Recasting the human geography dissertation in lockdown

by Dr. Laura Smith, University of Exeter

The Coronavirus lockdown has greatly disrupted the research ideas and plans of undergraduate geographers. It has also recast, for many students, what ‘fieldwork,’ ‘research,’ and ‘data’ looks like. This is my second year as convenor of Exeter Geography’s B.A. Dissertation module, and while many fundamental aspects of the module remain familiar, much has had to change. The dissertation module has undergone a substantial overhaul over the summer, in response to the shifting research dynamics imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, a small group of us were already meeting as a departmental Dissertation Working Group to review the human geography dissertation modules (Exeter Geography offers both a 45-credit and a 30-credit dissertation module), but that review was soon repurposed around discussions on how to navigate and negotiate undergraduate geography research in an escalating pandemic, with social distancing protocols and lockdown orders. The overhaul began at the close of Term 3, after the spring exam period. The final two weeks of term in the Year 2 B.A. Geography calendar are usually set aside for ‘Research Planning Fortnight: Getting Dissertation Ready’—a transition space for students to begin exploring dissertation research ideas, and to submit (and receive feedback on) a dissertation proposal before the summer vacation. It’s also an informal handover between the Year 2 module, GEO2328 Geographies of Consumption: Doing Human Geography Research (convened by Dr. Matt Finn) which also introduces (and does some of the earliest work in setting up) the dissertation, and the Year 3 modules GEO3311/GEO3312 B.A. Dissertation that I lead on. But the lockdown summer of 2020 meant that even an online Research Planning Fortnight had to be postponed. Ongoing uncertainty about just what the dissertation and ‘dissertation research’ (and dissertation support) might look like by September, and a careful effort to ensure consistency and coherence in our correspondence with students, together with a challenging extended summer assessment and marking period, all fed into pausing the fortnight’s sessions and activities. The summer also saw the department introduce a short set of research restrictions for all human geography dissertations completed in the 2020-2021 academic year:

  • No face-to-face research
  • No travel or visits as part of your research
  • No research that involves live participants. This means no interviews, focus groups, or surveys (online, by phone, or by post), and no ethnographic encounters that involve other participants
  • No research should take the current Coronavirus pandemic as its focus or primary context

We pushed the content—and ethos—of the Research Planning Fortnight into Term 1 of Year 3, embedding it into the start of the B.A. Dissertation module delivery. The dissertation proposal submission still went ahead as planned, and students still received feedback from dissertation advisors, but follow-up conversations with advisors, and all summer ‘research’ (and ethics approval), was pushed until the start of the new academic year. It’s not unusual for students to begin their dissertation research at the start of the autumn term—if summer vacations are filled with combinations of holidays/travel, summer jobs, work placements or internships, sport, caring and family (or other) commitments, or if the nature of their research project requires students to be on campus/in Exeter, or if students change their dissertation idea. What is unusual is that for this year, the autumn term signals a universal start for our dissertation cohort. A module-level ethics application was submitted and approved by the department’s research ethics committee over the summer, and students must now only use the methods/materials outlined (and pre-approved) in the new Ethics Pack. The sample of past dissertations that we’ve made available all demonstrate the revised methods, materials, and analysis that students will be working with this year, even though the earlier research conditions were very different.

The University of Exeter has committed to a mix of synchronous (e.g. ‘live,’ whether on campus or online) and asynchronous (or ‘Anytime Anywhere,’ e.g. pre-recorded) module delivery and learning. The human geography dissertation module is usually delivered through fortnightly dissertation tutorials across Terms 1 and 2 (with the dissertation submitted at the end of Term 2), and a short series of lectures in Term 1 to support students in working through the different stages of a dissertation research project. This year, we’ve expanded and reconfigured the ‘lecture’ provision around a fortnightly set of online resources and activities that alternates with an online dissertation tutorial programme (which has also expanded).

Over the course of the first term, students will work through collections of online materials that variously explore: Selecting a Topic or Finding a Puzzle, Literature, Sourcing Materials and Analysis (Quantitative and Qualitative), Employability and Your Dissertation, and Writing Up Your Dissertation, together with Ethics and Risk Assessment tasks. This sits alongside a research timetable template that tentatively recommends that students use Weeks 1-6 of Term 1 to focus on refining their topic, research questions, and research approach, and Weeks 7-12 to move on to gathering research materials, preparing materials for analysis, and maybe beginning to develop their analysis. In Term 2, the focus will shift to drafting, redrafting, and writing up.

Figure 1. GEO3311/GEO3312 Week 2: Selecting a Topic or Finding a Puzzle online resources and activities.

Although led by different human geography academics, each of these packs of resources and activities follows the same format and rhythm—each section begins with a ‘Coming up this week…’ summary, and a ‘What should I do this week?’ introduction and checklist, followed by a short video capsule to introduce the ‘big questions’ and things to think critically about,[i] a ‘How do I…’ curated reading list that invites students to select one text to explore in more detail (whether individually, or collectively in their dissertation tutor groups), and a practical activity that encourages students to translate and apply some of these principles to their own evolving research projects. The completed activities can then be incorporated into tutorial discussions the next week. There are also opportunities for feedback and review on the module, with three online Q&A sessions scheduled throughout the term.

I’m excited to see how the module unfolds this year. And I cannot wait to see the dissertation research projects that emerge.

[i] Many of the videos and curated reading lists were originally produced by Dr. Matt Finn for GEO2328, as part of his 2019-2020 Exeter Education Incubator project, ‘Online resources and narrowcasting the curriculum.’


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