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He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?

With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?

And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
We have a right to know

Three verses from Tom Waits’ song What’s He Building

The Spring term has recently ended. I want to acknowledge all the work my colleagues and friends at Birkbeck have been doing to get through this term and all the support from friends and family, remote and near, that this has required. I was officially on sabbatical/study leave this term which meant I felt even more distant from colleagues as I didn’t have to attend as many online meetings or do any teaching. I know for those who have been managing the shift to online, this has been a really tough term. The lock-down has highlighted the wide variety of circumstances people are living through. My own privilege is made more obvious as I have a happy, stable home from which to continue work in a relatively stable job. Most people around me do not have these basic conditions, let alone the prospect of a sabbatical!

As a full time academic I can apply for a term of study leave after every 9 terms (3 years) of service. I started work at Birkbeck in 2010, had one sabbatical in Spring term 2014. This is my second term of study leave. As pointed out on the Birkbeck website: Study Leave is primarily for the benefit of the College, as well as enhancing the career of the staff member concerned.

The reality of going on study leave during the pandemic has been a mix of a relief (not having the pressures of lots of online meetings and teaching prep and delivery) but also slightly compromising in terms of getting any research done. As with so many people during this period, trying to work and do the childcare has been challenging, particularly as we have been shielding as our daughter Alice has Down’s Syndrome and has a compromised immune system. We have been missing the external support of her other carers during this period. My husband and I have had to cover 100% of the childcare so we divided up the week and have basically been operating on a tag team system: I have been doing approx. 2.5 days childcare while Barry works and approx 3 (long) days Birkbeck while Barry does the childcare, made possible because his freelance work has taken a hit. Life is either Birkbeck work or home/child-care work and not much in between! We try and have Saturday mornings and Sundays together as a family. We are very fortunate we have each other to share the childcare and housework and can both work from home. The happiness and safety of our kids has been our priority throughout, and I feel so fortunate I’ve had this time with them. Although it’s been intense at times, we’ve mainly been dancing and singing through the mayhem! Their daily needs, demands and tomfoolery keeps us distracted, grounded and exhausted.

Despite feeling constantly busy, I often feel I am doing very little or never enough. This has been an ongoing trait of mine and probably has some deep roots in a protestant work ethic, years of being self-employed and some insecurities about whether what I’m busying myself with is considered worthwhile by others. My very supportive mentor Katie Grant suggested I write down a list of things I’ve done during this study leave.

So this is a list of things I’ve done between 27 April 2020 to 10 July 2020, in no particular order, during the approx 36 days I’ve been doing the work that isn’t childcare or domestic work, but which has been fitting around it and amongst it. It would have been much harder to this without the support of my husband Barry Sykes (solidarity to all those single parents!) and my supportive work place for paying me full time throughout, and my work colleagues, particularly Simone Wesner, Lina Dzuverovic, Elena Yuan and Mike Brimfield for dealing with the knock-on effects of being a ‘man-down’. Huge thanks and appreciation also to Jenny Richards and Owen Kelly, my long term research collaborators who I love working with so much.

Writing this list has made me realise a lot has been done, and that I have managed to do some practice-based research despite not leaving the house (specifically the Global Staffroom podcast, MIAAW podcast, finishing off an article, planning and starting the BE PART evaluation and making a start on a book proposal). These projects, apart from the book proposal and article, are in their admin-heavy stages (an important and necessary aspect of practice-based research for me), and so I still feel I haven’t done the reading and writing that I’d hoped the sabbatical would allow me time for.

While term officially ends, online academic life continues in a similar pattern as it has this term, but with teaching prep and planning for the Autumn term taking precedence over research. I’m looking forward to at least a week ‘off’ in August!

In no particular order… [27 April 2020 to 10 July 2020]

Approx 6 c. 2 hour PhD tutorials plus all the reading prep

Approx 4 MA dissertation tutorials plus reading prep

Co-organised and co-hosted 14 live podcasts called The Global Staffroom with Jenny Richards with c.30 guests every Monday at 12noon (20 April – 20 July)

Made corrections to a peer-reviewed article I wrote earlier this year (yet to be published, but article accepted)

Pre-recorded a Room at the Top session with Simone Wesner for our Arts Management students

Co-organised an online game show with Rebecca Davis and Henry Mulhall as part of a new piece of research/evaluation I’m working on with Henry Mulhall for the BE PART network, plus meetings and planning for this work.

Interviewed by Kim Wide (Take a Part) for Plymouth Culture (not live yet)

Peer reviewed an article

Planned and delivered of 2 online workshops for Creativity Works, which included making a short video (see below)

Recorded 4 new MIAAW podcast episodes with A Little Piece of Land, Andrew Demitrius, David Teevan and Loraine Leeson

Discussions / interviews with 3 prospective PhD students

Organised an online Show and Tell Corkscrew workshop with Henry Mulhall and Selina Robertson

Applied to Birkbeck for some funding for the Corkscrew podcasts (successful but not heard if I can spend it next year instead of this year)

Co-organised with Rebekah Cupitt 2 online Reclaim the Tea Breaks with colleagues in my department as we were missing the informal space to chat and catch up

Read various blogs, articles, chapters such as The Angry Worker’s Class Power on Zero Hours, The White Pube’s piece on riots and reform, Johanna hedva’s Sick Women Theory…

UCU Case work

Attended an online MA Arts Management student dissertation workshop

Prepared and co-hosted (with Henry Mulhall) an online workshop for UP Projects and Constellations using Cards on the Table

Started, very tentatively, a book proposal

Started an (international) online reading group of Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson

1 x Research meeting

2 x Arts Management meetings

1 x Birkbeck online open evening

1 x PhD viva as external examiner (online), plus reading prep and feedback


Video made as part of my workshop for Creativity Works

Image: experimenting with home-made filters during the workshop for Creativity Works

Image: collaging at home during lockdown

image: still from the online BE PART game show with participants from 10 countries across Europe hosted by Mavis Davis (29 May 2020)