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Staying Positive - PhD Life under Lockdown with Thomas A. Husøy

Since the UK announced its Lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, academia has been in a weird place. Schools are closed, universities are closed, and a good deal of jobs have been left empty. So, what’s happening? How are students and academic professionals managing?

With schedules seemingly freed up, travel plans halted, among other cancelled social events such as weekly meetups with friends down the pub, on the surface it looks like the academic world has been given an abundance of free time. Free time to read, to work on a project, to learn a new language, all sorts of things we wouldn’t have been able to do before social distancing measures became commonplace. At least, that’s what it appears.

The reality for many scholars is that a wave of new responsibilities has been placed on them: not only to stay inside and comply with social distancing, but also to make up for the time lost with new ways of studying and communicating. There is a real internal dilemma between the freedom of staying at home, and working tirelessly slouched over a desk at home, unable to leave.

For many students, the shift from seminars and sat exams to zoom lectures and online tests has been whiplash-inducing. The necessity for an internet connection has never been higher; for assessment deadlines in particular, a faulty online connection could cost a student dearly if they are unable to submit a piece of work on time.

Teachers and academic professors have it no better. One can only imagine the rush to digitise pre-planned lessons, the flood of emails and queries from students, all alongside the general sense of nationwide cabin fever. Truly these times are extenuating circumstances.

But there is hope. A sense to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as the internet of 2010 liked to remind us.

There are plenty of ways one can deal with lockdown, many of which are therapeutic and beneficial to mental health. Cooking and baking are ever-popular (especially sourdough recipes), taking a walk is always great, exercising even better, and playing an instrument certainly puts your mind in a good place – even if its for ten minutes of an otherwise hectic day. No time for practical things? Listen to an audiobook, your favourite chill tunes, or even try Headspace if that’s more your speed.

Lockdown doesn’t have to be all work, but it is easy to trick oneself into thinking you’re being ‘unproductive’ or ‘wasting time’. Often the mental breaks you reward to yourself can leave a sense of guilt, the idea that you should have been writing or studying while at home. But then again, nothing has been quite like this before, and there is no all-encompassing procedure to follow.

Here to talk about his own experience as an academic during these strange times is Thomas Alexander Husøy, a PhD student of Ancient History at Swansea University.

Hello Tom, thanks for agreeing to do this mini interview for New Classicists. How are you finding PhD life in lockdown?

For the first couple of weeks I found that I managed to stay productive, and largely finished one of my chapters. However, it has been increasingly hard to find motivation whilst being confined to the house for the majority of the day. It is also harder to get a hold of resources; while the new open-access resources are helping, some things are hard to get a hold of when libraries are closed. Luckily, I can find a lot of the resources I need for my next chapter online. I have been busy doing online talks, which has helped to keep me motivated.

That's good to hear! Certainly agree, motivation to work seems hard to find when you have an abundance of free time. What sort of online talks have you been involved in?

So far I have given a couple of online talks, the first for an online conference organised by scholars from the Autonomous University of Barcelona called ‘Stranger Things in Ancient Fiction in Historiography and Reception’. The second was a part of the the ‘Classical Mondays on the Sun’ series, organised by the same people as the previously mentioned conference. Unfortunately, I had some technological issues during this talk. Finally, in June I will be giving a talk at the Herodotus Helpline seminars. I am trying to attend many of these seminars as a listener, as I feel they help to establish contact networks which might have been much harder to establish before this crisis.

Having contact networks can definitely prove helpful, especially online. How different do you find online talks and screen-based conferences?

I find the format fascinating, and in some ways it is quite different. Presenting from the comfort of home feels a little strange and I do still prefer to travel to share my research in person and meet new people face to face; however, I do hope that we keep using this format for some conferences and seminars after this crisis as it is good concept and allows for an even more internationalised research environment.

Agreed, it's really revealed the strengths of online communication within academia. Amidst the struggles of lockdown, what research are you currently focusing on?

I have recently finished a case study on sub-regional identities in Phocis and I am now focusing on sub-regional identities and the Arcadians. I am in the early stages of this case study and am currently looking at the ethnogenesis of the Arcadians and their internal groupings.

You seem to specialise in identity studies and ancient Greek ethnicity, but how did this come to be your topic of interest? Have you had any other favourite topics across your undergrad and postgrad studies?

When I did my undergraduate I was originally thinking I would go on to do a Masters in Renaissance or Enlightenment studies! However, I became increasingly fascinated with the Ancient Greek world, especially after a study trip to Greece. To begin with it was mostly the Hellenistic period and the Achaean League which fascinated me. This interest grew during my Masters, although at that point I was not yet looking into identities. That interest began when I decided to do a PhD after a conference in Edinburgh. I was then determined to do a PhD looking at the development of federal states in Ancient Greece. After a few early meetings with my supervisor the project took a different turn, as we decided to include questions on how the identities of these groupings developed. As I was researching this I became increasingly fascinated with the sub-regional identities within larger groupings, which has since become the main focus of the PhD. Another field which has always interested me is Astrophysics and I was supposed to study this originally, but I changed my mind and the rest is now history.

Well best of luck with your studies from here on out! Do you have any final bits of advice for scholars and readers alike dealing with lockdown?

Well, mostly to stay positive and keep safe. These are unusual times, so don’t feel guilty if it affects your ability to do your work; instead just do what you can. Make sure to go for a walk now and then as this will help keep focused.

Thomas Alexander Husøy is a PhD student in Ancient History at Swansea University. His BA in History and Ancient History was completed at Swansea University in 2014 and his MSc in the Hellenistic World at the University of Edinburgh was completed in 2015. After a few years working in the heritage sector, Thomas began his PhD in Ancient History in 2018 researching regionalism and sub-regional identities in Ancient Greece.

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