1st CYGNA Global Virtual Meeting: Coping with a Pandemic

Reports on our 31st CYGNA meeting - our first virtual meeting dealing with work-life balance during a pandemic

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we have had 30 physical meetings. A write-up of most meetings can be found here: CYGNA: Resource collection for the summer holidays. We were all set for another meeting at Loughborough University London in March when the coronavirus lockdown struck in the UK. Fortunately, we have all become used to meeting virtually. So after surviving the first busy lock-down month, we decided to move the May meeting online and adapt its theme! It proved to be the most exciting meeting yet with no less than 48 participants. Here are the first 25.

We had so many participants they didn't all fit on one screen. Here is the second screen with Heejin and Fiona repeated as they were the two of the three last ones on the first screen. I had to do some "cut-and-paste" from other pictures as by the time I took this screenshot some had turned their video off and others joined late. So don't be surprised if some of the pictures look a bit "off" :-)


Before the CYGNA virtual meeting itself, the CYGNA organizing team and our keynote speaker Alexandra Beauregard had two pre-meetings to go through the schedule for the day and test the functionality of the online platform. Here is our second meeting on the day itself.

Coffee reception

We had decided to try and mirror the atmosphere of a physical CYGNA meeting as much as possible. So our virtual CYGNA meeting started with a coffee reception, obviously with everyone making their own coffee! Shasha moved participants from the waiting room to the main room one-by-one and I played host and welcomed them, before giving them time to introduce themselves. Although this worked well and everyone was in the main room by the end of the reception, some participants felt a bit lonely having to wait in the waiting room. So next time we'll probably let everyone in at the same time and simply mute them until it is their turn to introduce themselves.

Overall, we had 78 CYGNA members registered of which 48 attended. Not a bad outcome for a 3-hour session for which members had to register before knowing their work schedule for the week. Several sent their apologies with the type of work and family crises that are the order of the day in COVID-19 times. We hope they can join us next time! Some of our more far-flung members might have reconsidered their attendance after realising the meeting was ending after midnight at their local time. So next time we'll probably run the session in the morning so that our Chinese, Japanese and Australian members can attend at a more civilised hour.

We were particularly pleased to see nearly 20 new attendees, CYGNA members who had not been able to attend a physical CYGNA meeting before. There were also many who had only attended once before or a few times over the years, but had since moved away from the UK. In all we had nine different countries represented, with a third of the participants not located in the UK.

Work-life balance during the pandemic

Alexandra Beauregard had kindly agreed to give a short presentation on work-life balance [presentation download] during the pandemic to kick off our meeting. Many of us already knew Alexandra and her academic work on work-life balance from earlier CYGNA meetings. Alexandra gave a brilliant and highly engaging presentation [picture courtesy of Natalia Fey], mixing some research with plenty of personal reflections. None of us wanted to believe that she hadn't done any online teaching before.

Personal reflections by CYGNA organizing team

The CYGNA organizing team had decided to each provide their reflections on the lockdown. This would provide a kick-off to the discussion and provide the opportunity to show our faces for those who didn't yet know us.

Virtual academic community building (Anne-Wil)

As I am not teaching this semester and don’t have any formal administrative or childcare duties, I have had a bit more time for additional work. So my focus in this period has been on virtual community building, both at Middlesex University and at CYGNA.

  • First of all, this has meant collating useful research and teaching resources. I distribute these on a weekly basis to Middlesex colleagues and CYGNA members. Although this has been quite a bit of work, I have really enjoyed doing this and feedback has been very positive. So I might well continue in post-COVID-19 times.
  • Second, I have been posting additional blogposts from my colleagues and co-authors about issues relating to COVID-19. One of them is on online teaching with Zoom and another one on how social and behavioural research can support the pandemic response. The latest entitled Saturday Night Fever during a pandemic deals with the benefits of dancing for physical and mental well-being.
  • Thirdly, early June I am organizing a virtual bootcamp with some 20 Middlesex participants. With this I am trying to at least partially replicate the experience of our yearly Middlesex onsite bootcamp at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Park. If this works well, we may consider running a similar bootcamp for CYGNA at some stage.

Personally, I haven’t really found the lockdown too hard. As a very strong introvert I don’t miss interaction with others as much as some of you might do. Moreover, my husband and I have been working from home most days for 35 years now and we both have a very nice home office, part of which you can see behind me on my picture. We live in a nice mid-sized town with a very large park and beautiful surrounding countryside, allowing us to keep up our daily long walks in nature.

We are no longer able to take the train to London on a regular basis for a bit more variety and museum visits, make day trips in the UK, or visit my parents in the Netherlands. But apart from that not that much has changed for us and I consider myself to be very fortunate in that respect.

Online teaching (Argyro)

Argyro Avgoustaki provided us with a really nice rundown of the pros and cons of online teaching. She had even done a little survey among her colleagues to get their experiences.

Advantages of online teaching

  • Less distractions for the professor
  • More organized: there is order in asking questions
  • Students seem more disciplined
  • Students seem to be more attentive than in class. Cold calling names proved that students are paying attention
  • Chatroom seems very handy as the students can post questions and the professor can answer
  • Students seem to like using emoticons, which makes the lecture fun
  • Motivation of the professor is sometimes higher. I am an extrovert and felt very motivated to teach. I even felt that I did not want the lecture to end. Because my teaching is usually concentrated, I end up being very tired. With online teaching, I felt I wanted to carry on and spend more time with the students
  • Spill over learning. Programme coordinators are following the course and some of them seem to be learning and view the lectures as a training and development
  • Strangely the online experience becomes more personal when the group is small, which seems to increase student satisfaction. Students often want to see how the professor is in her private life. For example, they ask me about the paintings they see in my background
  • If the students see that the professor is trying, they will appreciate it, no matter the issues, and will be patient. Students understand that after all, this (COVID, lockdown) is a unique situation and showing some understanding is the way to go

Challenges of online teaching

Apart from the common issues such as:

  • Professors or students are often thrown out of the platform
  • Exams cannot be monitored
  • Cheating cannot be easily detected
  • Unnecessary recording

The challenges in online teaching are:

  • Space. We share apartments, and thus working in our personal space becomes difficult. Especially if your house mates have online meetings or teaching as well
  • Sometimes it feels like you talk to yourself. You find yourself asking often “Hello, is anybody there?”
  • Students are in different time zones
  • The behaviour of other professors, such as delays or missing lectures will affect your lecture
  • Coordination issues in co-teaching. You have to be very explicit with your colleague about who is doing what task
  • Delays in starting time of the class, simply because it is an online class
  • Shorter lectures. Online lectures are still lectures and adapting teaching is important but cutting lectures short, in my opinion, should be avoided. If students get tired they can simply stay in the background or ask for a longer break
  • Material should be adapted to an online session. For example, very few slides might be an issue. Talking for 20-30 minutes while having one slide might be unattractive for the students while in class too many slides might be the problem
  • Students are sometimes shy to ask for clarification and since they cannot ask you during the break or after class, they might learn “less”
  • Case study analysis with student participation becomes problematic

More pictures

Just to liven up the post here is another picture, with one of my co-authors - Martyna Sliwa - speaking.

Student engagement and administration (Linn)

Linn Zhang draws on her experience as Chief Programme Director for all MSc programmes at Loughborough University London. The majority of students are international students from Asia.

Students were experiencing different phases as Covid-19 unfolded. They were uncertain about what they should think of the situation back in January and February. The majority of them are from China, and many of them already experienced the worst part of Covid-19 during their family visits then. While the formal policy remained vague, students were confused. Confusion and chaos then characterized March when Covid-19 developed swiftly in London. They started traveling back home while going through a second quarantine. In April most of my students were depressed and angry. Now in May they start to worry about their future in terms of employment.

I had to perform a great amount of emotional labour from late January onwards. Early March, I created a Covid-19 manifesto for my students asking them to:

  1. Have faith: You will be able to complete your degree if you follow the lead of your teachers.
  2. Stay calm: Covid19 actually has literally ZERO impact on your supervisory meetings for your dissertation.
  3. Remain flexible: We, your teachers and professional service staff, are all working very hard to make sure that you will be able to complete your degree within the normal schedule.
  4. Stay connected: Make use of the department's social media groups.
  5. Look forward to celebration time: We will have one or many celebrations as soon as social distancing ends! We will party, we will dance (…) to celebrate that we’ve all made it, and that we are proud of what we have achieved together during this challenging time.

As much as I prefer to keep work and life separated, I realized that I had to let my students into my personal weichat and whatsapp account in order to be able to manage crisis situations swiftly. I work closely with cohort representatives, organize regular Zoom chat for students and try to create some cohort spirit virtually.

More pictures

And another picture to liven up the post. Here it appears I am listening to my first PhD student Barbara (Vivian) Myloni.

Research-life balance (Shasha)

Shasha Zhao reflected on her experiences: As a mother of two, I have always been trying to find ways to juggle my research and childcare so that a some kind of ‘balance’ can be achieved and constantly maintained. This had always been somewhat difficult and more so since the start of the lockdown as I felt the ‘pre-Covid’ balance was challenged. For example, I had no idea about how to home-school so I had to spend time learning about home-schooling and doing many other things that were once done at school. This was when it hit me that I needed to learn to find a ‘new’ balance during the pandemic.

I wish I had great ideas and solutions to share with other mums of the network or to say that I have found the ‘magic wand’ and each day is well-structured. However, in reality my newly found research-life ‘balance’ is pretty much based on my rather reactive thinking and approach as I learn to deal with this new crisis on a daily basis. However, one thing I have found useful and would like to share is to be resilient emotionally and healthy physically! For me this has been the key way to ‘survive’ effectively under the pandemic, with both research and life taken care of as best as one can.

Q&A, small group discussions and goodbye

We had an extensive Q&A session expertly moderated by Shasha. This was the part of the meeting we had been most worried about as we weren't sure how to best manage this. In the end it went fine with some participants raising their hands with the Zoom "raise hand" feature, some raising their own hands and others typing their question in the chat. It was very hectic for Shasha, but she did a great job.

We had been going for nearly two hours by then, so about half of the participants had to leave for other meetings or home-school/cooking duties or (for those in China or Japan) simply got to sleep. Shasha randomly divided the remainder into small groups for easier discussion. After half an hour of small group discussions we were zoomed back to the main room and said goodbye to some by video and others by chat. Ling is alerting Shasha that some of us are still muted and that the all powerful technical host Shasha, also known as M, needs to unmute us.

What did participants like most?

The inclusivity of the session - considerably more colleagues were able to join. 2. The frank and personal nature of the presentations. 3. The session was very professionally managed.

I find the virtual format really helpful. I struggled to fit the face-to-face meeting to my schedule, so the virtual meetings are so much more convenient for me.

To meet new people in the academic field from different countries.

The interaction with different CYGNA members and the presentation of Alexandra, especially the part of boundary theory.

Truly wonderful to meet everyone and feel part of CYGNA community.
I enjoyed almost everything... Firstly, the opportunity to see all these colleagues. It is a great opportunity for me because I cannot attend your meetings in person.
It was great to hear the views of so many women academics who are experiencing the same issues in the current situation.
Connecting with CYGNA members even after I came back to Japan, Knowing that everyone has similiar kind of difficulties now, and how others deal with them.
1) To see members' face, since we were not able to see each other in e.g. UK-I AIB conference. 2) contents of presentation and Q&A.  There are many issues which I did not expect and many issues which are the same with me.
People were kind and receptive. This is a good start anywhere.
The sense of community, seeing everyone and hearing from the experience of others, which "normalised" my feelings about how I had experienced the pandemic.   Alexandra's presentation was great, with a great mix of her personal story/experience and academic concepts & strategies.  I also thought the break out rooms were great, in smaller groups, but not too long away from the whole group.   And I really enjoyed the "hanging around" at the end, and I thought that was also just the right length, finished when I too was getting tired.
The opportunity to enrol so many like-minded colleagues in one single online event. Also, the welcome and the meeting management was well done and a learning experience for managing my future online classes.

The diehards

At the end of the small group discussions, we did hang on in the main meeting room with the diehards. I am not sure what Argyro's joke was in the picture below, but it looks like it was a very good one! Finally, we had a debrief session with the organizing team. By the time we logged off, we had been online for nearly four hours. But time had flown. Looking forward to the next virtual CYGNA meeting!

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