Care and collaboration through the PhD cohort
We are sitting in the big kitchen of a big white barn. We are in the middle of hilly fields populated by tiny and grown sheep. If it is silent enough, we can hear the sound of a waterfall nearby. It is Tuesday morning and we are starting our cohort retreat.
Eight PhD colleagues from the Anthropology Department joined the adventure to go to Snowdonia to bond, write and share. This is just the first stop in a series of social and academic activities that look to pilot, and eventually install, a fieldwork curriculum at UCL for the research degrees that contain a considerable fieldwork component. The retreat is part of the implementation of the UCL Changemakers grant, that my friends and cohort-mates Tess Altman, Rosalie Allain and Pauline Destree brilliantly put together and tirelessly started organising some months ago (See Tess Altman’s update in the next Anthropolitan issue coming out soon). We want to turn our own Anthropology PhD cohort into an essential resource to navigate the PhD experience, listening, supporting and providing conscious feedback to each other. Against the neoliberalisation of academia and its trenching rhythms, we believe the PhD can be much more than a race against the clock.
Looking at the people who have come to this retreat I see that everybody brings slightly different expectations, their research projects and their own personalities. We are gathering after most of us have finished fieldwork in different parts of the world, yet we quickly realise that the challenges we faced and continue struggling with are interwoven in common threads. We start the retreat with a day of “reintegration” in which we debrief and actively listen to each other. One of us does not wait to change the atmosphere, and by crying, sets the tone of what would become a supportive and confidential space governed by “Welsh rules: What happens in Wales stays in Wales”. During the debriefing, one by one the themes emerge. Safety and security in foreign countries marked by police control and or political upheaval. Mental health and wellbeing in remote places starkly different to our own. Accessibility and ethics in hyper-bureaucratised social domains. And our favourite one: gender and positionality, or the art of negotiating what people expect, understand and want from us alongside what our own ideas and values are.
As I said, the retreat is just the beginning. With our own embodied knowledge in mind, we are organising and inviting pre-fieldwork post-graduate students and members of the academic staff in Anthropology to a day-long workshop that seeks to offer an overview of the resources and issues everybody should bear in mind before setting off to the field. Stay tuned- you won’t want to miss it!
Moreover, we also want to share with students coming fresh from the field, regardless of the sub-discipline in which they are. We are inviting other cohorts in the department to get in touch and co-organise with us hour long “Saloon sessions” in which 2 students can talk for half an hour or so about their field experience in a relaxed environment. We want to build comfortable places throughout the department in which people can feel welcome and safe to talk about what happened or did not happen in the field.
We will start weekly writing sessions on Fridays for post-fieldwork students who benefit from structured and supportive writing sessions, or what a friend called “HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) writing”. We will set up manageable aims, we will shut up, we will unplug from the cloud and we will write. Then we will briefly share obstacles and achievements with a colleague until we start again, repeating this three times. They will happen over the course of most of the (hopefully) sunny Friday afternoons in summer term, and we will vary the themes so we force ourselves to write ethnography as well as theory (if there is indeed a line between them). This will provide a way to finish the week thinking that at least we managed to get some paragraphs for the thesis done before trying to relax.
Our cohorts have the amazing potential of becoming safe spaces for all of us and we want to encourage other cohorts to put their hands in what can become a truly enriching experience of learning and caring through dialogue. Checking on others, engaging with various theoretical ideas, acknowledging how similar our challenge is despite the divides of funding and specialisation, offers the opportunity to turn overwhelming academic pressures on their heads.