COVID-19 Graduate Student Roundtable
With: Edcel Javier Cintron Gonzalez (Illinois State University), Nicola Robertson (University of Stratchlyde), and Dr. Patrick Ryan (King's University College)
Welcome to our featured student series. This week, we have two think-pieces and a roundtable video from PhD students who share how they are coping the balance between standing responsibilities and new stressors driven by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Scroll over the images to read their captions. Listen to this episode of the SHCY podcast, here. Or browse other episodes of the SHCY podcast, here. This is episode 1 of season 8 of the SHCY Podcast. You can find the SHCY Podcast on Google Play and iTunes.
Encouraging Your Writing Muse and ZOOMing with Peers: Quaratine Thoughts of a First Year Ph.D. in Times of COVID-19
By: Edcel Javier Cintron Gonzalez
This is not the first time I found myself in a situation where my everyday life and routine was changed. As a Puerto Rican who survived the island wide aftermath of Hurricane Maria, I learned a lot of important life lessons and the importance of empathy and care for the community. Hurricane Maria may have destroyed Puerto Rico’s essential resources, but this crisis has encouraged the citizens of Puerto Rico to help their community and demonstrate a sense of solidarity for others. September 2017 marked a dark moment in Puerto Rican history, as we were at the risk to get impacted by two powerful Hurricanes. Hurricane Irma and Maria, which were category 5 and 4, represented destructive forces of nature that each caused the island of Puerto Rico widespread damage. Hurricane Maria disrupted our access to water, electricity, internet, telephone communication and other essential resources. I was not able to communicate with other family members, friends, peers, or anyone outside the island for months until the power was restored. With this experience forming part of my antecedent knowledge, I hoped to never again experience traumatic deprivations of basic needs.
My name is Edcel Javier Cintron Gonzalez, a first year Ph.D. in English Studies specializing in the field of Children’s Literature at Illinois State University. My research interests are focused on animals in literature, the narrative voice and focus on characters in Children’s Literature, the innovations of the Bildungsroman towards the young adult (YA) novel, and the importance of characters representing empathy, agency, and their voice as a response to different levels of power structures and authority in YA literature.
As a graduate student, I have sometimes imagined that a period of self-isolation would allow me to get a lot of my academic writing done. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught me that forced self-isolation only makes the matter more difficult. As I strive to finish my first year as a Ph.D. student, I had to learn how to stay calm in this situation and explore different strategies to help me stay on track of my graduate work, online teaching, and an opportunity to collaborate with my friends and peers to create a support system during this self-isolation from the world.
Like everyone, I began by learning about the Covid-19 virus and developing the habits necessary to follow the recommended safety and health measures. Reading information from the “How to Protect Yourself & Others” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was helpful for me to know what I had to do every time I had to go outside to buy groceries, cleaning supplies, and health related products to make sure I was well prepared. Well, at least to give myself the illusion I was “well prepared.”
Next, I had to learn to adapt into teaching and taking online courses. I was worried at first because the skills I need to understand how online education works was not part of my teacher education program, or any training session received as part of teaching a higher ed course. Moreover, I was also worried about how resources would become limited because of libraries and institutions closing due to the pandemic. Before the quarantine officially started, I decided to prepare myself with the necessary resources and mindset to finish my first year online. I did this by focusing on creating a work space where I could concentrate on work at home, keep in contact with my friends and peers to support each other in our work, and think ahead in terms of how I would adapt and teach a literature course as an online forum.
Building a Writing Space and a New Writing Habit in Times of Coronavirus
As a graduate student, the physical place and space where I relocate myself to write is important to me. I am a person who can work alone in a silent space, such as the 4th floor quiet room at the Milner Library. Moreover, there are times where I need people to be around me in order to be productive. Before the coronavirus started, I used to move a lot around campus to explore different places where I can sit down and do productive graduate work. A lot of my projects for my graduate courses require a lot of time to research and read scholarly articles, and to write lengthy seminar papers with the end goal to present these for conferences and call for publications. My favorite workspaces were usually the local coffee shops around the town of Normal, such as Coffee Hound and Coffee House. I also enjoyed writing at a nearby Starbucks because at the time, I was obsessed with their assortment of caffeinated refreshers. I would also use my office since I had my theory books there and reliable internet access.
I live alone, and so as the stay-at-home orders were being put into effect, I began to transform my apartment in Normal, IL into an effective workspace. I bought a foldable desk and chair. I researched different DIY videos on YouTube on how to make a bulletin board, where I can use an array of sticky notes to give myself reminders of important deadlines regarding coursework, inner puns, and motivational pep talks to myself. I try my best to transform part of my living space into my office. The goal was to create the same workspace environment I have in my office at Stevenson Hall. I added many colorful pens to take notes during meetings, highlighters to mark quotes, and of course I made sure I had many books around my apartment to create this conscious idea that I was still studying in ISU, and the semester was far from finished.
Now that the space was set, I needed to find a way to organize my productivity to make sure I don’t catch myself procrastinating and feeling guilty about the work I’m not producing. I’ve been following the time set strategies of The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertation, and Books by Eviatar Zerubavel. This book offers the idea that one’s writing productivity can increase if you align your time with your main writing goal and other tasks that will help you complete said goal. In other words, I had to think about what my current priorities are for me to finish my semester in ISU, and what tasks do I need to complete for this to happen. I started creating a list of priorities where “A Time” represents my seminar papers, “B Time” are the secondary tasks I need to do to move forward on my papers, such as research, reading articles, and collecting data. Lastly, “C Time” are other tasks that are involved with my responsibilities as a GTA working for the Writing Program, such as training sessions, meetings, grading, and transcribing podcasts. Now, I don’t do all three time sets every single day. I decide which time sets I am going to prioritize and challenge myself to produce work that leads to the completion of my main tasks. Although I set up a goal, a workspace, and a writing schedule, I still felt that I needed a support system to keep myself motivated into doing work in this pandemic.
Using Zoom, Whatsapp and HouseParty as a Support System
I felt fine. Of course, this is a facade my person wants to show others as a defense mechanism. I feel I have established a working system where I can follow a daily writing schedule and make sure each day, I complete at least one task that will help me finish my semester in graduate school. However, there is only so much I can do alone as an individual. I am spending this self-isolation alone. I have no roommates, no neighbors who I can talk to at least 6 feet apart. As an introverted extravert, which means I am a shy person until people get to know me, it has been a strain in my mental health. I am used to talking with my ISU peers on a daily basis, where we share ideas and collaborate on different projects. Due to the social distancing, I miss that sense of community that I felt when talking to my peers and friends. As a response to this, I figured the best way to make sure I keep working on my tasks, and to know how my friends and peers are doing, is to communicate with others using different video and messaging apps.
Zoom has been essential for my teaching and academic work. ISU provided the license for students to use Zoom Pro through our learning management system known as Reggienet. For online teaching, Zoom has allowed me to meet with my students and discuss their inquiry about the course and have our reading discussions on various topics about Writing Genres, Uptake, C.H.A.T. and Discourse Communities. A lot of students found it helpful for me to provide detailed instructions on each assignment and offer my office hours as Zoom meetings. Other students would also prefer email exchanges where they would tell me their ideas for their papers, and I would suggest terminology and concepts we had discussed through the semester. While Zoom proved to be a great medium for me to communicate with my students, it also provided the space for me to work together with my peers and support each other in our writing.
Before the Coronavirus, I would often work together with my colleagues at local coffee shops, the library, and offices because we would hold each other accountable to finish our writing goal of the day. When a peer and I would meet to do work, we would establish a few rules where we made sure to get our work done, and not end up talking about random topics or memes. We would take the first 20 or so minutes to talk and socialize for a while and then not talk to each other for a long period of time. Furthermore, if either of us felt stuck due to writer’s block or the thought that our writing is not coherent, we would tell each other our ideas and provide feedback. In Zoom, we did the same thing. We would talk for a while, then mute each other to concentrate on our writing. This practice has helped me be more productive with my writing and at the same time, it allowed me to support my peers into their work as well.
With messaging and video apps such as Whatsapp and Houseparty, I found alternative ways to socialize with my friends back home and to stay in contact with my ISU peers. I would use Whatsapp to ask my older Ph.D. peers’ advice on any questions or concerns I had on my online teaching, share knowledge on resources available within the town of Normal, and any general advice on completing my semester. Houseparty, a video call app for socializing with friends, proved to be useful when I wanted to take a break from writing and spend some time with my friends. We would use this app for work nights, when we had to complete our individual projects, but we would also plan themed activities to give ourselves a moment of peace. Some activities we have organized are cooking nights, stress therapy coloring, and others. These different apps proved to be the resources I needed for me to connect back to my ISU community, family, and friends during a global pandemic we are all experiencing.
Final Thoughts as a First Year Ph.D. Student
My first year as a Ph.D. student at Illinois State University was definitely full of challenges. However, I found a place where I feel I am making progress with my writing and research, as well as had the opportunity to meet peers who are there to help and support you. While many conference opportunities were closed due to the pandemic of the Covid-19, this does not necessarily mean all my research and writing has gone to waste. I remind myself each morning when I wake up to keep moving forward. Right now, there is no way to tell how long this global pandemic will last. All we can do, as a community, is to ensure that we do not spread the Covid-19 any further. I keep my thoughts high as I think of a future where I am able to enjoy the fresh ocean breeze, sandy beaches, warm climate, and the love of my community back home in Puerto Rico. I feel ecstatic with the idea of returning back to the world after months spent in quarantine and isolation to collaborate with my colleagues on future projects. To my family, friends, peers, and fellow graduate students. I hope my lived experiences can be helpful to some who are also struggling to finish their semester. Until we meet again in person, let’s do our best to keep each other motivated, and maintain a healthy lifestyle both physically and mentally.
Navigating the "new normal" as a PhD Student
By: Nicola Robertson
It was remarked to me, during an informal Zoom session on “Resilience During Lockdown”, that it is not such a big deal for scholars of the Humanities and Social Sciences to be working off campus as we are not so reliant on specialist equipment or lab space. Of course, after a month of facing, and addressing, the obstacles of this “new normal”, I felt compelled to explain why this point of view is unjustified. Regardless of discipline, or geography, all PhD students find themselves in a similarly difficult situation.
I am nearing the end of my first year of study at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. Broadly, my thesis aims to discuss whether propaganda (and the post-truth culture) can be considered pedagogical, and I use the concept of image as a bridge between them. It is entirely conceptual, so my data consists of hermeneutic analyses of my engagement with a range of texts and images. Herein lies a challenge: with galleries, museums, cinemas and libraries closed, the range of material available to me is somewhat reduced.
Of course, the technological positivist would argue that this is not the case. By looking in the right places online, I can find whatever image or text I want. I can even have a virtual tour of a gallery if I so desire, from the comfort of my own home. This is all true, but while an interpretation of a text cannot be so easily skewed when the words make the transition from page to screen, the same cannot be said of the image.
Imagine you are in the Scottish Highlands, standing in front of a majestic mountainscape. You not only see the peaks, but you can feel the ground underfoot and the wind (and, as is normal for Scotland, a little rain). It is as much your feeling as it is the contents of the view which comes to inform your interpretation of it. Now, consider the same mountainscape compressed to a manageable file size and reduced to as many pixels as your screen resolution will allow. You look at the mountains from your chair, potentially thousands of miles away, with coffee in hand. Such a different experience could only alter the viewer’s eventual interpretation; in my case, this difference would significantly affect my data.
I, therefore, have a reluctance to view images digitally for fear of a kind of phenomenological impoverishment affecting my work, arising from the necessary reduction that takes place to put an image, not created for a digital medium, on screen.
My above argument could be construed as a backlash against engaging with the digital world. I may speak for many of us when I say I am growing weary of videoconferencing, but actually, I am often grateful for how robust the infrastructure is that it allows us to soldier on through these times. It provides ever more innovative ways to connect us personally, and professionally. This summer would usually mark opportunities for many of us to present at conferences. Rather than postpone events to some distant point in an unimaginable future, or cancel them outright, many institutions are rethinking the format of their conferences and allowing them to continue with the aid of technological solutions. However much I concede that I would prefer to participate in conference proceedings in an offline capacity, I admit that digital alternatives are preferable to nothing at all. Indeed, I can envision a future where at least part of a conference delegation – those with limited funds to travel, for example - will participate online.
A particular challenge I face, which may resonate with some readers, is trying to juggle a new role as primary school teacher with my existing research tasks and writing my thesis. My son does not have as much enthusiasm for mathematics as he does for Super Mario, and we are locked in an eternal struggle in trying keep ourselves both on task. More than once, his singing of his favourite song has punctuated a Zoom call – much to the delight of the people on the other end. I imagine that parents’ experiences during this time may generate a renewed respect for the virtuous patience, discipline and warmth to be found in our teachers and educators. On the other hand, we may decide that the notion of school, college or university as physical place; and teacher, lecturer or professor as physical human presence, is a bit outdated for our tastes.
While this period is difficult in some respects, there are elements of it which are fortuitous. I am currently blessed with so much time that I would never usually be able to devote to my work. Not only that, but, among the turbulence and uncertainty, there is rich material to be found which will support my research into propaganda and post-truth. In the UK, the message of “Stay Home, Stop the Spread, Save the NHS” is propagated on every major broadcast network, in every news bulletin and in every window (including mine). The spreading of messages is at the heart of the etymology of the word “propaganda”; its original, neutral meaning somewhat removed from the pejorative connotations the concept acquired post World War I. As ever, social media and others provide us with alternative facts; unverified, but emotionally charged evocations of the notion of post-truth.
Propaganda and post-truth are pertinent themes in my research, but I believe that researchers across disciplines can find questions and curiosities relevant to them in this situation. It calls to mind Kierkegaard’s description of Homer’s good fortune to have had such an epic subject matter as the Trojan War – we too, like modern day Homers, can find inspiration from the remarkable and unprecedented times we live in, regardless of how challenging they may be for us all.
About Edcel Gonzalez
Edcel Javier Cintron Gonzalez is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in English Studies, specializing in Children’s Literature at Illinois State University. He holds a B.A. in English Literature with a certification in teaching ESL in secondary school and worked towards an M.A. in English Education from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. His research interests are related towards multiple scholarships interconnected in the field of Children’s Literature, such as narratology, gender, voice and agency, childhood and lived experiences, the bildungsroman and the YA novel, animals in literature, among others. Currently, he is preparing to teach an Introduction to Children’s Literature as an online course as a response to COVID-19 and transitioning to be part of the Writing Program Leadership Team as their new Professional Development and Technology Coordinator. When he is not worried about my never ending to do list, he enjoys writing poetry about my lived experiences in Puerto Rico and his new life at Normal, IL. His poetry has been published in multiple literary magazines, such as El Vicio del Tintero, Sabanas, and Euphemism.
Publications by Edcel Gonzalez
Book Chapter: Cintron, Edcel J. “Return to Reality: Embracing Psychological and Social Conflicts in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Patrick Ness’ A Monster Call.” Ed. Amie Doughty. Children’s and YA Literature and Culture: Broadening Critical Boundaries. Cambridge Scholars Press, 1 November 2018.
About Nicola Robertson
Nicola Robertson is a PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK. With a very broad interest in the philosophy of education, her thesis will discuss whether propaganda images can be considered pedagogical.
About Patrick Ryan
Patrick J. Ryan is Associate Professor at Kings University College at Western University – Canada with appointments in the Childhood and Social Institutions Program and the Department of History. He is a co-founder of H-Childhood (est. 1998), and currently serves as SHCY Online Editor. He is author of numerous articles, and the 2013 book Master-Servant Childhood: A history of the idea of childhood in Medieval English Culture (Palgrave).
Works Cited and Consulted by Edcel
- “Houseparty.” Houseparty.com, Life on Air Inc. 2020, https://houseparty.com/.
- “How to Protect Yourself & Others.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 Apr. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.
- “Hurricanes Irma and Maria: State of Recovery.” Disasterphilanthropy.org, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, 20 Sept. 2018, disasterphilanthropy.org/event/hurricanes-irma-and-maria-state-of-recovery/.
- “WhatsApp.” Whatsapp.com, WhatsApp Inc., https://www.whatsapp.com/.
- Zerubavel, Eviatar. The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001.