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Miranda Reilly

Our Student Focus series profiles the fascinating and varied activities of Oxford students. Miranda Reilly, an undergraduate studying English Literature, writes about balancing her studies with setting up a society for students with social anxiety, shyness and introversion.

'Starting my undergraduate English Language and Literature degree last academic year with undiagnosed social anxiety, an extreme shyness which I’d had since starting secondary school, I spent a lot of my first term feeling trapped in my room and isolated. I didn’t have much of a sense of purpose.

By around fifth week, I decided that I needed my own way to meet other students, so I set up SASI: the Social Anxiety, Shyness and Introversion Society. It was quite a success, and it was through this that I met a friend who introduced me to the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU)’s disabled students campaign, the Oxford Students Disability Community (OSDC).

My mum has been chronically ill since she was 20 with, among other conditions, an allergy to perfumes which ruled out being able to spend much time in rooms with air fresheners or rooms which had been cleaned with scented products, or around people who use scented laundry detergents and washing powders. I knew, therefore, a bit about invisible and rare disabilities before joining OSDC but little else, and hadn’t previously considered mental health as a disability.

Fast forward eleven months, and the majority of my friends at Oxford are involved in OSDC, working to improve things for themselves and other students, both through our campaigning and our socials which have created a strong community founded on accessibility and inclusivity.

Earlier this term we hosted our Disability Awareness Week, which included an arts exhibition which grew out of our fortnightly mental health art support group, Art for the Heart, and a panel of Oxford’s staff speaking on Pursuing Academia and Other University Careers – the audio and transcript for which will soon be available on our website.

Currently, we’ve been working on a Disability 101 Workshop to roll out across colleges and student societies because, while most students have good intentions, access needs are consistently forgotten about and events are often not accessible. Even if a student has excellent access to support for their academic studies, lack of access to the social and other student-run aspects of university life can lead to severe isolation and a lack of opportunities that can be added to a CV.

Later this year, our goal for UK Disability History Month (22nd November – 22nd December) is to get as many faculties, libraries and museums as possible involved, as some were for LGBTQ+ History Month, with displays and, hopefully, special lectures and talks.

Disability Studies is very much an emerging field and can be taken in many interdisciplinary directions including looking at representations of disability in literature, studying the role of music in deaf culture, and researching care for the disabled in ancient civilisations.

In my own academic studies, I am looking forward to being able to merge my interests in disability and English as I approach the final year of my degree, in which we have the most freedom to choose what we want to study, particularly with our dissertation.

Our Shakespeare paper consists of submitting three essays on any Shakespeare-related topics of our choice, and so I am certainly looking at staging disability in Shakespeare, such as with Othello’s epilepsy and Richard III’s scoliosis. Fiction – whether in the form of novels, television, cinema or another medium – has a massive impact on public perception, which can in turn lead to the very real consequences of changes to policies, laws and how people are treated in society.

Fictional portrayals of autism, for example, in addition to often portraying the spectrum inaccurately and as homogenous, have long perpetuated the stereotype that only Caucasian boys are affected, having the very real-world effect of BME people and girls on the spectrum being diagnosed at an older age, or not at all.

During my final year, I’m hoping to run for OUSU’s Vice President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, an elected, paid position which lasts for a year after my degree and would allow me to dedicate a full-time job to working with the liberation campaigns, including OSDC, and welfare contacts across colleges.

Other than that, I’ve been looking into MA and MSc courses in Disability Studies, which go down a social policy route, but also haven’t ruled out an MA in English and a variety of career paths which do not require further academic study.

Outside of Oxford, people may assume that the university is all about academic work and nothing else, but it was only as a student here that I realised extracurriculars could be just as important and fulfilling as academic work, and could be combined with it to pursue paths which are still yet to be widely pursued.'

New Generation Thinkers

Two Oxford academics have been selected as this year's New Generation Thinkers by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Eleanor Lybeck and Thomas Simpson are among ten early career researchers selected by an expert panel, after a nationwide search for the best academic ideas to be shared through broadcast. They will have the opportunity to make programmes for BBC Radio 3 and other outlets.

Eleanor Lybeck is a lecturer in English in the Faculty of English Language and Literature and Trinity College. Her research is on the history and practice of popular performance from the turn of the 19th century, including the story of her great-grandfather who made his name as a stage clown and joined the D’Oyly Carte company performing around the world in comic operas.

When Eleanor’s father disappeared from her own life in 1993 he took with him the remnants of her great-grandfather’s career, which she has now recovered and stitched together to tell the tale of this once celebrated and now forgotten figure of the theatre. She has explored how the circus has been a theme running through Irish culture. Her new project will explore how contemporary political rhetoric has, since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, appealed to voters through literary and cultural allusion.

She says: 'I’ve been researching the biography of my great-grandfather, the comic actor and patter baritone Albert James, for more than a decade. In that time, I’ve told his story and the story of the marvellous worlds in which he moved at the turn of the nineteenth century through poetry, creative non-fiction, and theatre itself. Becoming one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers is such an exciting opportunity, as it’s a chance for me to reintroduce Albert and other once famed, now forgotten stars of Edwardian London’s theatreland to an international audience.' 

Tom Simpson is a lecturer in Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. He is engaged on research into trust; how it works, what is its significance in society and how cultures of trust can be restored. As a former officer with the Royal Marines Commandos he also worked on the ethics of war, exploring the intersection of war and technology. This includes the ethics of lethal automated weapons and surveillance and how this raises political questions far deeper than those considered in the public debate up to now such as what liberty is and why it matters.

He says: ‘I’m delighted by the chance that being one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers gives to explore some of the deeper issues behind the headlines. Trust has steadily declined in the last decades, and this is affecting our economy, our politics, and life in local communities. I’m interested in how we can restore trust. As a former Royal Marine, I’m also concerned by questions around how the military and security agencies use technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet. Some of these questions are new, and others are as old as philosophy.'

More information on the scheme can be found here. Previously Oxford winners include Leah Broad, Kylie Murray, Daniel Lee, Will Abberley, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and Jonathan Healey.

Great Hall

The annual meeting of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, is taking place in Beijing this week. The meeting of China’s national legislature, which runs until March 15, is often seen as a guide for how China’s leadership is thinking.

Rana Mitter, who is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and director of the University of Oxford’s China Centre, expects that housing and the environment will be among the main themes of meeting.

‘A lot of the real stuff is done behind the scenes but I would expect certain themes to be spoken about,’ he says. ‘One of those is housing. As in many countries around the world, housing is becoming increasingly expensive for China’s middle class and much of the property growth in China has been fuelled by a boom in credit, which isn’t sustainable, so I’d expect to see some questions about the economy and how housing fits into that.

‘Something else they should also be talking about is the environment. It is well known that China’s cities are now suffering from incredibly bad pollution, the kind of thing that can actually force people not to go outside because they may immediately have a problem with breathing and the Chinese government knows that is not sustainable in the long term, so I hope the NPC will be talking about ways to tackle those issues.’

Professor Mitter also discussed a recent BBC story in which the reporter had his camera damaged and was forced to sign a confession for trying to interview a ‘petitioner’ – that is, someone who visits Beijing to take their grievances to the State Bureau of Letters and Calls because they have been denied justice through their local courts.

Professor Mitter says this heavy-handed response is related to the holding of the National People’s Congress. ‘This is what happens right around major events like this - Beijing goes on lockdown, so it’s disheartening but not entirely surprising to see how swiftly they have cracked down on the petitioners,’ he says. ‘At other times of the year, and particularly outside Beijing at the local level in China, you will see a certain amount more success.

‘There are various mechanisms that the petitioners can use – not just using a letter but also these days using social media and e-government to try and make their complaints known. So while it is patchy and not the same as you would have in a liberal democracy such as the UK, there is a certain amount of permeability in the system to allow complaints to get through.’

He adds that the explosion of the internet in China has made it easier for people to share and request information. ‘One of the great transformations of conversation in China in the last five to ten years has been the growth of the internet,’ he says.

‘One of the reasons it has been so important is that official media is censored strongly so trying to get a story in the People’s Daily, the main Party newspaper, would not be the best way to investigate a story. But the slightly freer media or the media that is attached to some of the very popular video sites that have millions and millions of viewers in China can be an effective way of doing that.’

Professor Mitter was speaking to the BBC’s TV programme, Impact Asia with Mishal Husain.

Writing group

A twice-weekly academic writing group which was set up for PhD students and early career researchers at Oxford University has been credited with boosting productivity and reducing stress.

The group's founder is Dr Alice Kelly, the Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute. In a guest post, she tells the story of the writing group:

'Most people need structure, accountability and discipline if they are to work productively. But this is exactly what disappears when highly qualified, often perfectionistic people start the rewarding but lengthy and lonely PhD process.

This is especially true in the humanities, where, in contrast to the more communal research environment that scientific teams enjoy, study is often solitary. I believe that universities can, and should, do much more to generate a sense of group motivation, camaraderie and peer support among early career scholars in the humanities.

I convene a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers to write together for three hours twice a week. After coffee, I ask everyone to share their goals for the first 75-minute session with their neighbour. Goals must be specific, realistic and communicable, such as writing 250 words or reworking a particularly problematic paragraph. I set an alarm and remind everyone not to check email or social media. When the alarm goes off, everyone checks in with their partner about whether or not they achieved their goal. After a break, we do it again. After our Friday morning sessions, we go for lunch together. And that’s it.

Yet the impact of the group in terms of writing productivity, reducing student stress and promoting a sense of community has been profound – beyond what even I had anticipated when I first introduced these sessions at the interdisciplinary Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) in October 2015. Since its beginning, the group has been enormously popular and is always oversubscribed. I have become convinced that such writing groups are an affordable and highly effective way of reducing early career isolation and improving mental health, and could be implemented more widely.

Participants reported the positive effects in two anonymous surveys for our humanities division. They value the sessions’ imposition of routine, realism about expectations and embodiment of the principle that thinking happens through, not before, writing (known as the “writing as a laboratory” model). Respondents were pleasantly surprised at their own productivity. One said: “I never thought I could accomplish so much in one hour, if I really committed, without interruptions”.

Another said: “It seems I lost the fear of finishing things when I was surrounded by other people.” Participants also reported adopting their newly established good habits outside the sessions.

Most evident, however, was respondents’ improved sense of morale and peer support. One noted that “the PhD can be such an isolating experience; it’s very calming to come to a place where, twice a week, we’re reminded that working independently doesn’t have to mean working alone”. Another referred to the group as “an invaluable resource that should be mandatory for all PhDs”.

The writing group offers, for six hours a week, what most workers get every day: a start time, a stop time and peer pressure not to procrastinate on the internet. Over a term’s worth of attendance, this produces serious results.

One participant had “rewritten a draft thesis chapter, written a conference abstract, edited two reviews for an online publication, finished two book reviews and edited several chapters of a volume”.

My role in the group varies between friend, peer, disciplinarian, mentor, stand-in supervisor, and a regular fixture offering some stability and continuity. If people don’t show up, I hold them accountable. If they are struggling with a piece of writing, I talk them through it.

The group has unexpectedly become an informal forum for all the academic questions we’re not sure who else to ask about, and has therefore had a serious impact on pastoral care through peer support.

As someone who worked long hours through the four years of my PhD – in exhausting periods of “binge writing” and unnecessarily time-consuming revisions – I am now a vocal advocate of short bursts of focused attention and writing as a routine practice, with mandatory time off from academic work.

One survey respondent noted that the group “has given me the sense that I have a working week and am not expected to work 24/7; it has helped me treat my degree as a job”.

As the group has developed, I have investigated strategies to make the sessions more effective. One idea was to organise a manual or sensory activity (colouring in or listening to music, for instance) during the break; another was to make participants set regular goals on index cards and to add a gold star when they achieve them.

Writing marathons – two three-hour sessions, separated by lunch – are useful for meeting end-of-term deadlines. The combination of accountability and reward (group celebrations at the end of a goal period, or when somebody submits their dissertation) motivates participants both to push themselves and to be pleased with their progress.

There is surprisingly little literature on the benefits of writing in group settings. Very helpful texts, such as Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse (1999) and Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot (2007), advocate scheduled writing, goal setting and monitoring progress, but do not address the high levels of self-discipline needed for regular independent writing that a group provides.

Meanwhile, the literature considering writing groups, such as Rowena Murray and Sarah Moore’s The Handbook of Academic Writing (2006) or Claire Aitchison and Cally Guerin’s volume Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond (2014), promotes them for collaborative writing or peer review purposes, rather than improved morale and community.

Amid mounting demands for “outputs” and increasing evidence of chronic stress and mental health problems among academics, having an academic writing group at every university could be a simple yet powerful way of making the task of writing more productive and rewarding for the next generation of scholars.'

This article was originally published in the Times Higher Education.

Ashmolean Supersonic

A supersonic night

Matt Pickles | 6 Mar 2017

The decibel level was raised at a sound-themed event at the Ashmolean Museum on Friday night (3 March).

SUPERSONIC was the latest event in the Museum's popular 'LiveFriday' series, and it involved Oxford University’s Music Faculty, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford Contemporary Music, and Oxford Brookes University’s Sonic Art Research Unit (SARU).

On the night, there were bite-sized lectures from many academics from the University’s Music Faculty, including Professor Eric Clarke.

‘LiveFriday’s ‘Supersonic’ theme was a great opportunity to showcase a whole variety of fascinating activities in and around sound, sound-art and music, involving the Oxford Faculty of Music, Oxford Contemporary Music and other guests and contributors,’ says Professor Clarke.

‘There are no human cultures without music - so music is as defining of what it is to be human as anything else. What better way to explore and acknowledge that fantastic human attribute than by coming to the wonderful Ashmolean Museum, and hearing, seeing and participating in all the musical performances, workshops and talks that will be on offer.’

Professor Clarke told an attentive audience about his new research into the link between music, empathy and cultural understanding. ‘Our research demonstrated that just listening to the music of other cultures can have significant effects on people’s more general cultural attitudes,’ he said.

There were performances from student electronic ensembles such as Sal Para (Tremor Recordings) and Wandering Wires.There were sound art installations throughout the museum, and an interactive songwriting workshop.

Perhaps the most eye-catching part of the event was a ‘swinging’ concert grand piano suspended high above the ground in the Ashmolean’s atrium.

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