My Grad Student Life in COVID Times: Disciplinary Change is Coming?

My grad student life has changed significantly since my last post in March: I no longer have a physical home on campus, unscheduled interactions with colleagues in the hallways or at conferences are impossible, it is unsafe to travel for fieldwork, I am teaching my course online (often in my favorite dinosaur sweatpants). The virtual turn brought on by COVID-19 has made me feel less connected to my campus community and my research community in Kodiak. At the same time, I feel much more connected to the wider anthropology community through the huge proliferation of webinars and panels over the past several months.

As I imagine most people have experienced, I have also been anxious about the uncertainty looming over EVERYTHING. This anxiety extends from uncertainty about the health and wellbeing of myself and others to uncertainty about my ability to make progress towards my degree. What if I can’t safely return to Old Harbor for several years? Do I have to rework my research to complete a library dissertation instead? Will the pandemic change the way that anthropologists and archaeologists conduct their research for years to come? In times of disturbance and instability, there is great potential for lasting change, but I am not sure where I, or my research, will fit into those changes.

The crucial work of the movement for Black lives has spurred discussions about what it means to do anthropology and archaeology ethically, with care, and in an accountable and respectful way. These large-scale discussions are long overdue and I believe that they will change the discipline for the better by making community-centered work the norm.

On the other hand, I worry that the economic crisis coupled with the turn to virtual learning will speed up the ‘adjunctification’ of universities in the United States – meaning that more classes will be taught by underpaid and overworked contingent lecturers rather than universities investing in teaching and research faculty. In other words, I wonder what kind of jobs will be available if/when I do finish my PhD, especially as someone who wants teaching to be a continued part of their work.

As I have been waiting for some certainty to return, I have spent a lot of time educating myself in Indigenous Studies, Black Studies and Indigenous Archaeology. Scholars and practitioners in these and related disciplines have done tremendous work to critique and challenge the ways and conditions under which knowledge is produced. If anthropology and archaeology are going to come out of this pandemic changed, I want to do what I can to make sure that they are changed for the better. I want post-pandemic anthropology to be more equitable, inclusive, accountable and centered on the needs of the communities with whom we study and serve. While the pandemic is a disaster on all levels, from the personal to the global, I am grateful that quarantine and the slowing of my dissertation research has given me the time to dig into this essential work.

Why Can’t I Write?

This post is slightly modified from my response to a prompt in Writing and Archaeology, a class taught by Sara Gonzalez at the University of Washington. We were asked to examine our various forms of resistance to academic writing. As part of my new project to be less risk-averse with my writing, I decided to make this response public. I invite other folks to engage with this post and share their own experiences with resistance to writing and strategies for overcoming resistance.

I experience a lot of resistance to writing, especially writing connected to my dissertation proposal and research. In watching a webinar from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity called “Moving from Resistance to Writing”, I could see myself and my behavior in discussions of perfectionism, avoidance and vulnerability. That helped me understand that I tend to view writing as a “risky” endeavor, which is the root of my resistance.

Until now, I have not given a lot of thought as to what my resistance is. Instead, I have just felt shame about not working hard enough and not getting enough done in a given period of time. I find it hard not to compare myself to others and become jealous of my colleagues’ progress when I should be celebrating them. While I know that I have come a long way since entering graduate school, often times I feel like I’m still a tiny fry, fresh out of college, and thrashing around in a big pond of academia – just trying to absorb everything while giving a deferent berth to the bigger fishes. Why do I feel unable to engage with other researchers through academic writing?

I worry that I am not qualified to have an opinion or do research, especially not research with Indigenous peoples. This fear slows down my writing as I second-guess everything I put down on the paper – not wanting to say something potentially hurtful or wrong but also wanting to signal my engagement with the appropriate theoretical literature. I worry that I am not aware enough of my privilege as a white woman and other times that I am being hyper-aware of it and sinking into apologies or guilt rather than action. These feelings have paralyzed me time and again over the past couple years. Only recently have I started to understand the significance of my journey, which has eased the paralysis somewhat. I don’t need to be fully formed and the most woke in every piece of writing or expression. There is value in the process of learning and slipping up and making mistakes. My writing should (and will) ultimately reflect that.

Blogging has been one area of writing that has allowed me to experiment a bit more, even if I don’t end up posting everything that I draft. Free writing and blogging allow me to feel less constrained by the real and imagined rigors of academia, although I know that I do not make enough time for them. As much as writing for thinking is touted, I still can’t seem to give it the same weight in my mind. It can still feel like I’m wasting my time when I’m not working on “serious” writing projects.

So why can’t I write? Because I suffer from imposter syndrome, anxiety and perfectionism, all of which invoke personal shame over a sense that I am not writing or doing enough. I don’t want others to figure out that I’m not as good a writer or researcher or person as they thought, so I don’t give them opportunities to scrutinize my work. I don’t often face criticisms and have little experience with academic failure, so I fear those things most of all. In reading that last sentence over, I again consider my privilege, and perhaps the insulation that others have given me throughout my career. Maybe this writing resistance is caught up in something much larger – my struggle, through my research with the Sugpiaq community of Old Harbor, to reckon with my history and my identity and come out on the “good” side of things. Writing about research is as much a personal exercise as it is a professional one.

No wonder writing feels risky.