Alix Gallagher shares a 2021 lockdown experience, studying at home while filtering the noise from increasing amounts of advice.
A general state of affairs
Wake up, wonder where I will work today. The kitchen has beautiful morning light (remember to maximise vitamin D absorption early in the day). I am reading around Romantic-era vitalism, so it seems a suitably invigorating location. It is also useful when the grocery delivery arrives (only shop for essential items). However, the small distance from table to fridge (keep focussed on eating healthily within your calorie requirements) means that kitchen-based PhD work results in many trips to the silvery box of snack diversion (do take small breaks between tasks). By the end of the day, I imagine a floor groove ingrained by my to-ing and fro-ing between desk and larder (keep active and avoid sitting for too long in one place). I think about society’s loss of appetite for organicist, holistic theorising after Schwann’s 1839 cell theory.
I do not share my space with flatmates or residents in halls, but mine are not personal spaces as I navigate each lockdown day around a husband and teenage children. Concentrating can be an issue (download our mindfulness app to calm your mind) and scattered thoughts abound. I wonder if Blumenbach’s sense of a dynamic, formative drive, a ‘vis essentialis,’ is resistant to lockdown’s structural repetitions. Every day, our family works at home, together yet disparate, joining online meetings, client calls, online school. I lost my PhD study space on 4th December 2020 when pupils were sent home due to a mini outbreak in their form groups (schools are safe … wait schools are not safe). Since then, my former PhD study is a makeshift school classroom for one child’s Google Meets lessons while I experiment with a peripatetic model of working elsewhere in the home.
Libraries are closed. I live in London and have been in the British Library twice between local lockdowns but not the library of my HEI (avoid non-essential travel by public transport) nor have I touched a book since I started my PhD last September. Working outdoors is not an option – it is February and not allowed anyway in public spaces (meet one person for one hour’s exercise per day). Motivating my winter body into the cold for a walk proves surprisingly challenging some days (be kind to yourself – it’s a tough time for everyone) so I stay indoors with the windows closed for four days in a row, thinking of eighteenth-century experimentation with respiration and air pumps (ventilation of your workplace is essential). My body feels tired.
Health and the PhD
My husband and I have kept our jobs (mine is part-time) and manage home finances with reduced expenditure. We have much that we could add to a daily gratitude list. Still, the body feels tired. Unlike others, I do not have caring responsibility for elderly relatives on top of my PhD and work, and I am not dealing with pre-existing mental health conditions. The only disability in the house, my hearing loss and tinnitus, does not require material adaptation to lockdown. My tinnitus’ sonic appendage is a continuous, high-pitched whooshing in residence for twenty-one years so far. It is like having the radio on all the time and remains there when you switch on a real radio or tune into other sources. Like many people with tinnitus, my perception of the sound’s intensity is a useful signifier of physical illness or mental overwhelm. Like a canary down a mine, tinnitus is a reliable indicator of systemic health. It has been loud for a while now.
Does listening to the news also affect my PhD study? My city borough tops the table for highest infection rates, with an exclusion zone 3 miles away for a new virus variant and 10,000 tests on residents. I am aware that my vocabulary has changed in the past eight weeks: from self-isolate to self-protect. Keep positive I repeat to the family and we brainstorm, navigating amongst the crushed anticipation of theatre visits and concerts; loss of spontaneity; lack of socialising during a teenage developmental stage. We remain mindful of so much COVID-19-related suffering that, until last month, was a narrative written by and about others. Since then, our family has also endured bereavement and the painful repercussions of grieving in an online space. The book I am reading on vitalism comforts when it says there is no death in a vitalist poetic world, that no true vacuum is ever possible.
Listening into the major issue
PhD life flows on. Also flowing are the multiple, electronic missives of advice and opportunity for a first-year PhD student that fly into our devices and consciousness each day. The hours online increase and so does discussion around technology use (be sure to get outside in nature as smartphones generate sophisticated behaviour addiction). I try to reconcile advice that body function thrives on routine (establish a regular sleep pattern) with impulse control of the desire for change. During a workshop, I hear that your brain is hardwired to seek novelty during arduous tasks. Of novelty, there is no shortage in PhD world: (join an online quiz, speed networking, study retreat, drop-in chat, catch-up meet, choir, counselling, writing boot camp, mentoring, cookery, yoga, intention setting, HIIT session) are about half the opportunities received each week. It sounds flippant and ungrateful to list them like this; individually, each is a positive, well-intentioned non-compulsory activity. I imagine working in the library or PGR space and the same amount of people waiting to pop up at the end of the session to talk about how they can help.
I remind myself that having a part-time job means that every day of email communication is doubled. Non-PhD work (as a Secondary school teacher) brings a duplicate wave of helpful suggestions, calendar entries for pre-work meditation and evening sleep workshops. The use of online platforms for learning ignites familiar conversations about how to manage full-time email-related admin within part-time work hours. The communication volume doesn’t contract in proportion with your reduced hours, an issue times by two when you also have full-time PhD admin to handle.
Still, I feel guilty for rejecting the advice and opportunities. I reflect that, as a distance PhD researcher, I benefit from online access to a broader range of Arts and Humanities events. These include the seminars, roundtable discussions, symposia, book launches – hosted by the University, the Scottish Graduate School, Hunterian Museum and others – that I have joined since September. I also suspect that feelings of chaotic, messy PhD newness would not have been that much different without a national lockdown.
If there is a communication tipping point, mine has been reached. Right now, the sum of the email parts creates a cacophony. Email voices feel different from those broadcasting on notice board with fliers and posters. I find it harder to quickly assign information from electronic sources within my hierarchy of urgent and important among other mental tasks that embodied communication seems to facilitate. I think about how I prioritise more efficiently when the communication is delivered in a shared physical space and wonder why. Really, this volume of others’ voices accumulating in my new online PhD space is what makes my body tired. I have not yet learnt how to handle their resultant discord. Until I start to alchemise these multiple voices into more sonorous polyphony, things need to change.
So tomorrow, I will stop listening to anything other than the book I read and the thoughts in my head – well, and the tinnitus of course. I will try my bedroom as designated workspace. It has a large bouncy ball for a seat to use at a tiny desk plus a bed for vital reading.
Alexandra Gallagher is a first-year PhD English Literature student at the University of Glasgow. Her AHRC funded inter-disciplinary literature and medical humanities project interprets Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s plays (‘Osorio’, ‘Remorse’, ‘Zapolya’ ‘Fall of Robespierre’ and others) within a history of respiratory science context as shared breathing spaces. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GalixG
 The British Tinnitus Association states that ‘Covid-19 pandemic has made tinnitus worse for nearly half of UK sufferers.’ Their website has advice and coping strategies https://www.tinnitus.org.uk/