As I write we’re entering our fifth week of lockdown and I am currently reorienting the ‘who with’ and ‘how with’ part of my PhD. In the meantime, the feedback between theory and practice will have to be through applying a conceptual perspective to my own life. This perspective comes from the concept of communities of practice1 and its descriptions of how meaning, identity and belonging are formed. This view is applied to analysing how the process of participating in arts and culture can create and maintain health. During this lockdown there has been a proliferation of examples, from the sourdough craze to the rise of crochet and neighbourhood singing. Maybe this is the opportunity for me to make kimchi, explore my many neglected cookbooks and finally knit stylish, cosy jumpers for my dogs. I can bring my conceptual framework to life through the practice of conceptualising participation as learning with others, such as online forums to share experiences or blogs to learn techniques. I can reflect on whether this participation can both maintain my mental and physical health and write my research equivalent of King Lear.
None of these things have happened. My focus and productivity are sporadic. I haven’t even binged a TV show, let alone been actively creative. There are plenty of resources that say this is to be expected and, help to soothe the debilitating feeling that now is the time for productivity and creativity whether personally or professionally. Some are aimed at PhD students and shared through communities.2 My conceptual perspective identifies non-productivity itself as a practice, through this mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise of staying well through the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we will take each day as it comes, celebrate the small wins, and learn how to walk through The Valley of Deep (COVID) Shit3. There’s the repeated line ‘you are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.’ A reminder that you’re juggling responsibilities, new roles, ways of working and worries.
Since I don’t have any distractions at home, no juggling act, care work or adjustment to online working, I don’t feel I belong to the community of non-productivity. My conceptual framework states that the concepts of practice and identity are profoundly connected and relate to meaning and belonging. Without either a productive or non-productive practice, it is predictable that my identity as a PhD student is evaporating, as are my other practices and identities, which are all now curtailed by lockdown. How do I start to take the suggested small steps back into the practice of being a PhD student or even being a participant in everyday life and recover a sense of self?
At this point, my application of my conceptual perspective falters. However, it does provide an emphasis on an individual’s knowledge and experience. I’m familiar with the ongoing process of acknowledging the validity of your own challenges and not minimising your feelings. I have learnt to not compare my experiences to a pregnant woman, crossing the pirate-filled Gulf of Thailand in a wee boat to a future of either being trapped with a new born in a refugee camp or an as yet unknown life in a uncontemplated country. I can apply this knowledge in order to try not to compare myself to those who seem to be negotiating productivity and non-productivity. I’ve been working on the task of leaving my feelings out there, to not dismiss them as trivial compared to what other people must being going through. I find it helps to let emotions breathe and take form, in order to provide the shape of something to acknowledge, to help voice ‘I’m not fine’ to something and, hopefully, someone. I’ve found honesty with yourself helps meaningful connections grow, and if you’re lucky, one of those productive people might leave baked goods on your doorstep and help you find a practice.4 This process has taken me to a place where I can start to act on the advice of setting achievable goals,5 enjoy moments rather than activities6 and so create the conditions for taking those small steps back into PhD practice and myself.
1Etienne Wenger (1998), Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity
4 Pistachio and rosewater cookies. Unexpectedly my practice seems to be organising fitness workouts based around mathematical sequences. There is even a process of reification, where form is given to experience and objects articulating the experience are created, as I have been given a logo. Reification and participation are a duality that constitute the concept of negotiating meaning that is the basis of practice and identity. Maybe my conceptual framework is coming to life, as I seem to be forming an identity as an unqualified fitness organiser.
5 I might not have made kimchi but I have finally made the most basic form of pickles. I’m now making up for all the years of missing the flavour and texture combination of the world’s finest sandwich, Bánh mì.
6 It’s not a stylish dog jumper, it’s a moment. I haven’t used these pencils since I purchased them last year. I’m finally acting on the celebrating small wins!