Lilli Chung reflects on the trials and tribulations of undertaking a research degree in the age of COVID-19.

Please wait, reconnecting…

A phrase we all will have seen at some point during the past year-and-a-half, a phrase evoking immediate annoyance and frustration, and sometimes a tinge of fear that you’ll miss something important. The last one is certainly the case when I’m in the middle of a lecture but the bandwidth can’t cope with my partner and his parents and both of his siblings and me all trying to have video calls for work or school. In all honesty, most of us could probably define our COVID experience through Zoom or Microsoft Teams; through our “new normal” being sat at the dining room table when a furry friend jumps onto our makeshift desk, simultaneously knocking over a drink, pausing a recording, and/or distracting your colleagues. But for postgraduate students we can add certain details to this experience – higher education is difficult at the best of times, as we struggle to keep up with assignments and readings, whilst also making time to prioritise mental health and retain something of a social life.

What happens when you can’t make friends by sitting next to a classmate in a lecture or tutorial? And how can you stumble across a new favourite critic if not by lazily skimming the shelves of the “Theatre: Shakespeare” section of the library? How about working across time-zones or trying to arrange meetings with tutors and supervisors without getting up at 3 A.M. – thus trying to save them from half an hour of a conversation made incoherent due to a caffeine high and sleep deprivation? Luckily, with our pandemic happening in the 21st century we have the privilege of the internet, so we can still access resources and staff, but making friends is difficult if not aided by break-out rooms or a particularly outspoken student (ahem, me) giving their peers compliments through private messages or asking for social media handles in order to keep in touch. Online, even small class sizes are daunting to engage with, after all – where do you start? The one with their camera on and who’s always talking but slightly intimidates you? Or the quiet one who only turns on their camera when called on by the lecturer and forced to respond? Or one of the fifty other students who appear as only a name on a black background or a masked face with a virtual background?

I suppose it goes without saying that companionship, even from a distance and only through online mediums, are what get a lot of us through difficult times. Once that awkward first barrier is passed (maybe also for a second and third time) you might manage to make an acquaintance – if you’re really lucky, you’ll have made a friend to panic with about deadlines and study together over Zoom. It’s not the same as sitting together in a library and taking a walk together for a study break, but the company makes a huge difference to the study experience. In finishing my undergraduate degree and taking the first year of my Masters through COVID, you might expect me to be a pro at online learning and be comfortable with it, but the truth is that when you’re working from any non-academic environment – especially in a family home – many of us will never be at the right level of “comfort.” Either you’re too comfortable because you’re lying in bed or on the sofa trying to sit at the right angle to pay attention and take notes, or there are three conversations going on overhead and your ears can’t focus on the one thing you’re meant to be listening to. Or, of course, the thousands of other situations we find ourselves in at the home-office. I’m not saying that I’m ungrateful at the fact I can cook French toast during a lesson, but it’s certainly not contributing to my attempts at being a productive student…

Luckily, as students, we know that we’re not alone. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to have a teacher who joins in with the comfortable silliness that comes from an online/at-home environment, such as sharing pictures of furry friends, having a bit of banter about the absolute ridiculousness that is Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”, or even a shady comment (or five) about various adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. It might sound quite nerdy (I’m not going to hide who I am, in my own writing, am I?) but I really have appreciated the different relationship university lecturers have had with us students through COVID. There’s enough going on in the world, we don’t need more stress than necessary coming from our professors; the facilitation of learning in a high-pressure environment is what we ask for, as postgraduate students, and I feel very lucky and privileged to have had that this year. Not only in the form of lectures and tutorials, but through emails and consultations where professors advise you about resources you might not usually find (though, I will never not be mad at not being able to use the university’s physical library…). Really, this more casual conversation is one of the simplest ways educational institutions can provide primary pastoral support – a slightly less formal but more social form of education which complements the necessary change in teaching style.

Then, of course, there’s the phrase we keep hearing but few seem to fully accept: The New Normal. There are elements of life that many will have become used to and many will have done religiously before – sanitising our hands in public, for instance, or wearing a face mask when ill – but many things would have been outright rejected in many sectors until recently. Online lectures and seminars, for instance. It’s not that long ago that some lecturers wouldn’t even record their classes – it happened during my undergraduate studies, only a couple of years ago – and that certainly isn’t an option any more. What I think many people are realising now is the heightened accessibility which comes with online learning; though we’re all still negotiating with our internet access [see opening line], we no longer have to worry about commutes into a lecture, or even a ten-minute personal tutor meeting. Check your internet access, log onto Zoom and bam! You’re ready wherever you are. It’s helpful, of course, for students and teachers with disabilities such as chronic fatigue or other physical accessibility issues when getting onto campus, but it’s also helpful for students who work to fund their studies, and people who have responsibilities other than university. It’s something I keep thinking about, and it’s something I really hope becomes part of the new normal. Higher education absolutely shouldn’t be just for the privileged few who can afford the money and time (and everything else that gets sacrificed in the process), so maybe one of the silver linings to come out of our 21st century pandemic is a reevaluation of these priorities. I mean, more accessible classes for students can mean more accessible teaching and resources. Less invasive part-time teaching contracts, and jobs being created in digitalising resources. Of course, this doesn’t go for all fields (I, admittedly, haven’t studied STEM in at least five years), but it’s a start. Who’s to say what’s next?

Elizabeth “Lilli” Chung completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Theatre Studies (International) at the University of Leeds, UK. She is now researching Hong Kong Literature and Identity for her MPhil in English (Literary Studies) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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