Out of the bushfires into the pandemic…. the last eighteen months of my PhD study has been shaped by extreme weather and health events at both a macro and micro scale.
Summer 2019/2020 was a time of heat, smoke and persistent threat, as bushfires to the north, west and south edged ever closer to our non-defendable home in the Blue Mountains. The first of many evacuations to family in Sydney happened in early November, the last in January. With my anxiety high and the deadline for my Confirmation of Candidature (CoC), I escaped the heat and smoke to shut-up-and-write in the cool calm of the Kingswood campus library with two fellow PhD from the Planetary Wellbeing and Human Learning HDR group. The hermetically sealed space of a group room on the top floor became a refuge. Our collective energy spurred us to focus and write. Over lunch we shared PhD and life challenges, references and advice. The connection became a pivotal steadying lifeline that allowed me to continue to work despite the increasing devastation of the fires to country, wildlife, people and property.
In February rain flooded our car and burst through roofs in our neighbourhood. It also extinguished the fires that had encircled us for four months and we could breathe again. I presented and achieved my CoC. Buoyed by the positive and productive feedback of the panel and advice from the Gender Matters Australian Advisory Group a few days later, I dived into my ethics application – grappling with the issues of researching sensitive topics with young people as honestly and comprehensively as I could. It was approved.
I was looking forward to the intellectual stimulation of the Planetary Wellbeing and Human Learning Autumn School to reconnect and reenergise my thinking as I prepared for my fieldwork facilitating filmmaking workshops with high school students. Then COVID-19 reached Australia and we moved into lockdown. Autumn school was cancelled, and my field work put on hold. It was a stressful and uncertain time. Over-crowded in isolation with my partner and adult daughter we vied for desk space and bandwidth in our small house. I was on high alert at any sign of cold and flu symptoms as I tried to support my octogenarian parents through health and life struggles (now magnified by COVID-19) at a distance with frequent three-hour return trips to their place.
As PhD students, we were swamped by a deluge of support from the university designed to forestall anxiety and compensate for isolation. I spent days on Zoom with more frequent supervisor meetings, weekly then bi-weekly faculty HDR meetings, information sessions and online seminars on how to conduct qualitative fieldwork during a pandemic. Ironically this well-meaning support was accompanied by urgent demands to submit continuity plans outlining how we would adapt our face-to-face research to online platforms to meet existing timelines. Opportunities for online connection mushroomed as geographical distance shrank, with supported shut-up-and-write sessions, reading groups, and seminars locally and around the world suddenly accessible from our living rooms.
Mourning the loss of Autumn School, a few of us from the Planetary Wellbeing and Human Learning group started a casual Zoom drop in on Friday afternoons as a way to reconnect and support each other through the uncertain and unsettling times of lockdown. PhD Journey Friends became an ongoing supportive and sustaining group. Whoever showed up and whatever was going on for us, we knew it would be a safe and welcoming space in which we could share, listen, support and encourage each other without judgement.
We began in April 2020 as seven women of different ages at various stages of the PhD process from CoC to final draft. While all of our research is broadly situated in Education, our contexts, questions. methods and theoretical framings vary widely. Over the course of the last year the seven of us have been more or less actively involved in the group at different times as the forces of life, work and deadlines have pulled energy and attention elsewhere. One of the group has submitted and passed with flying colours. The rest of us are still on the journey.
As five domestic and two international students, the pressures of COVID-19 have been different – from overcrowded domestic workspaces through to solitary isolation, distance from family within Australia and from overseas, caring responsibilities for young children through to ageing parents, loss of work to too much work, degrees of financial and cultural privilege, and the impacts on PhD productivity and personal health and wellbeing.
While I have often been overwhelmed by the struggles and stresses of life and PhD during the last eighteen months, I have also been aware of my privilege as a middle class able bodied, heterosexual CIS white settler, living on stolen land of the Dharug and Gundungurra nations in a heteronormative white supremacist culture. I have a supportive partner and family, a safe and comfortable place to live, access to fresh food and water, power and internet (most of the time) and enough money to live on. Working from home in the pandemic has afforded a slower more present life, with time for daily walks in the bush and yoga. This has allowed me to continue, sometimes even thrive, in spite of adversity in the times.
My life largely conforms to the dominant narrative of the ordinary families affected by the virus and the fires, a story perpetually validated in the media, political discourse and my local community. While presented as universal, it excludes a raft of experience. My international PhD student friends have been more isolated than ever and also experienced racist attacks. They lost access to their university offices and couldn’t always work from home. They had increased caring and schooling responsibilities for children, with reduced opportunities for paid work.
The pandemic has amplified inequities for many Australians. First Nations communities have been over-policed and under resourced. The Black Lives Matter protests has forced attention to be paid to the continuing dispossession and discrimination experienced by First Nations Australians, with disproportionately high rates of incarceration and deaths in custody. Asian Australians have experienced increased racist attacks, and women and children living with domestic abuse have endured increased isolation and risk. As Lucy Nicholas points out in A Letter from Sydney Australia, the Australian government’s catch cry to support families during the pandemic has negated the lives of vast swathes of its citizenry – anyone who is not a white heterosexual couple with children – while the media have perpetuated heteronormative sexist narratives even as it decried the additional burden on women (as mothers) that the coronavirus lockdown imposed.
This period of global and local upheaval has reaffirmed the urgent need for an intersectional feminist ethics of care for people and planet as a guiding principal for change. I hope that my research can make a small contribution to the conversation.
My thinking about filmmaking as an affective, emergent mode of inquiry to explore experiences of gender in secondary school with young people through doctoral research.