Poppy Gerrard-Abbott is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh looking at sexual violence in universities. She is also a sociology tutor, feminist activist and has just started a sociological podcast on the COVID-19 pandemic, Difficult Conversations. She works as the lead researcher for the Emily Test charity creating a Gender-Based Violence Charter for Scottish Universities and Colleges and she often runs women’s circles focusing on gender-based violence.
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What has happened to us all? Coronavirus is a health issue, yes, but there’s something about such a crisis that brings out the pessimist, the optimist, the conspiracy theorist, the journalist, the judge, the social media influencer, the feminist, the radical revolutionary – even the yoga pro, pastry chef and the wannabe broadcaster in us. It can also bring out the resentful, the angry, the fearful and the blamer in us. It brings out the doomsday in us. Can we break free from ‘it’s the Chinese trying to take over the world’ / plague sent by God / the end is nigh? Yes, I believe we can, and as social scientists, I think sometimes we are sometimes well-positioned to help cut through looming, dark dystopia. Such sentiments are also telling us something – people have a lot to say right now, and we perhaps have a responsibility to hear and record it.
In March, I recorded a podcast with my colleague and friend, PhD researcher on digital intimacy and sex work, Eva Duncanson, because we were due to deliver two lectures together. These were cancelled due to the sudden outbreak and then came a lightbulb moment (that I wish had occurred much earlier on in my PhD so I could spend less time stressing and more time writing the damn thing): in a crisis, I don’t have to produce things that are perfect. Wow – who knew? It took a pandemic for me to realise that under stress and change, something is better than nothing. So in 48 hours, we mashed the lectures together into a podcast, decided to put it up on Youtube, spent a couple of hours swearing and then it was uploaded.
When the Edinburgh Decameron website was about to be published, I was asked: ‘How did you come to have the idea for the podcasts and how did you make the podcast happen?’ Well, with my newfound attitude of ‘imperfection is always better than nothing’ (I am hellbent on making this last) the Difficult Conversations podcast was born following on from my podcast with Eva. Firstly, I enjoyed it so much that I thought ‘why end it here?’. Secondly, when the pandemic broke out, I had moments where I felt like nothing else really mattered in social science research except crisis: climate change, why Trump is Trump, and COVID-19. I pondered about submitting an ethics application to do some formal research on sociological approaches to COVID-19 but I knew there would be others better resourced than a self-funded PhD student like me working two to three jobs at any one time. Plus, with such a workload, I didn’t want to chain myself to writing a coronavirus thesis on top of my PhD and the other research work I do. I didn’t want the isolation of writing, the head-spinning document corrections, the slowness of writing a paper. I craved for something that brought people together, got us talking, let off steam from the crisis, allowed for both laughing and seriousness, and got content out fast.
This approach was hugely complemented by the ‘it’s either imperfect and finished or perfect and unfinished’ attitude I learnt early on in the pandemic when I just couldn’t find the right online birthday gifts for friends and family and I never got further than item one on my to-do list because my workload increased so much from the pandemic (teaching, working in gender-based violence, looking after people). At first, I was worried that I couldn’t release anything until I had a professional microphone, 25 audio editing tutorials under my belt, and a graphics qualification. I then remembered that we were in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, with limited stocks, slow deliveries, fast-moving policy, people at risk and people literally dying. I put the perfectionism down and decided that a rough-around-the-edges approach was exactly what I needed to re-learn and what the world needed to expect at these times.
It’s punk rock academia, that’s what I’m convincing myself: me, three days in the same leggings, my dipping Wifi connection, my cereal-bowl covered desk and my laptop. We’re going to create a podcast series together. That’s right. In the words of my next door neighbour “Well, pirate radio changed the world”. Yes, I thought. Pirate radio station operators weren’t concerned with capitalist productivity and shiny studios.
Completing this picture is an Argos microphone – which, by the way, was one of the few brands not out of stock. I am currently imagining how many Dads have bagged such microphones and are currently in their garages living their dreams and ticking through the pandemic by DJ-ing their favourite 60’s playlist to three listeners. It fills my heart with joy.
I kept my philosophy in sight: forget perfection, just produce content that matters. Record what’s going on, and get people talking. During this pandemic, I learnt that I’ve had a gendered and subconscious belief for years that I just cannot understand technology. I don’t like it and it doesn’t like me. It was a load of rubbish – everyone, absolutely everyone, is always in process.
Since it began the podcast series has covered sex work, feminist approaches to COVID-19, single mums, the higher education strikes, supermarket workers, and pandemic financial difficulty. I recruit guests through colleagues, friends, social media. It has amazed me how people are feeling such immense pressure and stress but are still willing to share, connect and donate their time. Some people I’ve found, have felt desperate to be heard during the silences of the lockdown.
This week, I’m releasing one on gender-based violence and coronavirus, and one with newly qualified nurses. Coming up, we have episodes on whether there will be a financial crash after the pandemic, the psychology of lockdown, and on death and grief with some ‘death positivity’ activists. I am also hoping to do an episode looking at sociological approaches to conspiracy theories. It is a time for us to listen as well as talk, to understand rather than laugh or judge, to observe rather than over-analyse. This is what the podcast is aiming to do and what I think our wider role as sociologists needs to return to more often. It aims to find a balanced, calm, serious – but at the same time, informal and light-hearted – approach to the crisis. I want it to contribute to academic material that isn’t just focused on the production of knowledge. I want to help, in my own, tiny way, to cut through some of the panic and hyper-anxiety and help bring shreds of reflection and clarity whilst also lifting the voices of those that need to be heard right now. It is a panicked time, yes, but where we can find our own small corners to do so, we can find ways to connect with ourselves and others and choose not to live in constant misery.
It goes without saying that COVID-19 is only partially a health crisis. In my recent article on women and the virus, I talk in-depth about how it is a political, economic, social, institutional and gendered crisis. The podcast wants to cover the less-represented angles of all this. What is happening to sex workers right now? What do supermarket workers think when they’re off shift? How does lockdown shine a light on patriarchy? How can we bear the grief this time brings? I want it to bring something a bit more human than a paper would have allowed me to do. I’m also recording short readings from some of my favourite books on the podcast – it’s cheesy, but what better time to go on a personal journey? I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow to me or anyone I know or love, so I want to share some of the writers and subject matters that have shaped who I am.
I have learnt a lot about myself whilst being in four walls for a few weeks. One of the biggest learnings is that life can whizz by me when I’m working multiple jobs and unfortunately I don’t get much time and space to go ‘yeah. That thing you did – that was great’. The most surprising thing is the self-realisation that has come from the project. I have learnt I am resourceful, resilient, compassionate, forgiving, and could be way less hard on myself. I hope I can continue on that upwards trajectory of not shedding my self-doubt. I wish that for you, too.
You can find the Difficult Conversations podcast on Youtube, with new episodes being added weekly. It will soon move to Spotify once I have mastered it.