Stuck in Quarantimbo
Attempting a Dissertation in the time of COVID-19

Specks of doubt tinge my resolve as I sit down with my morning cup of coffee to write this. After all, there exist a lot – I emphasize, a lot – of coronavirus-lifestyle-articles out there. I myself spend hours reading them on a daily basis. In the mornings, I often wade through productivity tips and recipe videos that make mouth-watering dishes look much easier and more necessary to make than they really are. In the evenings, I settle down with long-form narrative pieces, compulsively looking for intersections between my own experience of self-isolation and that of others (i.e. trying to reassure myself that I’m not alone in falling short of my self-prescribed daily workout challenge).

So what is the point, then, of penning my very own reflection on self-isolation?

The first answer that comes to mind is precisely the one I’ve been struggling to internalize with regards to my PhD dissertation (more on my academic writing anxieties later in this article): I may not be saying anything radically and mind-bogglingly novel because elements of my thesis already exist out there in the world. But it is my job to make connections between them, and to explain why these connections matter. Other people might possibly be working on creating their own frameworks, but all of our structures are ultimately different (anywhere from “obviously so” to “in the details”), and it is the sum of all of these varying perspectives that ultimately “dent the boundary of human knowledge”, as research should.

So here’s to my own take on this self-isolation period, my fractal addition to the exponentially-growing online archive of how people all around the globe are living this dystopian moment.

The Outside World The Outside World

On the surface, it would stand to reason that “work-from-home” measures wouldn’t significantly affect my daily routine as a graduate student in literature. The nature of our work as literary scholars, after all, is mostly solitary. We read books (and watch movies or contemplate art, if we are “interdisciplinary”), read what other critics have said about those works, and then burrow away with our laptops (or notebooks, if we are hippie enough), to formulate our own unique take on the material, and explain why that is relevant to the world today.

For most of us, that leads to the majority of our time being spent indoors reading and writing, anyway – in that sense, self-isolation reinforces rather than disrupts our usual work rhythm.

Recent conversations with friends and family have not failed to point out the blessing in disguise that self-isolation could be: “This is any graduate student’s dream – Unlimited time to write, with zero FOMO! Nothing is going on outside anyway, so you can just stay in and write with zero risk of missing out!”

While making a valid point, the previous “blessing-in-disguise” approach does overlook a crucial paradox: while our work is by nature solitary, literary scholars remain human beings, and therefore social animals. Like anybody else, we need human interaction: it keeps us sane, and often directly benefits our research by generating new insights, bolstering motivation, and providing the necessary “away time” required to come back to our questions with “new eyes”. Striking the right equilibrium between writing-time and human-time can in fact be one of the big challenges of graduate school in the humanities. Personally, I found it by strategically building in different strata of “social time” into my graduate routine: study dates in Harvard’s colossal libraries and Cambridge’s cute cafes; writing workshops in which “check-in” questions and icebreakers often lasted long past their allotted fifteen minutes; departmental events that also featured cheese, crackers and wine.

But now, that choice is gone, and I’m unsure that eliminating the tension between writing and socializing is productive in the long-run. Sure, it might spur a couple of weeks of greater output as we finally have the time to commit to paper all the ideas that had previously been bubbling in our brains. But I suspect that these very ideas will start feeling more dull as they can’t be shared over a cup of coffee or on a Powerpoint. At least for me, those challenges are exponentially less fulfilling over Zoom, and therefore exponentially less likely to happen. I understand that for people who usually have to deal with long commutes, unpleasant customers and bitchy colleagues welcome the work-from-home life as a respite. But for us, graduate students who could always answer emails in our pajamas and have lunch at home, we have lost the “social time” that many of us had so carefully curated into our schedules, and now the perils of the solitary nature of graduate school - anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome - loom larger than ever before.

Self-isolation has also affected another related balance that I had been working particularly hard on: work-life balance. This particular dilemma also dons a particular kind of garb when you are in academia:

Since you are supposed to be burning with passion for the subject that you study, how do you spend a waking minute away from it? And since you could literally be “working” from anywhere - your office, your kitchen counter, your bed, the beach, the treadmill, the subway - how do you ever “switch off”? And that too, without feeling guilty?

Media portrayals of “mad genius” stereotypes exacerbate this issue. According to what we see on the screen and read about in the papers, those undertaking breakthrough research breathe and live their work, are kept awake at night by their burning questions, and are never seen rushing off from work at 5pm to pick their children up from nursery, undertake in physical exercise, or decompress by watching Netflix. (They are also primarily white, male and middle-class, but that is an issue for another article). And neither do the unrealistic tenure expectations set by academia at large help (but that is also an issue for another article).

There was a time in my life when the very concept of work-life balance was foreign to me. Fresh off the boat (or, more accurately, a transatlantic flight, the second of a two-legged air journey), I saw the United States as a land of opportunity where my time was restricted by an F1 visa. I was determined to make the most of every single day, and so I piled on classes, internships and extra-curriculars, had four backup plans for every summer, and only “took a break” when I was too exhausted to function. For a long-time, the US was for me synonymous with opportunity and hard work to the exclusion of everything else: the two sides of the American dream.

Since I got into graduate school and realized that I would be spending at least half a decade more in this country, I realized that I had to build not just a resume but also a life. The punishing work ethic felt pretty much woven into my psyche by that point, but I forced myself to begin valuing things other than my education, such as regular physical exercise, healthy home-cooked meals, and reconnecting with things that had brought me happiness in childhood. As seasons changed and my years in the PhD program creeped by, I slowly stopped bringing my laptop into my bedroom and lowered the amount of work I brought home; I reserved the last hours of my day to “winding down” rather than scrambling to read one last scholarly article; I pushed myself to read for pleasure again.

During self-isolation, however, the boundaries are blurring once again. I still don’t bring work in my bedroom, but the living room is no longer a space for board games, chai breaks and TV show marathons with my boyfriend. Instead, it has become the “work space” where he and I occupy opposite ends of the couch, with our respective laptops on our laps and a paraphernalia of papers, books, and other work-related technological devices between us. When one of us shares a funny joke or interesting trivia with the other, it is gratifying but also always at the cost of disturbing work.

Work and pleasure are once again intertwined in a way that does not feel healthy: By restricting the space that my life can spread onto, self-isolation has correspondingly restricted my ability to compartmentalize, to give each thing its place, to create order and structure out of the jumbled components of my life. It prevents me from enjoying any of them to the fullest.

For those interested in knowing how the self-isolation has affected living together as a couple, I will begin by saying that my boyfriend and I have an anomalous relationship. We are two PhD students who have “lived” together, in some form or another, since we were eighteen, more often than not in very cramped quarters (hello, freshman dorms). Perhaps most importantly, we have years of practice working together, i.e. sharing the same physical space while completely absorbed in the demands of our respective intellectual tasks. As such, working-from-home has neither exponentially increased the frequency of our fights nor led us to the verge of a break-up, though we of course have been making adjustments: he now humors my deep aversion for dirty dishes in the sink and my need to constantly “aerate” the place, while I tolerate the trail of empty chewing-gum wrappers he leaves in the wake of his travels around the apartment.

Right alongside the issues surrounding my work are the ones stemming from the fact that there is no physical separation, neither wall nor door, between the living-room (aka my new workspace) and the kitchen. Without going into details, let’s just say that I struggled with my weight in college. Years pushing myself to perform in an demanding academic environment led to me to view food as the ultimate stress-buster. When I moved back home with two college degrees in tow, I was overweight with no idea how to shed the extra pounds. The journey to my current healthy was arduous and nowhere near over - the demons I need to keep at bay are psychological more than anything else. So far, I have been fighting them through a combination of eating more healthily and being more physically active. By “eating more healthily”, I mean making more healthy choices in terms of quality but also in terms of quantity - not just swapping carbs for veggies but also making sure I eat solely when I am hungry, not stressed or bored or anxious. And that last point is what has completely collapsed under current self-isolation conditions. Since I have nowhere to rush off to in the morning, I can make myself pancakes to go with my morning tea, opening the fridge is the most obvious thing to do during a study break, and I only need to suspect hunger to turn on the stove, as opposed to the standard of certainty I required if I was on campus and getting food meant trekking back home, often under Cambridge’s less-than-ideal weather conditions. I have therefore been eating more, and the convenience of delivery apps means that I haven’t been eating exclusively home-cooked meals, either. In fact, if anything, the peril that many restaurant businesses find themselves in coats my food delivery escapades with a veneer of benevolence: After all, I am supporting my favorite establishments by creating demand during such a difficult time.

“Being more physically active” has been even more difficult than controlling my inner food monster. I have an instrumentalizing love-hate relationship with working out. While I love how it makes me feel afterwards, and the health benefits that it generates in the long run, I still hate having to make time in my schedule for working out, and my boyfriend will tell you that I precede almost every single visit to the gym by a loud, whiny “I hate going to the gym”. The fact that I don’t really enjoy the process of working-out itself means that the calorie counter and time-keeper on the elliptical are of paramount importance in terms of letting me know when my effort expended has equalled last night’s binge, and therefore when it is okay for me to head home, smug and shiny-faced. Problematic as that kind of calorie-counting may be, the truth remains that without that kind of numerical consistency, it is hard for me to commit to home workouts with the same seriousness. And while a Fitbit or Apple Watch might significantly remedy to that, a workout on my living room floor sorely lacks spatial structure that: how to commit to another set when my laptop - and worse, the fridge - are right there?

What is perpetually present is mirrored by what is perpetually not. As an international student in the US, I live far away from my family. In my particular case, “far away” means quite literally on the side of the world; additionally, my family itself is currently splintered across two continents. We spent the New Year holidays together and I didn’t have immediate plans of going to see them before August at best. So I can’t say that self-isolation has changed a situation of “being together” to one of “being without each other”. However, what COVID-19-related travel restrictions have taken away is, once again, the choice or possibility of being together. Throughout all my time away, it was explicitly clear to me that in case things got really bad, I could be on the first flight home (and studying the topic that I do, I feel compelled to acknowledge here the deep privilege associated with such a straightforward and comforting notion of “home” and the possibility of returning to it. That is something most refugees and migrants today do not have). That was the knowledge that empowered me to take risks and pursue opportunities, that created my deep and uncomplicated wish to go abroad for studies the first place.

Would I have been so quick to go if I had known that one day, international borders would close and I wouldn’t be able to come back?

One of my friends is mired in a hearbreaking situation. She is stuck in the country that gave her a student visa, while her father is hanging between life and death in her home country. Both countries’ borders are closed: There is no way for her to get to her father’s hospital bed - which could become, based on the whims of a virus and the constancy of a ventilator, his deathbed. Given the ability to peek into the future, would we have left home for a piece of paper? Will the generations after us be willing to make that choice?

How devastating to have to make that decision - and how simultaneously privileged and unfair to have it.

And who knows what other such choices might come up. For as Arundhati Roy so eloquently points out, this pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”.. “Normalcy” will mean something radically difference once this pandemic is over: though the exact scale of change remains to be determined, the world will never again be exactly as we knew it. Businesses across the board are closing down and/or filing for bankruptcy; air travel is not reported to go back to pre-pandemic levels until multiple years down the road; and I suspect many of us will never again be able to shake hands, kiss in greeting or experience the proximity of other human beings without a lingering sense of unease. To take one single, personal, privileged example, the fact that international borders closed once, on such unprecedented scale, means that I will never be able to consider international travel in the same carefree manner as before. And the implications run deep, for people such as I whose entire life - both personal and professional - rely on frequent, cost-efficient travel around the globe.

Surrounded by such questions, I sit in my apartment in Cambridge, MA, in front of a Word document titled “Chapter 1 (Draft)”. Despite the chaos swirling around me, two pressing facts remain unchanged: I am still a PhD student, and I still have a dissertation to write. So simple to say, and yet so hard to do. I still lack visibility as to precisely how the different parts of my work fit together into a coherent whole. But I sit at my desk unfailingly every single day, and spend a couple of hours writing as best I can, following the threads of different ideas and arguments. Ideally, I will one day, mid-sentence during such a writing session, encounter an “AHA” moment that will make everything fit together. But life often falls short of expectations, and part of me is terrified that one day, I will instead stumble upon the sickening realization, deep in the pit of my stomach, that no it does not make sense, no it will never make sense, because I was going in the wrong direction all along. In other words, I am afraid that my daily efforts will one day be rendered useless in the grand scheme of things.

Such fear is real and paralyzing. It is also ultimately useless, because right now there is literally nothing I can do towards the PhD, expect keep ploughing on and keep faith that one day, in the not-so-distant future, I might start connecting the dots.

Speaking to my mother on the phone yesterday made me see the parallel between the dissertation-writing process, and that of surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.

In both cases, there is near-zero visibility of the larger picture: How will all my analyses fit together, and what will happen to bankrupt airlines and the future of international travel? In both cases, the only thing I can do is take one day at a time: writing a couple of pages, preserving human connection, keeping sane. Both are about pacing myself, and being in it for the long haul - it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Hopefully, both - my dissertation and our experience of the pandemic - will hold meaningful lessons, and ultimately mean something greater than their specific position in space and time.