Turning a pandemic lens on my PhD research

10 Aug 2020
Lockdown sign


By Sharon Boyd, PhD candidate (Digital Cultures) and Senior Lecturer (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies)

Supervisors: Dr Jen Ross, Centre Co-Director (Digital Cultures - https://www.de.ed.ac.uk/people/dr-jen-ross) and Dr Beth Christie (Outdoor and Environmental Education - https://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/beth-christie)

What might a place-responsive approach to digital education look like? The importance of the places we are part of underpins my PhD research, which theorises the opening question and considers the creation and support of student-community engagement projects for online postgraduate students working at a distance from the University. Being “place responsive” moves beyond acknowledging how humans are embedded in local ecosystems, to critically working in and learning from those places. For more information on this concept, see my Networked Learning presentation and paper (Boyd, 2020). My participants include Masters students who are studying in the veterinary medicine & animal sciences fields. These fields draw on One Health concepts, recognising that ecosystem health includes the health of all beings, humans included. With this in mind, my reading and writing had moved beyond the practical creation of support for students engaging with their local communities to thinking about the many beings that constituted those communities.

Then the pandemic distracted my PhD focus. In the face of loss and lockdown, I was questioning whether to continue my research. The process of connecting more deeply to my local place has helped me to continue, as I welcomed the species I met during my limited daily outdoor time. Over the lockdown, I also observed increased use of digital and social media to document the tiny aspects of local nature that people had more time to notice. Charities like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reflected on the benefits of lockdown. The Scottish Wildlife Trust noted increased traffic on their wildlife webcams even when birds had finished nesting, as people enjoyed listening to the sounds of nature in their homes.

My joy in seeing and listening to those stories via social media led me back to the concept of eco-hermeneutics, coined by Kulnieks, Longboat and Young (2010). I had encountered this term earlier in the year, and it now came to the fore. Eco (ecological) hermeneutics involves a rediscovery of the “physical, ecological, and bio-cultural aspects” of the narratives embedded in the places where we are located. While the pandemic highlighted the one health perspective, it also limited opportunities for students to travel and/or work with wider human community groups in the same way I had previously anticipated. The celebration of local wildlife showed me how the process of listening to the stories in and of the land made visible the ecosystem communities that humans are a small part of.

With the lack of air and road traffic, it has become easier to hear the voices of the other beings who share their territories with us. Now that we have begun listening to our lands, we need to take time to reflect on what our non-human ecosystem community members are teaching us. There has been much talk of hybrid teaching for the new semester, with a focus on either face-to-face “on campus” or online (live or recorded) delivery. I invite you to remember to include outdoor spaces in that hybrid equation. Teaching and learning in the open air has physical and mental health benefits (Richardson, 2020). There are benefits in remembering that we are part of something bigger than the University, and that all teachers are not to be found online or in the lecture theatre.



Boyd, S. (2020). Place-responsive principles of sustainable networked learning. Paper presented at International Conference on Networked Learning 2020, Kolding, Denmark. https://www.networkedlearning.aau.dk/nlc2020/submissions/papers/#469236 [paper and presentation recording]

Kulnieks, A., Longboat, D. R., & Young, K. (2010). Re-indigenizing Curriculum: An Eco-hermeneutic Approach to Learning. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples6(1), 15-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/117718011000600102

Richardson, M. (2020). A new relationship with Nature: what it means and what we can do. Finding Nature blog of the Nature Connectedness Research Group, posted on April 8, 2020  https://findingnature.org.uk/2020/04/08/a-new-relationship-with-nature/