Graduate Work after COVID-19: Collective Protest, Physical Mobility, and the Novel Purposes of Environmental Research

ThorstenF from Pixabay

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


As an international graduate student admitted to a university in the US this year, I was ready and waiting to begin my program in the fall of 2020. However, incoming international students the world over, who were meant to travel to the US and Canada to begin their research degrees are now frozen in place due to severe visa restrictions precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, things look so uncertain that the unpleasant prospect of an entire year’s deferral looms large on many of our horizons. Should most of us wish to avoid another year of being precariously employed in an increasingly exploitative economy—made more reckless by the recessions in our various home countries—there is little choice but to begin classes remotely from whichever part of the world we happen to be residing in. This would, naturally, imply minimal to zero access to academic resources, networks of peer support, health insurance, and our respective stipends—elements that have normally accompanied a graduate studies degree at any university in Canada or the US in previous years.

Additionally, time differences across continents will aggravate the woes of international students and researchers who would be compelled to juggle erratic sleep schedules alongside the rigorous demands of graduate coursework. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, only one of the scores of ways that structural inequalities in academic research will be further deepened by the COVID-19 crisis in the coming months that could even snowball into years, if not decades. The inequalities—in the form of emotional, embodied, and financial costs international students must bear for accepting these conditions during the pandemic—frequently run along lines of race, as well as other markers of arbitrary privilege, since many of us belong to cohorts where the other members are already present inside the borders of North America. By virtue of their current latitudinal coordinates, the rest of our cohorts will be receiving their share of partial resources, such as health insurances, stipends and some degree of access to university libraries.

Newspaper origami by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

The set of student visa restrictions suggested by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in early July (at the time I write this, they have only just been repealed) pulsated with rancour and hatred towards academics and researchers of colour. The regulations essentially stated that unless holders of F-1 visas present inside the US participated in hybrid/in-person classes during the fall, they must immediately return to their countries of origin, or else be prepared to face deportation. Had the proposed regulations gone unchallenged in courts by institutions of higher learning, the targeted demographic would be participating in these interactions at the cost of subjecting themselves, and others who come in contact with them, to the threat of the coronavirus.

The proposed ICE regulations made no secret of the fact, that to the conservative American imagination, the pandemic has proved a golden opportunity to launch a two-pronged attack upon racialized bodies. First, by pathologically “othering” coloured bodies even further through aspersions cast towards their capacity to carry this virus housed inside their human frames. And second, by depriving them of their right to safe working conditions, adequate resources, or rightful financial protection during a time like this. One wonders whether this violence directed towards foreign academics and researchers of colour stems from the same deep roots in the white American psyche as the instinct to deny the detrimental effects of climate change upon the natural environment.

It comes as an ironic surprise that the phenomenon of COVID-19 has affected my own research—or at least my tentative plans for it—in more ways than one. Along with complicating logistics of international travel, the cyclone Amphan, which hit eastern parts of India around mid-May this year, destroyed natural elements of the very scene I had hoped to research on. The Sunderbans delta in West Bengal, India—a region that has inspired a rich array of literary works, a fraction of which I planned on investigating—was fatally devastated, along with large swathes of the mangrove forest present in the area.

Mangrove Trees wrecked by Amphan in the Sunderbans. Photo by Saubhik Ghosh. 2020

Research has linked the zoonotic origins of the COVID-19 virus to intensive livestock farming and industrial food production, which has had numerous large impacts on planetary health. It turns out that Ampham was not simply an effect of climate change on changing ocean temperatures of the Indian Ocean, but the pandemic itself may have exacerbated the might of the cyclone by causing variations in the level of aerosols in the atmosphere around the Indian subcontinent. Although the exact linkages between intensive farming and COVID-19 are still under examination, it is already evident that uncontrolled alterations of natural ecosystems play a crucial role in amplifying the risk of pandemics and zoonotic infections transmitted inter-specifically to human beings. Similarly, it is equally clear that unless urgent climate action curbing anthropogenic sources of planetary warming arrives post-haste, environmental disasters such as cyclones—ones that make coastal regions especially vulnerable—will continue to proliferate.

The picture, however, cannot be all bleak. Despite infrastructural failure on the part of nations to contain the illness, the crisis has also led to unexpected levels of solidarity across many social groups, culturally and geographically, situated within academia. Many archives, university presses, and libraries made much of their material open access for the first half of 2020, some of which continues to be maintained in this state. Reading lists and syllabi on pandemics now abound on the internet, thanks to researchers and teachers coming together from all over the world and pooling their brains to examine the viral phenomenon and its myriad effects upon society, as well as historical examples of similar scenario, from the different perspectives afforded by their respective disciplines.

Handwritten manuscript by Andrys from Pixabay

Standing at this juncture, it is important for all researchers, writers, and academics (that is, not just ones of colour) to ponder over the fine print of choosing a career in research and writing—especially for those employed precariously—in a post-COVID society. While established scholars, might find it fruitful to thoroughly rethink paradigms of academic work in relation to older models of efficiency, value, and function of texts produced; for academics of colour, it is a good time to mobilize ourselves, expanding existing forms of dissent, and gaining speed towards a collective protest against mammoth economies that could be toppled by an infinitesimal virus. Surely, the various difficulties in research and writing we face, as a collective, during COVID-19, could begin to show us methods of forming networks of solidarity in unexpected places during dark times, with whatever constrained means happen to be at our disposal.

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Apala Bhowmick

Apala Bhowmick lives in India, where she freelances as an editor, book reviewer, and literary translator. After finishing her M.A. from Jawaharlal Nehru University, she has worked in the editorial departments at Seagull Books (Calcutta) and Routledge India (New Delhi). She will shortly begin her graduate studies in English literature at Emory University.

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