By Simone Eringfeld, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
I was as ready as I could be to start my fieldwork in Uganda. Visa approved? Check. Flights to Kampala booked? Check. Malaria pills packed? Check. I had ticked all the necessary boxes, until the unforeseeable happened. How could I have possibly anticipated that a pandemic would come to interfere with my research plans? Of all the potential hazards I had taken into account, from ethics forms to finding a place to stay, I had never imagined that a virus called Corona would come along, like an uninvited party crasher. The resulting global pandemic drew a big, bright-red cross through my perfectly ticked off to-do list.
I was supposed to fly out on 21 March, to spend a good month in Uganda before returning to the UK. I had been to Uganda before, when I went to visit a school set up by a friend of mine, which specializes in providing marginalized youth business mentoring. One of their offspring centres is located in a refugee camp near the Congolese border, which I had also visited. I became inspired by their work, and decided I wanted to return here for my MPhil fieldwork. Together with the local project manager in the Ugandan camp, I designed a collaborative, arts-based study to investigate issues around identity formation of young refugees within the camp. At the end of the project, we planned to organize a large community exhibition.
Covid-19 did not reach Uganda until late March, and air travel still showed no sign of interruption while Uganda was continuing business-as-usual, so I spent two weeks in agony, doubting what to do. It was like having the song Should I Stay or Should I Go stuck in my mind, going back and forth, a perfect soundtrack to this time of uncertainty. Two days before my flight was scheduled, I forced myself to decide: I cancelled my fieldwork. In hindsight, it was the right decision, because not soon thereafter the UK went into lockdown, coronavirus reached Uganda, and the Faculty informed us that any face-to-face research was no longer permitted.
Initially I could hardly believe what was happening to the world, and I felt sad about losing my research topic, unsure how to move forward from there. I was overwhelmed with a strong sense of surrealness every time I watched the news. Yet, I wasn’t alone in feeling lost in my academic work, or stressed by the closure of the university and our faculty buildings, and the urgent request from many colleges to vacate all student accommodation. Many of my peers had to leave in a rush, jumping on some of the last outgoing flights to reach home. Most of my classmates have had to make major adaptations to their research design, or even deal with full cancellation of their fieldwork, like me. Yet amidst this shared sense of chaos and confusion, my now highly dispersed student cohort has shown much resilience and pulled together to stay in touch. During our online meetings and group video calls, connecting us from as far as the US to India and from Kenya back to Cambridge, we take turns in sharing our feelings, worries and thoughts. There has been a true generosity in offering each other help to think through alternative research strategies, share resources and redesign digital methodologies.
And so, I too have discovered new pathways forward. After taking time to process the loss of my previous thesis project, I took a step back to look at how the Covid-19 epidemic impacts not just my own master’s research, but education around the world and at all levels. We are amidst some of the most radical, fast-paced shifts the field of education has ever seen, with rapid digitization of teaching leading to new forms of teacher-student interaction, online learning and collaborative knowledge-making. Already we can see academic debates starting around the changed role of the university and the future of higher education in this new, digital context. As a student and academic-to-be myself, I realized I am already standing in the middle of “the field” without having even left my doorstep. Newly inspired, I ended up sending my supervisor a proposal to switch my topic to the covid-19 crisis, which got approved. I am now researching the ways in which Cambridge students and academic staff are experiencing the impact of Covid-19 on higher education, and how they reimagine the future of the “post-coronial” university.
On that note, let me share with you what this experience has taught me: research always comes with challenges, and at times they are simply beyond our control. Yet such limitations do not necessarily have to limit our creativity, on the contrary even, constraints can also serve as a source of new opportunities. Adaptability, resilience and keeping a flexible mind are amongst some of the most valuable research skills in times of disaster, but developing these does not happen overnight. Amidst unprecedented crisis, we cannot expect ourselves to immediately know how to adjust, so be easy on yourself. Prioritize self-care and take time to process your thoughts and feelings. You firstly need headspace before new ideas can begin to enter. There is a popular Dutch phrase, which speaks of having “een geluk bij een ongeluk”. During this pandemic, I learnt the English equivalent: “Every cloud has a silver lining”. I find it a surprisingly comforting image. Never before had I heard anyone use the phrase, but now they suddenly pop up in many conversations. Silver linings are everywhere, just give yourself time to start seeing them.
Simone Eringfeld is an MPhil student in “Education, Globalisation and International Development” at the Faculty of Education. Her thesis project explores the ways in which students and academics at Cambridge University reimagine possible futures for the “post-coronial” university, and how they envision their own roles in it. Simone also hosts the newly launched “Cambridge Quaranchats” podcast, where she explores the Covid-19 crisis through chats with fellow students about life under lockdown. The podcast is available on Spotify or here. Find her on twitter @SimoneEringfeld and Instagram @simone_eringfeld.