Windows of opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

Windows of Opportunity: Networking During a Pandemic

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Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

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.

Researching through Recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery

By Sinead Matson, B.A., H.Dip. Montessori, M.Ed.

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Anyone who has had the misfortune to undergo a craniotomy should do a PhD. Seriously. It makes sense. Both paths have similar hurdles: Imposter syndrome – check! Struggle with writing – check! Trouble expressing your thoughts – check! Extreme tiredness – check, check! It’s physiotherapy, but for your brain.

I joke of course, because each person’s individual recovery is different, but doing a PhD has personally given me the space to recover from a craniotomy while still actively working on my career and passion. I was always going to embark on a doctoral degree but in October 2014 (ten weeks after my second child was born) I had four successive tonic-clonic seizures which ultimately led to the discovery and removal of a large meningioma (brain tumour) four days later. When I woke up from surgery I couldn’t move the right-hand side of my body except for raising my arm slightly; my speech and thought process was affected too. Of course, I panicked, but the physiotherapist was on hand to tell me that while the brain had forgotten how to talk to the muscle – the muscle never forgets. I instantly relaxed, “muscle memory! I’ve got this” I thought to myself – forever the Montessori teacher.

Nobody tells you that recovering from brain surgery is exhausting, so exhausting. Every day I had to relearn things I had previously known. Every single sense is heightened and a ten-minute walk around the supermarket is a sensory overload. However, I never questioned the fact that I would start college the following September; in fact, it drove me to do my physio and get physically better. I even applied for a competitive scholarship and won it. I can never explain enough how much of a boost that was to my self-esteem. There is nothing like brain surgery to make you question your identity and your cognitive skills in a profession that values thinking, research, articulating new ideas, and writing. It is like an attack on your very being.

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When I started, I could not have been more accommodated by the Education department in Maynooth University, but in a manner which was subtle and encouraging whilst still pushing me to do a little bit more. My supervisor struck a delicate balance between supportive and always encouraging me to look a little further and read more. I never felt mollycoddled or out of my depth (well… no more than the average PhD student).

Of course, there are challenges. Aren’t there always? It can be frustrating (not to mention embarrassing) when you cannot process a conversation as quickly as it is happening at meetings, conferences, or seminars; it’s the same for when you answer a question but know the words you are saying are not matching what you are trying to articulate. Submitting a piece of writing to anyone, anywhere, is the most vulnerable thing that you can experience, especially when your language centre has been affected and you know your grammar and phrasing might not always be up to par. Transitions flummox me, particularly verbal transitions like the start of a presentation, introducing and thanking a guest speaker, taking on the position of chairing a symposium, and day to day greetings. I lose all words, forget etiquette, and generally stammer. I forever find myself answering questions or reliving scenarios from the day in the shower!

So, what’s different between mine and any other doctoral student’s experience you ask? Well, I’m not sure. I see my fellow students all have the same worries and vulnerabilities. We all have discussed our feelings of imposter syndrome at various points thus far, our excitement and disbelief when our work is accepted for presentation or publication, and our utter distress at not being able to articulate what we really wanted to say in front of a visiting professor. I do know this: it used to be easier; I used to do it better; I never had problems with writing or verbal transitions before; it is harder for me now. But (BUT) I now have a whole team of people who share my feelings and frustrations. I now have a community who champion my successes and comfort me with their own tales when I have bad days. I now feel less isolated and more normal. They allow me…no…they push me to do more, to believe I could travel to India alone to research; to not let epilepsy or fear to hold me back; to believe that I could negotiate the research process on the ground with preschool children and their parents and not get overwhelmed. They have read papers and assignments for me before I submit them and they expect the same of me. They simultaneously allow me room to vent (and take the lift when I’m too tired to walk) and they push me to be more adventurous with my reading and theory – to take risks I may never have taken.

All-in-all, I cannot think of a better way to recover from brain surgery and all it entails than the absolute privilege of completing a PhD. It gives me a space – a safe space – to recover in. The research process itself has helped me learn who I am again, what I stand for, and what I believe. It has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone in a way that I’m not sure I would have done otherwise but I am positive is vital to my full recovery. It has exercised my own personal cognitive abilities, reasoning skills, verbal and written expression so much more than any therapy could have, and it has given me, not a cheerleading team, but a community of researchers who are on the same journey – in a way.

I’m not saying it’s for everyone – no two recoveries are the same. However, I wish there was (and I did search for) someone who could have told me before the surgery, but particularly while I was in recovery, that life doesn’t have to stop. That it is not only possible to research while in recovery from brain surgery, but that it can also have a transformative effect on your life and your sense of identity; that it will push you outside of every comfort zone you’ve ever had, and it will be exhilarating.

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