Research Resilience reflection 5: Research Resilience in Pandemic Times

This post by Robert A. Ventresca (King’s University College at Western University, Canada) is the fifth in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


The irony is not lost on me. I have struggled for the better part of an hour now to articulate a meaningful introduction to this very brief reflection on research resilience in pandemic times. Struggled, that is, with the distraction of my six-year-old daughter’s voice in another room engaging excitedly in an online learning exercise. Just as I finish typing these few sentences, in fact, she calls out that her lesson is finished, and that procuring her morning snack now is an urgent matter. Meanwhile, the dog, a precocious Labrador Retriever pup, is whimpering, the unmistakable signal that the appointed time fast approaches for her midday run around the yard. My wife, to her great credit, is somewhere in the house managing the many demands of her flourishing law practice, confronting the obstacles presented by our heavily taxed and falsely advertised high speed internet.

These are the rather quotidian concerns of working from home in pandemic times. Yet they speak to the very practical obstacles many of us are facing to produce meaningful research and scholarship in the midst of a global pandemic. As I write, the feared ‘third wave’ of Covid-19 has materialized where I live, provoking yet another round of closures and restrictions. The various public health measures are euphemistically described by officials as a shutdown, presumably to make it sound more palatable than the draconian lockdown of previous surges. One struggles in vain to tell the difference.

I write from a position of considerable privilege and security. I am a white, heterosexual male, tenured, and a Full Professor to boot. The reality is that the pandemic has impacted my junior colleagues disproportionately – especially women. In fact, as Vice President Kamala Harris wrote a few months ago, the social and economic effects of the pandemic have caused a mass exodus of women from the paid workforce – a situation she aptly describes as an emergency.

My privileged position gives rise to an ethical responsibility to lay bare how the effects of the global pandemic have disproportionately impacted traditionally under-represented groups in academia. At the same time, it may be instructive to reflect on how my own research agenda as a mid-career scholar has been impacted in wholly unexpected ways by the truly unprecedented demands of balancing work with caregiving responsibilities in pandemic times.

I would offer three observations.

First, we need to acknowledge that talking about the elusive work-life balance means something different today than it did in the before times. We are living in grievously disturbed times; a time of tremendous loss, suffering and disorienting disruption. Consider, for instance, what a stay-at-home or lockdown order entails. All so-called non-essential services and business are closed or severely restricted. Everyone who can work remotely must do so. Daycare, schools and even universities pivot to online learning, which is actually emergency remote teaching. Travel restrictions enforce strict regulations that prevent people from more than one household from congregating. Under current restrictions where we live, if even just one member of a household exhibits the altogether common symptoms of seasonal colds and flu, such as headache, cough or runny nose, the expectation is that everyone in the household should quarantine, including children. There are understandably rigourous protocols that dictate when children may be permitted to return to in-person instruction: Covid-testing, Covid-screening, isolation for days or weeks, depending on the circumstances.

Families must balance all of these variables when making work and caregiving arrangements. That balancing act – challenging enough in the before times – is all the more difficult now since the usual support networks we relied upon previously – daycares, babysitters, even extended family members – are prohibited or severely curtailed. Whatever fine distinction there was previously between work and home has been blurred, nay, erased altogether. As Kamala Harris put it: our homes have become classrooms and child-care centres. Accordingly, the assumptions, practices and expectations that informed research and scholarship previously should no longer apply; for if they do, we risk creating unfair, inequitable burdens and barriers in research fields across the disciplines.

Second, we must take care not to generalize or impose standardized metrics for evaluating research work during pandemic times. Flexibility and reasonable accommodations must be the order of the day. Not all researchers face the same dilemmas in balancing work and caregiving in pandemic times. Fair and equitable metrics presume differing circumstances and disparate access to resources and support systems. For me personally, the fact of having a young family in pandemic times when school-age children often are home for weeks on end and with a spouse who is also working from home – all of this was bound to change the way I work, if and when I am able to work at all. I have struggled to meet deadlines and missed a few. I have fallen behind at times in my contributions to an ongoing collaborative project. Travel restrictions have imposed indefinite delays on long-planned archival research, cutting me off from indispensable primary sources for my current book project.

Third, we need to redress structural and attitudinal inequities by demanding that institutions and their leaders commit to formal and informal accommodations to mitigate the most adverse effects of the pandemic on our research. All too often, managerial attitudes and organizational structures are slow to change. Such rigidity inhibits research resilience and productivity, not to mention the stresses and strains it places on mental health and well-being of researchers. I have advocated on my own behalf for formal accommodation in my work schedule on the basis of family status. I have insisted that those in a position of institutional authority take care not to bring gendered expectations to bear in determining accommodations for faculty and staff with caregiving responsibilities.

Again, I appreciate that this advocacy reflects a position of privilege and security. If I were not tenured, I would be worried about my professional trajectory. I know many of my more junior colleagues with young children or other caregiving roles are worried. We need to hold our institutions and our respective research networks accountable to ensure fair and equitable research practices in pandemic times.

Robert A. Ventresca, Ph.D.
Professor of History and Acting Coordinator, Human Rights Studies
King’s University College at Western University (Canada)

Research Resilience reflection 4: A year at the University of Glasgow’s Archives & Special Collections

This post by Moira Rankin and Robert Maclean (University of Glasgow) is the fourth in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


A robust, future driven structure
The last year has been professionally challenging and rewarding for the Archives & Special Collections staff at the University of Glasgow. When the campus closed, our Team was already in the midst of change. A functional re-organisation had taken place in October 2019[1] to bring a ‘robust and “future driven structure”’ to meet the complex and ever-changing requirements of the 21st century academic community.[2] By March 2020 we were in the early stages of forming our team, scoping client needs, plotting trends and thinking creatively about interdisciplinary approaches to the collections.

On reflection that gave us a head start and we were able to put our online service ideas into practice far faster than we would ever have planned. Through lockdown we continually refocussed on what we could still do to keep research and teaching moving. A year on, the indications are that this approach has benefitted the University of Glasgow community.

Towards a post-custodial collaborative approach
In a recent podcast, scholar Karen Roybal commented on the limitations of custodial models of archival science. She spoke of the ways traditional methods have stifled some narratives and limited archivist professional development.[3] We were set in our ways so something had to change. The last year has changed the ways we communicate and collaborate – this is partly driven by the internal service change with archivists, conservators and librarians working closely together to offer a single point of contact collections teaching service.[4] But it is more than that – we are collaborating closely with our users to design the digital offer.

While it is too early to draw conclusions about the exact reasons for the change, what we can safely say is that during an uncertain budgetary environment, our management chose to invest over £30,000 in technology to support what we called the Virtual Collections Classroom (VCC) and the Virtual Reading Room (VRR). The conversations with academic colleagues that built these services gave us a shared focus and common student experience centred purpose. The break in the routine caused by the pandemic has enabled us to be creative about service delivery beyond our physical campus spaces.

New online services

Image shows a medieval manuscript on a Zoom screen, with a poll asking what section students want to zoom into next.
Close up of students viewing a medieval manuscript via the Virtual Collections Classroom. With permission of Dr Johanna Green and University of Glasgow Library Archives & Special Collections

We knew of visualiser set ups that had successfully been used by individual teachers and wanted to build something around that.[5] Our learning technology colleagues suggested we look at a ceiling mounted camera being used by anatomy lecturers in Dundee and St Andrews for over-the-shoulder teaching. With the input of academic colleagues,[6] in under 3 months we successfully made the business case for investment, installed the equipment, drew up conservation processes and user guides and turned it into a fully functioning bookable service.

Twenty-one visualiser classes were delivered to over 700 students from first year undergraduates right through to postgraduate researchers. User feedback from teachers and students was incredibly positive. Three of the teachers who used it received five nominations between them for teaching awards. Dr Johanna Green, whose strong support for the concept helped secure the required technological investment, won the award for Best Practice in Online Learning.

Visualisers and research

During the more open phases of lockdown the Virtual Reading Room service provided a form of access for those who were shielding and those who were studying or working away from Glasgow. Moreover it allowed academic teaching staff to save time (and stay safe) by limiting the number of visits to campus. They could do their teaching research from home. Finding ways to make teaching preparation more efficient has the potential to release more research time. This is something we will continue to investigate post-pandemic.

Image shows an archivist scanning a manuscript
An Engagement Team member sharing collections via the Virtual Reading Room. With permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives & Special Collection

Visualiser technology allows viewers to get a sense of scale, of materiality (through zooming in on physical features and studying condition and quality of materials), and a general sense of the “thingy-ness” of the object. Yet we are clear that this does not replicate a traditional research visit experience. It offers a quick flavour of the research object and the chance to confirm discrete and specific questions about it – such as, “yes, I’d like to have this digitised” or “no, I will not travel across the world to view it in person”. Careful management of user expectation of this new service continues to be important.

In a post-pandemic world visualiser-mediated access will be part of our service portfolio. Services might include:

  • A “try before you buy your plane ticket” service for distant researchers
  • A more inclusive service for anyone who cannot visit for reasons of disability or caring responsibilities
  • A conference call service allowing multiple researchers to consult items simultaneously over Zoom for project scoping and rapport building
  • Exciting but secure “reveals” for book launches
  • A high quality film studio environment for creating content for use in evidencing research findings and engaging audiences for enhanced impact

Resilient researchers of the future
We know there is strong demand for these services and we are still working through the post pandemic resource implications. Nevertheless we think that the most significant impact of this technology for research resilience may not be an immediate one.

Practical and logistical barriers have traditionally made it difficult to extend primary source teaching to the large undergraduate student cohorts. Postgraduate research students have sometimes reported archive anxiety and a lack of confidence in handling primary sources for the first time. Visualiser technology has enabled archive and rare book sources to go directly into an online first year class of Economic & Social Historians this year. They enthusiastically used the Zoom chat function to share their thoughts. Will the historians who started during the pandemic have a fresh perspective having seen their lecturers interacting with their source in real time? Will this inspire them to challenge and develop the subject in new ways? What previously hidden or marginalised perspectives might be revealed? Time will tell.[7]

References

  1. University of Glasgow – MyGlasgow – Archives & Special Collections – Our team. This paper covers the work that was led by the Engagement Team. It does not cover other future facing developments being led by other teams. The development of a new collections discovery interface is being led by Sarah Hepworth and the development of a Digital Preservation service by Clare Paterson.
  2. Restructuring for relevance: a paradigm shift for academic libraries | Emerald Insight
  3. Interview with Karen Roybal, 23rd February 2021 in Objectivity and Neutrality in the Archive, a podcast on Anchor
  4. The ASC Conservation & Preservation Team, led by Julie Gardham, have contributed enthusiastically to deliver this service professionally and securely.
  5. The work of Dot Porter at The University of Virginia and Aaron Pratt at the University of Texas at Austin influenced the creation of our visualiser services.
  6. We would particularly like to thank our colleagues Johanna Green, Hannah-Louise Clark, Maria Economou, Catriona MM Macdonald and Adele Redhead for their enthusiastic support of our work this year.
  7. Our next step is to assess and frame the potential of this creative and engaging online learning environment using the SCALE tool produced by Carmen Richardson and Punya Mishra. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2017.11.004

Research Resilience reflection 2: Resilience at Leeds University Library Special Collections

This slideshow by Tim Procter (University of Leeds) is the second in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


Having problems viewing these slides? You can also view them on the SlideShare website.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Lucinda Matthews-Jones – The Paper-Based Digital Classroom

The second blog post following on from our Pandemic Pedagogy initiative is by Lucinda Matthews-Jones, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. She teaches nineteenth-century gender and urban history modules. Her dynamic and innovative teaching approaches were recognised in 2018 when she awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Individual Teaching Award. Beyond the classroom, she researches ideas of home and urban domesticities in the British Settlement Movement, 1880-1920. Lucinda tweets @luciejones83.


I am a paper-based lecturer and teacher. Before COVID-19, you would have found me moving around my university building with large rolls of paper and a tote bag filled with coloured pens, glue sticks, post notes, and scissors. For me, asking students to work on paper in groups or as individuals enabled them to break down and cement their ideas through a visual format. It helped me to see what they had picked up and to expand these points in classroom discussions.

But how could I replicate this in the digital classroom? There has been a tendency to think that this needs to be done through digital tools. But if the non-digital class can be based on mixed media then why not the digital, too? Why must the digital classroom be paperless? It felt like digital fatigue had hit both me and the students in the second half of the semester in Autumn 2020. Discussions with personal tutees and other students had made me increasingly aware that recorded lectures were taking a lot of time and energy both to produce and consume. As History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook observed ‘screen-time and remote interaction have a cumulative effect; the result is mentally and physically draining’.

My first-year students had a ‘how to respond to your feedback’ seminar coming up for their academic skills module and I wanted to think more creatively about how to get them to engage with the department’s writing guide. I decided that breaking it down and asking students to create a zine relating to the section that they had been assigned would help them to process the complex information written down in the guide and get them to think about how to communicate this in a creative manner. Students were sent class instructions through our VLE (see below).

Here is a picture of one zine and the page from LJMU’s History Guide it refers to.

Here is a picture of one zine and the page from LJMU’s History Guide it refers to.

Students reported that the exercise encouraged them to read the material differently by emphasising the need to break it down and to think about how to display the guide’s information. They enjoyed the idea that the exercise was for a wider audience and not just them reading through the guide on their own. At the end of the session, contributions were sent to me and put into a PDF.

Handwriting and hand drawing can improve people’s ability to remember. Hetty Roessingh, for instance, has noted that handwriting notes and sketching has enhanced her students ‘understanding and remembering’ by encouraging them to make ‘personal connection’ through ‘creative thought’.  Roessingh continues that ‘hand-written notes matter and endure over time.’ Asking students to do paper-based creative exercise also changes the embodied experiences of digital learning. It encourages the eyes to look down and focus on the task, minimising screen time during a seminar.

The picture above shows a mind map illustrating one approach taken by students.

The picture above shows a mind map illustrating one approach taken by students.

This session was intended to be light-hearted and a bit different from previous weeks. What I found was that I really enjoyed it. The conversations were dynamic and interesting as I moved around the breakout rooms. I felt more like me as a lecturer, having neither the know-how nor confidence around some digital technologies that others have used to transition their teaching online. Paper based activities will now be the focus of my teaching in semester 2.

What paper-based activities have you been using in your teaching? I would love to hear!

Class instructions

To help you prepare for the next assessment we will be digging into the LJMU Writing Guide. Together we will create a zine of top tips from this based on your feedback and what surprises you from the guide and feel your peers would benefit from.

Before class: 

  • Please make sure you have downloaded: LJMU_Writing_History_v1.pdf
  • Have some paper and any coloured pens to hand. You can also bring newspaper, magazines, glue, and scissors if you want to do something more multimedia. But you do not have too. You can do this exercise on a class.

In class: 

  • You will be spilt into groups and given a section
  • Be able to take an image of your hand out and email to  Lucie for her to collate.
  • Be prepared to summarise and explain your zine page.

Want to know more about Zines? Read here: How to Make a Zine: Guide to Making Your Own Zine During Quarantine – Thrillist (Links to an external site.).


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: Amy Louise Blaney – Recreating Informal Spaces in Virtual Learning Environments

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to affect the ways in which history is taught and assessed at universities. Following on from our Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, History UK has commissioned a series of blog posts exploring how staff, students and institutions have responded to this continually evolving situation and the pedagogical challenges it has presented.

The first post in this series is by Amy Louise Blaney, a PhD student at Keele University. Her thesis examines the afterlife of the Arthurian legend in the long eighteenth-century and its intersection with national identity formation. Amy is also a part-time lecturer in English at Staffordshire University, as well as a co-editor for Keele’s Under Construction postgraduate journal.


Covid-19 required rapid adaptations of teaching pedagogy and practice and it has been heartening to see HE teachers and lecturers engaging in innovative, accessible, and original teaching in these challenging environments.

Recreating informal and social spaces has, however, proved more difficult. As a student, I have missed the informal conversations that take place with both my peers and my lecturers – the chance encounters over coffee, or the chats that occur before and after lectures and seminars. And as a tutor, I’ve found re-creating such spaces online particularly challenging.

My first online teaching session felt sorely lacking in informality. Launching straight in seemed to leave students cold despite my attempts to create a cheery atmosphere. Getting them to talk to each other – let alone me – felt like trying to cross a digital wilderness, bereft of the friendly gestures that help in situ teaching sessions to get off the ground. We got there eventually, but I came out of it feeling that there was something lacking.

I mentioned this in passing to my mum – a Quality Improvement Officer for the NHS – and she suggested taking 5/10 minutes to ‘warm up’ my crowd. Warm-up activities had worked well with the adult learners on her training courses and, she said, had helped increase engagement.

Given that anything is better than talking into a void, I decided to give it a go and re-arranged my next session to allow for 10 minutes ‘warm-up’. Deciding that even if I couldn’t get students to engage, I could attempt to raise a smile, I raided the archive of internet memes and decided to ask how they felt on a scale of 1 – Obi-Wan.

Scale of 1 to Obi Wan

I’ll be honest, when I got to the relevant slide and asked the question, I was expecting radio silence. Instead, I got a chorus of chat messages with students responding with a number, then replying in chat or via voice if I asked them for a little more detail about how they were feeling. It wasn’t in any way related to the course content, but it woke everyone (myself included) up, got them mentally into the room, and got them talking to both me and to each other.

Since then, my group have told each other how we feel on a scale of cat, made a Mentimeter word cloud about Shakespeare, and played ‘guess the seventeenth-century poet’ together. Students would start chatting as soon as they logged in, asking each other how they were, and responding when I asked them how they’d found the reading and preparation. Sessions were more engaged and livelier. It felt like being in a classroom.

Our activities were only indirectly related to the course content but creating space for such informal conversations is, I feel, vital to learning. As well as providing a sense of comradery and shared experience, conversations that take place within informal learning spaces can inspire new directions in thinking and research and allow for the sharing of ideas and worries in a safe and collegiate space. And if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we need those connections more than ever.


If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.