Motivation and Apathy in the Time of COVID-19

For many graduate students, the pandemic has postponed fieldwork and changed research plans. How do we keep going and cope with these challenges to our academic careers?  

Everything is weird. I fear this dead horse has been beaten, and we are all tired of hearing phrases like “in these unprecedented times,” or its variants. As much as I want to just power through and forge ahead, quietly adjusting to “the new normal,” I do find it increasingly important to keep acknowledging and talking with one another about the fact that this is an unprecedented moment. A number of us are fortunate that we have been able to work from home and practice social distancing more easily than other folks. And, for me personally, being white means my family and I haven’t been blamed or attacked for the virus, and are not having to convince parts of society that our lives matter, and so the deepest, heaviest burdens are not sitting squarely on my shoulders. These sometimes literal and metaphorical fires around us do take their toll on us all. Many students, including me, are trying to avoid deep apathy and despair about our projects and career choices, struggling to maintain motivation for our dissertation research. We need to remember to take these ongoing crises (including those of neoliberal capitalism) into account. We need to keep talking about them with each other, making plans, sharing solutions and coping mechanisms, and helping each other to shoulder our burdens.

A few months ago, I ascended to a new category of graduate student—that of the ABD PhD candidate. I did my last bit of preparing, and passed my qualifying exams during the lockdown. I have never missed the dank study room in the basement of our anthropology building more than when my upstairs neighbor bought a drum set right at the start of the lockdown. I also did the oral defense of my research proposal via Zoom from my apartment. One advantage was that I could wear shorts in order to cope with the anxiety sweats I knew I would get, because only my top third had to look presentable. I am not unique in this, there were a number of other students in my department alone who defended virtually. It was weird and challenging, but it always is, and it’s supposed to be… it’s for a PhD! Having something other than COVID-19 to focus on was in some ways a blessing, but being able to study on campus, easier access to my peers and support network, and a proper celebration would have been nice. I thought about quitting more times than I care to admit.

These difficulties, alongside others, have brought me to a moment of crisis in my academic journey.

Now that I am ABD, the next step is fieldwork and writing! Fieldwork is a major reason I got into this game to begin with. I love meeting new people, making new friends, traveling, talking to strangers until they are friends, and coming to understand what they are doing and why. Reading and studying alone became a struggle and I started losing sight of why I am doing what I am doing, I would remind myself that it will all pay off in the field. In the spring, as the lockdown was starting and my university was sending students home, they issued a prohibition on affiliated travel, which included research or conferences. Granting agencies were pausing application reviews, and many of us who were preparing to hit the field stage of our career were suddenly tasked with reformulating our plans.

Partial, confusing, and misleading information both in the United States and in our various field sites have made things even more disheartening. I honestly do not know if COVID-19 is a huge problem or not in my field site in Tanzania. President John Magufuli  claims they defeated the virus through the power of prayer, and stopped reporting cases in April. However, the neighboring country of Kenya was routinely testing truck drivers going in and out, and reported high numbers of cases from Tanzanian drivers. When I talked with friends back in April and May 2020, they said that everything was OK and not a big problem, although some were asking me what doctors in the United States recommended because they felt like they were not getting good advice. I read articles that reported people were afraid to say anything because the president was cracking down on journalists and people talking about the virus. Activists reported that their phones were being monitored. The US embassy in Dar es Salaam reported many cases and full hospitals, and advised against travelling. And a friend of mine living in Dar told me she had gotten sick, but had since recovered. In early 2021, this same friend tells me the situation is very bad, and that the old people are getting sick and dying at high rates. Tanzania’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and they reopened their airports and welcomed travelers back long before many countries.

These difficulties, alongside others, have brought me to a moment of crisis in my academic journey. I have had similar moments before. I have given serious thought to throwing in the towel and changing career paths to something like social work or training as a therapist. Or even choosing no career path, instead opting to run off into the woods with my partner. But who among us hasn’t had those thoughts lately as our frustration and fury with capitalism and the contemporary United States grows?

In discussions on the subject, I tend to hide the depth of my true feelings in the interest of not being too pessimistic. I feel that if I say what I really think, a darkness will spread like a virus too. I am having an immense amount of difficulty not being apathetic about my career path and my project. With what feels like society collapsing around me, it’s hard to focus, and when I do I feel guilty for trying to figure out language use by musicians in Tanzania. They don’t really need me. They are doing just fine without me. Meanwhile, my own society is crumbling around me, revolution is in the air. My fellow citizens need me to show up and do what I can in the fight against racism and structural injustice. White supremacy and the rise of fascism must be dismantled and dealt with. There is a risk of people I know being radicalized and seduced by conspiracy theories, and the QAnon cult in particular. And so I feel a responsibility to understand that whole situation and reach out to these people and maybe prevent them from going down that path. Climate change… the list goes on.

But I am paralyzed with not knowing what to do or how, and feeling like I am too small to do anything meaningful. I do what I can, when I can, which definitely isn’t enough. I speak out when I see something, push back when my family members have racist, wrongheaded ideas. I am working as an election poll worker. But it doesn’t feel like enough. The actions my gut tells me to take would require abandoning my academic endeavors, which I do believe are important and significant in the long run; they are a passion of mine, and I have invested so much time, debt, and energy into my scholarly work.

I do not have an answer or really anything useful or actionable to close with. Rather, I am putting into words what I and many other junior scholars and graduate students at this stage in our careers are feeling. I know this because one thing that keeps me going are regular Zoom meetings with others in similar situations where we talk about our work and our feelings about it, and make plans to push each other. I hope that those advising us will keep these things in mind, and that we can all remember that it’s hard out there for all of us in different ways. Remind yourself that these are strange times and to be kind to yourself and each other.

Addendum: In the time since I wrote this, I have managed to (mostly) reach a decision. I have started applying to internships in the field of user experience research. It seems much less isolating than solitary research, and I love the idea of working to make websites, programs, and products functional, usable, and accessible to people of all backgrounds and abilities. Using my training to help people meet their needs sounds wonderful. The jury is still out on what exactly this means for my project, and much of that depends on how the chips fall in the next few months.

Rachael Sebastian is a PhD candidate in linguistic and sociocultural anthropology at Binghamton University. Her dissertation research centers on codeswitching and language choice in multilingual music in Tanzania, and how artists use music to organize and mobilize people to improve life in their communities. She is also a graduate student representative for the Association for Africanist Anthropology.

Christian Vannier is section contributing editor for the Association for Africanist Anthropology.

Cite as: Sebastian, Rachael. 2021. “Motivation and Apathy in the Time of COVID-19.” Anthropology News website, March 30, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1609

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