For any Post Graduate Researcher, cultivating a sense of community is essential. As PhD candidates of the Guildford School of Acting, we are used to making an effort to connect with one another to maintain our research culture: many of us live outside of Surrey or London, and the majority of us work remotely.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, being in touch with each other has felt even more vital. Early on, we organised a couple of Zoom coffee mornings for a chat. These first sessions were focused on catching up and checking in on each other, with no pressure to talk about work. But many of us expressed that we were struggling to be productive within the difficult circumstances. Gemma Kerr, a Theatre PhD candidate, suggested that we set up a virtual writing group for GSA PGRs. Many of us agreed that this would be a great way to boost productivity and whilst many of the practical elements of our PhDs are on hold, to generate alternative research approaches.
The group usually takes place every two to three weeks and lasts for two hours, giving two students the opportunity to discuss and reflect on pieces of their writing. A few days before each meeting, they send their work to the group in an email: usually a chapter of their thesis, or part of one that they are working on.
During the writing group, each piece of writing gets an hour of attention. For the first 25 minutes, the author will mute themselves and the rest of the group will discuss the work: what they liked about it, what they thought could be stronger, or any structural feedback. After this, the author will ask questions and reflect with the group on the critiques given. For those earlier on in the course, who have not yet drafted substantial pieces of writing, the session operates with a degree of fluidity. I am in the first year of my project and have drafted some provocations to generate discussion in a mini-focus group; a peer, also in his first year, has chosen a published article of thematic interest to him to discuss together.
It is a far cry from the luxury of being in the same room, but as a research community that is rarely able to meet together, it is a format that might have longevity after this period of social distancing. Below are some comments on how the writing group is benefitting my fellow PGRs.
Bryony Taylor, Theatre PhD
“I’ve found the writing group particularly helpful as I begin to concretise some of my chapters as a 3rd year PhD student. The opportunity to gain feedback from a variety of different perspectives in one meeting has been so valuable, and I find that – in this time of isolation – as we read more of each other’s work, we learn more about each other as people.”
Gemma Connell, Dance PhD
“As soon as the Covid-19 crisis hit, routine and order seemed to disappear from my life. I realised I needed some structure and support if I was going to make any progress with my PhD over the next few months. This group’s been an invaluable motivation to get writing done and to set goals. It’s a very generous and supportive space where we can share experience and expertise across different years and different subjects, and it’s given me really important insights and perspective on my work.”
Gemma Kerr, Theatre PhD
“As a reader, it is a treat to read writing in-process; to help tease out arguments and connective thoughts. And as a 3rd year writer, I get feedback from researchers who are not quite in the same niche as I, but who give insight into our shared field. In both instances, it is a pleasure to have active conversations about research being done, as we speak!”
Meg Cunningham, Theatre PhD
“Having a safe space to share half formed thoughts and early stage writing is tremendously helpful. Especially as our linked, yet varying, group of specialisms provides a useful range of feedback. I have also found reading other people’s writing-in-progress, especially pieces in their early stages as mine is, can be a point of learning for my own writing.”
Ele Slade, Theatre PhD
“The writing group has complimented my monthly supervisions beautifully. It has been great looking at research outside my own as it gives an insight into the broader skills of being a researcher.”
Phil Cleaves, Theatre PhD