A Year and A Week – Part 1

A year and a week. This is how much time has passed since I last wrote a blog post. Ouch.

When I first realised this, I was shocked and disappointed with myself. I had become that person who set out to do something, but had not achieved it. For me, this is a situation that is familiar territory. Why is this? Well, mostly because as a rule, I set out to achieve the impossible on an almost daily basis. I like to say yes to everything, to take risks, push boundaries, and I am certainly not afraid to embrace failure. Therefore, feeling as I did about this blog was an inevitability. And yet, here I am again, typey typey writey writey, on the keyboard. It’s good to be back, as some say. When will I see you again, as others say too.

My aim? To look back over this time elapsed, and bring both myself, and anyone who is interested up to date, in a manner of speaking.

Time Is Relative

As of today, Tuesday 16th April 2024*, there are 224 weeks and 1 day remaining until the official end date of my PhD studentship, which is Thursday 3rd August 2028. I was hoping to embed a fancy countdown timer into the page, but it was taking too long to find out how to do it (now that is ironic), so you will just have to take my word for this complex mathematical time-space calculation. (Found a countdown timer) 🙂

Given that 53 weeks has passed since I last wrote a blog post I can make some sort of relative judgement as to the qualities of how much time I have left – just over 4 times. 4.307 to be precise. However, I’ll be honest – that doesn’t have the desired impact on my mental state. I’m looking for something much more pressing, something tangible I can get my head around. So I’ll go with the weeks remaining countdown.

Time management (or the lack of it) has been a recurring theme over the past year. I’ve tried several different weekly work patterns – 3-6pm Mon-Wed, half day Tue & Wed, all day Thu… – all of which start out with the best intentions but then things happen to disrupt and derail. I’ve also tried, with some degree of success, joining ‘micro’ writing retreats on City campus. They work for sure, providing a fleeting glimpse of the ideal state of focused, distraction free time to write. It does, however, remind me of trying to home school my wonderful children during the pandemic, which works absolutely fine until you have to do something else instead, at which point the children do exactly the same, different, thing. I’m a mature adult for gawds sake – why do I need (and willingly consent to) another mature adult standing at the front of the room to ‘get me in the zone’. Pffft. How did it come to this??

* the date I started writing this blog post BTW.

Regather Is Working

Well, one of the reasons it has come to this, is that whilst I’m studying part time, I continue to also work for a living at Regather, which is the co-operative enterprise I set up in 2010.  The past 12 months have been super busy for Regather, we have been working at the heart of a city and region wide food system sustainability movement. Here are the highlights:

The year has not been without it’s challenges though. The slow but steady post-Covid decline in customer numbers, accelerated by price and wage inflation and cost-of-living pressures has taken it’s toll. Whilst the Regather Box scheme itself continues to thrive and remain profitable, this is not always enough to sustain the substantial (and still growing) programme of social purpose activities Regather undertakes across Sheffield. Therefore Regather has had to become more reliant on grant funding to resource these activities. Thankfully we have been successful in attracting funding, for example, from the Co-operative Foundation for our Eat Trees Sheffield project, and from the University of Sheffield for our Urban Agricultural Task Force, which is part of the SYSC.

The other huge challenge has been a period of profound uncertainty around our main premises, the Regather Works, in Sharrow. We’ve had to deal with negotiating a mid lease rent review, the very real possibility of breaking our long lease, looking for and not finding suitable premises for relocation, our owners announcing their intention to sell the property and a last minute dash to submit a major grant funding application to bring the property into community ownership. It’s been hugely stressful and time consuming, and I have had a central role in steering a course through it all. A silver lining has been the overwhelmingly positive response to a community survey we did, with over 1000 responses in 48 hours, more than half of which were statements of profound support and appreciation from the community. We are now awaiting the outcome of the Community Ownership Fund application, and making plans for a membership drive and community share offer / crowdfunding campaign.

Life Is Real

Another dominant theme throughout the year is real life, being, well, just way too real. I’ll not go into all the details. Those involved – you know who you are, and you know how the year happened. The headlines? That’s easy – parenting, weather, strikes, therapy, illness, accidents, disease and death. All unavoidable features of life, mostly outside of ones control. That’s just how it is. However, the consensus within the Roberts household is that in the case of 2023 the timing could have been definitely been more kind. Still, we rolled with the punches, and came out the other side more humble and stronger.

That said – it has made progress with the PhD studies really very challenging at times.

PhD Studies

So what progress have I made in the past year? Here’s a bullet point summary, in no particular order…

  • In Feb 2023 I submitted a Critical Thinking in Business Administration assignment. By late April I was informed I had failed the assignment, and would need to resubmit in July 2023. Boo! Fortunately by August 2023 I had resubmitted and passed the assignment. Yay!
  • In April 2023 I submitted my RF1. As well as completing the form, this also involved undertaking online ethics training and producing a development needs analysis and plan. I’m pleased to confirm the RF1 was approved without amendments in May 2023. Yay! I think a key factor in this was attending the “SERI – Demystifying the RF1” session a couple of times, and asking for (and getting) some excellent support from the Doctoral School / SERI admin teams, which was much appreciated. Thanks guys!
  • For various good, and well supported, reasons I deferred the Research Approaches and Designs module from 2023, to 2024. Watch this space…
  • During October – November 2023 I attended a number of online training sessions provided by University of East Anglia providing a range of research and professional skills training delivered in a ‘live-taught’ online format by the excellent Dr Simon Watts. I attended eight sessions in total, on academic publishing, analysing qualitative data, comparing qualitative methods, lit reviews, Nvivo software, interviewing, structuring your thesis and writing effectively. I find them enjoyable to attend, highly useful, and have  been referring back to the session recordings which can be downloaded afterwards on a regular basis.
  • Out of curiosity I attended a half day White Rose Social Sciences Doctoral Training Partnership event at the University of Sheffield. I had an enjoyable catch up with Richard White. who’s work I find really interesting, and I met some interesting early stage PhD students, but found that this programme was one too much opportunity than I could actually make the best of.
  • During July 2023 I revisited the Great Yorkshire Show. This was a really enjoyable day out (I love a good agricultural show of course!) but more importantly it gave me the perspective of time to reflect on the suitability of the Show as a focus of my research. The resounding conclusion was that for me, the Show was not going to work. Too big, too busy and too time constrained mainly, but also an institution that is hundreds of years old and steeped in culture and tradition. Fascinating, yes, but not what I’m after.
  • Interestingly, the experience of applying for, being selected and participating in the South Yorkshire Citizens Assembly was another incredibly useful opportunity to reflect on my studies, and consider the suitability of Deliberative Democracy as a focus of my research. Whilst writing the Critical Thinking assignment I did read around the topic, in particular Deliberative Policy Analysis. The experience of participating in the assembly, but also (I think more importantly) having the opportunity to meet and spend time learning from academics acting as observers at the Assembly to undertake their own primary research led me to recognise where my own particular interests did or didn’t align.
  • More recently I’ve joined a follow up workshop series called Climate ReAssemblies, exploring the use of interactive documentaries as a democratic tool for innovating citizen engagement in post-climate assemblies and climate policy more generally. I’ll share more on this as the project evolves.
  • During late Summer 2023 another interesting opportunity for a research focus began taking shape involving Sustain and Land Workers Alliance, who were leading a National Lottery Climate Action Fund stage 2 bid called Tasting a Better Future. Through Regather I had an inside track on the project, and my initial request for the programme to form the basis of PhD research had been accepted by the project steering group. However, ultimately the funding bid was not successful unfortunately, so I was back out searching again.
  • Around the same time Regather was shortlisted for the BBC Food and Farming Awards, and so began the development of a potential research focus for my studies. Being shortlisted led to being interviewed, recorded and broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 On Your Farm radio programme, which is turn led to a period of heightened media interest in Regather, particularly our work on changing food system policy and practice. Being shortlisted also led to being invited to the Awards ceremony in South Wales, where I was able to meet other finalists, which was great, but also meet the programme presenters, producers and directors involved in making the significant quantity of BBC content surrounding the Awards, and the wider topic of food and farming. These experiences and conversations led me to research the Awards in much more detail, and discovering and listening to a huge quantity of archive content stretching back to 2000 when they started. This past material, the current plans for the Awards, and what the future holds for the Awards is hugely interesting to me, and aligns very well with my research questions, and the wider research brief of my PhD studentship. As of right now, I’m pleased to say that’s where it’s at.

Still to come in Part 2

  • Return to Teaching
  • Supervision
  • Research Methods – Critical Ethnography
  • Ethics – Converis
  • Literature Review
  • Plan for the RF2

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