Going away or not: International collaborative research and coronavirus

By Julia Paulson

I initially wrote this blog post in late April 2020, in the midst of the UK coronavirus lockdown. I felt uncertain about it at that time, like I did about everything then. But, now in September 2020 as the Network that I describe in the post is beginning (slowly and gently) to start its activities and as the academic year kicks off (hectically and potentially dangerously), it seems a good time to share these thoughts about the difficulties and delights of pausing, staying home and going slow with collaborative, international research. I’ve edited the post slightly to reflect the timeline, but is still largely as written from lockdown:

“We aren’t going away,” said my lovely colleague, Leon Tikly, who leads a network on Transforming Education Systems for Sustainable Development. He described the ways in which he and his colleagues are expanding their foci to include coronavirus and how they are finding new ways to continue their important work. On a Zoom call with other colleagues leading collaborative, international Network Plus projects, researchers described the digital methods they are working to develop and opportunities for online networking they hope to open. On another call with a University research group, colleagues strategized around how to build up our web presence, generating new blogs and profiling exciting ongoing research.

On these calls, I’ve found myself nodding along, smiling, trying to agree, trying to think about how the network that I am leading might also ‘not go away’. But, in the call with Leon my 6-year-old was climbing on me while I tried to reimagine our work and my 4-year-old was pulling on my jumper, repeating over and over that she was hungry. I had to leave the Network Plus call early as both kids started throwing pillows at me in a bid for attention. So, despite my smiles and nods, the refrain that has really been running through my head about our network as I sit on these calls is “we are going to go away, we are going away, we have gone away.”

I didn’t and don’t want to go away. I’ve cried about it. I’ve tried to think about ways around it, to be creative, to innovate, but I’ve also been interrupted to rebuild a den three times since I sat down to write the above two short paragraphs. So, I haven’t gotten very far on the creative new ideas.

Where I have gotten to though, which I have come to think of as progress, is to a point where I can see reconstructing the den as a priority. I now know that I need to put the den before what I might rather be doing professionally. I add the den as urgent to the top of my list of work tasks, many of which are also communicated to me as urgent.

I know we are privileged to be safe and comfortable in our home. Much more privileged than many around the world, including those with whom our Network Plus partners work directly. Knowing this, I’m starting to accept that despite my resistance to going away, it might actually be an appropriate response for international collaborative research. Our network, EDJAM, officially started at the beginning of April. It brings together colleagues based in Cambodia, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda and here in the UK. When I first wrote this in late April, each country was in a version of lockdown and this has fluctuated since with different parts of the world moving in and out of lockdown. In April, all the organisations where our colleagues work were physically closed and all our colleagues were trying to work from home. Schools were closed and, like me, colleagues were trying to home school and fill our children’s days in ways that ease some of the strain on them. And, in all cases, our inboxes were filled with various urgencies involved in keeping our Universities and NGOs going. Across our network, our families and social circles have been affected by Covid-19 in different ways and we are all mourning in some way. Some specific individual combination of mourning for our lives before, the distance from those we love, the things that we or our close family members have had to see and do in responding to coronavirus, the mounting numbers of deaths around the world and in our home places, and the individuals that were ours within those numbers. So, all that happened on April 1st in our network was that I emailed everyone involved to say that for the time being, we are going away.

Permission for things to be how they are

I sent the email out of the necessity of being on pause – the necessity for me. Because my kids have developed ever more creative strategies for sabotaging work Zoom calls (including my 4-year-old daughter mooning colleagues and my 6-year-old son closing the computer with a ‘goodbye forever’ to the Undergraduate Dean). Because other parts of my job have not gone away, will not go away, and I am struggling to do them. Because I needed something to go away and this was one thing that I had (some) control over, though of course the funders do not want us to go away and there is work involved in making pause a possibility – more on this later. I cried about the email, though. This was not the part of my job I wanted to go away.

The replies from Network colleagues around the world brought a different kind of tears. Like me, colleagues needed things to go away. They needed things removed from their to do lists so that they could do the urgent things that our new realities require of them, whether that is building dens on repeat like me, or leading the approach to school closures but ongoing learning in Cúcuta, Colombia like our colleague Arturo, or providing much needed perspective and critique on the move to online learning at Universities in Pakistan, like our colleague Tania, or celebrating Khmer New Year at home in matching Hawaiian shirts like our colleague Duong.

Having permission, in one aspect of professional life, to acknowledge that things are how they are and to not have to keep going was welcome news to most colleagues in our network, despite how excited we all are about this project and the work we will eventually do together. On another project, those who were keen to carry on and innovate were in urban centres, had fast internet, and were in life stages where caring responsibilities were minimal. Not going away is more possible for some than for others and trying to pursue this strategy, changing course rather than pausing, produces new silences as well as producing new knowledge.

Maybe eventually we will have to innovate and find new ways to do our work together. Maybe we’ll have to be creative and resilient and all the things our employers are urging us to be already, now, today. But for right now, we’ll just wait and see. We’ll take it day by day. We’ll make dens.

Going inside

And, it turns out that we made ourselves a den, too. It turns out we haven’t entirely gone away, we’ve just gone inside. Like we’ve been asked to, as my son regularly reminds me. We do meet on Zoom or Whatsapp and on Facebook or Twitter to check on one another. To hear about how things are going in our corners of the world, to laugh at the latest ways our children are slowly driving us crazy, to rage at Amazon’s profit margins, and to see each other’s faces. We don’t talk about our project specifically, but often we do talk about the ideas that underpin it. The ideas that we all care about and that brought us together and from which we’ve become friends as well as collaborators. I think this being inside together (but apart) – an inside together that comes without to do lists and expectations, with patience and a willingness to listen, care and support – means that when the day by day makes it possible for us to go outside again, to have a more public-facing element to our work and to start our activities together in earnest, we’ll do so from a place of trust and energy. We’ll have more fun and we might also do a better job of the work. We’ll hopefully be more attuned to each other’s realities and be able to work respectfully together in a way that continues to give us each permission for things to be how they are and maybe also allows us to get something done.

Work for later or making pause a possibility

When we were writing the proposal for our network, we agreed underpinning values for it, aspiring for a feminist and anti-racist collaboration. And, while I’ve railed against going away or staying inside, I think that probably, for us, in the circumstances that the colleagues involved in the project find ourselves, it is probably the approach that most embodies those values we laid out to guide our work. I’m not suggesting that all international collaborative projects should go away for a while or that going away is necessarily a feminist response. But I am suggesting that it is okay for us to go away, and in some circumstances like ours, it is probably right for us to go away. And, as coronavirus has been described as a disaster for feminism and for academic careers of women and those with caring responsibilities, maybe going inside, which I found so disempowering, gendered and unfair, is a feminist response in its putting caring for each other, ourselves and our loved ones, listening and giving space, first. Looking at going away/inside from this angle also makes clear what we should put second and – as is often the case when choosing feminist and/or anti-racist courses of action – choosing to go away/inside will also create more work for us. So, instead of first turning our attention to innovation in the delivery of our planned activities, we’ll need to work to make a pause a possibility. This will involve work with funders who have already opened the doors for no-cost extensions, but not for costed ones, which will be essential for colleagues funded by our project; work with our Universities whose workload spreadsheets don’t include going away time and whose expectations for coronavirus include ‘innovation’, ‘new solutions’ and ‘one activity to keep your children busy until lunchtime’ and whose progression criteria haven’t changed to accommodate how things are. So, we’ll come outside for that additional work, in this case the work of making it okay to pause. At some point, we will also weave that work into the existing commitments of our network and we’ll use the relationships we’ve strengthened while inside at home to open new possibilities and create space to acknowledge and work within the realities of international collaboration during a pandemic.