Graduate Studies in the Time of Coronavirus, Part V
Edited by Didem Uca, with support from the members of the CSGSH
For the past few months, this series has documented how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected graduate students’ personal and professional lives. The contributors have reflected on the importance of building empathy and community in a socially distanced reality, addressed mental health struggles and survival strategies, discussed their activism and advocacy work, and shared the additional challenges experienced by international students in this moment. In this final post of the series, the contributors speculate about what their post-COVID futures might hold. In addition to immediate concerns––fall teaching and coursework, research, and progress toward degree––graduate students everywhere face existential questions. They wonder what our disciplines will look like as universities turn toward increased austerity measures; what job opportunities will be available when the dust settles; and, furthermore what they want their disciplines and careers to look like. Building on previous posts, the contributors also consider what forms of connection and community will be available to help sustain them during and beyond graduate school as we look toward another atypical academic year.
As these issues continue to develop into the fall semester, we seek contributions for our next series, “Grad Students Preparing for the Fall: Covid-19, Online Teaching, & Visa Issues”; you may find the call for reflections here.
Butler University, Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing–Fiction student
The words “Giant Eagle” glow in red fluorescence in the dim of 7AM. I’ve never been scared of a grocery store before. We pack the car and spray every package down with Lysol in the garage with the care of diffusing a bomb. Maybe we are. The daily press conferences have become white noise in the background as I stare at my homework assignments uploaded online. My routine of jotting down daily tasks has become a long list of links to click on, new papers to write. Studying pedagogy suddenly doesn’t seem as immediately important when trying to rationalize the devastation possibly next door. The world outside mirrors my motivation: abandoned.
I know that there will be a next. My professors, my family, we all adapt to the technology we are grateful to have. Reading posts on Facebook is the closest I come to seeing my classmates. My assignments keep coming, and each day I motivate myself to try to maintain the positive energy in my home for the sake of my family who can’t drown out the news. It’s easy to feel like my line of work is useless in the grand scheme of things. How does editing and writing fiction help anyone when people need doctors, engineers, builders? I try to remember that there will be a next. And as countless individuals find their days suddenly void of responsibilities, they turn to art to fill them, to distract them, to have white noise that isn’t this reality.
In the Giant Eagle parking lot, another woman is reading a book in her front seat as she waits for her husband to return. We trade smiles and book titles across rolled down windows, and I try to remember that my focus on my craft may one day be another’s peace. None of us can pause. I cross off another item on my to-do list.
Northern Michigan University, Master’s in English student
The coronavirus pandemic has caused me to become flexible and adaptable in a short time frame. In the spring, my university gave faculty and staff two days to transition their courses to online instruction, and I was left panicking about what I was going to do for the rest of the semester. My first-year composition students were still working on their second essay out of four, and I was left with the task of moving the course online with only one semester of regular teaching under my belt. I turned to friends and colleagues for ideas on how to proceed, but also considered all of the factors that would cause great challenges for students in the online environment.
Reflecting on my personal experience, I knew moving ten hours home and adjusting my academic life to this new location and schedule was incredibly stressful and that it has been a struggle to complete simple tasks. Other factors that I kept in mind was that some of my students may not have access to Wi-Fi, have difficulty managing their time on an open schedule, and have other responsibilities as they return home. This helped me realize that I did not want to ask my students to do a huge research project when they could not even access the library or stop by my office with questions. Ultimately, I decided to simplify the original essay requirements, which I believe was in my students’ best interest.
Looking toward the fall, I am still navigating how to stay organized as both an instructor and a student. During this challenging time, I am left wondering what the future of higher education will hold when this pandemic is finally over.
Georgia State University, Ph.D. Candidate in English: Rhetoric and Composition
As grad students, we constantly feel the impact of non-academic situations on our research projects. Every student’s education can be radically altered by societal pandemics. But graduate students’ learning paths are particularly vulnerable because of the transitional period we are all experiencing at different paces. While the COVID-19 pandemic has some students transitioning to online teaching during their first semester, it has others doing video dissertation defenses during the home stretch.
I happened to be composing my proposal for comprehensive exams during this pandemic. My committee was formed the week my school announced our campus closure, and my comprehensive exam intent form was due mid-April. COVID-19’s most prominent effect on my academic life is that it has given me a lot of time––perhaps too much time––to think about what my dissertation is going to be. This is my first time actually creating an outline for what this three-year project will look like.
For me, the most difficult thing about writing a dissertation is the freedom to create one’s own path. We don’t tell incoming undergrads, “Come up with a major––an overarching theme to define your research. Then, design all of the courses relevant to your major and choose which courses you want to take.” Instead, we define the majors––the career paths––and we design the courses. Then, the students choose their paths based on the outline we’ve created.
Writing a dissertation is showing my committee the path I am choosing based on an outline of my own creation. It is no longer someone else’s job to tell me the criteria for what I write; it is now my job to set the criteria for my own writing.
Whether the effects of COVID-19 are positive or negative on my writing, I feel that my reflection on these effects will allow me to understand the foundations of my dissertation project better later on. As a rhet-comp student, at the very least, this societal pandemic has influenced how I see my future audience and my intended purpose for this research. Entering the academic conversation during this uncertain time promises an interesting path going forward.
University at Buffalo, Ph.D. Candidate in English
Is it still a privilege?
I had assumed that I would always view living alone as a privilege. One of the things I promised myself when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at 30 was that I would do everything in my power to live alone. “You’re too old for roommates,” I told myself. When I cut all luxuries to stretch my grad student income, I’d remind myself, “you will be able to focus and manage your time as you see fit, like a real adult. You’re an introvert, think how tiring living with someone would be.” And the thing is, for the most part I’ve felt good about my choices these last few years. On occasion, when I felt lonely, I knew that I would at least get to see my students multiple times a week. Yet, now as I face weeks on end with only occasional digital contact with my peers for companionship and guidance, I am grappling with not only my choice to live alone but also with the question of if this all really will be “worth it.” Because right now I am working harder than ever, with an abundance of the “alone time” I said I needed to accomplish my work and I am wondering what it is that I am actually accomplishing. When I was teaching in the spring, I would send my students the material they needed to develop new critical thinking skills each week, but they no longer have the community of classmates to apply them. I work diligently on my research, crafting page after page, but it feels like each word goes into an echo chamber of my own design. I work for the prize of more work, to earn a job that will pay me what I am worth, or at least enough to survive. But now, after weeks alone, I sit at my computer late into the night wondering about the possibilities of finding this prized job in a market that was already grim and now will be further hobbled by the inevitable backlash of a country recovering from a pandemic. I try to find comfort, asking out loud, “will it really be worth it in the end?” And in return I get the silence I worked and sacrificed so hard for. Is it still a privilege?
University of California at San Diego, Ph.D. Candidate in Visual Arts
When I got the announcement about UCSD going online, my first fear was about figuring out how to teach my TA sections online, followed with worries about taking my own graduate seminars online. What never occurred to me until it started happening was that so many of my friends would move back in with their parents out of state, in some cases permanently. While I am blessed to have an affordable living situation with a reliable roommate (in part thanks to my long commute), many of my colleagues haven’t been so lucky. As the COVID pandemic was beginning to escalate, so was the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) movement in the UCs, because many grad students pay more than they can afford in rent. When faced with the opportunity to live rent-free with their parents, many of my peers chose to return ten or more years after moving out for an indefinite amount of time.
One of the most gut-wrenching aspects of this process has been its suddenness. Many of my friends have moved away without saying goodbye to most of their inner circle. One by one, people in my social circle told me they were thinking of going away, and the pandemic finally became “real” to me when my best friend in San Diego came over for a grading session in the early days of social distancing. When he walked in, he said, “I’m glad you invited me over because tomorrow I’m moving away from San Diego forever,” and after a wave of shock, I felt hot tears spring to my eyes. He had been given a window of a few days to get out of his housing contract and told me that he couldn’t justify continuing to pay rent. I knew he was going to graduate in June and probably move away in the fall, but I had been counting on our last few months together. Grad school is a time of constant transition, but knowing that my proximity to my fellow grad students is temporary didn’t make it any less painful when this friend offered me a final parting elbow bump.
It may not make such a difference while all of our socializing is virtual, but when I think about a post-COVID world, it’s difficult to know who will be left in the social landscape of my city. Of the friends who are graduating, I wonder how many of them I said my last goodbye to without even realizing it. In addition to not being able to celebrate my friends who have graduated without ceremony, it’s hard not knowing how many of my friends will decide to continue their education in absentia. I have no idea how long it will take for us to collectively emerge from this crisis, and there are many things that I hope will never go back to “normal.” However, it is painful to think about returning to a social life with many loved ones missing and I expect that part of my recovery from this experience will include finding new connections in my community.