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Together we run further: Academic and life lessons from the Pandemic

Lisa Sommerlad
Institute of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

John Marazita
Department of Geography and Environment, University of Geneva

Julian Zschocke
Institute of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Yossi David
Department of Communication, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Elisabeth Sommerlad, Institute of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. Email: e.sommerlad@geo.uni-mainz.de

This essay begins with four strangers, all early-career researchers working at European Universities. As the reality of the pandemic set in, the four strangers in various stages of their careers were spread across the globe: A German in Mauritius, an Italian in Samoa, an Israeli in Germany, and a German in Germany — admittedly not too far from home, but still in the midst of legally imposed solitude. Although we all were able to eventually go back to our familiar residences, return was consumed by emptiness.

No longer were there rooms filled with students ready to participate in class or colleagues waiting in the hallway for a scheduled meeting. Suddenly and this time without leaving our homes, the four of us were thrown into a new space that, at the same time, felt somewhat familiar: virtual academia.

As our tenured bosses grappled with the unprecedented events, early-career academics like ourselves felt perilous, like a metaphoric polar bear on melting ice. This essay seeks to narrate the challenges of young researchers navigating online teaching and a lack of access to distant field sites. Finally, the essay explores how new digital research networks, in our case the Network of Interdisciplinary Media and Communication Research (NIMCR) launched in spring 2020, flourished and led to mutual empowerment.

Among the various local institutions that underwent significant changes in the way in which day-to-day work was performed were research and higher education institutes, moving to the digital sphere within a matter of days.

A vast majority of academic work (especially in the humanities and social sciences) shifted to digital platforms. Teaching, research, data collection, participation in conferences and workshops, and networking quickly evolved. As conferences moved online and access became open to outside networks, a digital mobility of ideas expanded and new networks of knowledge production exceeding previous spatial boundaries flourished.

The transition to digital space created both challenges and opportunities for junior and senior researchers around the world. Although it allowed additional people to access higher education institutions, there were also challenges as the digital platforms could not fully replace interpersonal communication and varying access to stable internet became a new digital barrier for knowledge dissemination (Van Dijk, 2017; Sommerlad & David, 2020).

Prior to COVID-19, digital teaching formats were scantly used and there was a lack of both experience and technical infrastructure. The shift to online-based teaching brought various challenges for both students and teachers. These challenges pointed to preexisting inequalities and manifested in the lack of stable internet access. Inequalities in digital literacy harmed in particular students and researchers from rural areas, the Global South, and from minority groups (e.g., ultra-Orthodox in Israel, David & Baden, 2020). Synchronous online teaching often led to miscommunications as we faced technical difficulties.

While students and teachers faced both technical and institutionalized barriers during the digital transition, the new teaching platforms had some long-lasting positive impacts. For example, the digital transformation led to significant changes in the organizational practices of our course focusing on filmmaking as a means of geographic knowledge production; particularly around the question of how filmic practice could be applied to digital learning when students could not access technical equipment and the on-campus film lab.

This situation forced us to be creative and to experiment with new forms of teaching filmic geography: Equipped with their smartphones and basic editing software, students worked in virtual groups to plan and perform the filming of individual segments. These segments were later combined through narration and editing, allowing for a new kind of intercultural production that was both localized due to travel restrictions and at the same time globalized within the range of varied locations of the students.

While some digital practices have facilitated the dissemination of knowledge to our students, our own access as early-career researchers to often remote field sites has been severely impacted. While borders closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, researchers aiming to attain higher academic milestones have had to put their careers on hold. As early-career academics could no longer advance, funding limits led to an exodus from academia during COVID-19 in various countries, e.g., in Australia (Woolston, 2020).

While European researchers didn’t face such drastic consequences, the two of us with research projects in small island states have been impacted either by closed borders or institutional guidelines. The evolving border restrictions and mandatory (and costly) quarantines limited the access for some regions that were no longer feasible thus requiring a change of field sites. While for some researchers these project adaptations may have been feasible, for others it was not an option due to local and institutional prohibitions on non-essential travel including fieldwork.

COVID-19 travel restrictions also had personal repercussions. As we settled into our new, virtual professional lives and the home office became our new domain, the embedded meaning of citizenship and passports shifted from access to an instrument of exclusion as our family members and life partners residing in other countries were blocked behind a bureaucratic veil of protectionism. Our mobile, intra-continental lifestyles that seemed familiar and normalized for a long time were thus challenged.

As governments looked inward, language became a medium for further marginalizing foreign residents. Being a postdoctoral fellow in a foreign country, for example, where you may not be familiar with the spoken language, COVID-19 restriction announcements added additional layers to previously embedded exclusion. Non-German speaking residents in Germany, for example, were left uninformed as instructions concerning the virus (including in the university) were published solely in German. Adding to language barriers, the COVID-19 period has witnessed increased nationalist and ethnocentric sentiment with increased experiences of public hatred and racism towards those of us who do not pass as “European” (Drouhot, Petermann, Schönwälder & Vertovec, 2020).

The pandemic has challenged our lives both professionally and personally whether in our homeland, in a foreign place of residence or in the virtual in-between space. In this essay, about a year after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic we reflect on various challenges and opportunities. This period, however, also marks for us a career milestone when our networks experienced a spatial metamorphosis and our closest colleagues were no longer down the hall, but in their homes in the U.S., UK, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Israel, and the Philippines.

It is largely because of this serendipitous network that we have a platform to reflect on these difficult experiences. For us, this network is NIMCR. It was founded shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic without any foresight of what was to come. However, the idea of international exchange and knowledge production became a saving grace in the current situation. From discussing professional challenges, collaborating in research and writing (e.g., this essay), sharing new opportunities, or simply laughing together, the network became a lifeline during an elongated period where even local visits to colleagues were limited.

This unique period saw an intersectional camaraderie of early-career academics concurrently facing both professional and personal challenges. Along with our fellow NIMCR group members, we were empowered by these shared experiences emulating past online courses and disrupted fieldwork and toward encouragement and reassurance of a better future. This shared experience of a network has thus bound us together. The four strangers who met initially at the onset of the pandemic have now become bonded accomplices who share the day-to-day existence in virtual academic life; together we laugh, together we run further, and together we will excel in our academic careers.

References

David, Y. & Baden, C. (2020). Reframing community boundaries: The erosive power of new media spaces in authoritarian societies. Information, Communication and Society, 23(1), 110–127.‏ ‏

Drouhot, L. G., Petermann, S., Schönwälder, K., & Vertovec, S. (2020). Has the Covid-19 pandemic undermined public support for a diverse society? Evidence from a natural experiment in Germany. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 44(5), 877–892.

Sommerlad, E. & David, Y. (2020). A Comparative Approach to Digital Divide in Times of Coronavirus (COVID-19). Accessed February, 22, 2021 https://med-geo.de/index.php/covid-19-symposium/

Van Dijk, J.A. (2017). Digital Divide: Impact of Access. In Rössler, P. (Ed.,) The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects (pp. 1–11). London: John Wiley & Sons.

Woolston, C. (2020). Bleak financial outlook for PhD students in Australia. Nature (July, 09), Accessed February, 22, 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02069-y

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This group brings together an international group of young scholars from diverse cultural backgrounds, working within and across disciplines, methods, and boundaries.

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