This post by Robert A. Ventresca (King’s University College at Western University, Canada) is the fifth in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.
The irony is not lost on me. I have struggled for the better part of an hour now to articulate a meaningful introduction to this very brief reflection on research resilience in pandemic times. Struggled, that is, with the distraction of my six-year-old daughter’s voice in another room engaging excitedly in an online learning exercise. Just as I finish typing these few sentences, in fact, she calls out that her lesson is finished, and that procuring her morning snack now is an urgent matter. Meanwhile, the dog, a precocious Labrador Retriever pup, is whimpering, the unmistakable signal that the appointed time fast approaches for her midday run around the yard. My wife, to her great credit, is somewhere in the house managing the many demands of her flourishing law practice, confronting the obstacles presented by our heavily taxed and falsely advertised high speed internet.
These are the rather quotidian concerns of working from home in pandemic times. Yet they speak to the very practical obstacles many of us are facing to produce meaningful research and scholarship in the midst of a global pandemic. As I write, the feared ‘third wave’ of Covid-19 has materialized where I live, provoking yet another round of closures and restrictions. The various public health measures are euphemistically described by officials as a shutdown, presumably to make it sound more palatable than the draconian lockdown of previous surges. One struggles in vain to tell the difference.
I write from a position of considerable privilege and security. I am a white, heterosexual male, tenured, and a Full Professor to boot. The reality is that the pandemic has impacted my junior colleagues disproportionately – especially women. In fact, as Vice President Kamala Harris wrote a few months ago, the social and economic effects of the pandemic have caused a mass exodus of women from the paid workforce – a situation she aptly describes as an emergency.
My privileged position gives rise to an ethical responsibility to lay bare how the effects of the global pandemic have disproportionately impacted traditionally under-represented groups in academia. At the same time, it may be instructive to reflect on how my own research agenda as a mid-career scholar has been impacted in wholly unexpected ways by the truly unprecedented demands of balancing work with caregiving responsibilities in pandemic times.
I would offer three observations.
First, we need to acknowledge that talking about the elusive work-life balance means something different today than it did in the before times. We are living in grievously disturbed times; a time of tremendous loss, suffering and disorienting disruption. Consider, for instance, what a stay-at-home or lockdown order entails. All so-called non-essential services and business are closed or severely restricted. Everyone who can work remotely must do so. Daycare, schools and even universities pivot to online learning, which is actually emergency remote teaching. Travel restrictions enforce strict regulations that prevent people from more than one household from congregating. Under current restrictions where we live, if even just one member of a household exhibits the altogether common symptoms of seasonal colds and flu, such as headache, cough or runny nose, the expectation is that everyone in the household should quarantine, including children. There are understandably rigourous protocols that dictate when children may be permitted to return to in-person instruction: Covid-testing, Covid-screening, isolation for days or weeks, depending on the circumstances.
Families must balance all of these variables when making work and caregiving arrangements. That balancing act – challenging enough in the before times – is all the more difficult now since the usual support networks we relied upon previously – daycares, babysitters, even extended family members – are prohibited or severely curtailed. Whatever fine distinction there was previously between work and home has been blurred, nay, erased altogether. As Kamala Harris put it: our homes have become classrooms and child-care centres. Accordingly, the assumptions, practices and expectations that informed research and scholarship previously should no longer apply; for if they do, we risk creating unfair, inequitable burdens and barriers in research fields across the disciplines.
Second, we must take care not to generalize or impose standardized metrics for evaluating research work during pandemic times. Flexibility and reasonable accommodations must be the order of the day. Not all researchers face the same dilemmas in balancing work and caregiving in pandemic times. Fair and equitable metrics presume differing circumstances and disparate access to resources and support systems. For me personally, the fact of having a young family in pandemic times when school-age children often are home for weeks on end and with a spouse who is also working from home – all of this was bound to change the way I work, if and when I am able to work at all. I have struggled to meet deadlines and missed a few. I have fallen behind at times in my contributions to an ongoing collaborative project. Travel restrictions have imposed indefinite delays on long-planned archival research, cutting me off from indispensable primary sources for my current book project.
Third, we need to redress structural and attitudinal inequities by demanding that institutions and their leaders commit to formal and informal accommodations to mitigate the most adverse effects of the pandemic on our research. All too often, managerial attitudes and organizational structures are slow to change. Such rigidity inhibits research resilience and productivity, not to mention the stresses and strains it places on mental health and well-being of researchers. I have advocated on my own behalf for formal accommodation in my work schedule on the basis of family status. I have insisted that those in a position of institutional authority take care not to bring gendered expectations to bear in determining accommodations for faculty and staff with caregiving responsibilities.
Again, I appreciate that this advocacy reflects a position of privilege and security. If I were not tenured, I would be worried about my professional trajectory. I know many of my more junior colleagues with young children or other caregiving roles are worried. We need to hold our institutions and our respective research networks accountable to ensure fair and equitable research practices in pandemic times.
Robert A. Ventresca, Ph.D.
Professor of History and Acting Coordinator, Human Rights Studies
King’s University College at Western University (Canada)