• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

Title

Staying Connected in Grad School

A digital humanist’s reflections on doing distance.

March 26, 2020
 
 

Although the fact that many of us have shifted onto remote platforms for teaching and studying over the last few weeks hardly needs to be mentioned again, this post about how to keep communication open across distances may be increasingly applicable to those of us who find ourselves more and more isolated through campuswide, statewide and even nationwide preventative measures. Originally conceived as a means of offering ideas for those who struggle (like me) to stay in touch with their loved ones back home -- or wherever they might be -- the suggestions in this blog might provide a much-needed break from the new, remote conditions we’ve been handed.

Grad school often means a geographical uprooting that separates us from our closest relationships. Maintaining healthy and enriching connections with those we see every day can often be challenging enough, so how do we confront this difficulty as the miles (and even time zones) stack up between us?

Although writers at "GradHacker" have previously tackled concerns around work-life balance as well as the relational challenges that arise from travel for research or conferencing, this is the first post grappling the more quotidian challenge of how to stay connected when we’re not physically present with those we care about. Whether it’s the physical absence of significant others, family members or friends, the suggestions that follow examine the challenges of long-distance relationships and offer a few considerations about what to do when text and Skype aren’t enough.

I’m no relationship expert, but I have found some things that worked for me -- a grad student in New York whose entire family and network of support are back in Minnesota. In the years I’ve spent out east, I’ve been both surprised and unsurprised to learn how my digital humanities background has allowed me a platform for developing creative ways to stay in touch, through forms of both old and new media.

Get creative on the phone. Let’s begin with the basics. Communication is important, and although the phone may not be the most recent technological development, it continues to be one of the most useful staples. Media theorists like Sandy Stone have noted that technologies tend to flatten our interactions in some way. Over the phone, what we communicate (i.e., the data of our conversations) is flattened, transcribed and reinterpreted by the listener. While there’s always a danger around what gets lost in this process, Stone looks to how we might play this system as well.

So, instead of struggling against this particular challenge, take advantage of what works well in an aural setting. Next time you’re on the phone with a long-distance VIP, read them something (a favorite poem or an excerpt from an article you’ve read for class), go on a walking tour of your town (offering an amateur travel podcast) or play a word game.

Send a postcard. Another staple worth returning to is the simple pleasure of sending and receiving snail mail. Although it can be difficult to find anything new to say in a letter (especially when you could more efficiently say it over the phone or text), sending an old-fashioned letter can allow you to share otherwise-ignored facets of your life through a visual, rather than aural, experience. In this way, you might opt for different content than what you might normally communicate. Use your postcard to send drawings, favorite lyrics, a reflection on a TV show you just watched … You might even look over fellow "GradHacker" Kay Sohini’s recent post on communicating through comics for inspiration.

Along these lines, I’ve recently taken a page out of Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi’s collaborative project, Dear Data. In this co-authored text, Posavec and Lupi (friends and fellow designers) send each other postcards that illustrate a weekly theme about their lived experiences. Using these themes (for example, how often they apologize to others over the course of a week), the two independently collect data about themselves before visualizing it on the backs of their postcards, which are then sent from London to New York (or vice versa). Through their project, the two emphasize that they are pushing against the narrative that data analysis can only flatten our personal interactions, instead showing how recording such ephemera can function as a way to better engage with both our surroundings and those we’d like to share them with.

Multiply platforms. The increase of social media platforms doesn’t automatically mean an increase in intimacy; we know this. However, it does mean that there are more and more platforms on which you can connect with those whom you are geographically separated from, and each of these platforms offers new opportunities and affordances. Some suggestions for taking advantage of these many opportunities: create a joint Pinterest board for sharing and suggesting recipes; curate a shared playlist on Spotify (visit often and note how new songs become fodder for a growing conversation); or (my favorite) coauthor a fanfic on AO3 based around a book, film or television show you both love.

Not all of these ideas will appeal to every reader, but hopefully one or two might do the trick. The main thing to note is that relationships -- all relationships -- require effort. And while it can feel like grad school demands all of our strength, there are so many ways to keep the efforts needed for maintaining relationships feeling fresh and rewarding. Get creative! Did you find any of the suggestions above absurd? Good! Bond over that.

And remember, this post is just a starting point. Build off it, and figure out what works for you. The important thing is to try.

What other modes of staying connected long-distance have worked for you?

Jon Heggestad is a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University. Follow him at @jonheggestad on Twitter.

Opening image remixed by author; original images sourced from Unsplash users Fritz Bielmeier and Kai Pilger.

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