Postgraduate study Random musings


During the next four days I am attending the British Educational Research Association (BERA) 2021 Conference (follow #BERA2021 on twitter if you are interested in finding out more). This year, because of Covid, the conference is running online. As a result, I am sat in my bedroom at my PC, and do not have the luxury of attending an in person conference, which might allow me to switch off a little.

I do not come to this conference from a stress-free place. My daughter has started college and appears to be finding some aspects of it hard. Of course, this is not a surprise after finishing school in May 2021 and having had a long summer, spent mainly at home. It is going to take some getting used to, and we are confident she will be ok, but I am worrying for and about her right now. Additionally, it is her Education, Health and Care plan annual review meeting next week. We have been asked to provide our parental feedback in advance, a process I find incredibly stressful too. Not only have we already had the use of ‘parents’ in an email instead of our names, we know we are already likely to be positioned as ‘difficult’ because we are being very clear about the purpose of this process, what needs to change in the EHCP, and that we will not accept a document that does not meet legal requirements. Once again I found myself being ‘that parent’ who writes long wordy emails citing the Code of Practice, regulations and case law. And hated myself for it. This too is niggling away at me, my discomfort at not being able to relax and just send my child off to college, the way the process messes with my emotions, my attention span, and my relationships with those around me.

However, despite all of this going on, I am going to do my best to focus on the conference. I have been through and pre-planned some sessions I want to attend, and I am going to write here about the things that stand out or affect me during this four day conference. It will not offer a detailed or full record of everything that has been said in the sessions I attend, but I aim instead to use this space to make connections between presentations and discussions that I take part in. It is a bit of an experiment, I have not tried this before, but let’s see where it goes!

The first thing I want to put on this record of my time at BERA is the The Res-Sister Manifesta which was mentioned in the first keynote presentation by Dr Katy Vigurs. Katy presented a powerful critique of the normative expectations that surround Early Career Researchers (ECRS), ie those undertaking research and within 5-10 years of achieving a doctoral qualification, depending on which organisation is defining the category. Whilst I have witnessed many of the expectations (eg how quickly you should progress through each stage, the need to be visible and to be part of the academic community, the pressure to publish etc), I have not necessarily felt these pressures myself. As a mature student who comes to study and research later in life, I let much of it wash over me. I also am possibly more confident in putting my foot down and being able to argue for doing things the way I want to, or at the pace I can. Don’t get me wrong, I am not immune to the pressures, and during the Covid pandemic I was absolutely beating myself up about ‘falling behind’ until I questioned this narrative, and asked myself who I was falling behind when we are all working on completely different projects and all have different demands on our lives. It was this messiness that Katy was referring to when she discussed the role academic CVs can play in making some aspects of our journey invisible, as they present a neat and linear journey of progression. This really made me think again about how I use this blog to talk about my research and how I write my doctoral thesis too.

Going back to the manifesta, I added it here because it speaks so much to how I have tried to approach my doctoral study. I have tried to both find and create spaces to work and think with others, from whom I learn so much. Most of this is non-formal spaces such as reading groups and informal support with other research students and academics I have met along the way. I want to be the type of student and researcher who is supportive, who spots an article or event that someone else might find useful and sends it to them, that asks a positive and helpful question in a seminar or conference setting, or that notices when someone is struggling and lends them an ear. I don’t always get this right but feel that being a research student can be such a lonely place, I want to do something to support others. (Indeed this is one of the motivations behind setting up PESN). I also want to speak out about injustice. This is something I need to do more of. I am lucky. I do not necessarily intend to have a career in academia, indeed I have no idea what I will do next. Therefore I do not need to perform in particular ways to try to ensure I am close to presenting the ideal ECR. So I need to be braver. I need to put myself out there and challenge more…

This morning I did not go to the BERA conference (as I had the opportunity to attend an SEND related conference and could not do both). Just before I returned to the conference platform I saw a tweet about BERA Abstract Interrupted which offers a provocation to stimulate discussion about who’s voice and expertise counts and what barriers to participation in discussions about education and educational research might persist. I really enjoyed this blog post and urge anyone reading this to go and take a look.

In particular, the themes within the article resonate with the concerns many parents of disabled children raise, about lacking voice and visibility – indeed this was a theme raised a few times in the conference I attended this morning and is the driving force behind the new Let Us Learn Too parent-led campaign as parents of disabled children want to have their voice heard as the long awaited and overdue SEND Review is developed prior to being put out to consultation.

I return to this blog post over a week after the conference because, I have to be honest, life got in the way. I was delivering training the day after the BERA conference ended and then I was straight back into studying and it was also my daughter’s EHCP Annual review meeting, which always takes a toll both in terms of time and emotionally. Furthermore, I have been having to try to sort out agreement from the local authority for a short term solution to the 2 days a week where she is home, due to her work experience placement falling through at the last minute. Maybe this sounds like excuses, but I simply did not have the time to sit and reflect further on the time I spent at BERA.

So now I return to my handwritten notes and wonder if they will make any sense to me at all…

During the past 12-18mths, I have been drawn more and more to postqualitative, new materialist and posthuman research approaches, as a way of thinking differently. I hope that my research will suggest alternative ways to think about parents of disabled children and inclusion, but as the approach I am taking is quite open-ended and uncertain, I am keen to mop up as many ideas and theories and approaches as I can, to help me find meaningful ways to take my research forward. Posthuman and new materialist theory is still quite new to me – I recognise I have so much still to read so that I can think with theory in new and exciting ways. So I decided to use the time I would have at the BERA conference to attend as many sessions as I could that might be drawing on similar approaches. (They were in the minority by the way.) This meant I attended sessions that I might previously have avoided, such as the session where participants were invited to bring a sound with them, so that meanings could be created together, and a shared soundscape was developed in the session, or the ‘unsession’ which offered a break from the standard conference presentation, encouraging participants to step away from their computers and take photographs of items nearby which were then used to discuss the impact of the Covid pandemic on researchers and research.

Although these more creative sessions scare me a little, due to the requirement to participate in the moment (I am someone who likes to listen, reflect and then I might have questions a few hours or days later), I pushed myself to attend them and found that they were actually the most interesting and vibrant sessions from the whole conference. Anyone who is familiar with these research approaches will not be surprised by this, but the sessions just felt alive, they were energising. I could not necessarily put into words how I felt after the sessions, but I knew that they had impacted on me and I had definitely benefitted from attending. My mind was buzzing about how I might use some of the ideas for my own thinking and research, rather than thinking necessarily that I had learnt something new. I think that was the point… and it was great to be able to engage in playful sessions which were both thought provoking and energising in a way I did not expect.

I don’t plan to summarise the sessions further, as that was never my intention with this blog post. I simply wanted to pull out some of the sessions that have stuck with me, that I replay over in my head and continue to think (differently) about. However, here are a few key take aways from my notes:

  • Technology can be both enabling and disabling
  • However much we are used to using online video conferencing, there will always be someone who causes the words ‘you’re on mute’ to be said
  • We need to be attentive to the voices we cannot hear, the silences, the unspoken, the invisible, the absences, Listening is more than words. Silence can be resistance
  • Some bodies are seen as ‘space invaders’ ie out of place
  • And syndrome’ exists – ‘I teach 24 children and one of them has/is…’ ‘How do I teach one of them’
  • affective intensities change our capacity to act
  • collective, mingling, comings together, resistance, entangled
  • pulse, seize, tension, between, action, emergence
  • play, muck about, experiment, meanderings, possibilities, see what happens…

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