by Erin Gallagher-Cohoon and Letitia Johnson
In April 2021, Erin started to write a piece she would later call “Pandemic Methodologies.” Without much of a plan, she only knew that she wanted to figure out how to verbalize what it felt like to be doing historical research during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was deeply personal, born out of little and big griefs – the loss of what she thought the experience of doing a PhD should be, the isolation and anxiety, her second father’s illness and eventual death. “I message a good friend and fellow PhD candidate over Facebook,” the essay starts. “He shares snippets of his annual review. I share snippets of this personal essay that I fatten and trim daily. Neither one of us talk about the other writing that hangs over us both besides to admit that the dissertations are coming along slowly, if at all.”
While searching for the words to describe experiences that seemed to exist beyond them, Erin reached out to another friend and colleague, Karissa Patton. This is what I’m working on. Do you know of anyone else asking these questions? Having these conversations? And, in an example of the support and creativity and encouragement that networks of grad students can provide to each other, Karissa told Erin to connect with Letitia who was writing a piece for Intersections on the value of side projects.
When we started talking about collaborating on a project about how scholars were navigating the pandemic, both professionally and in relation to their personal lives, Letitia felt like she was in a constant state of frustration. She was angry about not being able to conduct research as planned, worried that she would not be able to write the dissertation she wanted. But she had these crutches she could lean on. Whether it was connections she built through research projects, or the ability to ask past and present advisors for help and advice, she was able to continue her work through these connections. She developed many of those connections, and many of the skills that she would draw on during the pandemic, while working on side projects – projects that at other times were deemed to be distractions from the main plot of grad school, the dissertation. But now, they were a viable and important way forward. Reminding people about the importance of these so-called distractions during our time as graduate students, particularly at a time when we are constantly reminded of the fact that precarity is our future prospect, was important for her and drove her to discussions with fellow graduate students.
We were both, in our own circles, having these conversations and writing about our experiences with “pandemic methodologies.” We wanted to bring these intimate voices of friends and mentors and colleagues to others who might not have otherwise had the privilege of hearing them. As academics, our first thought was to collaborate on a special issue of a journal. But, that didn’t feel quite right. Hosting a Twitter conference allowed us to have these conversations in a more immediate way, which seemed necessary seeing as how quickly circumstances change during the pandemic. The format of a Twitter conference was particularly useful during this time of isolation and remote-working. The accessibility of Twitter made it easy to include participants from international locations, and to encourage engagement with the posts even once the live portion of the conference had concluded.
Neither one of us, however, had any experience with Twitter conferences and so we reached out to Dr. Jessica DeWitt. She enthusiastically shared her expertise in organizing Twitter conferences, and in using social media to build community. The conference would not have been as successful as it was without her.
We also acknowledge the Canadian Historical Association’s (CHA) generous financial and advertising support. Although we were worried initially when we approached the CHA that they wouldn’t value the unsolicited proposal and work of two grad students, they approved our request for funding. We were able to pay Jessica’s well-deserved consulting fees, and received honorariums for the work we ourselves did as co-organizers. The three of us on the organizing team are all precariously employed. Two of us are graduate students and the other is self-employed. We would not have been able to invest our time in this valuable side project if that work hadn’t been financially compensated. So, to other grad students out there – please do ask for the financial support you need and deserve to be able to continue doing rich and exciting work, even if the work is also done out of love.
Grad school is a liminal space. A space where we’re both underpaid workers and still-paying-tuition students. A space of prestige and imposter syndrome; intense, joyous friendships and gut-clenching competition; the privilege of having time to pursue passion projects and the nagging stress of the never-ending to-do list.
We love our research. We are so grateful to our communities of scholars, mentors, and fellow grad students. And, yet, we also feel the grinding stress of financial insecurity and overwork. The system is deeply flawed, as both graduate students and precariously employed scholars can attest. These conditions existed pre-COVID. They continue to exist with the added and unevenly applied burdens, griefs, stressors, anxieties, and silver linings of living now.
Living now, however we frame it – a global pandemic, the “new normal” – is also a liminal space. A space of isolation and digital connections; new medical advances and overrun medical systems; human adaptability and death, both actual, bodily deaths and the anxieties of death as an ever-present possibility.
It was from these liminal spaces that we began organizing. The call for presentations was sent out in March 2021. Our goals included encouraging conversation about contemporary crises and their influence on the production of history, sharing experiences, reflecting on different ways of pivoting methodologies and approaches to research, showcasing work through a digital forum, highlighting experiences of fellow precarious scholars, and fostering community. Over the course of two days, June 24-25, 2021, 18 Twitter presentations were given by a range of scholars.
The Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference was a success in so many ways. Presenters were able to connect, rant, and commiserate with fellow scholars in similar situations. There was a palpable sense of empathy and community support. It was “cathartic,” as one presenter reflected. We are especially proud of the graduate students and early career scholars who, despite precarity, agreed to be vulnerable online with us. Senior colleagues engaged with presentations that spoke about graduate student isolation, the struggle to gain equitable access as disabled students, and mental health. There was sincere care and reflection by participants that they expressed to their fellow Twitter followers.
It is worth noting that, although we had many responses to our call for participants, we also reached out to some people in a targeted way to encourage them to participate. In particular, the graduate students who presented at the Twitter conference and are included in this upcoming blog series were, for the most part, all individually contacted by the conference organizers. We knew that each of them, and many more of our contacts, had valuable experiences and insights to share. Those who declined our invitation and, thus, the conversations that did not make it to Twitter are worth noting. Some scholars told us that they wouldn’t know what to say … and then proceeded to prove that they do in fact have stories, both good and bad, to share. Some felt like they wouldn’t know how to share of themselves in this way while still maintaining a professional image, a concern particularly for scholars living with various levels of precarity. Others worried that their contribution, their criticisms, their emotions wouldn’t be valued by our profession. One declined because they could not take on the emotional labor it would entail, a reminder to us all to respect our own boundaries and to learn how and when to say no.
Over the course of the next three weeks, five presenters/presenter groups from the Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference will add to this reflective conversation.
On October 21st, we begin with Hannah Facknitz and Danielle Lorenz’ piece on the access labor performed by disabled and multiply marginalized graduate students, academic ableism, and crip community.
Following them, on October 26th, Erin Spinney reflects on the pandemic as an opportunity for tangible changes in institutional access, particularly library access, for precariously employed historians.
Next on October 28th, Emily Kaliel’s piece challenges us to rethink what counts as legitimate work in graduate school.
On November 2nd, Victoria Cosby describes her personal experience as a graduate student with teaching responsibilities during the Fall 2021 return to campus.
On November 4th, Johanna Lewis and Daniel Murchison reflect on what it means to be part of “academia’s COVID generation.” What does it mean for them as historians and graduate students to be working and producing historical analyses during the COVID crisis?
Finally, on November 9th, we conclude our blog series with sections cut from Erin’s initial piece “Pandemic Methodologies” that inspired and was inspired by the PMTC Twitter Conference.
Each post will speak to the themes the presenter(s) focused on in their PMTC presentation and expand upon this discussion by speaking to our current state, the new term, and how changing pandemic policies have influenced their work and lives as graduate students.
Erin Gallagher-Cohoon is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University. Her research analyzes the history of queer parenting and queer family formations in Canada. She has spent the pandemic thinking and writing about graduate student experiences.
Letitia Johnson is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation explores Japanese Canadian internment through a health care lens, thinking about the importance of gender, place, and memory as part of this history. She is currently the graduate student representative for the Canadian Historical Association.
I look forward to the blog series. Will they be posted with ActiveHistory? The CHA? Or does the Pandemic Methodologies have its own site?
Thank you and bravo!