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.
Susan Mowbray said:
Thanks Cally for this timely post. Like you, I find ZOOM an accessible and user friendly platform that is great to write alongside our HDRs. At Western Sydney GRS we have instigated extra online ZOOM writing sessions/cafes for our HDRs to ‘drop in’ to. These include two weekly sessions during the day, 10am to 12 noon is popular, and one session in the evening from 7.30-9pm. This session is targeted to part-time HDRs and those with family commitments. We also recommend the resource on establishing a writing group to our HDRs and HDR Directors to help establish regular writing interactions and formalise a writing schedule. This resource was developed by Juliet Lum and Olga Kozar from Macquarie University and is a straightforward guide to the major considerations and roles in getting an online writing group started.
Our HDRs have also shared some great resources they use to help sustain their progress on our Discussion Board.
Some of the more unusual ones are:
using binaural beats to promote focused study
sharing tips on survey designs from the ABS website
checking out free online data analysis workshops
and for some necessary downtime, trawling the links from The Conversation to an eclectic mix of online art, music, and cultural sites including the Animal Houses at Melbourne Zoo (love those meerkats!)
Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful ideas, links and resources, Susan! There is some wonderful work going on at universities to support PhD candidates during these tricky time (and much of it was already in place as part of the ongoing work of researcher development). I’m definitely going to check out the binaural beats link.
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Thanks for this. I run a small pro bono Thesis Coach service supporting doctoral writers who are marginalised from the academy. I mentor, offer cogenerative editing and have Pinterest and other social media resources available. But what the seven people who have graduated from this group said was most valuable? The encouragement and opportunity for emotional support, and naming the un-nameable horrors of doctoral study to someone who has no institutional authority over them and will never dob or report them to the mindless minions of orthodoxy in the tertiary command centre (I thought it was my magnificent command of theory and methodological rigor but there you are)
Emotional support is extremely important for doctoral writers, and – as you point out – being outside the institutional power structures means you can offer this in ways that are impossible for others. On behalf of everyone working to support PhD candidates, thank you so much for doing this in an ethical and responsible way! And I’m sure your command of theory and methodological rigor are also critical in helping your group trust your input 🙂
very good ideas. People with children could try to get up ever earlier to write and have a nap with them in the afternoon to regain some powers 🙂
I choose music according to the type of writing I do. For instance, if I need to focus on the narrative I usually choose slow, ambient, minimal music e.g. https://williambasinski.bandcamp.com/album/the-disintegration-loops
or sometimes my 20 minute trance track, that starts more random and becomes more focused/monotone towards the end: https://tedor.bandcamp.com/track/jester
I never use music with lyrics.
brain.fm is also good or music by the Strong Institute (REI).
I also tried a couple of noise cancelling headphones and ended up with the Bose QC ii. They are good.
One of the best things that helps focus is the Wim Hof breathing exercise: https://youtu.be/tybOi4hjZFQ (have a cold shower after this for even more presence).
By the way, housework can be a very good activity for mindfulness meditation or for achieving flow states.
Thank you for these wonderful music suggestions! I agree that it’s really hard to think if there are lyrics. The breathing exercise sounds interesting. And my house is cleaner than it has been in quite a while (though I think for me that’s more in the nature of a procrastination activity, unfortunately…).
Jim Gritton said:
It is good to see a post dedicated to “writing in the time of COVID-19”. My own university moved to online teaching on 16 March 2020, but has been quite slow to provide guidance to doctoral students (in particular EdD students who often seem to be forgotten about). The biggest challenge facing me now is not writing per se but the need to recast my research as all “face-to-face interaction with research participants” has been banned indefinitely. In my case, that means the abandonment of one of the key elements of my programme of research, namely photo-elicitation-based focus groups. Given that current social distancing measures are likely to last for months, and possibly into 2021 in a worst case scenario in the UK, I cannot bank on the prohibition of “face-to-face interaction with research participants” being lifted any time soon. Whilst I have a Plan B in mind, it will mean resubmission of ethics applications etc and may delay completion of my EdD by another 6-12 months.
Thank you for your comment, Jim. I think there are likely to be quite a few projects that will need to be reconsidered in light of the disruptions to data collection – in relation to both human participants and sudden lack of access to labs and equipment, not to mention fieldwork requiring travel. It’s great that you already have a Plan B in mind (and all projects should include that in their design), but tough when it’s necessary to implement Plan B. It can be very disappointing to have worked so hard to design an excellent project and then have to adapt it. The consequent delays can have a big impact on PhD candidates’ lives and careers. Good luck with it – hopefully the project will still be personally satisfying, since that’s an important part of taking on these studies.
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