As graduate students, we are often located in the liminal space of being both students and instructors. That means that, during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and campus closures, we must attend to both our students’ and our own academic work.
My institution, the University of Oklahoma, recently announced that it would move in-person classes to an online format for the two weeks following our spring break period. Soon after, it made the official decision to not have students return to campus for the rest of the academic year. The remainder of our spring semester will be completed online, and we are encouraged to work wholly from home. The ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 issue leaves us graduate students questioning what we will do about our studies, classrooms, research and futures.
I am a third-year doctoral candidate in the department of English at the university and hold an assistant director position for our first-year composition program. The past few weeks for me have been filled with meetings, contingency plans, moving course materials online and preparing for the reality that my graduate work will have to take place from a distance. Although we are students, too, we are often inclined to think first about the undergraduates we teach and how they can best continue in the face of digital learning and lack of face-to-face interaction. This move to fully online instruction requires a lot of preparation, thought and, of course, time.
Graduate students across the country are already struggling with pay and overextended labor, and this situation adds to the stress. (That being said, we are still able to conduct our work through online platforms and receive pay from our universities; the same cannot be said for those facing the closure of their places of work like Disney/Universal and Broadway.)
We are all fully aware of the difficulties our students face right now and their uncertainty about online education. We feel the same things as we face digital platforms and teaching online. Further, many of us are committed to classrooms that promote diversity and inclusivity, and we are trying to make our online spaces as open and accessible as possible. This is all to say that those in traditional university settings have been slapped in the face with the hard reality that much of our work requires social interaction. Our world touts itself on being part of a digital age, and yet we are all going to have to rework our instructional identities and rethink our teaching practices as we transition from one space to another.
The other concern that graduate students must deal with now is what will happen to the classes we are taking, our research projects and the necessary academic work we must complete to eventually be competitive on the job market. Coursework for graduate students typically requires a seminar format, and meeting in groups will probably take place synchronously using platforms like Zoom or Google Hangout. In fact, our department has already mobilized on how we might defend thesis and dissertation work online, complete our written and oral exams from a distance, and wrangle faculty from across the university to attend all of these committee meetings.
Other elements of graduate work are not as easy to reconfigure, and everyone in higher education will be engaging in creative problem solving to address these shifting academic needs. For me, this means working remotely on my dissertation, communicating with my adviser through email and digital meetings, and creating my own schedule of productivity outside the university. Aside from the campus closure announcement, the university also restricted our professional travel; I had to cancel two very big professional conferences that were essential for my future networking and job prospects. (That’s not to say these conferences cannot or will not switch to some online format and should consider doing so for the future of accessibility in academe.)
For other graduate students, like my partner, who is a doctoral candidate in industrial-organizational psychology, closing the campus and encouraging social distancing means putting research projects on hold, moving meetings online, halting data collection and rethinking expectations around project timelines and dissertation defenses because of the lack of human subjects and in-person collaboration. Even in a fairly independent field of study, graduate students still require collaborative environments where we can develop professionally.
At times, the world of academe can feel disconnected or removed from others (as if you are preparing for exams), but we graduate students are quickly realizing our dependence on others to achieve the professional goals that still hang ever-present over our heads. COVID-19 and its aftermath will challenge our progress as burgeoning academics in a way that our mentors may not know how to address. Thus, it will be vital for everyone in academe to crowdsource ideas and rely on larger communities motivated by similar values to achieve those goals that are set for us -- and that we planned, years ago or even recently, to achieve. For me, this means organizations like the Modern Language Association will be hosting future discussions on how to address hiring practices and holes in our curriculum vitae post-coronavirus. For all, it means that social media groups, Listservs and organizations will band together like they already have to address these concerns about graduate studies. Hopefully, on both the large and small scale, we will receive more input in this process and how we think we can move forward from COVID-19 -- an opportunity we have not always had at the administrative level.
So where does this leave grads as we navigate difficult waters as both instructors and students? Like everyone else, it leaves us stressed, overworked and concerned about our futures. We have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. I have spring break -- usually a time for me to visit with others and recalibrate -- to move online and get ready to build a new classroom ethos. There is also a lot of work to do that is completely unknown to us, and yet we must somehow mentally grapple with and prepare for this ambiguous, challenging future.
But this moment also offers us opportunities. Perhaps most important, as graduate students, we can view our dual roles as a benefit to our students and programs. We can think of our positions as students as helpful to informing our teaching practices and developing materials online that we would like to see from our own professors. We can also rethink how we design our projects, conduct our research and pursue academic endeavors like conference presentations and publications. COVID-19 provides us as future faculty members and professional researchers with the disruptive but timely circumstances to consider what our academic future should look like and how we might revise our own approaches to academe in order to achieve it.
In the meantime, when dealing with daily questions around COVID-19 and graduate studies, we can use technology to connect with others as we face social isolation, seek resources to help with our teaching and professional work, and turn to our programs and communities for support.