Lockdown researcher

Lockdown starts and I find myself staring vacantly at my PhD research wondering if it will ever get finished. I am not lazy, nor am I a procrastinator – I am a mother to three small Grublins and I am now left with no access to childcare and therefore little time to work. As I write this, I am balancing a baby on my knee whilst the 4 and 5-year-old argue over an old mouldy biscuit they have found underneath the sofa.

It has been tough – so tough, but in some senses, strangely liberating. I no longer care about the biro on the walls or the windows that desperately need to be replaced, or the piles of washing that grow faster than they can be put away.

But I do care about my unfinished research: I am investigating the needs of Newly Qualified Teachers. The fear follows me everywhere. Last month I even suffered an anxiety dream where a black and white animated artist’s impression of Rousseau chased me down a corridor at the University, brandishing a copy of Èmile. What it does prove is that the research is ever present in my mind and that I had been reading.

I had started exploring with fascination Lyotard and Betham, in particular Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon as a type of institutional building and a system of control. This led me swiftly to Foucault and Panoptic Performativity,

“Examination represents the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgment, a gaze that makes it possible to qualify, classify and punish.” (1977 Discipline and Punish).

Fantastic – I thought! There were patterns appearing about the anguish and stress of observation in my initial survey of NQTs. Most notably words such as “scrutiny, unfair treatment, constant observation/checks” were emerging, and one NQT presented a scathing account of management styles:

“Insane workloads, unrealistic markings expectations, havoc created by a disastrous previous SLT that drove the school into special measures, then being flogged into submission by the new academy chain that the school is affiliated with. Provisions provided are used against teachers, leaving a workforce heavily criticised rather than supported constructively. An unsupportive SLT who back their middle leaders and dismiss anyone underneath that level. The school has created an “Us” and “Them” environment and have diminished morale, while maintaining the highest expectations of teachers and students, despite the fact their social interaction and personal dealings with teachers is unacceptable.”

This was exciting stuff and I spent a great deal of time reading Foucault, only to realise that further data didn’t heavily support the theory of Panoptic Performativity, and although it was tempting to try and steer my research in this direction, it would not be right. Initially, I felt demoralized and as though I had wasted my time researching theories and philosophies that would not form a large part of my final research but after some deeper thought, I realized that this was just part of the PhD process. My thinking had developed and improved. Some of the work could still be used and Bentham’s idea of Modern Utalitarianism did tie in with some of my ontological theories of need.

There is always hope in research. I like to think that if you do not give up, you can never fail. And I am not ready to give up. With small chunks of childcare reopening, I am combing through my notes, reading during any rare moments of quiet and going over my data feeling proud that I have some substance.

It has taken a while, but I have come to the realisation that although I have not been able to prioritise my research, I will soon be able to prioritise it once again. Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. And of course – it will get done.

Ania Atkinson

PhD Student

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