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I’ll meet you at the tea break

Mary Holmes

In talking to some of my PhD students recently we were discussing how they are not able to enjoy each other’s company at the moment or go to conferences and other events. Such occasions can be very helpful for networking. Over the years, I have found that a lot of my best networking has been done rather serendipitously. For instance, Lynn Jamieson and Liz Stanley encouraged me to apply for the job I now have at Edinburgh. I was introduced to Lynn Jamieson during a tea break at the first BSA conference I attended in 1998. I met Liz Stanley some years later when I applied for a job at Manchester (which I didn’t get) and she was kind and chatted to me about Auckland (my home town). Åsa Wettergren, who I co-founded and co-edit the journal Emotions and Society with, was at a small conference on emotions that I attended many years ago and we got chatting over a glass of beer. Remembering such encounters gave me the idea for an experiment in virtual networking that I am now undertaking. It works like this.

  1. For each of my PhD students (1 at a time), I invite a scholar I know, whose work they are, or should be, citing.
  2. I set up a ‘tea break’ online meeting (based on the scholar’s availability)
  3. I ask that scholar to invite one of their PhD students or early career colleagues
  4. My student gets to invite 1 other PhD student (anyone, at Edinburgh or from anywhere)
  5. I invite their other supervisor – they are not obliged to come! (so 5-6 people per meeting)
  6. Come the time of the meeting we all make ourselves a cup of tea or coffee
  7. When we meet we introduce ourselves and just chat about what everyone is working on just now and swap any academic gossip we have (x has got a job at the University of Pocklington, y has bought a goat farm etc). There is no homework needed beforehand.

The scholars I have contacted have responded very positively, even the ones who I barely know, and I now have several meetings lined up.

The inaugural ‘I’ll meet you at the tea break’ went absolutely beautifully. We spoke to Vivienne Elizabeth, at the University of Auckland and one of her students, Moeata Pele Keil. Moeata and my student, Amy Andrada, had a lot in common across their respective projects on post-separation Pacific families in Aotearoa/New Zealand  and single mothers in the US. It was a joy to hear them talk confidently about their work and yet be able to discuss some of the difficulties they faced in doing it. This less formal setting made that discussion more nuanced and interesting than I think it would have been if they had been giving a structured presentation. They were able to talk about mistakes they felt they had made and how their positions and approaches had changed as they did the research. For Vivienne, Angus (Amy’s other supervisor) and I this provided a welcome chance to reflect briefly on how our research can change us as researchers and to think about why this is not discussed more. It was also nice to see my friend Viv. She and I met during a tea break at a conference when we were PhD students.

Whether you approach old friends (who might now be esteemed scholars) or chance a speculative email to a Professor you really don’t know, I encourage you to try this out. COVID-19 has crowded out some of the more human and inspiring aspects of intellectual life. This is a form of connection that allows a sharing of ideas but does not put pressure on people at a difficult time. Sharing our sociological connections with PG students and colleagues less advanced in their careers can hopefully contribute to enriching the discipline. So please do, if you would like, set up some tea breaks of your own. I am happy to be invited: Or not. Enjoy.

University of Geneva – Spring 2020

Mary Holmes

A friend in Geneva sent me these photos and translations of posters put up by students.

After a semester of online teaching, the University of Geneva is holding a socially-distanced exam session. Among torn posters advertising pre-lockdown hip-hop festivals and social events, students are voicing their concerns.

I’ve been called for civil service duties – I’m working night shifts in a nursing home. Should I sleep or should I prepare for the exams?

I have three small children. The nursery is shut so they’re at home with me. I can’t study but I’m being forced to sit exams. I can’t afford another semester.

I can’t concentrate at home. I’m too anxious about the whole situation. I can’t follow, I can’t read. There’s no way I can sit exams.

I lost my job. My situation is very precarious. The real test will be to cope.

My faculty will remotely control my computer to check I’m not “cheating” during the exams. What should I put first – my diploma or my privacy?

Is this education or social selection?

Our lives have been locked down – Let’s COVID the exams!

Strange, Strange Times: Methods and Stuff During COVID-19

Amy Andrada

These are some strange, strange times. (My God, the emails over the past several weeks that’ve opened with that tired-ass line. Ugh.) I’ll admit. This sucks. All of it. There’s no way around it. Yes, COVID-19 has turned our lives upside-down and with it all of our half-baked, wonderfully (and painfully) crafted projects. But I implore you to believe me—all is not lost. This is the chance to rethink old (and sometimes tired) notions. As researchers, we’re in a bind. How do we collect data if we can’t actually. Go. Collect. Data? What do we do with our projects, half-finished and half-thought? What happens to all the ‘meanings’ we meant to find, once we got into the field? And how do we find the people we hoped to speak with? Well, if you’re a researcher you just gotta know where to look. (I mean, that is our job. Right?). And the best place to start is by looking at who’s looked in hard-to-reach places, with unconventional tools and in unique ways.

Two words: Deviance. Research.

Ta-dah! Yeah, I know. I know. Very anti-climatic. (But a gurl can dream, can’t she?) Anyways, I’m that researcher. As such, I’m familiar with researching people that don’t want to be reached and in ways that aren’t always *ahem* legal. Just kidding! (Maybe). Thus, being in the field taught me a crapload more about methodological ‘expectations’ verses any theoretical approaches. Now, how do I know this might work when my data wasn’t collected during COVID-19? Because most of my participants were already limited in time and resources, making in-person/physical meetings less likely—hence, the alternative creative approaches to methods. So, from one researcher to another, here are some real life tips on what to consider when trying to figure out how to sample (or strategize getting) participants in these very, very strange times.

  • Although this is a bit more directed towards deviance research, the perspective still applies. Deviant members don’t particularly want to be found and most are uninterested in an academic’s ‘research’. If you want any hope of contacting them—much less collecting data from/with them—you have to work within their constraints, not yours. Now, I understand researchers have their own issues atm. I get it. But the access points to potential participants have now (thanks, COVID) become extremely limited. So, you’ve got to start from that vantage point. Or you’ll lose sight of a main project goal—getting actual participants. Be realistic and set realistic goals. Period.
  • Next, consider the usual ‘face-to-face interview-based’ data collection strategies. Yup. Those approaches are not gonna work—at least not in their traditional designs—but they are still strong starting points. So think of them in practical terms. Where are people most likely to be accessible now? Online. Now, let’s be frank. What do you think the return rate is for online interaction? Yeah, bro… it’s low AF. Ok. That’s settled. You’ve got a clear idea of a significant limitation. Great. Moving on. It’s still an access point. Use it and maximize the hell outta it. But remember, it’s never about the thing itself. It is how the thing is used. Use the platforms you’re familiar with and find new ones. Reach out to your own networks and ask for recruitment help. Many people are usually happy to help—(I stress, usually). More importantly, use the platforms your potential participants may use. This isn’t an ‘if you build it, they will come’ motif BS. This is real life. You gotta go to where the action is. So, figure out where these groups congregate online, their apps, etc. and target those spaces. If you’ve got peeps in those hoods, even better. Reach out. If not, learn their spaces real quick. (I mean, we’re all PI’s underneath it all. Act like it.)
  • Now, looking for diversity in your sample? That’s still possible with online recruitment, you just gotta work harder. Post your project on Facebook, MeetUp (there’s still ‘interactions’), etc. Create an online space for your project so people have the opportunity to take initiative when you’re not chasing down potential leads. Most people respond well to this form of transparency. Think of it like a ‘home base’—both you and them can always circle back here. Tbh, any online forum/chatrooms where people with similar interests may interact—start there. There are literally endless platforms and networks within every community, so make the most out of them. And remember, it usually takes a particular type of person to be open to talking to a researcher in the first place (aka selection bias). If they’re interested or you find them, either can develop that initial interaction. Don’t push it. Just keep putting it out there and be open-minded. Keep in mind that other avenues eventually evolve from your initial steps. You’ll find them if you work at developing them. Be patient.
  • And ya know that ‘originally’ planned in-person interview? Yeah. That’s not happening. So, think of how else can you conduct interviews. Zoom? Skype? Facebook video messenger? WeChat? Use them. And how about those focus groups? HouseParty, etc. Whatever. Find some tool and use it. Pronto. Will some ‘authenticity’ be lost? Yeah, but getting participants is like going on dates. Not every date is the same, right? That’s what happens with every forum and method—something is ‘lost’ based on context. But, it’s still data. Beggars can’t be choosers (and you ain’t Bey). Attend to this in your design and manage any shortcomings. Best way to do this? Mixed-methods or triangulation (i.e. use more than one strategy and method. They offset each other and can complement the overall design/methods, if used appropriately).
  • If your research is focused on intimate knowledge, interview for longer periods. People tend to open up the longer the interaction (it’s a non-verbal cue, look it up). If you want more general (and perhaps superficial) interactions—Keep. It. Short. Also, being an in-group member helps with intimate or deviant data collection. Why? People tend to trust people that are ‘like’ them. If you’re not in da club, figure out how to get in or get someone to vouch for you (i.e. gatekeepers). If your project doesn’t require this type of nitty-gritty, just bounce. Either way, don’t stress.
  • And finally, all those bazillion roadblocks you’ll come across while doing all these? Yeah, that’s gonna be really significant data, in itself, at the end of the project (talk to an ethnographer if you don’t believe me).

Now, remember my outreach to out-group participants? Yeah, only one-third of them were met in-person, and of those I had to go out of my way (60-90 miles to be exact) to sit down in front of each one. Overwhelmingly, most interviews were done with tech, via Skype/Zoom, FaceTime, phone, etc.—any electronic means actually. Yet, all of them were contacted through some technical forum. And that part where I mentioned the roadblocks being part of your data? Yeah, those were key reasons I couldn’t recruit people in-person, or physically meet most of them. Why? They were either in-between projects or work, were too far away, or simply not available to meet with some random researcher, i.e. me (hence, I had to work within their constraints). And what did I find? I found out what their spaces were and lit those babies up. So guess what happened? They either enlisted themselves or showed interest in the project. Like, literally. It blew my mind. And none of this was ever mentioned in ‘traditional methods’.

Now, was it all rainbows and butterflies? Hell no. I mean, I even gained ONE damn troll in the process of this crap. (Honored, though I am *happy tear*). Still, cycling through ‘traditional methods’ just didn’t work. In fact, they blew up in my face. Royally. But, once I started realizing how those methods only worked for traditional people and ‘normal’ times (and my target groups were anything but traditional despite ‘normal’ times), I quickly realized I had to get creative. Fast. So, I pounced on their movements. I learned to listen to these groups and their interests. And I quickly learned to step to their pace. And what came outta it? A design I couldn’t be more proud of and an understanding I couldn’t have ever predicted. Now, the books were a decent start, I’ll give them that. But the real methods came from maneuvering within participants. In fact, had I not taken heed of their needs and constraints, I don’t think I could have collected the data I did. And that’s the honest truth.

So, go forth young sprites! There’s new knowledge to be found—and new ways to get there. Be the researcher you came to university to be.


Amy Andrada is a PhD Sociology candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on deviance, family, and gender studies. She is currently writing up her mammoth of a PhD while simultaneously raising her precocious 16-year old son. (Wish her luck in both.) She may be reached at

Are students customers?

Mary Holmes

Classrooms by Felipe Gavronski

Many of our students pay a lot of money for their education. The current pandemic is raising all sorts of questions about what they might get for their money when classes are delivered online. These are important questions that concern university teachers as much as students, but many of us have long had doubts how universities have been turned into businesses. The defence of the public university is an important, but often complex task. So here I just wanted to share some thoughts I had after a brief discussion with students about whether they were customers. I just wanted to think about some of the problems with that argument.

  1. Saying that students are customers assumes that education is something you have to buy rather than a right or a public good that should be freely accessible to all.
  2. What are students buying? Is it a degree, is it a service? If teachers are providing a service is the customer always right? How then can teachers tell students what they need to do to improve?
  3. To see students as customers undervalues the work and effort students have to put in to achieve a degree. As Jon Hearn says, teaching is more like being a coach than selling something to a customer. We both have to work together to achieve results.

How we might work together under remote or socially distanced conditions might be challenging, but it is working with students that made me want to teach and, with the help of students, I intend to find a way forward together.

Mary Holmes is Professor of Emotions and Society @ University of Edinburgh, email

Physical distancing and the PhD researcher’s ‘invisible college’: What are the implications?

Lisa Howard

Like many of us during this pandemic, I feel somewhat anxious about the future. Among other things, I think about what the post-Covid19 world means for my current PhD and my career post doctorate, considering the implications of a prolonged period of remote and physically distanced interactions. In this piece I want to talk specifically about my concerns for lost opportunities for face to face contact, and how this might impair my and other PhD students’ stake in the ‘invisible college’.

The invisible college is a term originating in the 17th century to describe the informal interactions of a small group of like-minded scholars, with the aim of exchanging academic knowledge. Beginning as an exchange of written letters, the need to further ferment ideas for intellectual flourishing led to regular in-person, small group meetings at Gresham College, London. This locally-based exchange of ideas would later challenge the religious and academic orthodoxy of the time. The invisible college continues to operate today as a global, self-organised community of collaborating scholars, and is understood as one of the essential structures by which knowledge is created. While modern life affords us the technology to substitute in-person collaboration with video calling and other media, sociologist John Urry reminds us of the limitations of our networked sociality for building the connections that depend on being co-present. Personalised trust is formed when we can personally know people, and I would argue is harder when we’ve only ‘met’ them online or on a videocall. Co-presence involves rich, dense and multi-layered conversations using body language and eye contact to create intimacy and reciprocity which are difficult to re-create through technological communication.

Even when we’re eventually allowed to meet in person at a ‘safe’ distance, will there be places to meet? The early meetings of the invisible college were held within a supportive institutional setting of Gresham College. The academy is already demonstrating its risk aversion to aiding Covid-19 transmission by its recent 18-month moratorium on in-person fieldwork. In addition, the politics of space and place are significant for capitalist processes, requiring a spatial fix for continued accumulation. Universities will be facing financial black holes with the loss of international students, and are likely to exploit the opportunity to recoup lost revenue by saving costs in building and office spaces. We are already seeing the development of virtual teaching and learning for the new academic year. With this in mind, I am not optimistic that on-site sociality will resume even after the government begins to loosen lockdown measures. 

I miss the buzz and atmosphere of being co-located with peers and colleagues. I feel sadness for the lost chances for corporeal mobility and proximity, for the situated social practices that build rapport, trust and social capital, and foster collaboration. The networking at conferences, conversations with peers in social spaces, catch-ups over coffee, forging new contacts at seminars and other small on campus events are very difficult to recreate in a virtual space. I fear this will impede not only the discussions and exchange of ideas that shape my research field, but also the connections that could contribute to future job opportunities. The disembodiment of our current social life may be profound for academic life as we once knew it. We will adapt, out of necessity. But it’s clear that the invisible college, perhaps taken for granted before now, will in future not be as well supported by conducive institutional places and spaces. The responsibility will fall more on the individual to find ways to build their invisible college.

Lisa Howard is a first year PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

I’m in an experiment—get me out of here

Sophia Woodman

This pandemic, and the responses of universities to it, are providing a fascinating on-going natural experiment for thinking through what higher education is/should be for. During the UCU strike in February and March this year, I was reading more than was healthy about plans in some quarters to turn universities into platforms through which students consume information, ‘teaching’, food, entertainment, accommodation, sport—in other words, everything. And how during such processes, universities can hoover up data about these students to enable ‘smarter’ responses to their needs—including for mental health interventions.

For some time, university leaders have been warned that EdTech is going to make them redundant, because students as ‘digital natives’ will opt for the customized, individualized, efficient (and cheaper) ‘learning’ the EdTech companies are offering. Generally, the proponents of digitization assume that the best (or only?) way for universities to take on this challenge is to compete with the EdTech companies at their own game—to give the customers what they want. And of course, the EdTech companies are only too happy to help with these processes of transforming the university; platformization involves various forms of public-private partnerships. Just like other big tech firms, EdTech companies will be big winners from the coronavirus fall out.

We don’t know yet how this experiment will play out, but it seems peculiar to me that university managers would be willing to accept the above ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ premise. I’m completely convinced by Raewyn Connell’s arguments in her marvellous, witty and readable new book, The Good University: what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. She argues that knowledge production has to be cooperative, and that cooperation is built into the DNA of universities. Intellectual labour, she writes, is inherently collective and requires cooperation, not just among academics and students, but also with what she calls the ‘operations staff’ who enable the working of the university. The ‘banking model’ of education on which the EdTech vision sketched out above is based is obviously contrary to the idea of a knowledge commons where multiple ‘knowledge formations’ are constantly being constructed and transformed through collective efforts, processes that are fundamentally at odds with the university as business, which seeks to extract profit from such efforts.

I know my most inspiring times in the classroom have been those in which students and teachers are learning together, and the end points are not fixed. So, in the coming months, we’ll see. Watch this space.


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