Esra Ozyurek ponders the role and work of an academic during the lockdown
How do those of us who often write and theorise about crisis situations, past and present, work and write while living through a pandemic that is whirling around us? Does this crisis make everything we started writing before the onset of this crisis meaningless? Is it even worth the effort of going through academic publishing when we do not know how (much more) precarious our jobs will be? How do we organise our time when everything around us is upside down, yet again?
Even though the crisis around the Covid-19 pandemic feels unprecedented, and is unprecedented in many ways, crises are becoming increasingly frequent in our lives. The increasing precarity of academic jobs combined with rapidly decreasing academic freedoms are crises with which many academics struggle. Especially so, for those of us who come from countries with authoritarian regimes who regularly live through and also write about crises. How can our experiences of earlier crises help us live and think through Covid-19?
At the bottom-up writing initiative Claire Gordon from the LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement and I organise, we invited two academics to talk about writing through crisis at a virtual meeting in late March. Both of them had their share of living and writing through multiple crises. Seckin Sertdemir Ozdemir of the European Institute and Mahvish Ahmad of the Department of Sociology reminded us of how their lives as academics and journalists in Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have been punctuated with multiple crises. They spoke to us about how writers and thinkers in countries like Turkey and Pakistan endure military interventions, periodic crackdowns on intellectuals, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, imprisonment, and exile. Being a crisis survivor, however, does not make it any easier to go through another major crisis. It possibly makes it worse, because each crisis amplifies another, both at a personal and a collective level. For example, the Covid-19 makes the situation of thousands of political prisoners and journalists incarcerated in overcrowded jails through the world much more vulnerable. In the face of an economic crisis, it becomes easier to sack academics who are writing about things about which governments do not want to hear.
Being a crisis survivor, however, does not make it any easier to go through another major crisis. It possibly makes it worse, because each crisis amplifies another
Going through a pandemic is a powerful experience because it reminds us how we are connected to each other in this world. It is much different from going through and trying to write about a crisis that is localised. The pandemic gives a feeling of how we are all interdependent and can understand each other. At the same time, however, it reveals our differences. Going through the lockdown in an oversized yacht sailing through the Bahamas and a slum in India is not the same. In that sense, there is still much need for writers to translate the differences in the experiences of the pandemic and the different complications it sets off in relation to existing inequalities and democratic deficits.
Another challenge the pandemic brings out for us academics is a feeling of irrelevance when it comes to research projects that we started working a while ago. Worse, the crisis caught some of us at the middle of our field research or at its planning phase, where the kinds of social dynamics we were planning to write about came to screeching halt. It is very true that a lot of other issues feel radically extraneous for the time-being and are not even happening on the ground. However, most likely they will become relevant again. All forms of inequality, injustice, violence, and human rights will most likely not go away, but only become more acute and the necessity to tackle them will be more important than ever. Even if Coronavirus seems to consume the world’s entire attention span at the moment, the reactions to the virus have already been shaped by the existing dynamics we have been writing about for a long time.
The power of the journalists is to write fast and to bring up issues into the attention of larger groups. This is indispensable. But as academics our asset is to be able to think deeper, look at longer trajectories, and write slower. As our shock settles down, the time for slow thinking and slow writing will come back. This crisis will help us better understand some of the other issues we have been observing and writing about for a long time.
But how can we stay healthy, sane, and resilient at the time of an enormous crisis which unsettles us personally? We are worried about our own health. We are worried whether higher education will survive this crisis and will there be a place in the universities for all of us after the crisis settles down. Those of us who came to the UK to pursue an academic career or are exiled here, are doubly concerned about whether it is worth staying here, far away from our aging parents who are truly vulnerable. Do we have to be hyper-productive during lockdown as so many newspaper advice columns tell us? I believe it is important to try to keep a schedule and keep writing, even if it does not look like our usual academic writing or developing at its usual speed. The writing, through which we make our living or maintain our jobs, can also be our mental refuges where we can exert some control. Regardless of what happens to higher education, we are not only researchers but also writers. The crisis reminds us of what is most important in our lives and why we have an urge to understand and possibly change the world we live in. Writing through the crisis in a range of different forms is one of the most powerful tools we as academics have to make sense and reaffirm our identities in the midst of uncertainty.
To find out more about LSE’s academic writing initiative please email firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.