Zoom, shut up and write: How PhD students cope amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted researchers, academics and students worldwide. No one in academia is spared the direct or indirect consequences of this novel coronavirus. For higher degree research (HDR) students (masters and PhD students), the impact of COVID-19 on their research and how they keep themselves sane and academically productive during these unprecedented times is profound.

How do HDR students go about dealing with the impact of the pandemic and the pressure to complete their masters or doctoral thesis, while at the same time keeping themselves safe and trying to juggle many other things, including work and family life?

Shut up and write

Anyone who is involved in research and publishing that research is likely to have heard of the concept ‘Shut Up and Write’ at some point in their academic journey. The idea of Shut Up and Write is simple. People who share a common goal – usually a goal to produce written texts – meet up with peers at a convenient venue and write.

According to the ‘Thesis Whisperer’, the aim behind the idea of Shut Up and Write is to “make the act of writing fun and relaxing” and transform a writing activity which is usually a solitary experience into a social one.

Key to the success of the Shut Up and Write groups or sessions are regular meetings with peers or colleagues, clear contact points for new members to join the session, short writing sprints and flexibility in terms of what tasks to complete during the Shut Up and Write time.

Shut Up and Write may in fact not work for everyone, but anyone – academics, students and others – can form a group or invite their colleagues or friends in their institution to participate in a Shut Up and Write session. As a group, they can agree on how long each session will last and how many micro-sessions or writing sprints there might be per Shut Up and Write session.

Usually each Shut Up and Write session involving participants meeting and writing in silence lasts for an hour or so. Participants can catch up over coffee afterwards.

However, these kinds of group meetings and social interaction are no longer possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced universities across the world to close their campuses and move their courses online.

In Australia, and especially in Queensland, universities started closing their campuses and began to transition to online delivery of lectures in March. Academics and students have been advised to work and study from home and observe social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

This new situation brings about new challenges for all students, particularly HDR students. Along with the fear of the virus and the unsettling changes the virus has brought to their daily and academic lives, HDR students are experiencing a significant level of stress.

Staying home under these conditions does not always allow them to focus on their main research task, that is, writing their thesis.

They may instead get blocked or become frustrated with their research and writing.

They cannot interact with their peers to ease any tension and stress as they would do when working at their desk on campus.

The idea of Shut Up and Write with their peers is not a viable option in any conventional sense. However, these challenges may be remedied through an online Shut Up and Write or what we call ‘Zoom, Shut Up and Write’. It’s a creative initiative that was suggested by co-author Daeul Jeong and the impact has been very positive.

Zoom, Shut Up and Write

This online Shut Up and Write session conducted via Zoom (or other alternatives such as Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams) offers a venue for HDR students to meet with peers online, commit to one or two writing sessions and interact with one another over their home-made coffee or tea, depending on their preferences.

To take part, students first need to meet up via Zoom (or other viable platforms) and discuss their daily goal as well as terms and conditions upon which they all agree. They can decide how long each online Shut Up and Write session will last, how many smaller sessions or sprints they wish to conduct during the Zoom, Shut Up and Write session and how long the break or interaction time they wish to have afterwards and-or between sessions might be.

Having decided on the goal they wish to achieve, what they will do and how long they will do it for, each participant can then turn off their own video and microphone and commit themselves to writing, say, for 50 or 60 minutes until an alarm set by the host or one of the participants rings.

When the alarm rings, all the participants stop writing and share what they have achieved or done during the writing session. It is important to note here that each participant is not required to achieve a substantial piece of reading or any writing at all. All they need is to commit to a task, preferably a writing task.

At the end of each session, when they share their achievements with one another, informal and friendly interaction, pep talks or discussion are encouraged. No judgement or critique should be made.

The purpose is to interact, support, motivate and inspire one another. Participants can then chat or discuss over their favourite coffee and decide whether they wish to engage in another micro writing session or simply call it a day.

Usefulness of Zoom, Shut Up and Write

This Zoom, Shut Up and Write session could be used as an alternative to the pre-pandemic Shut Up and Write, in order to help students focus.

Before embarking on this creative online writing activity, each of us tended to spend time at home in a more relaxed manner, which led to low written productivity. Knowing that others are committed to writing, we have begun to feel a sense of purpose, commitment and belonging which enables us to feel more energetic, committed and focused.

The lack of productivity we experienced at the beginning of lockdown has significantly lessened as a result.

The best part is that we can share the progress we have made during the session without fear of judgement and criticism. We can also share our achievements, challenges, stories and jokes in the post-writing session; and we don’t feel the same sense of isolation that we did before.

Expansion of the Zoom, Shut Up and Write model

We strongly believe that this social online writing activity can be expanded institutionally, nationally and internationally, either during the pandemic or even after it is over.

At the time of writing, the sessions have been taking place among the HDR students from the School of Education at the University of Queensland. In the future, we plan to invite other HDR students in the faculty of humanities and social sciences at the University of Queensland to broaden the shared benefits of increased productivity and networking enabled by the Zoom, Shut Up and Write sessions.

If things go as planned, we will expand it by reaching out to HDR students in the discipline of social sciences in other universities in Australia and across the world.

This Zoom, Shut Up and Write activity is inclusive in its nature. It may be expanded to include students and academics from a myriad of disciplines and universities across the world, which can be a new way of connecting, co-working and collaborating.

It can also be used as a tool for research collaboration, particularly collaboration that involves team members working in different localities across the globe.

In this respect, Zoom, Shut Up and Write can empower us to build a thriving global community of practice that is inclusive, transnational and virtual, particularly at a time when the world is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may provide ongoing opportunities to students, academics and other relevant actors for virtual interaction and collaboration across institutions and borders.

We see it as a creative and empowering initiative that can provide ways for us to interact, engage, motivate and support each other during this pandemic and beyond.

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, an Australia Awards scholar and a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. Daeul Jeong is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland and a UQ Research Training Scholarship recipient.