COVID 19 and Graduate School: Disruptions and Contributions

The passage above is from a chapter in a 2008 book called Infectious Disease Ecology: Effects of Ecosystems on Disease and of Disease on Ecosystems. This chapter was written by University of Alaska Biology and Wildlife professor, Terry Chapin, and colleagues. I sought out this book because I’ve been thinking about the COVID 19 pandemic from an ecological perspective. Homo sapiens is a species suddenly hosting this new coronavirus, and this is happening within an ecosystem. (Or ecosystems? Ecologists, tell me if the entire planet can be considered a single ecosystem or not.)

In my last post I wrote about my latest research project on doctoral writing. I shared that by considering our dissertation experiences through an ecological metaphor, my co-authors and I gained a deeper understanding of how we sought to balance school, work, and life. Specifically, we discovered how these different realms of our lives–following the ecological metaphor, we called them symbiotic clusters (Fleckestein et al., 2008)–both disrupted each other and contributed to each other.

It’s easy to see COVID 19 as a disruption–disease epidemics are termed “disturbances” in the passage from Chapin and colleagues. Yet as I’m working with graduate students throughout our collective COVID 19 experience, I’m hearing about both disruptions and contributions. Our response to COVID 19 means changing our practices within the symbiotic clusters of school, work, and life. As graduate students carry on with their dissertations or theses, some of these changes disrupt their progress, while others contribute to it.

For many graduate students who are also employed, their work practices have changed. Many are doing their job from home instead of their usual workplace. Some are front-line health care workers doing their jobs with increased protection protocols and working longer hours. Others are government employees on call 24/7 to implement pandemic plans. And some graduate students are unable to go to work because their employer has been closed or because they have no child care.

Graduate students are also changing their practices in the symbiotic cluster we call life. Many are parents, caring for their children in new ways and guiding their children’s education in new ways. Like all of us, graduate students are facing changes in how they interact with family members and friends. Options for self-care are different in this time of physical distancing. And some graduate students are sick or are caring for someone who is sick.

COVID 19 has brought many changes in graduate students’ school practices. Many graduate students already attend their classes online, but many are experiencing online classes for the first time. Many graduate students have halted data collection or are revising their proposed data collection plans to implement social distancing. Some simply can’t collect data right now because every potential participant on the planet is experiencing COVID 19, and that would mess up their results.

COVID 19 has suddenly changed practices across the school, work, and life clusters, and changes in each cluster send feedback to all the others. While we are facing the challenges of this grave crisis, many people are pointing out unexpected “silver linings.” We can understand these benefits from an ecological perspective on academic writing as contributing feedback. Canceled travel and events open up time in the calendar for academic work. Staying at home, for some, facilitates the stretches of solitude that many crave for the writing process. Scaling back data collection plans may make a study more feasible for an emerging researcher. As people feel compelled to offer social support (from a safe distance, through an internet connection) some graduate students are finding writing groups or writing partners for the first time.

I also sense that many of us are gaining some clarity as a result of facing the crisis. We are recognizing what’s most important to us. We are giving ourselves and others compassion. We are accepting imperfection. Through my experience supporting academic writers, I know that all of these insights can help people move forward in the writing process.

Thanks to Chapin and colleagues I’m now adding another key term to my understanding of this contributing feedback: resilience. Yes, we are experiencing a disease-induced change in state right now. At the same time, we are seeing that our personal writing ecologies have the capacity to absorb shocks. We can sustain our slow variables–our commitment to intellectual inquiry, our supportive relationships and self-compassion–and thereby plant the seeds for recovery. None of this means the disruption isn’t hard. But we can do hard things. We will come through this.

References

Chapin, F., Eviner, V., Talbot, L., Wilcox, B., Magness, D., Brewer, C., & Keebler, D. (2008). Disease Effects on Landscape and Regional Systems: A Resilience Framework. In Eviner V., Ostfeld R., & Keesing F. (Eds.), Infectious Disease Ecology: Effects of Ecosystems on Disease and of Disease on Ecosystems (pp. 284-303). PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt7sgg4.20

Fleckenstein, K.S., Spinuzzi, C., Rickly, R.J., & Papper, C.C. (2008). The importance of harmony: An ecological metaphor for writing research. College Composition and Communication, 60(2), 388-419.

Seeking Balance

Trying to complete a dissertation or thesis alongside all of our other responsibilities is incredibly hard. Many graduate students are also parents, full-time employees or business owners, or involved in teaching or clinical training. All students have lives beyond the dissertation. All have a need for social connection. All have bodies that need care and attention. All of these parts of our lives need our time and energy, and because there are only so many hours in a day and we have only so much energy to give, these competing priorities pull us in different directions. It’s stressful.

Throughout my dissertation experience, I was in close contact with four wonderful friends from my doctoral cohort. Later, we conducted a qualitative study to better understand our experiences. We all struggled with the dissertation. In particular, we all struggled to do the dissertation work in the contexts of our lives. Like most graduate students, we found that our families, our paid work, our health and other aspects of our lives all competed for our time and energy. Even our sense of ourselves within those other aspects of our lives sometimes felt at odds with our sense of ourselves within the dissertation work.

As we looked further into how we actually moved through the experience, we found that an ecological metaphor helped us understand what “balance” meant for us. We looked at the different aspects of our lives as interdependent ecosystems. Each aspect–family, for instance–was its own constantly changing ecosystem that sent feedback into another ecosystem, like the dissertation work. Sometimes this feedback disrupted the other ecosystem, but sometimes it was helpful. For example, I constantly felt guilty about missing out on time with my young son to work on my dissertation, and that seriously messed up my ability to do good dissertation work. Eventually, though, I had a realization that my family had made so many sacrifices to support me that I just had to complete my dissertation to honor their support. At that point, my family ecosystem was sending helpful, kick-it-into-gear feedback into my dissertation ecosystem.

My classmates and I never “found” balance. It was never over and done with. We were continually seeking balance. While different parts of our lives competed, there were also ways these different parts of our lives supported each other. We weren’t necessarily conscious of the helpful, contributing feedback relationships in the moment–it was a lot easier to see the disruptive feedback–but after closely examining our experiences, we came to the new insight that when enough contributing feedback was happening, the disruptive feedback was mitigated. And that was when our dissertation work moved forward.

Our research process was based on reflective writing and group discussion. Based on that process, we came up with some questions we feel may help other graduate student writers reflect on the different ecosystems in their lives and the feedback between them. Try writing on these questions and see what you discover:

  • Tell the story of your dissertation experience (to date)
  • What are the struggles or conflicts you see in your story?
  • How do you resolve those struggles or conflicts? Or how might you resolve them?