Rebecca Schuman

Author, Translator, Independent Scholar at self-employed

Are You Working? Distraction, Irrelevance, and Other Faculty Dilemmas Amid Covid-19

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Editor’s Note: In this new series, a Ph.D. and academic-writing coach answers questions about scholarly motivation and productivity from graduate students and faculty members. The first set of questions she’s tackling this month came via Twitter and Facebook. Read her earlier “Are You Writing?” series here.

Question: How do I deal with the overwhelming feeling of shame when I can’t seem to get substantive work done lately on my scholarly monograph?

—Grim Grad Student

Oh, I feel you. But at the same time, I also feel that this divisive, uncertain era has crystallized the immense amount of luck and fortune (and yes, privilege) I’ve had not to feel as if the world was on fire around me until somewhat recently. I don’t presume to know about your situation, but these times have forced me to reckon with the fact that systemic racism has made it very difficult for many brilliant people to concentrate or be productive for generations — and yet they did. So part of me feels like: What makes me so special that the constant terror that I’ll die alone on a ventilator and/or American democracy will end in two months can impede my precious work?

That perspective is important and necessary. But of course, it won’t actually make it any easier for someone who’s understandably bogged down in uncertainty and grief to annotate a bunch of articles (the most boring part of dissertation or other monograph writing, so it’s the part I assume you’re stuck on).

It’s also important to remember that nobody is working like “normal” right now — or, rather, anyone who is doing so is either so accustomed to volatility that they are nearly godlike in their resilience, or sufficiently privileged and unempathetic not to be affected. To the former group you can simply express gratitude. The latter you should just ignore.

Most of us just cannot concentrate right now. And I would recommend freeing yourself from shame, in one of two ways:

  • Option No. 1: You have my permission to consider this entire time a wash. Many tenure clocks have paused, defense deadlines have moved, and if you’ve already got tenure, what better time than now to take advantage of it?
  • Option No. 2: For many scholars (possibly you, too, Grim), your work is a defining part of who you are, and not doing it might bring about severe depression. So this option is the one I’d recommend: Short-circuit the shame cycle by doing about 20 to 45 minutes of work every day on your dissertation or other research project, but focus on small tasks that have to be done but don’t require intense concentration to accomplish. I mean things like captioning images, writing footnotes, or correcting whatever ridiculous formatting mistakes your bibliography software made with your sources. Dictate random ideas into your phone. Free-write single paragraphs about whatever. Do something, anything, that relates to your work without feeling as if you have to engage with your whole brain.

The real weight of how much space the American crisis occupies in us will become apparent only when — if — it finally lifts. Until then, consider every tiny thing you do an unmitigated victory, and don’t be ashamed of having a human reaction to an inhumanly difficult time.

Question: I am trying to think of a properly academic, professionally civil way of asking WHO CARES WHAT I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR? In a world where we are ignoring literal experts about a literal plague, doesn’t scholarly work seem a bit passé?

—Hortative Historian

Hortative, I dare say many individuals care what you have to say about the Civil War, given that the present occupant of the White House has made it clear he has no plans to leave it in January, regardless of the “election,” and we may be on the precipice of something similar. Also, is this country not currently embroiled in a debate over the continued presence of Confederate monuments … or was that just a weird melatonin dream I had?

Don’t — and this goes for everyone, not just Hortative here — underestimate the relevance of your academic discipline in these frazzled times, just because Tucker Carlson and some guy at Harvard think you’re a lazy pinko who is secretly enjoying your enforced staycation as you garden and take Zoom naps. Your work — all of your work, humanist friends — is relevant now because the larger humanistic conversation is and will remain an accurate metric of how we, the humans, brought ourselves to this particular moment of ignominy.

I know it’s extremely — impossibly — difficult to work on things that seem “irrelevant” because they do not deal directly with today’s fresh horror show of news, but your research topics, whatever they are, are not irrelevant. You are elucidating the most beautiful and important written works of all time. You are making sense of the past to understand the present. You are fighting a long-entrenched system of oppression simply by reading and writing. You are a lifeline to students who also want to spend some time thinking about topics unrelated to Covid-19, politics, or both.

You are creating something that matters to you. These are wretched times. Let’s not make them any more wretched by doubting your worth.

Question: All scholarship in every field suddenly seems as if it has to be about the bloody virus, and this is annoying. Advice?

—Pandemic Philosopher

Yes, Pandy, we are being inundated with contrived Covid angles.

But, and I mean this in the most civil, respectable academic way: Perhaps all of us who aren’t epidemiologists (or public-health scholars, or similarly direct experts!) should cool it with the Covid content. In two to six years, will anyone want to read your Great American Coronavirus Novel? Or your “What Would David Hume Say about Quarantine” peer-reviewed article? Exactly nobody in the entire reading world wants to read your hastily published Covid-branded essay collection that is just a barely warmed-over version of the same thesis you’ve been churning out for decades.

I am far from alone when I say: The second there’s a vaccine for this business, I am going to relish — absolutely savor — reading, thinking, hearing, and learning about anything else. Remember the crop of dissertations and monographs about Carl Schmitt and the Bush Doctrine that came out, irrelevantly, halfway into the Obama administration? That was embarrassing. I was embarrassed on behalf of every adviser who had approved those topics and every established academic who should have known better.

Journalists have to “peg” stories to the present moment, but that kind of writing is short and published instantaneously. It doesn’t usually require months or years of exacting research (unless it’s investigative reporting, which, when it’s done well, is not produced hastily to capitalize on a “news peg”). Can you imagine starting some Covid-branded book now … and having to still keep working on it once this is over?

My dear Pandemic Philo and everyone else in academe: If your work does not directly deal with viruses, or pandemics, or viral pandemics, or pandemic virality, don’t force it to. Stop. Delete.

And the same goes for your Covid panels at the next online academic conference — unless, of course, they’re pedagogical discussions on how to deliver courses remotely with three days’ notice because your university forced everyone to come back in person and now 600 people are quarantined. Now that, friends, is what I call relevant.


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