A Room of One’s Home: Postdoctoral Precarity and Privilege in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Amy Tran courtesy of Unsplash

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

Between defending my dissertation in July 2019 and beginning my postdoc in May 2020, I applied for over two-dozen academic positions, both contract and permanent. While the majority of these applications did not yield employment, let alone rejection letters, I felt fortunate to secure two winter teaching contracts at Brock University, in Women’s and Gender Studies and Labour Studies.[i] In early March, I was awarded two postdoctoral positions at the University of Ottawa and the University of Alberta. The news was validating (my research is valuable), exciting (the work to come), and relieving (the funding). Shortly after receiving these awards, COVID-19 ushered in a provincial lockdown in Ontario. Suddenly, I found myself in the unusual position of having two years of financial security in the midst of a global crisis that was disrupting the lives of so many, and devastating even more. As my partner’s position in the service industry quickly became untenable, we were deeply grateful for the security my postdoctoral income would provide.

And yet despite the timing of this windfall, I was struck by the weight of what the pandemic might mean for academic workers. In the midst of chaos, uncertainty, and heightened—yet gendered, racially, and economically uneven—threats to the mortality of ourselves and our loved ones, how essential is our work as academic humanists?

The short answer, of course, is not very. Social, cultural, and environmental historians are not on the front lines of viral immunology, developing much needed personal protective equipment, or ensuring unfettered global food chains. But we do have a significant role to play in documenting, investigating, and witnessing the new unfolding of historical inequalities of race, class, sexuality, gender, disability, age, and how they are exacerbated by space, place, and citizenship during a pandemic.[ii] In particular, we are tasked with how to address systemic racial inequality, as leaders or as allies, in our scholarship, our pedagogy, and in our institutions.[iii] The work of historians is all the more relevant for future understandings of a moment that some feel has foreshadowed the ushering in of a “new normal.”[iv] During the pandemic, it seems we must do this work while navigating the various opportunities and challenges of our personal spaces at home.

As a postdoc, my research plans for the next year were to begin a new project examining how the Canadian Women’s Movement Archives at the University of Ottawa has archived materials on second wave feminism and sex work, and the relationships between the two. In response to university closures, my access to the archive is limited, but I am familiarizing myself with the digital archives while developing an ethics proposal for qualitative research with sex workers and feminists active since the late 1970s. Relationships with mentors and collaborators have also shifted to online meetings, enabling regular check-ins despite the distance. I have particularly benefited from ongoing conversation with other postdocs, including a small queer and feminist digital conference in early June which provided for intimate and rewarding reflections on our current research questions.  

Aryan Singh courtesy of Unsplash

In the midst of these projects, I felt the immediate shift from academic precarity to relative academic privilege in the economic shield it created: unlike so many workers, I could “stay home” in order to “stay safe.”  As the private home became the new university, academic workers promptly shifted our practices and our priorities to juggle new demands, risks, and anxieties. I witnessed a daily range of responses not only in myself, but also amongst my peers: paralysis, denial, ambivalence, worry, fear, paranoia, grief, and shame. Among women colleagues with children, there was also bewilderment, frustration, and exhaustion at the gendered expectation that their homework needed to double as unpaid elementary school teachers.[vi]

In our everyday lives resigned to the domestic sphere, how do we negotiate institutional expectations of productivity alongside personal needs and limitations as complex subjects, partners, caregivers, and…employees? On the daily, I most miss access to air-conditioned offices and libraries. My bedroom office is now, more than ever, our exercise area, the laundry room, and the doggie daycare. On the smoggiest days when the humidity hangs heavy through the apartment and the over-worked window unit ploughs on, I dim the lights and squint my eyes as I scroll and type. But despite these environmental annoyances, I know how fortunate I am to have an affordable apartment, employment, and loving care.[vii] For one thing, the ongoing reality of violence against women has surged in correspondence with COVID-19.[viii] The injunction to “stay home” has for many meant an inability to momentarily or permanently escape abuse.[ix] As a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, moving unassaulted through my home is a particular kind of freedom that is invaluable. While I don’t quite have what Virginia Woolf famously described as “a room of one’s own,” I do have a partner who, presumably like Woolf’s, respects and honours the space I need for my well-being and my work.[x] Like many academics who are also survivors, being able to do my work is a personal strategy of self-soothing: creating order, solving problems, and achieving goals. 

Those of us in the peculiar position of doing academic work from home for the foreseeable future are uniquely poised to weather the isolation that the necessity of social distancing has imposed. Perhaps the collective grief, anger, anxiety, and depression that the pandemic has drawn out will have the effect of reorienting these affects not as individual conditions but as what Ann Cvetkovich defines as “public feelings.”[xi] The pandemic has highlighted how the privatization of the university, alongside the vast undermining of social safety nets, has left the most vulnerable amongst us in real danger. As we recover from the pandemic, our collective futures depend upon environmental, racial, economic, gender, disability, and sexual justice. Addressing the inequalities perpetuated within the academy must be part of this strategy.

[i] For context, sessional workers at Brock University make $6740 a contract, compared to $8914 and $8585 at the University of Toronto and at the University of Ottawa, respectively.
[ii] Candace Bond-Theriault, “COVID-19: A Black, Queer, Feminist Grounding and Call for Self and Community Care” Ms. Magazine 26 March 2020.
[iii] Black Lives Matter Canada, “Demands” 2020.
[iv] Jennifer Llewellyn and Kristina Llewellyn, “A Restorative Approach is Key for a New Normal After COVID-19” Policy Options/Options Politiques 15 June 2020.
[v] Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network), “How are Asian and Migrant Workers in Spas, Holistic Centers, Massage Parlours, and the Sex Industry Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic?” POWER Ottawa, May 2020.
[vi] Juliet Isselbacher, “Women Researchers are Publising Less Since the Pandemic Hit. What Can Their Employers Do to Help?” Stat News 9 July 2020.
[vii] “Hundreds Protest Ontario Bill They Say Gives Landlords More Ways to Evict Tenants,” CBC News 6 July 2020.
[viii] Sofia Rodriguez, “Study: Domestic Homicide in Canada Averages 70 Deaths Per Year,” CBC News 26 September 2019.
[ix] Shelly M. Wagers, “Domestic Violence Growing in Wake of Coronavirus Outbreak,” The Conversation 8 April 2020.
[x] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929).
[xi] Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
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Emma McKenna

Emma McKenna is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in Criminology at the University of Ottawa, and Killam Honorary postdoctoral fellow in English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published on a range of issues from an intersectional and critical feminist approach. She is also the author of the poetry collection Chenille or Silk.

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