By Cally Guerin
My title comes from my current reading – Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, set during the Great Plague of 1666, and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (I also recommend Minette Walters’ The Last Hours for a good read on strong women taking the lead on self-isolation). These really are times when academics and doctoral writers need to protect themselves from the world pandemic. As universities around the world close campuses and move teaching online, doctoral writers are facing even more challenges than usual. What used to feel like a bit of a luxury when only occasionally possible, working from home is now mandatory for many of us. This post looks at how doctoral writers can be supported to stay on track in the current state of confinement.
Working from home is not necessarily a quiet, peaceful experience of scholarly life for everyone. It can be rather distracting if several other family members or housemates are also trying to work from the same space. And it might be even more disruptive if the household includes children who need to be looked after and entertained (and many readers will have noticed that the burden of household tasks still often tends to fall more heavily on women than men, even in 2020!). There are useful insights here from Chris Smith of Prolifiko about how to handle distractions. Managing these other demands on time and attention can take a lot of planning and delicate conversations to ensure that doctoral writers carve out sufficient time to get on with their work. While supervisors are likely to be a little more accommodating at present, there may well be external deadlines from funding bodies that are not easily relaxed. Finding the right balance between understanding that things are not operating as normal and encouraging PhD candidates to continue progressing their work will play an important role in everyone’s wellbeing in coming months. Helen Kara has some great tips here.
Doctoral writers need to heed the standard advice of creating structure and routine for their days. I saw a Twitter message reminding us that HASS PhD candidates have been doing this for years (sorry, I can’t find who wrote this now!). Those working in the Australian Outback – that is, remote and rural areas – also have lots of good tips for how to manage infrequent trips to the shops for supplies and limited social contact. For many of them, it looks a lot like business as usual. But lots of doctoral writers have had external structures created for them through scheduled time to use lab equipment, workshops and seminars, and social events with peers. Suddenly, those routines have disappeared.
Many of the well-known strategies about setting the alarm for your normal wake-up time, following your usual morning routine and sitting down to work at the regular time really can help. Scheduled breaks that build in exercise can make a big difference too. The days at home sometimes seem strangely long and simultaneously short – having a writing goal for the day is a useful way to demonstrate that progress is being made.
Social contact: online writing groups
At present one of the huge challenges for many doctoral writers is the loss of social contact. Fortunately, there are lots of different ways to set up online writing groups (Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond includes a wealth of ideas). These can be as simple and low tech as you like, or take advantage of easy, user-friendly video-conferencing via Zoom or Skype.
Some years ago I started a small writing group for doctoral writers in which we committed to writing for two hours each Tuesday morning. The night before I sent a reminder email to get participants planning in advance about what they wanted to achieve during the session. On the day, I emailed the group about 10 minutes ahead of the start time to remind everyone to get set up (computer on, coffee made, etc.). Everyone was also asked to ‘reply all’ to check in at the start and to announce their writing goals for the session. Another email was sent on the hour to announce a short break (quick trip to the bathroom, grab a drink or snack, or deal with any pressing issues), then back to work within 10 minutes. Finally, an email was sent at the end of the session inviting members to check in again and report back on progress. Yes, it was basic; and yes, we all felt accountable for getting some writing done during the session.
As part of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) in the past, I have scheduled two-hour writing sessions structured around two 50-minute writing sprints. These have been conducted over Zoom, and I must say that I really like seeing the faces of the other writers and being able to talk to them at the beginning of the session. During the writing sprints, participants can choose to leave their video connection on, or turn off the video if they feel awkward being ‘watched’ as they write. I find it quite companionable to see everyone working busily – and it certainly helps me stay seated at the computer if I know the others will see me leave!
My colleagues in Researcher Development at Australian National University have organised regular online ‘Shut up and Write’ (SUAW) sessions for doctoral writers who are currently unable to meet on campus. The routine includes four sets of 25-minute sprints so that writers are together for two hours. For some writers, the classic Pomodoro technique is ideal; for others the longer writing period works better as they push through the minor slump half-way through. Experiment and see what works best for you and your writing companions.
One important factor is that usually these groups do need a facilitator to manage the time and keep everyone on track – this was a really useful reminder from a discussion thread conducted by the Consortium on Graduate Communication (a wonderfully supportive, knowledgeable group of scholars and practitioners who generously share their insights about research writing. If you don’t already know this group, you might like to check out their website). The facilitator can be a group member, supervisor or researcher developer – just so long as someone reminds writers when the session is coming up and keeps the group to time. It could be something that a group of doctoral writers take turns at sharing.
These restrictions we face in the time of COVID-19 are not forever, and there will be a time when we can meet again in person. In the meantime, keep in touch with your extended networks while taking care of yourselves, your family and friends. It would be wonderful to hear from you about what you are doing to keep doctoral writers working effectively.