precise locations and velocities of over 30 million galaxies. I look forward to helping these projects to map the distant Universe, trace the evolution of the dark matter and dark energy from 10 billion years ago to the present day and in doing so, bringing us closer to fathoming the other 95% of our Universe: the dark side.

It is a humbling field that asks what the Universe is made of and how its structure evolved for the formation of galaxies and our existence. In our insignificant snippet in the grand story of the Universe, it is remarkable that technology allows us to observe objects at distances beyond our comprehension and that our diverse range of measurements even vaguely fit a consistent model.