The Precarity That Binds Us

Scroll this

This post by Jessica DeWitt is the second in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.

I don’t have access to a university library. I have no idea when I will be able to go on a research trip again. I am limited to the sources available to me online.

No, I’m not grappling with the inconveniences of COVID-19. I’m a precariously (under)employed scholar making the transition to a post/alt-ac way-of-life.

When I first contemplated the idea of research and writing during COVID-19 for this series, I immediately realized that my research and writing situation had not changed at all. And I don’t expect my situation to change drastically once archives and universities open and long-distance travel is once again possible. The seeming inconveniences of COVID-19 affecting the research and writing of full-time academics and graduate students at higher education institutions are the same or similar to the inconveniences that adjunct faculty, precariously employed, and alt-ac scholars manage all of the time.

“Pandemics simply do not affect everyone equally.” – Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones

In my Eddies interview, I noted that COVID-19 was uncovering some of the broken and unequal aspects of academia and alerting us to parts of the system that need our attention and care. One of the most glaring inequities unveiled by COVID is the gendered aspect of care-work and parenting and the way in which the research and writing output of women in academia plummeted during lockdown, while the productivity of men stayed the same or even increased.

Loss of access to research material and interruptions in writing are just a small part of the way in which COVID is revealing cracks and gaping chasms in the structure of academia. The very core of supposed academic security is cracking; departments are issuing hiring freezes, job offers are being rescinded, and tenure-track and even some tenured professors are losing their jobs. I bring these points up to suggest that now is a unique time in which academics are being reminded of what it is like to feel uncertain, and it is an opportunity for those still in the academy to work on empathy for scholars working in precarity.

What if the security of academia is an illusion? What if we took better care of each other whether or not this was true?

Author on a PhD research trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. May 2014.

Reflecting on my own particular situation, several points related to conferences, travel, and research come to mind. When I first got word that the American Society for Environmental History meeting in Ottawa was canceled this past March, I was devastated. Not necessarily because I was exceptionally keen on this particular gathering, but because I had put a lot of effort into figuring out how I could afford to go, and I do not know when I will be able to attend another academic conference. After applying for a travel stipend, I knew that I would only be contacted if I was chosen to receive money, which forced me to wait to make travel plans. I watched airline prices rise as weeks passed by until I finally felt it had been long enough to assume that I definitely was not receiving any travel aid. Then, still determined to go, I frantically cobbled together my partner’s credit card points and made sure I could stay with my partner’s cousin to avoid accommodation costs. I also chose the one day registration fee of $60 to further reduce my costs.

The onslaught of online conferences and academic panels during COVID-19 has only been to my advantage. These events are actually accessible to me. My goal going forward is to be able to travel to one academic conference a year. I do not know if that is feasible yet. My situation is similar to other scholars who have left academia, are currently on the job market, or are working in adjunct positions.

  • How do we make academic conferences more accessible?
  • Should more conferences be held in less expensive venues?
  • How do we increase the remote conferencing options available so that more people can participate (and decrease their negative impacts on the environment)?
  • How do we expand financial assistance opportunities for scholars beyond graduate school?

I wrote a thread recently about my relationship to financial precarity. As I note in the above tweets, grad school enabled me to pretend for a brief moment that I had the money to travel. Both conference and research travel grants provided a richness of adventures that I never dreamed I’d have access to when I was younger, and the credit card interest I’m still paying on trip reimbursements seemed (and probably was) worth the hit. But I no longer have access to most of these types of financial assistance. If I am ever able to go on a research trip again, it will be on my own dime. I have very few dimes. Digital sources are my only option.

Further, as COVID-19 has scholars lamenting the closure of their physical university libraries, myself and other precarious academics write and conduct research without access to university library systems. If I want an article PDF, I need to ask for someone with institutional access to get it for me. For physical books, I am restricted to the limited offerings of our pubic library or have to buy the volume, putting further strain on my pocketbook.

  • Is there a way to make research more collaborative?
  • Should we focus on developing more collaborative archival resource databases?
  • How do we support and encourage archives and other institutions to digitize more of their collections?

My above points are not intended to produce a ‘woe-is-me’ narrative, but rather to talk rather matter-of-factly about the challenges that post-PhD and post-ac life holds for me and others in similar situations. I don’t have any answers to these questions, but rather hope for further discussion.

Embracing slow scholarship seems, to me, to be a promising way forward that would benefit both those inside and outside of the academy, during and after COVID-19. The recognition of the legitimacy of slow scholarship within the institution would help to alleviate some of the pressures felt by marginalized scholars, as well as enable those working outside academia to still participate in the production of scholarship at the pace their situation allows.

“We advance slow scholarship and care work as collective rather than individualizing endeavors; as resistance to, rather than reification of, the current system.” – Alison Mountz, in ‘All for slow scholarship and slow scholarship for all’

Some scholars enter precarity by choice, others are forced into it by the reality of the academic job market. As we move forward into a COVID-19 recession, even more scholars will find themselves in positions that make research and writing difficult, if not impossible. This pandemic calls on us to rethink how we define academic community and what collective care looks like within that community.

Feature Photograph: Author’s home office. Location of all research and writing endeavours for the foreseeable future.

The following two tabs change content below.
is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, project manager, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor-in-chief, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). Additionally, she is the Managing Editor for the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon and a Coordinating Team member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Saskatoon-Treaty Six. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.