The lockdown lectures

Dr Beth Lawry looks at the anxious, exhausting, but at times uplifting experiences of early career lecturers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

June 5th 2020

Coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, whatever you are calling the pandemic, one thing is for sure: we are all being impacted by it. As early career academics, our home life is often affected by our work life, but now it is even harder to separate the two.

We asked our early career lecturers (ECLs) about their experiences of lockdown to start a discussion about potential resources and support. Many ECLs have young children and are required to juggle their kids’ schoolwork, their entertainment needs, nutrition and exercise with trying to work full time.

“I’ve heard from some academics about how they’re now able to write that paper or grant application they never had the time for while I’m just trying to get through my emails and lecture content and keep my children alive,” wrote one respondent.

The guilt that often comes with being a parent and an ECL has been amplified during lockdown, with many feeling they’re not doing either job well. Many ECLs also have other caring duties, their own health complications and mental health issues – the list goes on. We’re all told to look after ourselves and practise self-care, but at the same time ECLs say they just don’t have time to do it all.

Many of us already used online content before lockdown, but the transition to fully online material came hard and fast. The first few weeks were especially chaotic, getting taught content up online, changing to online coursework and supporting students.

My department’s technical team did a fantastic job, videoing practicals so the students could see the processes, and we integrated questions and assessment to encourage student engagement. Other ECLs have developed animations, live presentations and computational practicals.

distance learning 2Lecturers have reported feeling unable to devote enough time to either
students or family

Other challenges centre around all the new software required and how to use it. Having adequate internet and hardware at home hasn’t been straightforward, and we must also write exams in formats that work online and cannot be answered by Google. This has all been done at tremendous speed.

A longer-term concern is the lack of research output and how this will affect current funding, promotions and contracts. It’s an especially worrying time for those on short-term contracts. “As an ECL the small amount of research funding I had was spent on reagents that are going out of date and a postgrad who can’t collect any data,” one lecturer said.

ECLs worry they will bear the brunt of any cutbacks, as established PIs with large groups and a bigger profile are better positioned to gain funding and retain positions. However, there are signs funders and universities are reviewing and refining their policies to take disruption into account: the UKRI has announced a six-month funded extension for final-year PhD students, the Wellcome Trust has extended funding for its grants for a minimum of six months and other funders such as The Royal Society have stated that grant applications are open as usual.

REF submission has been delayed, with an adapted framework under consultation. It’s also been great to see how quickly university decisions about undergraduate student support, assessments and ‘safety nets’ have been established.

It’s important that these conversations continue so that a strong UK research community can emerge from the pandemic. There have also been other positives for some ECLs being locked down. They have developed new skills, spent more time with distant family (albeit virtually) and formed new research opportunities around COVID-19. 

I’ve found it brilliant how our university community has pulled together, and experienced excellent admin and technical support, while research and teaching colleagues have worked together to rewrite exams, mark papers or support projects.

We’re all in the same storm, but in different boats – we are dealing with our own specific circumstances and it’s important not to feel guilty for spending time managing these. Do what you need to do to keep afloat and speak out if you need support.

Dr Beth Lawry is a lecturer at Newcastle University’s School of Biomedical Sciences, writing
on behalf of ECLBio, an advisory group to the Heads of University Biosciences (HUBS).

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