online learning for all

This is a guest post from Anna Pilson. Anna is a PhD student at Durham University School of Education. Her ESRC-funded project aims to create a participatory action research model that positions children with a vision impairment as knowledge producers and change agents. She tweets as @pilsonanna.

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Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered the organisation of university life for the foreseeable future, ‘everyday ableism’ can be (unwittingly) perpetuated by virtual teaching methods. But we also have a potentially generative moment to change this narrative.

Given that in that academic year 2018/19, a sixth of all home university students declared that they had a disability, accessibility should be a central driver in the planning and delivery of Higher Education teaching and learning. Yet, as the Office for National Students states, real accessibility remains aspirational.

Moving online opens up all sorts of questions about (in)equality. Not just the bigger issues of digital access and digital literacy, but the nitty gritty of our planning and delivery. In an ideal world we would ensure that our online materials are accessible for all. We’d have British Sign Language interpretation, easy read materials, accessible transcripts. All of these things however, take time, expertise and money that we may not have immediately have access to. So, while I think that the Education sector should continue to strive for this idealism, in the meantime there are plenty of ways we as individuals can build in some simple strategies to improve our online teaching and communication straight away.

What can we do?

You may now be familiar (or perhaps overfamiliar!) with online learning and meeting platforms like Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and of course, Zoom. The great thing about all of these platforms is that they have in-built accessibility features that are really easy to apply, and can be used alongside some simple inclusive strategies to make online teaching accessible for all:

You can enable live captioning. This is when subtitles are generated in real time to present in text what the speaker is saying. This is really important for D/deaf or hard of hearing students, as this visual aid can compensate for the quite often variable video quality that might make lip reading difficult. However, captioning can of course also be beneficial to anyone with poor sound quality.

Don’t force your students to switch on their camera. Being on camera can be really distracting, I mean, come on, we’ve all spent a good few minutes in a zoom meeting staring at ourselves, preening and sorting our hair out haven’t we? Not me of course, but hypothetically speaking (ahem). But in all seriousness, ‘Zoom Fatigue’ is becoming a common, and recognised, complaint. Navigating the dissonance caused by slight time delays between picture and sound can make participants feel uncomfortable, as can the loss of natural conversational rhythm. Also, the performative aspect of being ‘watched’ while having to be on camera may be Anxiety-inducing.

The online environment can also make it difficult to take cues from body language, because often hand gestures can’t be seen and camera angles are not optimal, but actually this absence can enhance the quality of the verbal interaction taking place, because people are forced to articulate their meaning more clearly, which could be more inclusive for neurodivergent or visually-impaired students. So, you could switch off all cameras and instead use a moderator system, where one participant’s role is to note if and when participants wish to speak by looking for use of the ‘raise hand’ icon, or a note in chat. This can be used organise the order of speaking, and avoid people talking over one another, so as to make the flow of speech more coherent.

Provide transcripts/notes. Where possible do this in advance of the lecture, so that participants have the opportunity to organise notes, pre-empt any issues, set up screen readers or Braille displays, reformat the document according to personal need (for example, inverting colours of text/background, enlarging text, removing visual clutter), or familiarise themselves with the material beforehand, which can be really useful if they find concentration or retention of information difficult.

Consider the accessibility of the visual material you are sharing. Make sure any documents you provide use a sans serif font, which is easier to visually distinguish, such as Arial or Calibri. Ensure there is a good contrast between the colours of the font and background (e.g. black and white). Go for size 14 minimum and avoid too much use of italics or underlining. Any image should have a caption or descriptor. And any PDF should have optical character recognition enabled, which means it’s compatible with screen readers. This can be applied really easily in the settings of Adobe Acrobat or similar when creating a PDF.

Make your related Social Media presence accessible. A basic feature to be aware of is using ‘Camel Case’ in your hashtags. This means capitalising every the first letter of every word following a hashtag – for example, #ThisIsCamelCase but #thisisnotcamelcase. This means that screen readers read each individual word, as the beginning of each new word is denoted by the presence of a capital letter, rather than considering everything after the hashtag to be one long word.

The other key feature is to include image descriptors. Twitter was the first platform to offer built-in picture descriptors, known as alt text. To enable this function, go to ‘Settings and Privacy’, then ‘Accessibility’. Here you can select the option to ‘compose image descriptions’. If this is enabled, every time you upload an image there will automatically be the option to add an image descriptor and you will then get 420 characters to do so. Because Twitter doesn’t currently have in-built options to enlarge text, other than via external magnification software, using the aforementioned tips can be vital in enhancing accessibility.

Finally, by offering opportunities for asynchronous learning you can truly allow students to gain ownership of their learning. This can be done by recording meetings/lectures using the in-built recording functions, so that participants can revisit them if they missed anything, or watch them on a schedule that suits their own personal needs. The disabled community have long recognised the tensions (and often incompatibility) between the demands of standardised timetables in education and their own needs. By embracing flexibility, we can make space for embedding what Alison Kafer famously called ‘Crip Time’ in our standard practice.

Accessibility for all

We need to remember that many of these new virtual ways of working have previously been denied to disabled students by institutions keen to stick to ‘conventional’ teaching methods. So make sure you acknowledge the fact that these online methods have been used and refined over time by disabled people in spaces outside academia. As such, don’t forget to ask for (and listen to) the expertise of your students.

Covid-19 has offered universities a unique window of opportunity to design online course materials to be as accessible as possible from the beginning, with accessibility at the heart and not just as a bolt-on. Universities also have a legal duty to try to remove the barriers students may face in education because of disability. This is called ‘making reasonable adjustments’. So, when you’re planning your online teaching, remember 2 things:

  1. be reasonable, and 2. make adjustments.

And, in reality, these adjustments will be useful for all students, not just those with disabilities.

 

Photo by Andres Jasso on Unsplash

Posted in ableism, academic writing, online identity, online meeting, online teaching | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

five suggestions for universal PhD ‘after-care’

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One of the things that has become  obvious during lockdown is how much more we might do for PhDers contemplating their futures. If ever there was a time to start something better and more supportive for researchers in our care, now is it.

There’s obviously a need for much better advice and support for making scholarly careers outside of universities as Thesis Whisperer has recently pointed out. But there is also much more that we might do for PhDers who do want an academic career.

I’ve got a few ideas. And this is one of those if-I-was-a-higher-ed-policy-maker-I-would posts. But a couple of caveats before I begin. I am of course writing in a UK context, with some knowledge of other systems, but my wish list is pretty firmly located in my current situation. I also know that the things I am talking about are done in some places by some people, but they are not universal. Universal is important if the PhD experience is to be  equitable.

My premise is that care is a vital social – and pedagogical – value and practice, and that care for students is one of the things that higher education is meant to do. My argument here is a particular one – it’s not all there is to say about institutional care. But I am proposing that care for PhDers needs to go on after the ink on the parchment  is dry.

I’d like to see a much stronger emphasis on what I am going to call “after-care”.  What do I mean by this term? Well, after-care starts before the PhD is completed. And after-care is also beginning-care as the intention is to support the start of an independent academic career.

An underpinning principle of after-care is that it should be led by the goals of the PhDer or post PhDer, and be bespoke to their particular needs and ambitions. After-care is not about someone else deciding what the PhDer or post PhDer needs but is a combination of PhDer led mentoring and support.

Aside from the obvious PhDer teaching experience and internships I’d like to see AT LEAST the following five strategies implemented:

Mentoring during the PhD

  • Each and every final year PhD looking for an academic career should have a mentor who will support them to think strategically about career, publications and networks. The mentor will be able to offer and/or broker some opportunities for the PhDer that will help them make decisions and build their profiles and track records. The mentor may or may not be the supervisor; while many mentors will be supervisors, it may be that other people are better positioned to do particular work for particular PhDers. The mentor might of course work with a small group not just a single PhDer. Either way, after-care mentoring should be seen as proper counted workload.

Mentoring would continue at least until the post PhDer has found a proper job ( not hourly paid, not short term contract).

As well, there needs to be post PhD institutional support. Another caveat here – I’d love this to be a short-term set of suggestions, or better still, four suggested strategies that are not needed at all.  These four propositions are geared to a situation which is unacceptable – namely, that graduating PhDers take ages to find a real job. This is not OK; I support political campaigns against precarious academic work, as I hope you do too. But if the graduation-job gap is here and worsened by institutional responses to the pandemic, then…

The university in which the PhD is completed should provide:

  • Automatic library access for post PhDers while they are looking for proper post PhD work. Too many PhDers are just automatically cut off from university systems when they graduate. And many of them are stony broke when they complete their doctorates and can’t afford to buy books. Lack of access to new and old publications effectively stymies their efforts to continue their work. If the post PhD without proper academic work has library access, then they can publish from their PhDs and keep up to date with scholarly work in their field. And this gives them a better chance of getting a job.
  • Hot desk access. Many PhDers do not have home offices and rely on their university desk, computer and printer. This has become glaringly obvious during the pandemic – people are working on kitchen tables, on laptops while sitting on their bed, and in bathrooms. Being in shared accommodation makes the lack of office space even more acute. Access to university buildings and facilities is a small step to even out the uneven and inequitable serendipity of workspace.
  • Automatic inclusion in institutional information processes – seminars, lectures information about conferences and so on. Keeping in touch with other people as well as what is going on is important post PhD – it is very easy to feel isolated once you are not going into the office everyday.
  • Support for ongoing academic work. Information about where to apply for conference funding as an unemployed PhDer is essential. Even better would be a special fund in each institution, perhaps from alumni contributions, which would support immediate post PhDers without other institutional support to attend conferences to give papers. Regular specialist writing workshops designed to support writing book proposals, first grant applications and journal articles should be available to post PhDers through graduate and writing centres to supplement what mentors do. These workshops should be web-based in order to ensure access to PhDers who have moved away from the university.

And perhaps (2)-(5) might also be offered on a small cost recovery basis to post PhDers who are independent researchers or working outside the academy too.

Already doing this – great? Let’s spread the practice.

Already doing a lot of this but not counted in workload? Sigh. I reckon there’s a lot of that. Let’s make the case.

Got other ideas? Let’s share them.

And let’s try together to make universal PhD after-care a reality.

 

Photo by Sarah Gualtieri on Unsplash

Posted in academic mentoring, academic writing, after-care, library, mentoring, PhD, PhD completion, postdoc, research mentoring | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

lockdown diary

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I’ve been in lockdown with my partner for two months now. I have hardly left the house, apart from the occasional walk. Well I have been outside, of course, but in our small backyard and not proper outside outside, if you know what I mean.

My world has shrunk and, like a lot of other people’s, taken a decided turn to the digital. Teaching has migrated online but also other parts of life. My book group has gone Skyping and doubled its meetings. We used to meet monthly and combine socialising with serious text work. We’ve now separated the two and meet once a fortnight for “coffee” and once a fortnight to discuss our chosen book. And so it goes.

I’ve not taken up a new hobby. I haven’t suddenly started baking – well to be fair my partner used to have a bakery and still does all the baking we need. I was always a sporadic gardener and haven’t become more well acquainted with my fork and spade this spring than in any other year.  But I do do some things less than before. I’m reading less fiction and rather more sociological and philosophical writing about the state of the world. I’ve become even more interested in thinking about where we might go as opposed to where we might end up if we don’t do anything different. And of course the corollary – I am doing some things more than before – using my exercise bike much more assiduously for instance.

I’ve also noticed that I’ve noticed more. Noticing, paying attention to what is around me, is very much part of my research process. I do a lot of ethnographic research, and even when I’m working in other methodological traditions, I’m often still observing and listening. So, now that I am not out and about doing research, I find myself noticing and observing my own changed behaviour, emotional responses and everyday activities.

I find for example that I am more aware of small things. Because I’m in the house all of the time I see the spider’s web immediately. Because the seeds are growing in egg cartons next to the kitchen sink, I mark their progress several times a day and can move them about to catch the sun. Because I am in my home office much more I feel obliged to try to reorganise the space so that there is simply more – space that is.

I notice how lockdown has changed domestic habits. For years my partner and I have been training ourselves to shop little, often, seasonal and local. This minimises waste, keeps us somewhat in tune with the weather and where we are living, and also ensures we don’t end up with hideous science experiments at the back of the fridge. Now we just can’t do this. In two months I have managed to secure three online grocery deliveries which supplement weekly fruit and veg deliveries. I have become my grandmother whose life in an isolated mining town was punctuated by irregular deliveries from the big smoke. And what excitement that was for her and is for me.  What of the order actually arrives? What is substituted and is it really usable? What has to be gone without, again?

I notice that some academic habits have become glaringly obvious. I find it hard not to notice that I’ve got a case of what I could acronym FONDA – Fear Of Not Doing Anything. I see much more clearly now how I am prone to think I have done absolutely nothing at the end of the working day, when I have in reality answered emails, checked the latest journal articles, made contact with people on social media, reviewed a paper, written a reference, given feedback on some text, written a blog post. What’s that FONDA about then?

“Doing anything” irrationally equates to getting some writing or analysis done. Yet if you had asked me about what work I was doing during lockup on any particular day I would happily say that emails, reviewing etc all constituted my academic work. But also apparently doesn’t.

The work that gets counted in higher education is research and publications.  Teaching counts too but it’s all about doing whatever it takes to ensure the numbers, income and satisfaction scores. And the rest of it – reviews, references, emails, establishing and maintaining networks, giving feedback – these are unseen and taken for granted by all of our institutions.

The lockup has allowed me to understand – yet again, as this seems to be a lesson that I find difficult to learn – that the kind of competitive productivity pressures about research and writing that I intellectually reject have sneakily inserted themselves into my life. I’ve let myself become prey to an evaluative emotional regime that determines what I feel good about accomplishing, and what I don’t see as real work. I’m stuck in emotional labour relations that aren’t good for my lockdown psyche.

But maybe I can get out of this space. Despite the conflict between the rational and the emotional, perhaps I can get a grip. Perhaps now is the time to follow some other lockdown lessons.

Do less? Well I could do less, but I actually enjoy writing and researching so I’m not sure why I would want to do less. What I actually want is to keep doing the writing and research and not feel guilty when I can’t get as much done as I’d like.  Do more? Well no, I don’t want to do more of anything in particular as I think in general I do most of the things that need doing. So perhaps it’s do the same but differently? So still write and research whenever possible but don’t feel bad when not doing so. Well yes, that would be ideal. But how to get there?

I suspect doing the same but differently is easier said than done. But maybe the first step towards changing the academic guilt regime is to be aware of it. And making a kind of very late new year public resolution to try to get over myself and it.

FONDA is a crock. FONDA begone.

 

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, emotional labour, lockdown, pandemic, productivity | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

gulp – deadlines despite lockdown

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Be kind to others and to yourself. Do what you can do. Make small daily goals. Be realistic. Celebrate every victory.  Don’t be hard on yourself. These are extraordinary times. These are the messages that I and a lot of others have been spreading during lockdown.

And I stand by those sentiments. However, seven weeks in and I have some looming deadlines. They aren’t yet of the everything-due-tomorrow kind. But I can’t put them off. I can see that I need to take myself in hand. Regardless of whether I feel up to it or not, I am now at the stage where I have to make more progress than I have been.

I am sure I am not the only one in this position. Most academic staff are still working to meet funding and publishing deadlines, as well as to support students to meet their course timelines, not all of which have been modified. While some of our work can be put off, some can’t.

For this first time since lockdown, this week I summoned up the courage to look at my own deadlines. And made a list. The list is when it gets serious. When you’ve written down what needs to be done and put all-the-things onto a calendar, it really just gets real.

So it turns out that I have some writing to do for my own annual review process. I’m involved in five research funding bids, one of which I’m leading on. These bids are all due before the end of the month. ( Side note, yes I’m not expecting to get all of them, you never do, but innit to winnit. One or two of them would be good.) I have several reviews to do – two book proposals, four research council bids and three journal articles. And a bit of editing work along the way.

But that’s not all. There’s two new papers to be done by the end of May plus a new post-pandemic prologue for the book I thought I’d done with. There’s also a book due at the end of June.

While some of this is begun, and it’s by no means all my own work, there’s still a lot to do. I certainly don’t want to let my colleagues down. I can see that there is now little choice but to be less kind to myself and there’s much more need to summon up whatever willpower I can and just crack on. I can’t afford to be envious of those people who seem to be able to see the current situation as an extended writing retreat. That’s not me, but I somehow need to make things head a little more in that direction.

Some PhDers may well find themselves in a similar situation. While some doc researchers in their final stages have been given extensions by their funder and/or their universities, not everyone has. Some people are still writing towards a fixed end point. And while there has been a relaxation of some timelines other fixed dates, often those concerned with audit, remain. And it appears that some universities and faculties are less inclined than others to be flexible about extensions. I’ve heard a few horror stories recently so I do know that a few institutions are very rule-bound and punitive.

If, like me, you are now in the situation where you have to get more productive or get into trouble, then I/you need to summon up and use all of the tricks that have worked for us in the past.

Meeting the deadlines certainly isn’t stopping exercising and taking breaks in order to get things done. But it might be using timed free writing periods to generate a lot of words. It might be working back from deadlines to set a target for each day, allowing just a little time for slippage and catch up. It might be getting back into an old routine – morning writing for me, but it might be night-time or afternoon time for you. It might mean joining an online writing retreat or Shut Up and Write sessions. It might mean giving yourself rewards when you meet a daily/project/wordcount/time milestone.

But it also might mean having some serious negotiations with other family members. It might be saying no to any new requests from now on. It might be refusing to wait till the last moment, and asking for an extension now.

And there are less attractive options too. Hard decisions. Because of things out of your control. You might have to put some things on hold – the PhD itself, a funding bid. You might need to stop some things altogether and just cross them permanently off the list.

But. But it is still important – whether I/you are putting the pressure on to get things completed, or giving some things up – that we are still kind to ourselves. I think some new things needed to be added to the messages I started with.

Even if I have to stop doing this now, I’ve done really well in extraordinary circumstances. Even if I didn’t do this quite as well as I wanted to, I got it done. Done is miles better than undone. How amazing am I that I managed to get this far in not normal times. If I can meet this deadline now, then just think what I can do when things change for the better. 

I’ll certainly be saying these things to myself in the next few weeks.

 
Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, deadline, list, pandemic, to do list | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

progress

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Progress – getting somewhere. Good progress – doing what is expected and a bit more. Poor progress – the reverse. Remember those ambiguous school reports? “Patricia is making good progress with… , but she could do better in … ” Patricia is not doing as well as might be expected in all the things that are expected. Which of course raises the questions – As well as might be expected When, and Where? And By whom? And Who decides What Is Expected?

The word progress has been playing on my mind recently. I am meant to be making progress on a book manuscript. But it has been slow. Painfully slow. If there is a writing equivalent to Shakespeare’s “shining morning face, creeping unwillingly to school” then I am it. As I am sure are many of you. Well I certainly hope I’m not the only one! Put it this way, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you weren’t in the same boat. Keeping going, one sentence after the other, but not making that much headway. A little bit each day.

I’m book writing. Always book writing. But right now I’ve had to resort to the time-honoured tradition of reading myself into the writing. Not free writing, but reading. I wrote a few lines about each text. I put the lines together. I then sorted the lines into something that looked like the stuff I wanted in the order I thought it needed to be. Then I strung together some words that linked it all together and, yes, it looked like a coherent text.

Using this reading, noting and writing approach, I ground out 6k or so good-enough-for-now words in four weeks. The result is hardly a riveting read. To be truthful, it’s pretty dry and dull. But it is a first draft.

I’m finding it hard right now to meet my own expectations of progress.  It is just seriously psychologically tricky – and there are other priorities besides making progress on a book. Keeping in touch with colleagues and PHDers takes priority. Social media connections are important to sustain too. Still, I have this sneaking worry that I ought to be making more progress. I don’t have caring responsibilities, I’m privileged, I ought to be making better progress than I am.

So then to read about the person who wrote and published a book about the economics of coronavirus in 19 days? Less time than I took to write 6k words. Hmmm. Well it wasn’t a big book, it was 40k words. But still. 40K words. Compared to this, my progress is pretty poor. 

The quick-off-the-mark economist has gone public about his achievement. He found a publisher in unbelievably fast time. His manuscript was peer reviewed and he corrected it with a week to spare. He describes the process as gruelling – but largely because of the subject matter. 

Many of the responses to his blog post were critical. Most commenters registered concern that this quick book epitomised an academic productivity that is unreasonable and unhealthy – excellent progress, outstanding progress yes, but also a norm which was potentially problematic.

I’m torn between thinking, well good luck to you rapid writer. In another life I’ve been able to crank out a chapter every few days, but this isn’t me now. But my second thought is that my writing task is different. I’m not writing a populist book. The current book I’m working on with a colleague requires a lot of literature work, a lot of data analysis, and a lot of thinking about – and I’m pretty sure that I/we couldn’t speedily write anything that was any good.

Progress is always a relative thing – it’s related to the task and the time available. In order to assess my own progress more realistically, I’ve had to think  about the particularity of my own situation. And I’ve had to speak to myself very firmly about not falling prey to very unhelpful comparisons. Comparison is of course the name of the competitive academic game and it’s toxic. I’ve had to remind myself that it is OK to do what you can, as you can, in the extraordinary times we are in. Just as it was in the old normal.

But I do fear that some of the powers-that-be will be dazzled by the example of the-book-in-a-month. I want those who audit academic productivity to recognise that I, my colleagues and our PhDers are making progress, but it’s good enough progress, the best possible progress we can make, right now. We might not be writing a book in a month, or even three months, or six, but we are still moving along. Slowly, more like the tortoise than the hare, but moving nevertheless.

And a third thought. Dare I hope that we might expunge the notion of universal progress, a normative progress that applies to all people everywhere at the same time? Couldn’t we arrive at a view of progress that is a bit more nuanced? Is this something that might emerge from the current situation? 

And one final thought. Perhaps publishers of university blogs and news might recognise that rather a large number of scholars have had the possibility of making any progress taken away from them. PhDs stalled. Contracts not renewed. Positions furloughed then cancelled. Redundancies. Shrinking job market. Reading about writing book in a month is not what they need. Not at all. So perhaps it wasn’t the best editorial decision ever made to print this one …

 

Photo by Wayne Gourley on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in academic writing, pandemic, progress | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

we need to talk about Zoom

This is a guest post from Mark Carrigan who works as postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. 

There’s a peculiar kind of exhaustion which comes from spending an afternoon staring at Zoom. I’m mentally drained but I would be if I’d spent a few hours in face to face meetings. My back hurts but it probably would have after a long meeting in an uncomfortable chair. I’ve got a vague headache but that’s probably from a few hours without hydration, as oddly I’m less likely to remember to bring water with me in my own house than I am when at work.

It’s hard to pin down why Zoom, which I’m using here to stand for video conferencing in general, is more tiring than meeting in person but I’m increasingly convinced it is. It combines all the familiar ailments which develop from meetings but with a unique piquancy that makes the ensuing suffering more than the sum of its parts. I’ve just finished another two hour Zoom meeting earlier which could have easily been reduced to an hour. If you were in this meeting with me, I hope you don’t take this as a complaint directed at you because it truly isn’t. But it is a plea that we urgently begin to talk about how we handle video conferencing as a routine part of life. Once the meeting was over I rushed outside into the sun with a sense of urgency I’ve rarely felt after face to face meetings, walking my way back into feeling ok again before deciding I needed to write this post.

These meetings have suddenly become routine features of our daily work as we adapt to the unnerving normality which is the twilight world of lockdown, once we’ve packed up our offices and forced ourselves into a routine of working from home. It’s strange therefore that I can’t recall being party to more than a few conversations about how these meetings differ from the ones we used to have in the olden days, if you can recall our former times when we met with coffee and snacks and bad sandwiches in the world beyond our living room.

The obvious shift in our behaviour would seem to warrant discussion about how we should approach this new way of interacting, what structures we should use and what we should expect from each other. Perhaps this lack of reflection is inevitable as we’ve all been struggling to make the transition into remote work, leaving us with little time or energy to reflect on how we’re doing this. I feel we urgently need to begin this conversation though, not least of all because I’m not sure how many more two hour Zoom meetings I can cope with.

Overly long meetings are at the top of my litany of private Zoom grievances. In part because I’m working at my kitchen table, sitting in a chair which leaves my back aching if I’m sedentary for more than half an hour. But there are many other issues which I can’t be alone in being increasingly bothered by. What about the unbearable cacophony of an unmoderated Zoom meeting with multiple people vying for attention? Or the uncertainty about the point at which glancing at your e-mail goes from being an unavoidable feature of the working day to being rude to the person you’re talking to? Or the fact it feels awkward to ask to simply do a voice call when everyone assumes video is the default?

Can we make clear to each other that it’s ok to get up and walk around during meetings? Or mute the microphone and video if a family interaction needs to take precedence? Perhaps we could come to an agreement about the appropriate etiquette for leaving a meeting early? I’m sure I can’t be the only person torn between not wanting to interrupt a conversation in full flow and feeling a chat message is insufficient explanation for a sudden departure. There’s also the question of how we plan meetings, with Zoom making it easier to hold spontaneous gatherings that might serve a useful purpose and help short circuit what could otherwise turn into an endless e-mail thread over many days. However when we’re struggling to find a rhythm in our work, particularly if our circumstances mean we can’t work without interruption, invitations to meet in the next few hours, if not now, are unlikely to be welcome. They can be difficult to refuse though, particularly if the person extending the invitation is in charge, in the multiple forms that can take within the relatively informal working environments of the academy.

It’s important we create the space in which we can talk about the issues we are all facing. I worry that if we don’t we will institutionalise Zoom, in other words establish ways of doing video conferencing, which will be hard to shift even if we all hate them. Whereas this moment of upheaval when we’re all having to think through how we approach the mundane reality of our work, at least makes it easier to have these conversations than it would otherwise be.

In part this is a matter of establishing mutual expectations, even an etiquette. But we could also see it as a broader challenge of creating practices which are inclusive and effective. For example Dyi Huijg, convenor of the Neurodiversity Reading Group, uses the ‘raise hands’ method and written chat to ensure that everyone feels comfortable contributing, asking participants to mute their microphones until the administrator unmutes them after raising their hand. My colleague Jana Bacevic uses a similar approach in the self-isolation reading group she is convening within our research cluster. Once you’ve participated in meetings which work like this, it can be difficult to go back to the cacophony of people talking over each other.

If we encounter what feels like a great way of managing the problems of Zoom, we should talk about why it works and if it works for everyone. We should share the difficulties we’re experiencing with Zoom becoming a regular part of our working life. Perhaps mostly importantly we should all do whatever we can to avoid inflicting two hour Zoom meetings on each other.

 

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a parable for online teaching

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The early 1930s. Pre Nazi Germany. Walter Benjamin, philosopher and cultural critic, regularly presents a twenty minute “book lore”programme on German radio.

In his story “On the minute”  Benjamin tells us that when his programmes were first commissioned, the department manager told him that the most elementary mistake novice broadcasters made was to believe that they were giving a lecture to a mass of people. This was not the case – each radio listener was alone. Rather than reaching thousands of listeners, the broadcaster only ever reached thousands of single listeners. Transmission was one to one.

Benjamin goes on to reveal that his first broadcast did not go smoothly. He carefully rehearsed and timed his presentation at home. However, half way through the broadcast he glanced up at the studio clock. To his shock, it said that his time was running out. Benjamin hastily improvised a shorter presentation, jumping ahead in his written manuscript. He finished and then waited for the regular announcer to arrive in the studio to take over. And waited. No-one came. He then looked up at the studio clock to find he had several minutes left – he had misread the clock and finished well ahead of time.

Benjamin was panic stricken and realised he needed to find something else to say. There was, he says, a minute of silence.

I’ll let Benjamin finish the story.

An indescribable terror came over me and immediately following that, a wild determination. Salvage what can be salvaged I said to myself, and ripped the manuscript from out of my coat pocket, took the first best sheet from the omitted ones, and began to read with a voice which seemed to drown out my heartbeat. I was lost for any other ideas. And since the piece of text which I had grabbed was short, I stretched out the syllables, let the vowels soar up, rolled the Rs and inserted meaningful pauses between sentences, Once again, in this manner, I reached the end, the correct one this time. The announcer came and released me, obligingly, just as he had greeted me earlier. But my disquiet persisted. Therefore when, the next day, I met a friend who I knew had heard me, I asked casually for his impression. “It was very nice” he said, “only the radio receivers have a weakness. My one had a whole minute’s interruption again.”.

I love this story for all kinds of reasons.

I love the story because anyone who speaks in public can relate to Benjamin’s anxious glances at the clock, the fear of going over or under time, and the absolute agony of finishing early, the deafening silence and you with nothing left to say. I’ve been there. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you have been there too.

I love the way that Benjamin, the ultimate episodic writer, suggests that he could mix up the order of his writing and there was actually nothing lost. The listener could still piece it together and make sense of it. Benjamin makes a silent inter-textual nod here to both flaneurie and the agency and meaning making capacity of the listener.

I particularly love the way in which the listener blames the technology for Benjamin’s human mistake. It’s the radio stupid. I hope our/your students are similarly inclined and blame the platform, not our pedagogy. . It’s Zoom. Ah Skype. Well you/I can get away with that for the first and maybe second time, as Benjamin did, but perhaps not for very long.

And I love the story because the notion of speaking to thousands of single listeners is also important in online teaching. When we are “transmitting’ we are speaking to single learners, even if there are multiple faces present on the screen. But of course, we can create sociality online, in ways that Benjamin could not. But that sociality doesn’t happen automatically, we have to structure ways to get people to move towards becoming participants and away from being individual listeners.

And I love the story because, well, because it’s just a lovely read, as well as a parable for our time.

Reference:

Benjamin, Walter “On the minute” in The storyteller. Tales out of loneliness.(2016) London: Verso. pp183-186.

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