Stuff Happens Symposium
As a part-time, distance student living in the United States, my experience beginning a doctoral program during the pandemic has been an unexpectedly positive one. When classes at the University of Aberdeen shifted to entirely online, synchronous learning, I was able to audit several classes and participate in relevant online groups far more fully than would have been possible otherwise. Especially in the areas of academic opportunity, peer support networks, and customer service, the pandemic has compelled academic institutions to improve their online offerings, which greatly benefits distance students (and likely benefits all students). My fear is that some of this progress could be lost when face-to-face instruction resumes, and once again becomes the predominant focus of my institution.
My name is Neal Locke, and my research is in personal transformation in medieval Scandinavian literature. Sometimes that research means looking at conversion narratives, sometimes coming of age narratives, and sometimes narratives about becoming a King or a Queen, or a chieftain.
But what I really want to talk to you about today is my own recent transformation at the beginning of my doctoral work, and the transformative moment that we find ourselves in today.
A few months into the pandemic, when the entire world was on lock-down and I was desperately trying to figure out what that meant for my doctoral work, my wife tried to cheer me up: She taped a map of the world to the dartboard in our game room, handed me a dart and said, "Throw this at the map and wherever it lands, that's where I'm taking you when the pandemic is over." I'm happy to announce that this summer we are going to spend two weeks behind the refrigerator.
(That story didn’t really happen, but it was a great meme circulating on the internet that I just had to borrow! My actual wife is far to cautious to ever put anything sharp in my hands).
I have to confess that at least part of the reason I applied to a PhD program at the University of Aberdeen was the opportunity to travel to Scotland. My program was, from the beginning, structured as a part-time, distance program, so I wasn't expecting to do this often, but the pandemic certainly called into question whether it would be possible at all. I'm relieved that things are looking better now than they did one year ago... but that year—however dark it was for many—has also given me some time to reflect and actually appreciate a few things I wasn't expecting as part of my program.
I'd like to share three of those "positives" with you, and why I think that kind of positive outlook matters.
My area of research is medieval Scandinavian literature, most of which is written in Old Norse. I knew coming into this program that I would need to study Old Norse, but the only course offered by my University was to Masters students, and was typically offered only in-person.
When the UK lock-down was instituted, suddenly ALL courses became online, and distance. I was able to audit the course, participate in the classes, the translation exercises, the discussions as fully as anyone was able to—and in the process, I was able to meet and get to know other students in a way that wouldn't have otherwise been possible.
Likewise, social events, seminars, and dissertation updates with other PhD students in my program (all of which had previously been on-site only) were moved online. So I feel like what would have been a very lonely process of research and writing in my first year became a very communal experience. Perhaps less communal for full-time, in person students, but far more communal for me as a part-time, distance student.
That's the first positive: A sense of community I was not expecting, but ended up being quite thankful for.
The second positive is wrapped up in the saying that "necessity is the mother of invention." (Old Icelandic version: Neyðin kennir naktri konu að spinna. Necessity teaches a naked woman how to weave).
In my undergraduate years and in my masters coursework, I learned that academic Institutions are not always flexible, creative, or even open to new approaches...although they do tend to be filled with the smartest, most creative people. When a global pandemic nudges us...or forces us...to do things differently, ancient pedagogy collides with new technology.
The result is messy, imperfect, and often downright frustrating. If necessity is the mother of invention, failure might be its father, or at least its crazy uncle.
But despite the some of the half-baked attempts and failures, in the past year I've rarely heard students, administrators or professors say "that's just not possible." I've more often heard, "Well, let's give it a go and see what happens."
That may not have been everyone's experience, but for me, the pandemic ushered in a new sense of what is possible, when the world unexpectedly turns upside down.
The final positive, however, is not something new at all. It's part of the time-honored tradition of education. It's the sense of perspective we gain in the present from studying the past. On January 6th, a group of angry protesters stormed the United States capitol building, in what was described as a violent insurrection.
While I was watching events unfold on my television, I happened to be reading Saxo Grammaticus's Geste Danorum, a medieval history of the Danish Kings. Saxo vividly describes a succession of violent 12th century insurrections, mob protests that turned ugly, and opportunistic leaders who sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed to seize power and rid themselves of enemies.
It was kind of surreal, noting all the similarities. But more than that, I noticed the differences. While I don't condone violence in any century, we've actually come a long way. At least in my country, we only do this every few hundred years now instead of every six months. And even in our worst moments, we generally don't disembowel our enemies or mount their heads on stakes. Although... the inaccuracy, bias, and frenzied tone of the media coverage is, well...about the same.
We study history, literature, and the arts, not merely because we aspire to a career teaching these things, but because we believe, ultimately, that they ARE relevant—that we ARE connected to the people who produce them in all times and places.
And we believe that their works, their stories, tell us something—not just about who they were, but about who we are, and who we might become (for better or for worse). We are not the only people to live through a global pandemic, to endure lock-downs and profound losses. The lessons learned from other times and places are not always clear, but they are almost always instructive.
I might have forgotten that on January 6th if I had been completely immersed in the news of the day, and ignored my doctoral studies...or if I had been completely immersed in my doctoral studies and ignored the news of the day.
So, community, opportunity, and perspective. Those are the three unexpected positives that found their way into my reflections on my first year as PhD student in the midst of a global pandemic.
I realize that I have not addressed the challenges and trials faced by so many of my peers in the same span of time. The pandemic has certainly not been a bed of roses, for them or for me, and I trust that those hardships will be elaborated upon more fully by others in this event.
I offer these reflections not in opposition to them, but in solidarity with them, and in the spirit of those whom we study: People who took their suffering, their loss and their hardship, and turned those things into beautiful, poignant works of art and literature.
I hope that as we emerge from this chapter in our story, we can still find ways to include part-time, distance students in our communities.
I hope that we can keep alive the "spirit of innovation" that forced us to new approaches, even when it is not quite as necessary.
And I hope we, as students of the humanities, can continue to draw on our studies to offer insight and perspective to a world that is very much in need of "putting all the pieces back together," intellectually every bit as much as structurally and economically.
There's an old Scandinavian proverb, frequently heard in Iceland, Norway, and Denmark—but I like how it sounds best in Swedish:
Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder. It means, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
Given that sentiment, I would submit that there is, in fact, no *better* time than a global pandemic, in which to put on an extra layer of academic regalia.