Sophia Hayat Taha, Socio-legal Studies, Keele University, 2019 Cohort
I am a researcher as well as an activist, both of which are not easy to do in isolation. 2020 has been a rollercoaster of pandemics, protests, and personal struggles. Working during all of this has also been turbulent. I have faced difficulties which have included: being ill, home becoming my office space, trying to continue activism from afar, no decent way to print papers off to read, and managing levels and methods of productivity. Reflecting on how I have worked during the first half of this year, I have gone through three phases:
Phase 1: Do No Work & Feel No Guilt
Before the U.K. finally acknowledged that the global pandemic was indeed global, and killing people in the U.K. too, I was full of panic. I was unsure whether to continue to go to meetings on campus, but I went to a few despite feeling like being in small spaces was the worst idea possible. The week before the U.K. went into lockdown, I felt physically unwell and by the weekend I felt awfully unwell, and then for the next month I was sick. I was exhausted by just walking to make a cup of tea. There was no PhD work done. I rested, I watched Netflix, I did a lot of cross-stitch projects.
A key thing to note, is that I didn’t feel guilty. That’s important because I constantly feel guilty as a postgraduate that I am not doing enough. I think what also helped with feeling no guilt was that I acknowledged it was a pandemic, and the idea of productivity during a pandemic seemed rather absurd. Towards the end of the first month I started to feel more human, more bored of Netflix but still not quite in the ‘zone’ to do work. I started to watch TED talks in my area, it was good to focus for a relatively short amount of time, it felt like I was engaging with work again but not pushing myself too hard. I then progressed to listening to longer YouTube videos of past lectures and conferences from around the world.
Phase 2: Growing New Working Habits
Finally, I felt like I wanted to do some real* work, some reading and writing.
*I know that there is so much more to PhD work than reading things and writing things up. All the thinking time, the talking to others, the watching of speakers or attending conferences are all just as important and make up our PhDs but in my lockdown mind, I needed to use the time wisely and catch up on reading.
And there is where I hit yet another wall! I just couldn’t seem to concentrate. I spoke to a few other postgraduate students at Keele, using a weekly virtual coffee morning that the Keele Postgraduate Association has kept going. All of us were struggling, no one was getting a ‘normal’ day’s work in. One person said that they only made themselves do a maximum of half a day of work any day, aiming for a few good hours of work. This seemed so much more manageable and this is what I decided to do too. I also downloaded two apps that helped with my productivity (special thanks to the two people who recommended them).
Forest: This app lets you ‘plant’ a virtual tree in your forest if you concentrate for a set amount of time. If you manage to concentrate for the time you set, then you get a tree or plant. You can set it from anything from 10 minutes to 120 minutes. I used it to set 20-minute timers for reading tasks, writing tasks and on occasion wading through my ever-growing inbox. Growing this virtual forest helped me get back into a work pattern and I have been recommending it to anyone who will listen.
There are similar apps available which do the same thing and are free.
Bookly: This app times how long it takes you to read a section of the book and then calculates how long it will take you to read the entire book. This helped in two ways, it broke down books into timed bits of work that were achievable. It also made me get oddly competitive with myself. I wanted to read the book faster than the predicted time. This helped as it let me read faster, using post-it notes to mark important pages that I could come back for key quotes later. The free version of the app only lets you have 10 books on it but again there are other apps that do the same thing and are free.
With the help of these two apps, some encouraging words from other researchers and a lot more energy, I managed to get a decent routine going. I would read for an hour or two and then write for an hour each day.
Phase 3: Burnout, Guilt, Resting
The horrendous murder of George Floyd and the wonderful global activism of the Black Lives Matter movement has taken centre stage in my mind. My research is within the scope of socio-legal, Human Rights, and anti-racism work. The ‘formal’ side of PhD work took a back seat, as it should do in a time like this.
As a white passing person of colour, I feel a duty to take some of the burden of labour from my Black colleagues and friends. I supported my supervisor and the Keele Law department’s response with a vigil on campus, we took videos of speakers, we worked together. Whilst we work in this wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, the effort to dismantle racist systems and protect Black lives has been going on for decades and sadly it won’t be completed in 2020.
I have spent some of my time gathering resources for anti-racism work that we share as part of the Women of Keele Educate collective. Educating oneself is a key component of resistance and implementing change and so continuing to read anti-racism literature is also part of my PhD work.
At this time, I also felt personal burnout and then guilt at feeling burned out. I know that really burnout is an additional and often unforeseen challenge of the work. Something that I remind the wonderful women activists I work with is that activism is a lifelong project. The work is never-ending and that therefore rest is not only necessary but part of the work. If you don’t rest, you can’t keep fighting for change. I’m hoping at some point I listen to myself!
Now, as I write this blog, I’m slowly building back my work routines again, and I have returned to using my forest app, planting trees whilst I read.