Pandemic Pedagogy: From Cohorts to Communities

Aimee Merrydew (PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English Literature, Keele University)

Creating a sense of community for students is an integral part of the learning experience; it helps students to gain a sense of belonging and is linked to student success and retention. But building communities requires building relationships. How can this happen when the opportunity for students to socialise in person is limited due to COVID-19 precautions?

Community-building is especially important for new starters, since the transition to university life can be a challenging process and many students do not know anyone on their course. And it continues to be important across the degree, to tutor groups and departmental cohorts, as well as in a classroom setting. How can students meet fellow historians and gain a sense of belonging when studying online?

This post will focus on strategies that help students to gain a sense of belonging, build their identities as historians, and manage feelings of isolation when working remotely.

Buddying:

For new students, one of the best strategies is a buddying scheme. Keele University’s Student Support Buddies scheme provides a useful example. Keele Student Support Buddies are trained to provide friendly and informal support and guidance to incoming students via email and other forms of communication (e.g. Microsoft Teams and/or social media).

Peer mentoring relationships usually begin pre-arrival and continue throughout the academic year, providing ample opportunity for new and returning students to forge connections with fellow historians. What is particularly useful about ‘buddying’ from a community-building perspective is that it encourages links across year groups, in the process enhancing the community of students studying History.

Additionally, you can share this Historical Association resource with incoming students to support their transition to study history at university.

Virtual coffee mornings:

Virtual coffee mornings provide opportunities for community-building by enabling students to socialise with one another in a relaxed and low-pressure online environment.

Community-building is at the heart of Coffee@Home, a one-hour virtual coffee meeting organised for academic and student historians at the University of Lincoln (though you could also have a student-only coffee morning). The purpose of Coffee@Home was, as Dr Michele Vescovi (History, University of Lincoln) explains, ‘to have a conversation about our studies, our lives, and what we were doing while in lockdown. Through this, we wanted to maintain the strong sense of community that our students built in the classroom and beyond’.

Virtual coffee mornings are relatively easy to set up and can take place on various platforms such as Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams. These platforms provide students with the option of choosing their preferred method of interaction (e.g. by video-calling or instant messaging).

You could host a virtual coffee morning as part of the induction week and continue running it throughout the academic year. You could even open the coffee mornings to all History students, as this would enable students to make connections across cohorts. In either case, virtual coffee mornings would provide students with a space to meet fellow historians and feel part of a community.

image of coffee and computer

Image from Freepic

‘Ice-breaker’ activities for tutor groups:

Learning is often a social experience, so it’s important that students feel comfortable learning together. But creating shared experiences and supporting memorable connections between students can be challenging in an online environment.

Ice-breaker activities can aid students in getting to know one another when working remotely. Some activities you could try include:

  • Show and tell – Ask students to share their favourite historical photo or quotation and explain why they think it’s interesting.
  • Who am I? – Students must try to figure out which historical person they are by asking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions to gain clues about the name assigned to them (you could circulate names in advance of the game).
  • Pictionary – Ask students to draw and then circulate pictures about what they like to do, a recent event in which they partook, and/or their reasons for enrolling on the course. Other students can then guess what each student drew, in the process getting to know a little more about each other.
  • Medieval personality test – Students can take the test and then share their results with the rest of the group. Provide students with the opportunity to compare and agree or disagree with their results in discussion with one another, as this will get them speaking to each other and identifying any common interests (or differences).

Each of these activities can be conducted over email, on a Google Doc, on a digital bulletin board (such as Padlet), and other types of communications software (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and Zoom).

See here and here for more inspiration on virtual ice-breaker activities.

Historical role-playing exercises:

Historical role-playing is a fun way to create an interactive community of learners. The ‘Our Mutual Friends Tweets’ project is one example of a role-playing community that took place digitally. Each month, participants would read the latest instalment of Dickens’ novel and then take to Twitter to record the latest plot developments from the perspective of one of the characters. To add to the fun and community spirit of the project, participants were also encouraged to ‘air their responses to the unfolding plot, as well as responding to the other characters’ tweets’ (Curry & Winyard 2016, 568).

facebook post about historical role playing

Image: Screenshot of @OMG_Rogue’s tweet

This activity would work well for History students across all levels of study. Students could assume the roles of historical figures and stage debates on issues from a given period. Or they could rewrite history by considering historical events from multiple points of view.

Participants can role-play on Twitter, as was the case in the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project, or they can use online bulletin boards such as Padlet (which can be integrated into the Virtual Learning Environment). See this blog post by Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones (History, Liverpool John Moores University) for another excellent example of community-building through online historical role-playing.

Note that while historical role-playing offers an exciting opportunity to bring students together, it is important to establish ‘ground rules’ for respectful participation, especially when topics are of a sensitive nature.

 Virtual escape rooms:

Virtual escape rooms have become something of a phenomenon in recent years. They are fun and educational team-building exercises that encourage players to work together online to complete tasks across a series of locked rooms. Students need passwords to ‘unlock’ these rooms, which they can gain by working collaboratively to solve puzzles, retrieve clues, and gather other information found throughout the game.

Virtual escape rooms can be designed around historical themes. For example, in a Cold War themed escape room, you might have one room titled ‘Secret Bunker’, another titled ‘Space Station’, and so on. To add to the fun and create friendly competition, you could develop two opposing escape rooms: one for the Soviet Union team and one for the United States. Whichever team ‘escapes’ their virtual room first wins the war, so to speak. Escape rooms are usually against the clock, so you can always add a link to this YouTube clock for added pressure.

Virtual escape rooms can take place on various platforms, including Microsoft OneNote, Google Forms, and Classtime. Click here for some ideas about the kinds of history-themed activities you can include in your virtual escape room. Click here for a step-by-step guide on how to make your virtual escape room (using Google Forms).

For more info on supporting online learning communities see this History UK blog post by Aimee Merrydew and this infographic by Dr Sophie Nicholls.

Get involved and share your experiences

We are delighted to invite you to join us on Twitter (@history_uk) at 2pm on Thursday 16th July, where we will invite you to share your thoughts and experiences of supporting online learning communities in History and the wider Humanities. Use #PandemicPedagogy and/or #SocialLearningHUK.


Aimee tweets at @a_merrydew and blogs (about her research and teaching) at www.aimeemerrydew.com. You can find out more about Aimee’s work here.

Pandemic Pedagogy: Building Online Learning Communities

Aimee Merrydew (PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English Literature, Keele University) 

Working collaboratively online is different to face-to-face group work in a physical classroom. Students may not know others on the course or how to work as part of an online team. So how do we get students working together and gaining each other’s trust outside of the familiar seminar setting?

This post will focus on strategies to embed community-building activities throughout modules and programmes. Each of the following community-building activities can aid students in building academic relationships, gaining a sense of belonging as historians, and dispelling feelings of isolation when working remotely. Virtual community-building activities have been linked to student success and retention.

1. Weekly virtual coffee mornings 

Virtual coffee mornings are a great way to bring students together on a regular basis so they can socialise and relax outside of work. Historians at the University of Lincoln have used virtual coffee mornings as a means of building an online community for Art History and History students in the wake of COVID-19. Dr Michele Vescovi (History, University of Lincoln) explains their rationale for organising weekly coffee mornings:

When teaching was moved online, we decided to create a virtual platform (Coffee@Home), a one-hour weekly virtual meeting for staff and students over a cup of coffee or tea. The purpose was just to have a conversation about our studies, our lives, and what we were doing while in lockdown. Through this, we wanted to maintain the strong sense of community that our students built in the classroom and beyond.

Coffee mornings can take place on various platforms (e.g. Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts) and students can choose to interact with one another via video-calling or instant messaging.

A virtual coffee morning can be effective for building community within a small unit such as a tutor group, or you might also consider opening the virtual coffee morning to all students in a module, cohort, or programme. In either case, it will help students to build connections that can pave the way for future collaborative learning experiences, as well as helping to socialise the student group in a context in which they won’t have many opportunities to meet in person. Virtual coffee mornings can also help to create a sense of belonging which, in turn, can help to make students feel more comfortable when engaging in more formal group work on and offline.

2. Social annotation

Social annotation is a good way of getting students interacting with one another (and sources!) when working remotely. In this interview, Anna Rich-Abad (History, University of Nottingham) talks about how her students used a tool called Talis Elevate to engage in social annotation and ‘recreate’ the classroom environment.

As we can see from the below image, the tool enables students to annotate primary or secondary sources, respond to other students’ comments, and develop discussions. This activity promotes critical dialogue that may otherwise be ‘lost’ outside of the familiar classroom setting, as students form a community of scholars working together to annotate a source.

screenshot of Talis Elevate

Image: Natalie Naik from Talis

Here are some strategies for engaging students in social annotation:

  • Begin by getting students to practice using the tool by completing simple tasks, such as adding questions or comments to sections that they found particularly interesting or challenging (or just don’t understand), then ask them to respond to one another’s posts. Dr Jamie Wood (History, University of Lincoln) discusses this strategy here.
  • Once students are more familiar with the annotation tool, encourage them to work together to take a short passage from a source and find as many possible meanings depending on what context they are supplied.
  • You could also instruct students to identify the social and historical contexts at work in a specific passage. By working from the same document, students can build on each other’s interpretations and engage in knowledge creation.
  • Another option is to assign different interpretive strategies, e.g. one group of students reads for ‘Whig History’ interpretations, while another poses as ‘Namierite’ readers. Students can then comment on how closely their peers have mimicked the reading strategies of a different historiographical school.

3. Digital scrapbooking

Digital scrapbooking is great for collaborative working and community-building. Students and educators can co-create a ‘virtual learning wall’ by posting content and comments on online bulletin boards such as Padlet (which can be integrated into the VLE).

This blog post by Professor Lucy Robinson (History, University of Sussex) provides a useful example of how digital scrapbooking might work in practice. Robinson divided her seminar group into sub-teams and instructed them to create their own open access educational resources on a topic of their choice. Each of the groups used Padlet to share and store links and resources; one group also set up Padlet as a public space where users could post comments and feedback on the wall. Padlet was the chosen tool because, as Lucy explains here, it ‘was easy to use, pretty much anything could be added to it, it could be edited by multiple users at once, and had various privacy settings’.

See here and here for more inspiration on digital scrapbooking.

4. Online book club

Book clubs are a great way to promote group cohesion and learning outside of the formal classroom setting. The Historical Association (HA) provides an example.

HA Book Club members meet on Twitter and/or Facebook every other Wednesday for an hour to discuss a given text, though the meetings have been expanded during June and July from an hour to a full afternoon. This set-up enables conversations to emerge asynchronously, as people ‘can dip in across the afternoon and evening, leave messages, “like” other people’s thoughts and get caught up in conversations if they wish’. Students can engage in collaborative learning and debate about an assigned book by liking, retweeting, and commenting on each other’s posts, as seen in the screenshot below.

Twitter thread about book club

Image: screenshot of @histassoc Twitter thread

To ensure accessibility, you can distribute set readings on a file sharing platform, such as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or Google Drive. It goes without saying but it’s important to be mindful of copyright regulations when uploading and distributing material (this is less likely to be an issue if you use services supported by your institution).

Once you’ve shared the material, you can then tweet discussion questions and/or statements for students to respond to and debate as a group. Click here and here for some practical tips and ‘watchouts’ for using Twitter in the virtual classroom.

Alternatively, you can use telecommunication applications (e.g. Microsoft Teams), digital bulletin boards (e.g. Padlet), or annotation software (e.g. Talis Elevate) to facilitate book club discussion. Some services, such as Talis Elevate (see above) and Hypothes.is will allow annotation and discussion directly on resources, which makes it easier for students to engage in conversation about specific moments in the book.

5. Online film club

The book club format can be adapted for a film club. Students can watch films individually and then engage in group discussion and debate. #Covideodrome is one example of an online film club that brings students together on Twitter and Zoom to discuss Netflix films during the lockdown period.

Note: Film clubs provide a fun way to foster collaborative learning through a shared and interactive learning experience, but they may not be accessible to all because they require higher bandwidth technologies in order for films to be watched online (they may also require entertainment subscriptions which can be costly). Note also that all videos should be captioned for accessibility purposes. History UK Fellow Louise Creechan provides useful tips on making videos accessible here.

6. Virtual writing retreats 

Virtual writing retreats provide opportunities for community-building and collaborative learning by enabling students to join a community of researchers, share goals for accountability, and progress their writing in a structured and supportive environment. Virtual writing retreats can create a sense of being in ‘this’ process together.

The David Bruce Centre for American Studies uses virtual writing retreats to foster a sense of community and promote collaborative learning amongst historians and humanities researchers. The Centre uses low bandwidth communications software (e.g. Google Hangouts or Slack), which enables more people to participate.

While the David Bruce Centre retreat runs across a full day, shorter time-frames might work better for student groups.

David Bruce Centre Virtual Writing Retreat

(6.5 hours)

Shorter Writing Retreat for Student Groups

(90 mins)

09:00 – 09:15: Introduction 09:00 – 09:05: Introduction
09:15 – 09:30: Planning and goal setting (share with group) 09:05 – 09:15: Planning and goal setting (share with sub-group)
09:30 – 09:35: Writing warm up 09:15 – 09:20: Writing warm-up (e.g. freewriting)
09:30 – 11:00: Writing (1 hr 30 mins) 09:20 – 09:40: Writing (20 mins)
11:00 – 11:20: Break and discussion 09:40 – 09:50: Reflection and sharing
11:20 – 12:35: Writing (1 hr 15 mins) 09:50 – 10:10: Writing (20 mins)
12:35 – 12:40: Stretching session for writers 10:10 – 10:30: Tips on setting goals for how to take work forward

 

12:40 – 13:30: Lunch break and discussion
13:30 – 15:00: Writing (1 hr 30 mins)
15:00 – 15:05: Stretching session for writers
15:05 – 15:30: Reflections and feedback on the day

These schedules encourage students to set writing goals and share them with one another to achieve a common goal: to progress writing projects in a supportive online environment. The regular planning and discussion slots provide opportunities for collaborative learning and community-building, as students can discuss their writing topics and share tips and resources with each other. See here for more tips on organising writing retreats for students.

Get involved and share your experiences

We are keen to hear from you and invite you to join us on Twitter (@history_uk) at 2pm on Thursday 16th July. Here we will invite you to share your experiences, reflections, and resources to help us develop an effective approach to supporting online learning communities in History and the wider Humanities. Use #PandemicPedagogy and/or #SocialLearningHUK.


Aimee tweets at @a_merrydew and blogs (about her research and teaching) at www.aimeemerrydew.com. You can find out more about Aimee’s work on her university profile and personal website.

Should we stop worrying about contact hours?

Kate Cooper (Professor of History, Royal Holloway, University of London)

One of the problems worrying wise heads as they think ahead to the autumn involves the instructional quantum formerly known as contact hours. Once we are no longer meeting in timetabled classrooms, how will we know when we have done enough? It’s a question that has a philosophical dimension, but it’s also tremendously practical. On the one hand, digital teaching requires thinking ahead to solve as many problems as possible ahead of time. On the other hand, students navigating in an unfamiliar digital environment might reasonably need more support than ever.

In a piece entitled The need for Presence not ‘Contact Hours’, David White, who is Head of Digital Learning for the University of the Arts London, addresses the problem head-on. Part of the problem, White suggests, is that our way of thinking about what we owe our students has been rooted in a not-particularly-well-thought-through emotion: the attachment we all feel to ‘the University as a set of buildings.’ Partly out of habit and partly because emotional attachment makes us irrational, he says, ‘The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to “time spent in the same room together”.’ This means we have failed to think as carefully as we might about what our students need from their interactions with teachers, and the resulting muddled thinking can have spectacularly bad results.

So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like [in some contexts] is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unsustainable, it is also damaging to the learning process.

Another useful approach comes from Colorado, where Sean Michael Morris is Senior Instructor in Learning, Design, and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver and Director of the online learning community known as Digital Pedagogy Lab. In a recent post Morris suggests that the answer to the problem rests on an idea we can all agree on: the best pedagogy is rooted in human relationships. “My expertise is digital pedagogy—specifically critical digital pedagogy—which resides more in the relationships between teachers and students than it does the delivery of instruction.” In facing up to the digital challenge, he says, colleagues can become so worried about managing the technology that they need to be reminded of the human element.

So as I’m approached with questions about what technologies might help build community online, what platform I might recommend for ensuring students don’t cheat, or what digital solution I know of that will enable meaningful discussion, I’ve found myself answering: teach through the screen, not to the screen. Find out where your students are, and make your classroom there, in a multiplicity of places.

How we make this happen, of course, is the question. What does it mean to be ‘present’ in a space that doesn’t actually exist?

Another important aspect of the problem involves not only space, but time. To what extent is a ‘scheduled hour’ a meaningful measure? Far less than we are used to, perhaps: to students (and staff) who are living in a state of perpetual disruption, freedom from set schedules can offer a much-valued silver lining, and is sometimes an absolute necessity.

My colleague Martin King at Royal Holloway makes an important distinction here. Even though being ‘present’ to our students is something that we are used to doing in real-time, sometimes the acts of ‘presence’ we can offer asynchronously are just as valuable. To illustrate the point, Martin kindly gave me permission to share a graphic analysis he made of the possibilities for ‘presence’ that can be offered to students through the Moodle/Replay learning tools we use in our own institution.

Martin places strong emphasis on something that is sometimes forgotten in discussions of ‘contact’, which is interactivity. Sometimes, when we are sailing along in our habitual way of teaching and learning together, we forget that what makes contact ‘contact’ is the fact of being able to interact. Often, interaction is the element that lights up the learning experience for students.

table showing online activities and their affordances
Source: Martin King, Considerations for online teaching Pt.1: Presence
(https://elearningroyalholloway.blog/2020/05/07/considerations-for-online-teaching-pt-1-presence/) (edited) 

Once we’ve turned our focus to interactivity, we can see that though we’re used to thinking of synchronous activity as conveying a strong sense of presence, when interactivity is present asynchronous activity can do so as well. And colleagues are already reporting that new forms of engagement such as discussion lists can elicit higher involvement from students who would hesitate to contribute in face-to-face discussion.

Another point to remember is that sometimes the ‘presence’ our students find most valuable and rewarding is that of their peers. Taking Martin’s analysis as a starting point, I made my own visual analysis, this time looking at how the social and interactive aspect of learning can work both synchronously and asynchronously, sometimes through engagement between students and staff, and at other times through engagement among students themselves. (The ‘asynchronous-social’ column in the centre offers particularly useful food for thought.)

table showing asynchronous and synchronous tools and their affordances

How can we translate these insights into strategies for supporting students? David White suggests that if we move our thinking away from counting contact hours to planning for meaningful acts of presence, we may discover that the new landscape offers surprising possibilities.

Here is the list White offers at the close of his post:

  1. A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
  2. Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous presence)
  3. Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
  4. Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos
  5. Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
  6. …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.

It’s not hard to imagine a student being happy with this approach to presence. It’s perhaps an idealized list – notice all those adjectives and adverbs. (‘Reliable’, ‘lively’, ‘artfully’.) So, the proof will be in the design (how do they all fit together? do they add up to more than the sum of the parts?) and in the delivery. But that is true for every type of teaching, so at least here we are on familiar territory.

Research conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) via the 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey discovered a greater correlation of student success to increased independent study than to increased contact hours, and increased independent study also correlated to a higher student sense of engagement.  Commenting on the survey, Professor Stephanie Marshall, then serving as CEO of the HEA, had this to say:

“It’s important to note the relatively high numbers who do not feel supported in independent study … we know that the skills developed through independent study are important to employers and to lifelong learning. Providing guidance and structure outside timetabled sessions is key here.”

So there is potentially much to be gained from shifting our focus from measuring staff input to considering how best to offer our students what they need.

For department chairs and administrators, there remains a thorny administrative problem: it’s far more difficult to assess whether a multi-strand ‘presence’ strategy has been executed successfully than it is to count timetabled contact hours.  But from the student perspective, if the present disruption forces us to focus on the fundamentals, this can only be a good thing.


Kate tweets as @kateantiquity: https://twitter.com/kateantiquity

Here’s Kate’s webpage at RHUL

History UK Pandemic Pedagogy fellowship

At the beginning of June, History UK launched a ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ initiative to help support
historians move out of the ‘emergency’ phase of online teaching and start planning for a remote
and socially-distanced campus in the Autumn. The aim is to produce short, user-friendly, and
practical guides than can inform planning, including:

  • An overview of tools for online teaching – an annotated list introducing various digital tools
    people may have heard of but not used
  • An introduction to various ways of staging digital small-group interactions
  • A page on tools and strategies for collaborative close ‘reading’ and annotation of ‘texts’

History UK is seeking a postgraduate student for a fixed-term fellowship to support the initiative.
The History UK fellow will conduct desk-based searches of websites, blog posts, and social media
for relevant case studies, reports, and other practical guides. They will write clear and concise
summaries of their findings to help inform the resources that History UK will produce and curate,
and attend virtual team meetings. They will be encouraged to write a blog post for the History UK
website on a topic of their choosing (relevant to the initiative), and may also be required to assist
in the organisation of an online ‘Pandemic Pedagogy’ roundtable.

The fellow will be expected to work flexibly for 50 hours in total over four weeks, starting on
Wednesday 17 June, or soon after. All work needs to be completed by Wednesday 15 July. The
renumeration for the fellowship is fixed at £750.

Person specification:

  • A postgraduate student (MA or PhD) in History, or a related subject, based at a higher
    education institution in the UK
  • Strong research skills
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision
  • Excellent organisation, project management skills, and attention to detail
  • Expertise and interest in pedagogy (preferable)
  • Experience of writing for the web (preferable)

To apply:

Send a CV of up to two pages and a one-page cover letter to pandemicpedagogy2020@gmail.com.
In the cover letter you should explain why you are interested in the role, how you meet the person
specification, and what you will bring to the initiative.

The deadline for applications is Thursday 11 June at 2pm.

Applications will be reviewed by the team working on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative:
www.history-uk.ac.uk/2020/06/03/history-uks-pandemic-pedagogy-initiative-starts-today and the
successful candidate notified by the end of Monday 15 June.

Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – three of three

In my previous post, the second in this series, I showcased some research into how social media is used by emerging and established academics, and used my own experiences to highlight how it does, or could, enhance the accessibility, for PhD students with a mental health issue, of some typical research activities. In this final post I’ll explore the other side of this coin by asking: What are some of the obstacles to using social media for this purpose? I’ll also share my parting thoughts about what we might do, as active participants in the HE community, to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental illness. 

Barriers to Inclusivity 

Although my own experiences of using social media during my PhD have had largely positive impacts on my mental wellness, I have also encountered some barriers to inclusivity. The first involved a Twitter exchange, where I had asked if it would be possible to speak at a subject-specific PGR forum by video-link. On that occasion the group didn’t feel confident to accommodate the request, which highlights a barrier also referred to by several of the scholars I have drawn on in my previous posts.  

“We don’t know how to do that…” 

Nandez and Borrego, Rowlands, and Boté all point to skills being a barrier to social media use among academics. Rowlands et al in particular provide evidence that social media use is greatest among those who identify as being an ‘innovator’, or ‘early adopter’ of new technologies. As a self-professed geek I would certainly put myself into one of these two categories, which is why I felt confident to set up the live stream of my original conference paper on this topic. But I recognise that not everyone shares this confidence, and that, in the face of the range of social media available, the desire to develop skills may well be tempered by feelings of being overwhelmed.  

Rowlands’ study also shows, though, that academics tend to be selective in the platforms they use (with almost two-thirds using only one or two tools) – suggesting perhaps that we don’t need proficiency in all platforms, but rather an awareness of the ones which are (to borrow a phrase) ‘trending’. 

“We don’t feel comfortable doing that…” 

I’ve already touched on this in my earlier comments about Bennett and Folley’s work on managing a hybridised digital identity, and my own insecurities about sharing too much about works in progress online – even to would-be collaborators. But, again, Rowlands’ work is pertinent here in highlighting that a lack of clarity about the benefits of social media constitutes a barrier to employing it for research purposes, in some cases.  

Like me, Bennett and Folley self-censored their digital selves to ‘fit’ their ideas of how others perceived them. They too were anxious about revealing their weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge, and fearful of receiving a critical reception. This aligns with Pantic’s findings on social networking and mental health, which suggest that inaccurate perceptions of others online (part of what we might call ‘Imposter Syndrome’) can contribute to reduced self-esteem in those who are predisposed to psychiatric illness. 

“We don’t have time for that…” 

Time to acquire skills and build familiarity with tools, and time to integrate social media into the research workflow are both highlighted as issues in studies of social media use among academics. Nandez and Borrego’s work on Academia.edu in particular demonstrates that academics’ intended use of the platform was greater than their actual use; suggesting perhaps that it seemed like a good idea at the time but was demanding to put into practice. The comments on their survey confirmed that this was in part due to respondents being ‘time poor’.  

As I mentioned in my earlier post, juggling ‘work’ and ‘social’ uses of social media can also be seen as a challenge. This has also been linked with time management by Leon and Pigg, who observe that “[digital multitasking can] evoke strong affective responses”, including guilt and shame, among graduate students. Such feelings can, of course, be indicators of mental unwellness.  

What can we do? 

So, what can we do to move towards a more inclusive environment for emerging academics, in which digital technologies play a part? 

I think that what my experiences, and the research that I have presented in this blog series shows is that social media are not simply tools for socialising among digital natives’ or sharing photographs of one’s dinner. They impact upon a broader range of research practices than I had appreciated before I began reflecting on my experiences, and in more nuanced ways. Likewise, I hope that I’ve been able to show mental health in a more nuanced light – not only a “crisis” affecting PhD students and HE institutions, but also a way of life, day-to-day for a significant section of the research community, whose needs might (in some cases) be addressed simply, by subtle extensions to existing practice, and by seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as complementary bedfellows, rather than options to choose between. If I could offer any advice on what might be done to effect change then, it would, humbly, be this: 

  • Seek to understand the nuances of social media in heritage and other humanities PhD research; their potential, and their potential pitfalls 
  • Resist seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as an either/or situation requiring a polarised choice; take an holistic view which values each for its own contribution to the academy 
  • Prioritise development of social media competencies and understanding around social media/mental health relationships (both positive and negative) within organisational strategy, in order to ensure that the mental health challenges of the present lead to a healthier, more inclusive research environment in the future. 

Above all though, I think that a lot can be achieved – in digital literacy and in mental health – by advocating for three things: 

Understanding the needs and potential for growth. 

Daring to talk. 

And challenging existing practices, to bring about change. 

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