Summer research and fall teaching update

It is mid-July, and after many months of a whole lot of abnormal, things are teetering on the edge of threatening to return to something like pre-pandemic normality. I got my second dose of Pfizer vaccine at the end of June, and we have finally begun planning a trip to visit family we have not seen in more than two years to close out the summer. Quite exciting, though the prospect of returning to the classroom, virtually at least, also looms just over the horizon. I have not had to teach in the past year because I was, luckily for me and probably for my would-be students, on research sabbatical last fall followed by 12 weeks of parental leave in the winter after the birth of our second child. I had not counted on there being a global pandemic during that time period, of course, and applied for my fall 2020 sabbatical in summer 2019, well before coronavirus arrived on the global stage. My lone online teaching experience since the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns in March 2020 was quickly transitioning my last three weeks of courses that term to a digital platform, so the Great Collective Academic Trauma has largely bypassed me and I am just now experimenting with the various electronic tools at my disposal for my upcoming fall courses. I’ll get to those below in more detail.

Though I only “officially” came back to work in late March, I worked throughout the sabbatical, just not teaching, and despite the pandemic, I was able to get some research and writing work done. There has been considerable discussion online about the kind of academic work that could, should, and did get done amid the pandemic. I won’t wade into that debate here, except to say that if you could get research and writing done alongside teaching and other work commitments and the swirl of childcare and other family and social responsibilities heaped upon you and yours because of closures, or because you or others around you were ill, then great, and if not, well it ain’t the end of the world. This differs across institutional and geographic contexts, of course, and there is evidence that the career effects of pandemic-induced online teaching and research delays have more strongly affected women in academia than men. One thing I have learned (or perhaps just decided) over the last 16-plus months, however, is that almost no one’s research is so important that it needs to come out tomorrow. And it won’t anyway, because social science and humanities journals and presses are slow, slow, slow. That is, until it came time to pump out pandemic content, and then it was an extremely fast turnaround on some academic hot takes. I mean, Slavoj Zizek had his own volume on the pandemic ready to go in late March 2020, not even a few weeks after covid plowed through Italy and global lockdowns began in earnest. There’s no point in trying to keep up with the Zizeks of the world, because the return on your investment of time, energy, and personal relations is going to be minimal at best.

But I digress. I did get writing done on my long-term project, the funding for which has been through SSHRC for the last few years. That grant has now expired, but I feel that it has been a fairly productive and successful research project. Just at the beginning of the pandemic, I had an article (co-written with a graduate student who is now doing a PhD at Carleton) accepted by the International Feminist Journal of Politics, and this came out in its finalized form this year as well. That piece, on how work clothing, institutional affiliation, and gendered stereotypes of development and diplomatic work all intersect at Global Affairs Canada, began life as a side project amid my interviews at GAC after so many of my respondents mentioned what other people were wearing as a way of marking distinctions following the 2013 merger that created the department. While that piece predated the pandemic (first presented it at a conference in summer 2018, submitted it in early 2019, two rounds of revisions in summer 2019, accepted and published online in spring 2020, issued a volume/issue number in spring 2021), it was a nice boost to see it come out in its final print form in the journal as we careened into a two-month lockdown here in Ontario.

The pandemic put a damper on collecting data because I could not do one more Canadian embassy visit as I hoped I might, and it would have been impossible even to go to Ottawa to do more visits at GAC headquarters itself. I had done many interviews over skype or the phone (and 85 or so in total over 5 years of research), and as this project came to a close over the last year I turned to focus more on some historical questions and the “foreign service lifestyle,” for lack of a better term. I was especially interested in what it means to live and work abroad for years at a time, in distant capitals with potentially your entire family in tow, enacting the diplomatic and consular powers of the state from an embassy compound. “Havana syndrome,” the mysterious set of symptoms that first afflicted American and Canadian personnel and family members in Havana starting in late 2016, also shaped my thinking alongside research trips to Canadian embassies in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as other embassy visits as part of previous research projects. (Because the embassies are often small, with only a handful of Canada-based personnel, I will not say which specific embassies I visited, to help preserve confidentiality for interviewees.) Many embassies are in what are called “hardship” posts marked by various kinds of more-than-average risks, and positions there often come with pay bonuses and other financial incentives. Hardship ratings and rotational systems of personnel management (in which diplomatic personnel rotate between foreign posts every 2-4 years) are spatial and institutional practices for managing global diplomatic networks, institutionalized in foreign ministries’ processes for assessing and compensating hardship and danger, and embodied in the design, function, and locational contexts of embassy buildings and diplomatic residences. In the paper that came out of these focal points, we used US embassies in Berlin and Baghdad as examples alongside a closer look at the institutional and geopolitical context of the Havana syndrome phenomenon. The kinds of securitization that embassies, hardship assessment, and official responses to the Havana syndrome have produced, we argue, can hamper and constrain the interaction and openness usually prized in diplomatic practice. Though I had presented a very early version of this work at the 2019 AAG conference (with the same co-author as the IFJP article mentioned above, who wrote his component before moving to Carleton), I let it sit for quite a while because the thing as a whole seemed a hot mess. Too many threads pulling in too many directions. Sabbatical gave me the room to focus a bit more, and eventually I managed to get the piece in workable shape to submit to the relatively new journal Diplomatica. After critical but generous reviews, we were able to revise it sufficiently so that it was accepted for publication in April. Hopefully I’ll get the proofs soon, and sometime early in 2022 the piece (“From the Green Zone to Havana syndrome: Making geographic sense of rotationality and hardship in diplomacy”) will appear in electronic print. I’m quite happy with how it turned out, and with the journal we landed it in. I may keep working on the Havana syndrome as well, as the issue does not seem to be going away in the US at least, where credulous journalists and lawmakers continue to advance the idea that its cause is secret microwave weapons developed by Russia and China, though others have pointed out that small-scale, targetable microwave technology is wildly implausible.

I have one more piece from the SSHRC-funded research on the go, but it has been in process for a long time and may remain so for the next several months due to, well, everything else. That one is on foreign service spouses, and has a historical bent to it, though it has been slow going and I feel bad for the research assistant/co-author on that one. She may well be into her next degree program before I finish a draft and send it off. But for now, I have wrapped up the main part of the CIDA-DFAIT merger research, carving out a couple hours on a daily basis over the course of this pandemic, and even producing a project-end summary report, one year later than I had planned. Had I not had sabbatical and parental leave and a separate work room and a supportive partner and access to toddler daycare and a stable tenured position, none of that could have happened. It also meant I could pitch a chapter for a book on the 2020 US election being put together by two colleagues in the US, and work on it this summer, though that has come in fits and starts and I should, in fact, be working on it right now since it has an actual deadline.

And now the fall semester comes barreling toward me. I am no longer the undergraduate program coordinator and academic advisor for my department, handing that position off to a very capable colleague before sabbatical and glad to no longer be hunting down academic advisement reports on our absolute shitshow of a student records system. That is for an entirely different blog post, which I may never get to as even thinking about makes my blood pressure jump about 20 points. In any case, I am now on tap to teach five courses in the coming year, which I have not done in a very long time, having had course releases for advising and research work and dropping down to 3 or 4 courses a year. We are mostly online for the fall semester here at Windsor, as almost every university in Ontario is taking a cautious approach to a full return to in-person instruction, so my two courses in the fall are online. I may do the synchronous parts from my campus office since we will be allowed back in the buildings on a limited basis and I am too easily distracted at home. I am, in theory at least, excited about the two courses on the docket. One is my intro human geography course (POLS-2300 Space, Place, and Scale: Foundations of Human Geography) which I will teaching under a new number and for the first time in three years, and the other is the fourth-year thesis course for Political Science and International Relations majors (POLS-4970 Political Science Thesis 1: Research Design). I have almost totally redesigned the geography course, once again eschewing the use of a textbook and relying instead on a wide set of readings that include academic journal articles and chapters but also long-form essays, news articles, blog posts, and films. I have very much soured on social science research writing as assigned reading for undergrad students (even though I am still doing that kind of writing myself, with increasing distaste for its stilted, formulaic, and jargon-heavy form and style), and have tried to give them more things that might resonate with their existing knowledge and understanding rather than forcing a death march through 12 weeks and 400 pages of noun-heavy academic prose. I’ve also tried to incorporate a digital story assignment, and combine synchronous and asynchronous forms of instruction. Now I have to figure out how to work all this onto the digital platform. Anyway, it looks amazing on paper, but we’ll see how it goes in September when the rubber hits the electronic road and they all have to watch me sputter through online lectures. The thesis class remains much the same as the first time I taught it a couple of years ago, but I worry about the seminar format on a digital platform like Blackboard. It promises to be a small course of astute and interested students, though, and the open-ended nature of every student pursuing their own project while I help them with writing and design of the larger project makes it unique and fun to teach. Once I have the course syllabi finalized I will throw short versions of them up on my teaching page and then they are free unto the world. Some students and colleagues have told me already, keep live lectures short, don’t try to do much (or any) timed assignments and exams (I am not), and be generous and understanding of the many predicaments students may find themselves in while doing remote learning of this sort. In the meantime, anyone with other tips on how to keep students engaged while we all sit and stare at each other through a screen for 12 weeks, please chime in.