Lessons from Lockdown

Coffee

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “A day without learning is a day wasted” so today I have tried to draw some lessons from the strange circumstances that we now find ourselves in. As I look to pass my 100th day in lockdown and working from home, there are five strong messages that have become apparent to me.

Continuity of work

Although my work has a different dynamic these days, it has continued relatively smoothly in my new office environment at home. Much of my work was already in the online environment, with email communications, videoconference meetings, and discussing web-based resources with distance-learners. In this new situation, I am aware that I have been luckier than many others, but I am also aware that lots of my regular work colleagues are in a similar position to me. We have swapped the financial and time costs of commuting to work with the extra costs and time spent at home. We may miss interaction in the same physical space, but there have been some amazing and innovative ‘workarounds’ that have brought some groups closer together, extended networks, and enabled a ‘new normal’ form of work to continue with scarcely a blip.

The global shift to online

After a faltering start, it has been impressive how many individuals, businesses, organisations, and services have quite comfortably shifted their activities into the online environment. In addition to my work with the university, I have been impressed by my recent personal experiences in interacting with the HNS, with Third Sector voluntary organisations, and with retail shops and outlets that previously did very little, if anything, using the online environment. Even the government is having its fling with business-as-usual-at-a-distance. Some would no doubt never have made such a move unless they had been forced into it, but many have discovered that there are real benefits to working online, including greater geographical inclusion, cost-saving in travel requirements, asynchronous viewing of missed meetings, and so on. How many of these newly realised benefits will continue to be pursued after lockdown ends and some sort of pre-COVID19 reality returns remains to be seen?

A fortunate space

In the offline world, there are also revelations. A rural environment, in particular, the Isle of Lewis, (and even my specific village) has long been my preferred bastion of retreat. The necessary restrictions of social distancing and locked-down premises, has brought into sharp focus the many benefits of living in a beautiful, safe, and spacious personal location. If I have to withdraw temporarily from the world and ‘self-isolate’, I cannot think of anywhere that I would prefer than precisely where I am now. I realise, of course, that a great many people do not have that option, and I wonder to what extent this realisation, in combination with the previous point on shifting possibilities for distance-working, will mean that we might see a renaissance in thinking about rural areas as ‘the place to be’ once things eventually begin to settle down. Certainly, the flight of some urbanites to the safety of their rural homes might be a sign of things to come. The rural idyll is dead, long live the rural idyll.

The intensity of connectivity

Nevertheless, despite all of the benefits of being able to buy online, work online, communicate online, and more or less continue life with some veneer of normality (whatever that was) there are gains and losses in the current iteration of normality. Although I am accustomed, indeed habituated, to email communications and videoconference discussions, the present emphasis on these options and these options only, can take its toll. I am fortunate to have a distinct study-place, but its proximity to the bedroom, kitchen, garden, and the croft outside, means that I need to be more disciplined and more regulated in my distinction between work and play. This is difficult for a person whose job is interesting and whose idea of fun is what they are already paid to do for a living. As the lockdown continues, I see growing frustration and (say it gently, but say it) mental health issues in some of my colleagues. Across a table, there is some physical distancing, but when the computer screen is barely 30cm from you, the person on the video-link ranting on their personal soapbox is literally in your face. The interconnectivity of the internet, despite it now becoming recognised as a great leveler and all-encompassing source of information (not all good), means that whenever I end a meeting, somebody, somewhere else, knows that I am ‘free’ and seeks to make contact. A strict self-policing of my ‘availability’ needs to be implemented!

The darker side of social media

Despite being an enthusiastic, (no, that’s not correct) an atavistic user of succinct social messaging (i.e. Twitter) I have recently experienced, much to my surprise, (after 40 years of online activity) some of the unsavory aspects of ubiquitous online accessibility. My simple response to an incorrect post led (with frightening alacrity) to a spate of online messages pointing out the error of my ways. It didn’t matter that the (perhaps, positively intentioned) people posting those messages know nothing about me, or that they obviously had only read part of the (very short) post. Undoubtedly there were some naïve comments and some genuine misunderstandings that would normally have been speedily resolved, but there were also some pretty nasty Trolls. The frustration of not being able to set the record straight, the disinclination to throw oil on the fire by responding, and an almost physical revulsion to some of the posts, was a strange combination. I can truly empathise with people who have been the subject of online abuse, false accusations, and spiteful comments. Subsequently, a subject expert (unknown to me) wrote a post to substantiate my original point, but the damage had been done. Now reaching for my mobile phone has a hesitancy that was not present previously when I went to check-up on comments from my friends and colleagues. Do I block these Trolls? No, for the present I simply ignore them, for I am very comfortable in my own skin and among those who actually know me. It has, however, presented a distasteful glimpse of the future online that is every bit as unacceptable as racism, misogyny, civic violence, sectarian bigotry, and the fascist intolerance of political diversity.

Welcome to the new normality.

Quantum landscapes

Cladach

After posting a couple of blog articles recently, https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/where-and-what-is-here/ and later https://idruhi.wordpress.com/2020/05/21/development-place/

that talked about “the other landscape” and how places can be imbued with characteristics and features that are apparent to some people but hidden completely from others, I received quite a few emails. Fortunately, none of them supposed that I had been talking about supernatural attributes (perhaps they know me too well) but I was surprised how deeply the concept seemed to resonate. Several people genuinely wanted to explore in greater detail this idea of how we might come to appreciate, and possibly explain, what we might mean by “a sense of place”.

The following might bring some enlightenment, or it may simply confuse the issue further. What it certainly will not do is to help you to understand quantum physics (in as much as anyone ever really understands it). Nor is it advisable to take the comparison too literally- it’s really only an analogy. The following is a suggestion for an alternative way of thinking about “the other landscape” that I hope will clarify, (but don’t get sucked into pseudoscience).

When we look at a landscape, or immerse ourselves deeply in a place, we see it as a certain reality. There are many ways in which we can measure or describe that reality. Some obvious factors that could be employed are the physical parameters, the latitude, longitude, and altitude of the place. Then, expanding the idea of place beyond a single spot to encompass an entire section of the landscape, we might add a consideration of the aspect (the direction it faces – sunward or shade?) as well as the complete hydrological system, the soil types, the covering vegetation and the habitats that they provide for the various species in that place. We might ponder the atmospheric conditions of the place (weather) and the climate (the effects of weather over a long period of time). Then, of course, there are the impacts of the human species on that place, both the physical imposition of changes (roads, farms, drainage, buildings) and the intangible aspects of society and culture (legends, stories, songs, old images, names on a map and other heritage examples). There is the terrain (the surface features of the landscape spreading out before us) and then there is the terrane (the geologist’s three-dimensional block of Earth that extends a place below the superficialities of the surface to include the rock strata that quite literally supports the world we walk upon).

All of these multifarious factors contribute to the creation of a place, and of course, they all change over time. Here is the quantum comparison, though, because this perceived reality not only is different for every person looking at that place, it is also different for each individual every time we look at the place. Although some changes may be invisible (the subterranean flow of water, for example) other differences only become known slowly (learning a historical anecdote connected to a place) or remain forever hidden from our deepest awareness (like the nocturnal movements of an otter or the unfailing attachment to place by migrating birds). All of these different realities of place are real, but the reality is unique to different people and different times simultaneously. Like Schrödinger’s cat, which quantum theory indicates can be both dead and alive at the same time, the quantum landscape is both the same (in memory, at least) and intrinsically different every time we perceive that place. It is changeless and at the same time constantly changing.

To make sense of this paradox we can adopt the realisation of quantum mechanics that multiple realities coexist (indeed, multiple universes, apparently) or we can simplify (as many physicists do) and try just to understand more deeply, more completely, the singular reality that we personally perceive, feel, smell, touch, and enjoy at any one time. Avoiding the wormhole of postmodernism that seems to deny any objectivity in anything, we humans have the advantages of being able to communicate in networks (that we call community) and that we are able to share and agglomerate our knowledge, and even our subjectivities. This facilitates multiple interpretations and empathies of what a place is, what a place means. We can attempt to express that sense of place through writing, arts, photography, film, or utilitarian social activities. Or we can simply enjoy the quantum variations of place – the differences between the static fluctuations and the (de)localisation of the observable. Enjoy your weekend, in whichever place you may be.

The digital polymath

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So, here is an idea.

I have written in other places about the benefits of using online communications for education, so I will not rehash that here. Initially, I began my online journey by seeking ways to offer high-quality education and supervision to learners in rural areas, because I firmly believe that many learners (especially mature students who have jobs and family) do not want (or are unable) to remove themselves to the city simply because that’s where the education is provided. In addition, it can also cause a dislocation between people and places that perpetuates the myth of ‘city = buzz: rural = sleepy’.

There has been a steady growth in the delivery of online education, whether through dedicated chat spaces and/or videoconference facilities, and there has been a massive leap in adoption by a whole range of organisations and individuals since the COVID-19 lockdown. As colleagues across the UHI have responded to the difficulties of the lockdown in various ways – social interaction with online quiz nights, intellectual satisfaction through open online seminars extending across modules and disciples – there is a real sensation that (in that overused phrase) we are seeing a paradigm shift. This is literally a fundamental change in approach from previous assumptions and practices. No-one is in any doubt that at least some of the current shift of education online will revert back to face-to-face contact once it is safe to do so, but returning to face-to-face need not necessarily mean the abandonment of the benefits of digital education.

So, let’s take this a stage further.

For similar reasons to those that initiated the great clubs and learned societies of the Enlightenment, when people of all sorts came together to share a joint passion for science, or literature, or simply for exploration, there is an opportunity now to extend the frontiers of knowledge networking.

My idea is simply this, that an opportunity can be managed through the university networking systems to bring together online a small group to share perspectives that are intellectually and academically challenging. I do not mean simply listening to the delivery of seminars or lectures, stimulating though these can be. The intention would be to invite a short (ten minute?) presentation by one participant, to which is then added to, challenged, refuted by other participants in a round-table discussion. The events would need to be carefully moderated in order to avoid online rants and allowing everyone the opportunity to contribute, but within these flexible guidelines, there need be no barriers to disciplinary engagement or geographical affiliation. This would be available as a resource for open education. In the online environment, it is as easy to bring in external guests, research students, and colleagues from other institutions and organisations as it is to network within the university. In fact, given the costs, difficulties, commitments that are required to bring people to a face-to-face round-table (not to mention the carbon footprint) the online gatherings have a great deal to commend themselves.

Those gatherings might coalesce around a blog post (there is an excellent example set by The Edge blog at https://idruhi.wordpress.com/ ) and they might record the core presentations to create an open-access archive of clips for subsequence reference and reuse. Unlike a standard archive, these recordings could be made available as a continuously broadcasted stream, as well as being available by click-on-demand. There are possible difficulties, of course, and it is it more difficult to apply the Chatham House rule of confidentiality when digital records can be disseminated globally at just the click of a mouse, but with trust and professionalism these need not be insurmountable barriers.

The idea of participating in an online academic coffee house, with the flexibility of not needing to leave the home office, is an intriguing idea, and possibly a good deal more interesting than most of what is on television these evenings.

Covid19 and (this rural) Place

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After ten weeks of working from home, I have some reflections to make. These reflections can be divided into three main themes: work, place, and people.

Firstly, my transition to working solely from home has been relatively painless. Much of my work was already in online spaces – email correspondence, tutorials with students by phone and videoconference, and meetings with colleagues on Webex Teams or Skype for business. To be honest, some of what I normally did has benefited from moving online. Although there are more meetings, they tend to be shorter and more focussed (and there are recordings of the occasional meeting that I miss). Yes, I miss the ‘real-life’ connections with friends, but there has also been more of an effort to reach out and make online contact with people that I would rarely ‘seek out ‘ for a random conversation because we would normally ‘bump into each other’ in the corridor, or at the photocopier.

The BIG change in my work pattern is that I am significantly MORE connected than normal, as colleagues in other academic disciplines move their seminars and lectures online and I am able to listen-in on amazing presentations to which I am not normally privy. In recent weeks I have joined open presentations on aspects of archaeology, history, geography, cultural studies, and arts & social practice that have intrigued and inspired me. I have joined ‘quiz nights’ and given invited academic presentations to international audiences that have stretched way beyond my previous ‘sphere of influence ‘. A big and unexpected side-effect of so many people communicating online from home is an explosion of cross-disciplinary conversations.

Which brings me to place. One of the many beauties of an island is that it can be very self-contained. The frisson of tension that they may not ‘get off ‘ when the ferries are disrupted, has become a comfort blanket of reassuring security in lockdown. Viewing other parts of the country from the ground zero of our own social isolation, we can only look on in horror at wandering campervans and surreptitious or clandestine visits that are exposed by the media. The core values of rural life are both reinforced and polarised. On the one hand, we see a return to traditional rural activities such as home baking and growing our own vegetables. The shock of empty supermarket shelves, even temporarily, was endurable for many people because of the long-standing rural custom of ‘being prepared’ with a full freezer and ‘supplies’ in the cupboard. Not having the advantage of a shop in the next street makes you plan ahead, and the benefit of a neighbourhood store is nullified if it is closed or half empty. On the other hand, the realisation that we really are self-isolated has introduced an additional awareness of our vulnerability as a society. We have smaller health facilities that are located further apart, and this seems to have brought home the absolute need for effective social distancing and control. Our local Community Land Trust is coordinating village-by-village support groups on WhatsApp to ensure that no one is overlooked during this period of difficulty. It has also stepped up to provide a free community newspaper for every home in the area to keep everyone effectively informed. These are two roles that would not have been expected from a ‘land trust’ even six months ago. (It is impossible to imagine a private estate being willing or able to perform this community service). GP consultation is now (finally) joining the world of using technology to communicate with patients, and I can confirm from personal experience that it can be very successful. As with the narrower domain of education, other parts of rural society are able to participate in meetings of business organisations and government without making the long (and expensive) trek to the Central Belt. (I am constantly surprised how many of my colleagues who purport to be ‘inclusive’ in their work practices are apparently unaware that by the time they are enjoying their G&T, I have just registered in my overnight accommodation because I cannot return home the same day). The covid19 crisis has forced many Third Sector organisations and professional networks to move to videoconferencing, and surprise surprise, not only is it often more efficient and more convenient, it is also more cost-effective.

Which brings me to the changes in people. Like millions of others who are viewing the evolving situation from a distance, using social media and personal networks, I am seeing the extremes of the good and the bad. The selfishness, illogicality and downright lying by some has been thrown (to their apparent astonishment but not embarrassment) into sharp profile. The intense public scrutiny provides no hiding place, although for the moment little effective censure either. At the same time, I see acts of amazing compassion and comments of simple common humanity that are both humbling and inspiring. As we all say, yet again, that ‘the normal has gone’ and we contemplate ‘the new normal’ that will eventually replace it, I sincerely hope that lessons and good examples that the covid19 crisis has thrown up will remain. The benefits of networking, interdisciplinary thinking, compassion, new ways of working, and resilient community support that have been a response to covid19 lockdown have a long term future that will benefit rural society for generations to come.

The abstract

abstract

The curious thing about an abstract is that although, after the title, it is the first text to be read, it is usually the last thing to be written in the dissertation. The reason is quite simple. Writing an abstract is a highly developed skill. On one page, or less, the author needs to summarise the entire body of the research work, describing the research question(s), the methods used to gather new evidence, how this evidence was analysed, list the key findings, and say why these are important. This is a tall task, demanding a number of difficult decisions about what to include and what to leave out of the text. The added pressure is that this might be the one and only part of your research that a browsing researcher of the future will read, so you need to captivate their interest in half a page or so. On websites such as https://ethos.bl.uk/ which is the British Library catalogue the entire output of completed UK PhDs, are the abstracts that researchers consult to decide whether to read the whole PhD dissertation, or not. This is a good site to consult to gain an idea of what is needed, but creating your own takes practice.

For this reason, a good supervisor will encourage the research student to finesse their skill at abstract writing by trying several versions before the culminating attempt. It is sometimes said that to ask a research student what their PhD is about at the beginning of their studies is to get a verbal paragraph in response, but to ask the same question at the end gets a succinct response of 5 or 6 words. This is because over the intervening period, the researcher has honed their analytical skills and (hopefully) their ability to separate what is really important, from that which is interesting but incidental to the main research question. The abstract is about what the reader needs to know, rather than the wider perspective on what might be nice to know.

Writing a concise abstract is a skill that will also serve an author well if/when they progress to submitting a paper to an academic journal. Again, the objective is to capture the essence of the article and grab the attention of the prospective reader. In a society awash with information, it is the ability of information to attract our attention that will distinguish it from the things that do not get noticed, and do not get passed on. In ‘the attention economy’ getting noticed is perhaps even more important that the information itself. If no-one ever reads your brilliant idea, it slowly moves to the graveyard of good ideas. There is a careful balance to be achieved between sensationalist headlines and dry-as-dust reporting, and though the title needs to reflect this, the real meat of what the text is about is contained in a cleverly worded abstract. Ask yourself, what does this abstract actually tell us? For this reason, it is almost never too early for a research student to begin studying the structure of a useful abstract. According to Polonius (in Hamlet) ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ and it is also a very powerful academic skill.

 

Polishing the finished product

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At the end of the viva there are various mixed emotions swirling around, for both the former student and the former supervisor. Relief that it is ‘all over’, happiness or displeasure with the final outcome, and, almost inevitably, speculation of what happens next. All of these reactions need to be recognised and addressed before the situation can move on. I don’t have the statistics to hand, but anecdotally, by the time the student actually progresses to making a submission of the final draft of the dissertation, the entire text should have been checked and re-checked by both student and supervisor, so outright failure is comparatively rare. The act of submission triggers an independent evaluation of the entire work, and probably without exception there will be several errors, gaps, and/or ambiguities revealed. It uncommon for a student to pass with absolutely no corrections (though it does happen!), so the examiners will usually make several observations, recommendations, and conditions before the award of the degree is confirmed. The observations set a backdrop to the report and might cite examples of how well the student performed, such as in the write-up of key aspects of the dissertation, or in the cut-and-thrust of the viva interview. The recommendations are usually optional improvements, such as suggestions to make the narrative a bit clearer, or encouragement to re-work a couple of key sections for subsequent journal publications. The critical commentary, however, is the list of conditions mentioned, for these need to be completed satisfactorily before the award of a pass is confirmed by the university.

There are three broad types of conditional statements; firstly, what everyone hopes for, is the award of a pass ‘with minor modifications’. This usually means relatively light corrections, such as correcting spelling and grammar, perhaps missing or badly cited references, and minor formatting such as captions to diagrams or ‘widows and orphans’ in the text. I would say that the bulk of successful PhD vivas end up in this category. Secondly, there could be a condition of ‘pass with major modifications’. This is not necessarily as serious as it might sound at first, for major adjustments might mean the reorganisation of sections of the dissertation, or the removal, addition, or extension of text that has already been presented. In some cases, the student has gone off at a tangent to the main topic, in other submissions there are important gaps, such as the omission to reference some up-to-date or key academic works. These conditions need to be addressed adequately in order to lift the final dissertation to the level required for the award of a PhD. The third category, which no-one ever really wants (including the examiners) is the requirement to ‘resubmit the dissertation’. In reality this means that there is evidence of the student having completed a reasonable body of research, but that this is offset by a range of serious omissions and/or lack of attention to detail which cannot simply be “tweaked” into an acceptable format.

The good output of any viva is that the candidate for the PhD will be told exactly what they need to do next in order to bring the dissertation up to the mark. Sometimes a full list of typographical errors will be supplied by the examiners, while on other occasions the student will simply be told to ‘check all spelling and references’. These conditions normally come with a recommended time-frame; frequently 3-6 months for ‘minor’ amendments and 6-12 months for ‘major’ changes, although in fact they rarely take that long. Minor changes are usually checked and approved by the Internal Examiner, while major changes will normally be sent to both examiners for approval. With the final award, the relationship between the supervisor and student alters subtly to become an association of professional colleagues, and that is a whole new experience.

In the hot seat – defending the thesis

hot seat

One of the unusual aspects in studying for a PhD is that the final examination of competence (and quality) is based not simply on the written dissertation but, more importantly, by giving a verbal defence of the work under external scrutiny. Normally this takes the form of a final extended question-and-answer discussion over a couple of hours with an External Examiner from another university and an internal (to the host university) examiner. The student is tested to ensure their authorship of the dissertation and to justify the methods of data-collection, analysis and the formulation of conclusions. What exactly is the new contribution made by this piece of knowledge to the discipline as a whole? Is it really new primary research? Across the university network, the regulations might be applied slightly differently, ranging from a quiet discussion with just the examiners present (the supervisors are not admitted) to a full public audience (as in Scandinavian universities) with almost anyone who has an interest in the subject being able to spectate.

As students will not have any previous experience of the viva voce – the oral defence – of their work, it goes without saying that the supervisory team have an obligation to prepare the student about what to expect. This can be done either as a series of conversations, or as a full “mock viva” in which academic colleagues of the supervisor will role-play and raise the sorts of questions or problems that the student might expect to encounter during the real viva. Student responses can be explored and rehearsed.  Normally the viva is not a confrontational event, but it can certainly be ‘robust’ and very demanding for the student. Almost any aspect of the research can be explored, and the student needs to be able to explain and justify what they did (and did not do) to reach the conclusions of their thesis. Common questions ask the student to summarise the research, to indicate their unique contribution made to the subject, to interrogate the quality of the results, and to explain in detail how those results have been achieved. The selection of External Examiner is usually as a result of a nomination to the university by the research supervisors of a shortlist of potential academics that have an expertise in the subject area. The student has a right to expect that the examiners will be objective and fair, but almost nothing is off limits for commentary, from simple errors in spelling or grammar, through gaps in the literature review, to the logic of data-collection and the presentation of the results.

In some cases, the examiners might challenge the student about what they have written, while at the same time being in broad agreement with the student – but they want to gauge the student response. The examiners want to be confident that the PhD student really does have an intimate understanding of both the subject matter and the processes of advanced research. The viva report that is fed back to the university will not only make a recommendation of a pass, or ‘pass with amendments’ (it is possible, but rare, to have absolutely no corrections) there will also be recommendations that need to be met before the award is given. These recommendations might simply be spell-checking or entering a missing reference or two, but they might also be a requirement to re-write, extend or remove of some aspect of the dissertation – the addition of more up-to-date references, a clarification of technique, or a re-working of the conclusions. Whatever the recommendations might be, the student now has an unambiguous written list of things that they need to address in order to gain the PhD and a time deadline for these changes to be made. It is perhaps the clearest guidelines that they will have had during the entire PhD study, and a small price to pay for the award of the highest academic degree.

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