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ESA PhD Summer School 2020 - Plans and Reality

Issue 46: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 2 Sat 1 May 2021 0
PhD gathering

Plans and Reality

Milica Antić Gaber, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

"Although it would have been great to meet my fellow participants and the faculty in person, I felt the SS was a huge success as a hybrid model."

ESA now has a long tradition of PhD summer schools organised annually and they have always been unique opportunities for PhD students to meet, socialise and discuss their early work. But this year was unique in a different sense because decisively marked by a pandemic situation.

A year ago, when I offered myself to serve as a director of the ESA PhD SS 2020 and organise it in Ljubljana (Slovenia), I had a completely different picture in my mind.

Informed by my colleagues, previous organisers of the Summer Schools, I was sure that organisation of this highly valued event would not be simple, quite the contrary. I was sure that it would not be easy to meet the expectations of PhD students and professors. But the driving force behind the decision was also the idea of giving to the students and professors the opportunity to visit Ljubljana and Slovenia; the great opportunity to meet professors and students from different countries in person and many more. But in the end these plans did not come to fruition. Organising it turned out to be far more complex, far more complicated and also more demanding than expected.

PhD Lunch

But let me start my report by offering you a short overview of the facts.

The 2020 ESA PhD Summer School was held in Ljubljana on 20-21 of September. A total of 137 PhD students applied to attend and 25 from 12 European countries were selected through a review process undertaken by the ESA Post-Graduate committee, who did a great job in this selection process.

This year the title of the school was Enhancing Sociology – Strengthening Sociologists and applicants were asked to focus on the preparation of an article for publication in one of the scientific journals in the area of Social Sciences and Humanities. They also got the instructions about how to prepare and present their papers and how to discuss the papers of their colleagues.

Students were, as they usually are, asked to read all the papers in advance and to discuss the one allocated to them. In addition, the students were promised an opportunity to meet the local sociologists (President of Slovene Sociological Association Hajdeja Iglič and the Editor of its Journal Družboslovne razprave Marjan Hočevar); to listen to the lecture of the president of ESA prof. Marta Soler Gallart, who has a wide experience in the field as an Editor of the ISA Journal International Sociology on “Getting Published in a High-Ranking Sociological Journal”; and to meet and discuss with the editors of ESA journals (European Societies and European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology) Michalis Lianos and Paul Blokker on How to publish a good sociological paper. The School was also planned to actually start with the Feminist Walk through the streets of Ljubljana uncovering the hidden stories of remarkable women.

This was the plan. And now to the reality?

Reality of Corona virus changed the plan substantially. First, we (the ESA Post-Graduate Committee), due to all the restrictions, decided to change the format of the School and to organise it in a hybrid model – which at that time I couldn't imagine what exactly that might bring altogether. Yet we were determined that we didn’t want to move it totally on-line and also that we didn't want to postpone it indefinitely. With these decisions accepted all the rest was left to our imagination.

The more September approached the more obvious it was that organisation of the event would be a challenge. The nearer we were to the start of the school the more unexpected events occurred. Some of the professors had already informed me that they could not travel, but two of them cancelled their travel and participation in person at the last moment. Similarly with the students; the deeper we were in September the more cancelations we got. In the end only nine participants were able to travel and to attend the school in person in Ljubljana and those (with two exceptions from UK and Lithuania) travelled from the nearest central European countries Italy, Austria and Germany. The other sixteen participants joined on Zoom.

PhD Zoom

The work of the school was organised in two parallel sessions, in three time slots, in which two professors in each served as Chair and Discussant.

The work of the Chair in the “real rooms” was to take care of the participants in the “real room” and in the virtual one; to mute and un-mute the speakers in the “real room” and in the virtual one; to direct the camera in the “real room” when somebody discussed the paper there in order to present the Zoom participants the atmosphere in-there, etc.. Contrary to the fears at the beginning of the school, except for a few difficulties at the start, there were no big issues in simultaneously doing all these and supporting the work of the participants in the groups – mainly also thanks to the excellent work of my assistant Nuša Knez which was of immense support.

"I am not a technology geek whatsoever hence was a bit concerned about the fact that we would be mainly in front of screens which would pretty much impede the interaction we would normally have. However, I really enjoyed this hybrid model and I cannot say that I would have learned more if everybody had been in the room altogether."

We were – due to the measures then in force in Slovenia – not even allowed to have coffee breaks and lunches in the premises of the Faculty of Arts (University of Ljubljana). However, luckily there were few coffee shops and restaurants near the building and we were able not to spend much more time for these needs. But I’m sure that the breaks were nevertheless too short to meet participants expectations and needs to talk to each other, discuss some issues that started in the rooms and also to get to know each other and enlarge their networks, not to mention all the socialising moments that will come with the PhD summer school next year.

"I really enjoyed the casual and supportive atmosphere of the sessions. Compared to other academic settings I've encountered, this was really pleasant and gave me the impression of a space in which I can discuss my paper without feeling urged to defend it."

The participants were genuinelly  grateful for the presentation of our president Marta Soler Gallart which in their mind was of extreme importance for their future work and careers.They were also really happy to meet and listen to the presentations by local sociologists and the editors of ESA journals which they found very useful.

Despite all the constraints and all the limitations of this kind of organisational frame, the participants’ reactions and reflections after the school were full of praise, respecting all the organisational efforts and all the care that were taken of those in Ljubljana and the ones participating virtually.

Yet, they all mentioned that, despite all the efforts and good organisation, they missed the opportunity to meet and discuss in person with other participants. What they missed the most was to meet professors and talk to them in and also after the sessions and all in all to have more time for discussion.

"I must admit that I also benefited a lot from the comments and discussions (about my paper) after the regular sessions – during the coffee breaks and at lunch/dinner in the restaurants.  Thus, the benefit would have been even bigger if more students and professors would have been able to attend in person."

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