Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part I
Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered all aspects of society in North America and around the globe, including higher education. The Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities asked graduate students to submit short reflections on how this situation has affected the core aspects of their scholarly lives––from coursework and teaching to research projects and dissertation defenses––as well as the impact on their broader selves: personal well being, physical and mental health, familial and domestic responsibilities, financial and living situations, and any other repercussions of this crisis. We received such a tremendous response from graduate students across disciplines and around the U.S. and beyond that we decided to produce a series of posts over the next several weeks on different themes, each with contributions by several graduate student writers. Our first post addresses recognizing the need for empathy and community, both for ourselves as graduate student-researcher-instructor-humans and for the students entrusted in our care. We are very grateful to everyone who was able to share their perspectives and are in solidarity with all of our colleagues around the world who have been affected. If you are struggling, we hope that these posts help you feel less alone.
I am a first-year doctoral student at an R1 university in the American south. I left my home state and traveled half a country away to attend this university, leaving behind my friends, my family, and my job security, all in an effort to achieve my PhD. I am a graduate teaching assistant at my university, on top of taking a full course load. On top of that, as I attend an R1, I am juggling the writing load of no fewer than 5 publications at any time. Nothing slowed down or stopped when we went “virtual”––if anything, people have assumed that I have more time than before, and have been asking me to complete tasks for them. I am busier than I have been in years, and most of it is the heavy lifting of other people’s needs. I haven’t had time to process how the quarantine has affected me; instead, I am setting up family Zoom meetings, editing other people’s work, and giving of myself because people ask me to, and because they are in need. I feel like that old teaching adage, where in order to light the way, a teacher needs to burn themselves out. I have nothing left, and yet I keep burning to give others light.
Aside from my personal academic progress, I have my students to worry about. Some of them were forced to move back home to a place that is not safe, where they face food and housing insecurity, and where they worry about simply surviving. All of their classes don’t matter as much as their safety and health, and yet, I have to be that “jerk” emailing them about assignments that they need to turn in. I am one of the lucky ones, though. My supervisor and my department have been amazing through this entire debacle, and have given all of the GTAs the freedom to do what they feel is the best for their students. My supervisor checks in on me and the other students under her care, and I feel supported academically and personally. I don’t feel alone, however stressed out I may be. I don’t have anybody who I am immediately responsible for––no children or parents to care for. I settled my mental health issues prior to this, and because of that I am not reliant on therapy to function. I am one of the lucky ones, whose big complaint is that I am helping others and neglecting myself, and that is a luxury. But, this life is not easy. This is a heavy weight being placed on us all, and sometimes I want to crumble under my share of the weight.
English PhD Candidate and Instructor, Stony Brook University
On March 7, when New York issued a state of emergency due to COVID-19, I was in Boston for NeMLA. It was in all likelihood the last academic conference that would not be canceled for the foreseeable future. On coming back to NYC from Boston, I stocked up on essentials and prepared to self-quarantine. My university went entirely online soon after. As movement became more and more restricted in my city and beyond, my summer research project—which required fieldwork and international travel—was canceled. It was a time-sensitive project that likely cannot be completed at a later date.
Luckily, unlike the 10 million people who filed for unemployment in March, I still receive a (albeit modest) paycheck in my role as a graduate TA/instructor of record. My university has extended our graduation timelines by one year. However, we have not heard anything so far about what that means on the funding front. Instead, there have been a flurry of webinars on the best distance learning practices and how to teach on Zoom. While these resources can be helpful, they implicitly create pressure to teach synchronously (which my university initially required, before eventually pulling back on it). In my experience, that is no longer a viable option. Undergraduate students are dealing with employment loss, have precarious living situations, and some even have to care for their families. I suppose it is important for universities to maintain a semblance of normalcy during these trying times, for both morale and fiscal reasons. Regarding the latter, perhaps we (graduate instructors, contingent faculty) are beneficiaries too, inasmuch as we would be the first ones to lose our paychecks in the event of universities losing money.
Nevertheless, to insist on normalcy when there is a global pandemic, to assume that all students have the emotional (and technological) bandwidth to deal with synchronous modes of instruction compromises on the values that the humanities espouse. Over the past week, my students have told me that some of their instructors have assigned extra work because they are no longer meeting face to face. Some have told me that their internet connectivity is not strong enough for Zoom. One student has had to pick up extra shifts at work to make ends meet. Yet another informed me that both of their parents tested positive for the virus. Personally, I lost my grandmother this week to COVID-19 related complications. I am in Queens, which has the highest number of COVID cases in the New York area. The constant sirens outside my window are deafening, and it exacts an emotional toll. So while I want to do right by my students and do my best under the circumstances, I am acutely cognizant of the fact that these are not normal circumstances— and we must adjust our standards accordingly. I understand the need for structure (provided by synchronous learning) and that it even helps some people. I understand that we cannot suspend life and work until this is all over, since we do not know when this will end. However, I also believe that we as individuals and as a community need to cultivate more empathy and compassion. Especially now.
PhD Candidate in Philosophy, Western University
As I sit on my bed, writing from what has now become my makeshift office, comprised of a lap desk that hadn’t been used in years and a cat who is thankful for but perhaps also confused by my suddenly being home around the clock, I reflect on the ways in which the sudden changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have radically shifted what it means to be a graduate student. Upon reflection, the thing I find myself most struck by is the sense of time––how at times it feels as if it is moving so slowly, as if I have been stuck in my one bedroom apartment for a century or more; at times it feels as if it is flying by, as I look at the clock after watching the third press conference or listening to the tenth news podcast of the day, and somehow a whole day is gone and I feel as if I have done, or accomplished, next to nothing but still somehow feel exhausted.
This confused sense of time––it’s being somehow simultaneously slowed down and sped up––is impacting graduate student life in myriad ways. Despite time feeling like it is frozen––like life itself is stopped in its tracks––our funding clocks tick on and progression milestones await us, unmoved.
And while I worry about the loss of time, and how that loss ultimately presents new financial challenges or exacerbates old ones, I also reflect on how much more is being lost than time, and how reflecting on those various losses really helps to illuminate what it means to be a graduate student. Being a graduate student, stuck at home in isolation along with so many folks around the world, required to be physically distant from other people, makes salient the unique pleasures of graduate student life, which, perhaps we take for granted; but in their absence, we come to realize that these play a significant role in sustaining us, our research, and our mental health.
If this experience of physical distancing and self-isolation teaches us anything about graduate study and the parts of it we ought to appreciate more deeply, it is that being a graduate student involves so much more than completing coursework and hitting progression benchmarks of exams and dissertations. The full experience of being a graduate student is about the creative stimulation that is driven by being part of an intellectual community and occupying communal spaces with other like-minded thinkers. It is about the feeling when you finally make something click for the student who has come to your office hours for the third time, having been ready to give up but feeling grateful that they didn’t. It is about connecting with the colleague you don’t see often when you happen to be making coffee in the department kitchen at the same time, and learning about their work, but maybe also about what their partners or kids have been up to lately. It is about your supervisor stopping by your office, not to ask about your research progress, but just to see how you are doing, as a human.
As a graduate student writing from home, disconnected from the intellectual community and creative spaces I perhaps took for granted, I realize now that so much more is being taken from me than the time that is being rapidly subtracted from my funding window. I am losing the graduate student experience itself. And like passing time, you can’t get that back.
Ph.D. Candidate in English: Rhetoric and Writing Studies and Assistant Director of First-Year Composition, The University of Oklahoma
While sitting in a meeting with my writing program administrator—learning of the directives from upper-administration about the impending move to online instruction to combat COVID-19—my first thought was, “I’m going to be able to get so much reading done for my doctoral exams.” Two weeks of working from home would give me that much-needed time to focus and prepare without interruption. Though I was fully aware of the difficulties that would accompany this temporary shift, I secretly rejoiced at this time to study.
A week into online instruction, it was announced that the remainder of this semester would be held online. My previous excitement quickly turned to concern. How does this affect my exams? How will I defend? How will I meet with my advisor? Like most institutions, we have made do by converting in-person meetings to Zoom meetings. In adjusting to this new digital normal, one thing has become clear to me: camaraderie is a grad student’s lifeline.
So much of our career happens in isolation. We read, think, and write holed up in whatever quiet place we can find. But we come up for air to commiserate with our peers, to admit to our advisors that we’re behind schedule, to share our love of learning with our students. We desperately depend on fostering connections with the people around us to survive what is often a lonely life. This comes as a surprise to me, as I call myself an introvert and revel in the academic life of mulling over ideas while surrounded by my books. I didn’t know how reliant I was on my peers to get through the solitary environment of grad school. With every day that passes in quarantine, combined with the possibility of the fall semester also moving online, I am wondering how I can go on like this without the social aspect of talking about my research and writing. How does any of this matter if I can’t share my findings? What hope do I have of effecting change through my projects if no one hears what I have to say? My greatest insights come in spurts of kairos and are largely inspired by the people around me; I am not the island that I once thought I was.
Sure, I’ve had more time and fewer distractions—but I’ve learned how valuable those distractions are.
Jonquil S. Harris
Masters of Professional Writing Student, Kennesaw State University
Three weeks ago, life as I knew it changed personally, professionally, academically, and worldwide. I was slightly relieved when we received the call from my employer that we would be shut down for approximately two weeks. I would have a moment to catch my breath and focus even more on what brought me joy––my graduate studies. The excitement I find in being around like-minded individuals as we discuss our craft and our future as professional writers and gaining invaluable insights from professors and advisors makes the 90-minute commute to my university seem brief.
Then the reality of the pandemic sank in, and it took a week before my anxiety wore away. I couldn’t help but think about me or my family members becoming sick. I acknowledge my privilege during this time. I have a full-time job with benefits and sick and annual leave; and I have full capability to work from home until we return to a new normal. That new normal is what I cling to get me through this. Just as I am now working remotely from home, I am also attending classes remotely. I miss being in the same room as my colleagues and bouncing ideas off of one another so openly and freely. Viewing one another on split screens, trying to determine who should speak next, or losing each other to shoddy internet connections is not nearly the same as being in one another’s physical presence.
However, I am thankful that we are still able to connect in that way, and I am now thinking even more broadly about what community means. I have seen the power of social media to aid freelancers and creatives in the way of fundraising and virtual book tours and readings.
I miss spending time with my parents, then having a long embrace before we leave one another. I miss engaging with my colleagues face-to-face. Virtual calls can only reach so far. But at this time, I worry less about being productive and more about persevering. I am thinking of resting while in a state of unrest. I am thinking about the impossible being possible.