Friday 9 October 2020

Being a Research student in Lockdown

In May this year I achieved one of my greatest ambitions - I was accepted to study for a PhD at the age of 59 years. I could probably have chosen a better year in which to start!

Since beginning my higher education journey in 1998, with an Open University course on family history, I have been hooked on the idea of personal development and continuous education for adults. I see the government is currently looking at opening out the A level (and equivalent) sector to more people and I hope access to university study for older people will also be made easier - I abhored the steps the Open University had to make not so long ago when it applied the same funding model as brick and mortar universities. Back in May 2013 I wrote a post explaining what that increase had meant for me.

I had started researching the First World War in Barnsley as part of the OH's family tree long ago and extended my studies to individual soldier's stories and war memorials in 2012. I wrote an impassioned post on the meaning of remembrance in October that year. As I saw my Open University studies drawing to a close, with my last two modules covering Heritage and the First World War, I looked around for something else to do with my time.  I think my first war memorial post was this one about Monk Bretton in June 2013. By September 2013 I had really begun look into the existing research on war memorials and the gaps in that research with regards to Barnsley.  In one post that month I said, "I would dearly love to pull all this together ... with one source of reference for all Barnsley War Memorials". By the end of November 2013, with a group of like-minded people, we had launched the Barnsley War Memorials Project. That project kept me busy until the autumn of 2016 when sadly my health and personal differences with some of the other people in the group caused me to take a step back. I did keep a watching eye on the project and was recently (Summer 2020) informed that it has been wound up after having successfully published its First World War Roll of Honour as a book and online in November 2018. 

The BWMP's website - constructed by myself for free on a Blogger site and supplied with a dedicated domain name by one of the members of the group at his own expense - has been moth-balled. No further updates will be added. By spring 2019, at the point I was writing my MA dissertation, 806 war memorials had been identified in the Barnsley borough and although there were some updates to the BWMP website after I left there are hundreds of memorials which didn't get their own photo and page, and hundreds which still need to be added to the Imperial War Museum's War Memorial Register, which was also one of the BWMP's aims. I would love to address this, if and when I have the time and energy, and I do have a new blog under construction as part of my PhD, Barnsley's History - Commemoration and Rememberance, but that is meant to be about the way people remembered and research into the projects behind the memorials not a catalogue of all the memorials in Barnsley.

Following my departure from the BWMP I was in rather a dark place (not joking - even my cat had died!) and I really needed something to help me buck my ideas up. Happily I discovered that Postgraduate Student Loans had become 'a thing' and that the government would pay me to do a Masters Degree! In the spring of 2017 I applied to the University of Wolverhampton and was accepted to do the MA in the History of Britain and the First World War. Getting the Student Loan application passed was another story and I related it in a blog post in August that year. It is noticable on my blog achive list that my posts really dropped off in frequency around the time of the start of that course in October 2017. 

My classmates for the MA came from all over Britain - one man even flew over from Northern Ireland - so most of our study was undertaken at home. We met up in Wolverhampton for Saturday Schools - 9am to 4pm, once a month - where we had lectures on a wide range of FWW related topics. I was disappointed when there wasn't one on Commemoration and Remembrance though as that was still my preferred subject. I did learn a lot about the technical side of the war, about generals and planning, and campaigns away from the Western Front that I'd barely ever heard of before. There were about 30 of us on the course when it started and I think 17 of us at the end. Some had dropped out due to illness and personal problems, or had deferred until another year when they had difficulty with balancing work and study. After our last Saturday School in May 2019 we all went to the Lych Gate pub in Wolverhampton (our regular meeting after lectures) and promised to keep in touch, wishing each other well with our dissertations which were due in just after the New Year. We have a Facebook group and I bumped into some of the others at Western Front Association meetings in 2019. Most of us did keep in touch and supported each other through the dissertation period. I was hugely relieved when my 15,000 word effort was submitted just before Christmas!

In March 2020 I received the news that I'd passed my MA with Merit. My final dissertation had been awarded a distinction and I had only been a few points off an overall distinction (one hard-working chap on the course did achieve this - my heartiest congratulations to him!) With this under my belt I applied for, and was accepted, to do a PhD at the University of Wolverhampton.

Lockdown ...

Sadly, due to the coronavirus lockdown, our Graduation ceremony was postponed from April to September and then to summer 2021. Last week our MA cohort got together for a Zoom meeting - there were nine of us in attendance altogether and it was great to see their faces and chat. If nothing else the lockdown has taught us oldies how to use these new technologies and not to be scared of them (which I really, really was to begin with).

Prof Laura Ugolini, my PhD supervisor, had the great idea to run a weekly quiz during lockdown. She got together some of her colleagues and other PhD students and a varying number of us met up each week on Zoom and had a laugh over some silly quiz questions. One of Laura's other students is also looking at Remembrance, although his topic concerns battlefields rather than war memorials. I have also helped a student at Sheffield Hallam University by taking part in an individual and a group interview via Zoom for his PhD which is on the meaning of memorals to war and mining disasters to the communities around them. 

I have been watching web presentations on FWW topics. The Western Front Assocation (WFA) have a very busy programme and the talks are put up on YouTube afterwards so anyone who missed them can watch them later. The presenters of the talks include academics such as my MA supervisor Prof Gary Sheffield and WFA members. I have also 'attended' a virtual conference organised by the Social History Society as recommended by Laura, and where several of her PhD students gave short talks. One thing I have really missed during lockdown is conferences - I was booked on at least three FWW related conferences in early 2020 and of course all these were cancelled. 

Sadly the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Members' Weekend and AGM in York in early April was also cancelled. I do look forward to these events since I can no longer work at beer festivals. They are attended by large numbers of my 'friends in CAMRA' and it is wonderful to see them face to face and give them a hug. None of this is possible at the moment and may not even be possible next year. Since March I haven't been to a pub for a social drink - we managed a few meals out with my mum and the OH's mum during 'Eat Out to Help Out' in August but we have called a halt on them for now as the infection numbers rise.

The Doctoral College at the University of Wolverhampton provide a very wide selection of online talks and web discussions on becoming a Research Student which cover various aspects of study and personal development. There were some talks that explained how the PhD research life cycle worked over the four to eight years (full-time or part-time) that were really useful. Although I thought I understood what I was letting myself in for, actually hearing about it from current students was very helpful. 

As the new term started the other week I noticed that the cycle of talks was beginning to repeat - I am being bombarded with emails for days on end inviting me to things I've already done in some cases. I am beginning to throw uni emails in the 'trash' without even opening them, which is probably bad of me, but I don't need to know about the library opening or procedures to cope with the lockdown on campus as I am not there and probably won't be for a very long time. Many of the messages seem to be for undergraduates who are just starting at uni, and some have even invited me to open days to find out more about moving on to postgraduate study in the future! As a new(ish) PhD student I seem to have been caught up in a chunk with all the other new starters. But it's not just me ... during that Zoom meeting with my MA colleagues last week several of us commented that we didn't receive anywhere near this number of emails when we first started in October 2017. Even the people who haven't progressed to a PhD are getting the messages. Of course they should have completed and graduated by now and become alumni, but that process is probably on hold along with our ceremony. Having worked with university administration computer systems in the past (oh so long ago now in 2000-2009) I know that messages and emails can be targeted, but I suppose with people working from home in the crisis some fine detail is being skipped for convenience. I hope I don't miss anything important.

The post I published in May 2020, to which I have already referred, ended with me looking forward to writing my first 10,000 word PhD literature review for Laura. Since then I have written and submitted two reviews, one on physical war memorials and one on Remembrance. I haven't visited a single library and I have not seen Laura face to face except on Zoom! I have discovered that footnotes and bibliography count as part of the word limit at this level of study - so a 10k piece with a long list of references might actually only contain 8,600 words in the actual report. It is quite tricky to balance this when writing. 

Happily my huge book collection, gathered together over years of Open University study and during my MA, has meant that I have only had to buy a few more books to do my literature reviews.  The focus of my research may be war memorials but there are lots of ways in which I could study them, so my recent book buying has been a bit eclectic. I think I know what I want to do - but the 'themes' under which I construct my thesis are very fluid at this point. My most recent purchases have been to do with the economic and social situation in Britain during the inter-war period as I know that in Barnsley the construction of war memorials was greatly affected by strikes and unemployment and the resultant shortage of money amongst miners and their families. Something else to talk to Laura about.

My second review was returned by Laura yesterday with constructive comments and my next task to do some amendments and corrections based on her advice. We are planning a Zoom meeting next week to talk about it - there are one or two things I'm not sure I am quite getting my head around - 'moving the topic forward', 'how they [authors] have contributed to new understandings' and 'key contributions to the literature'. I did use the words 'developing trends' at one point and Laura noted that this was the kind of thing that needed highlighting. At the moment I am summarising the books I have read on the topic, usually in chronological order, remarking on what the authors have concluded and noting points where they seem to relate to my proposed studies on Barnsley (although Laura has commented that the proper place for detailed comments along these lines is in my actual thesis). I think I am missing some analysis that is required at this higher level of study. 

But that is the whole point of having a supervisor I suppose ... to lead me in the right direction ... and after all, I have only just begun my six (maximum eight) year journey to a PhD. 

I understand that studying for a PhD can be a lonely thing - several of the potential supervisors I spoke to mentioned that - but as someone who has studied with the Open University, has been away from the world of work since 2009 and almost housebound since 2016, I am used to being alone, so I expected I would be ok with that. To be honest only my usual health issues are preventing me from completely enjoying the research and writing, and there's not a lot I can do about them except pace myself and take things one step at a time. Even if it means only writing for two or three hours a day a few days a week - reading and note taking on the days in-between - or looking for relevant articles and newspaper cuttings online when I'm awake in bed at 4am.

It is this other loneliness that I am finding difficult - no weekend trips away, no visits to Archives with the OH, no sitting in on the OH's CAMRA meetings (the beer festival ones in one of our local Wetherspoons were best as lots of people turned up and they were quite informal), no taxi rides with my mum-in-law to the pub for a meal every other week (the OH used to walk and meet us there!), no visits to my daughter in Leicester or my son in Bedford. 

I remember the last weekend before the lockdown very clearly - on the Saturday the OH took me to Christ Church at Brampton near Barnsley to look at their war memorials (I was starting my research into the Brampton Parish Hall Roll of Honour), there was a coffee morning so it was easy to gain access. The man taking the money for the drinks and cake was wearing gloves, a sign of things to come, and we didn't shake hands, although I made a move to do so as I introduced myself only to realise I shouldn't! Afterwards we went a CAMRA Regional meeting in a pub in Elsecar, near Barnsley (these meetings move around Yorkshire each quarter and seem to visit Barnsley about once every three years, and they are the only ones I attend now) where someone was coughing in a corner saying it wasn't the virus ... by the following Friday we had moved my elderly mum to our house and my OH had gone to live at her bungalow as he was still working doing repairs in public buildings, schools and police stations. I didn't hug him for 16 weeks. 

I started showing Covid-19 symptoms shortly afterwards and had to isolate from my own mum in my bedroom, coughing and coughing ... I lost my voice and had to write notes to communicate with her during late April and into May even after the rest of the symptoms had gone. Happily I didn't give the virus to mum as far as we can tell, although neither of us were tested as that was only for people who were really ill or in hospital at that time. It is also difficult to tell, given my pre-existing conditions, whether I have Long Covid symptoms, but I am quite unfit as a result of the lock-down, no Tai Chi classes, no walking around shops or cemeteries or museums for months and months. A few minutes housework or gardening makes me very tired now, much more so that in the past. We have even employed my mum's cleaning lady to come and 'do' for us once a week - at least I have my PIP to pay for that so I don't feel quite so guilty.

Of course things started getting back to normal in the summer, but it seems that was a false hope. I wonder how long it will be before both of our mums and myself are locked down as vulnerable once again? The OH and I managed a trip to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley for our 16th wedding anniversary in early September, but I was so tired just looking around Dudley town centre the day after the museum trip that he bought me a rolator walking frame with a seat there and then. That has been tried out walking to my mum's bungalow, but it takes me 35-45 minutes to do a walk that Google Maps says should take 10 and the next day I don't get out of bed.

Next month I have been invited to the socially distanced dedication of a war memorial bench at Carlton near Barnsley ... a few years ago the Barnsley Branch of the Yorkshire Regiment Association set themselves the challenge to install benches near to all Barnsley war memorials. Obviously only the main outdoor ones as 806 [the total discovered by the BWMP before they wound up] might might be a few too many! Several of the members have joined my Barnsley's History - The Great War Facebook page and that is how they got in touch with me. They have even suggested I might give them a talk on Barnsley war memorials when the current situation is resolved. I am probably looking forward to the dedication in a way that is completely out of proportion to the scale of the event - but I haven't been to anything like this since March and it would be lovely to see other faces in real life, not just on Zoom.