Virtual meetings and webinars are often touted as a way for graduate students to extend their professional connections during the pandemic. But they can be an alienating experience.
I am one of thousands of graduate students across the world who had the misfortune of beginning their doctoral studies during a global pandemic. I was in the United States, finishing up my master’s degree when people began to realize that the pandemic would not be going away anytime soon. Sure enough, planned weekend get-togethers were abruptly cancelled. As my friends dispersed, a lucky few were able to hunker down with their loved ones. My graduation ceremony was postponed indefinitely. I was not able to reunite with my family anywhere, due to international travel restrictions and increasing health concerns. I later observed the Muslim month of Ramadan in solitude. And as my lease approached its end date, I packed what I could and left my college town to fly across the country and start my PhD program. No one to send me off, and no one to greet me at my new home.
For most of the summer, my daily routine was mundane and bland. I would get up in the morning, do errands in the afternoon, and go on a run in the evening. I thought I was being productive, but my social media timelines suggested that my lack of interest in picking up a new language, learning how to play a music instrument, or drafting a manuscript made me lazy.
I am now several months into my graduate program and I have already acquainted myself with the challenges that I will continue to face as an international student of color in the academy. I have long witnessed faculty and university administrators advising graduate students to reach out to academics beyond their departments, colleges, and institutions to broaden their horizons and find some sort of complementary, alternative intellectual communities. “You got to put yourself out there to have people notice your work,” they tell us. “It is a good habit to get into while you are still in graduate school,” they stress.
I have also been told that this “new normal” and unprecedented moment is an opportune time for graduate students to network with other academics, who supposedly have more time on their hands, as many are working from their homes and not commuting as frequently—or at all—to their places of work. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the shift to working remotely (for those who were lucky enough to even have that option) has increased the workload for an already overburdened faculty and staff.
Yet I listened. And I enthusiastically registered for several webinars and workshops, sent emails to academics whose work I admired but never had a chance to meet, and sought out ways to become more involved with professional scholarly organizations that put out calls for graduate student participation. I did not know what I was getting myself into, as I was in for a rude awakening.
I attended a handful of AAA section and interest group business meetings during the Raising Our Voices virtual event series that took place this past fall. Most of these Zoom meetings went along these lines: Faculty who have known each other for years spent the first couple of minutes catching up with each other as they trickled into the session, making jokes about their kids and recent weekend hiking trips, while complaining about their students. They would not bother to introduce themselves to first-timers like myself. While everyone was encouraged to participate, senior faculty spoke the most at these meetings, frequently cutting other attendees off and not being mindful of how much space they were taking up.
Eventually, I stopped going to graduate student mentoring workshops offered by various editorial boards from within our discipline and beyond, as there too I felt unwelcome. I soon learned that typing my questions into the Q&A box was a useless endeavor, as my questions, no matter how short or how in advance they were submitted, often remained pending and ignored by moderators. During those instances, I could not help but ask myself, What am I doing in this space? Do I belong here? Am I even in the right Zoom room? The reminder to feel free to follow-up with panelists once the session ended seemed merely a formality.
In fact, I did end up taking some presenters up on this offer and emailed them after their talks were over. Many of these messages went unanswered. The occasional few who replied sent curt responses that could have passed as automated messages. “Thank you for attending!” became a classic. They rarely included my name. Instead, “Please do not reach out to me again,” was the tone these interactions conveyed.
I do not think that graduate students need more workshops on topics that perpetuate individualism, competitiveness, or the myth of meritocracy. Given the precariousness of the academic job market for anthropologists, most graduate students today will not land tenure-track jobs or get published by prestigious journals. Yet during annual student reviews, anthropology departments continue to assess graduate students based on their research productivity and the number of grants and awards that they have accrued. It is this vision of success that needs to be reimagined.
There are ways that faculty could support their graduate students without spreading themselves too thin. Graduate students are aware that their advisors are also impacted by the pandemic. Faculty could begin by cutting their students some slack–this entails acknowledging student burnout and lowering expectations of productivity, as this pandemic has disrupted far too many lives. Although the pandemic is starting to wane, it is too early for us to revert back to business as usual—not that graduate student working conditions were great in the past. We must also keep in mind that we are not “all in this together,” as people do not enter the academy on a level playing field, and the pandemic has further exacerbated pre-existing inequities.
Another issue faculty could take into consideration is re-envisioning their curricula and pedagogies. This goes beyond reducing the number of readings and assignments that one might initially have assigned, to rethinking how to teach, learn, and build community with students at this moment. Faculty leading virtual meetings and webinars that are open to both faculty and graduate students must ensure that their faculty colleagues do not talk over students or disregard inclusive communication norms because of their seniority.
Lastly, I call on faculty to not put the onus of pushing for these reforms on graduate students who for too long have been undervalued, overworked, and exploited in the academy.
I still hear stories of anthropologists who eventually abandoned their research topics following years of intensive fieldwork and commitment as they found themselves being bullied by more established scholars who ostracized them, exercised gatekeeping over them, and most detrimental of all, never cited them or cared to include them in their professionalized social circles. I am left wondering, Will there ever be a space for me in our discipline or the academy?
Bader Alfarhan is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Cite as: Alfarhan, Bader. 2021. “Networking During the Pandemic.” Anthropology News website, April 16, 2021.