In the midst of the current global pandemic, we have read wide-ranging advice about how to maintain our professionalism in academia, how to stay productive, or on the contrary, how to turn our backs on all expectations of productivity. With a focus only on individual strategies, none of those approaches have felt quite right for us. As community-engaged Latina scholars, we have a practice of facing adversity collectively.
Academia Before the Pandemic
Institutions of higher education function structurally and culturally to reproduce social inequalities that are exacerbated during the pandemic. Privileges and rewards go to those who already have resources; who grew up using the terms that many of us were hearing for the first time in class; who can pay for software and laptops, parking, nearby housing—all of which make student life more manageable. Without such resources, navigating higher education has not always been a positive or empowering experience; it can be isolating and even hostile. At different moments in our trajectories, we have been those students who are not only the first in their families to go to college, but who also lack financial and cultural resources to navigate the institution. These particular moments sometimes broke our spirits and fueled our imposter syndrome.
Many of us have struggled to make sense of vague calls for “professionalism” as we navigate the many unspoken rules of academia. And before we understood that much of it is based in middle class norms, we sometimes felt like imposters for not recognizing the acceptable codes in these spaces. Academia, like much of U.S. society, champions individuality and meritocracy. The expectation is that we present ourselves assertively as leaders, promoting our own accomplishments, and publicly claiming our expertise to gain academic fellowships and promotions. These values can feel deeply contrary to how we were raised to respect humility above all else. We stay humble by downplaying our individual merits, but we gain strength by remembering the collective efforts and sacrifices that have contributed to who we are. Our accomplishments and successes belong to our communities because it is on their shoulders that we reached these heights.
We are motivated to become scholars who transgress academic culture. While each of us has taken a different path into academia, our journeys have consistently been guided by our personal and political commitments to social movements and to our communities. As self-proclaimed nerds, we also share an affinity for learning and teaching and a keen interest in pursuing challenging questions through research. As a result, it felt natural to pursue academia as a place where we could merge our community commitments and research to engage more deeply with the issues we care about. Here, we found our calling to keep creating spaces for emerging scholars who are similarly committed to community-engaged social justice scholarship.
In our schooling experience, teaching spaces have, at times, been transformational. Professors like Grace Dávila, Julie Davis, Anita Tijerina Revilla, Seline Szkupinski Quiroga, Janna Shadduck-Hernandez and others across institutions inspired us and made us feel at home. As educators, they facilitated our intellectual growth and helped us navigate expectations. They also connected us to resources, and helped us apply to scholarships, internships, conferences, and research programs. Beyond the intellectual guidance, some even aided us directly by providing books and money out of their own pockets when we couldn’t afford tuition, school supplies, or other basic needs. They taught us that our families’ and communities’ stories are important and deserve to be told in all of their complexity. We learned that we could thrive in academia precisely by remaining connected to our communities and our values.
We survive and thrive in academia by maintaining multiple commitments. We continue to prioritize the well-being of our families and communities, both within and outside of the academy, even while we meet deadlines, prepare lectures, and serve the university. We conduct research that lays bare the structures that create and sustain inequality while also bearing witness to the creativity, pain, and resilience of multiple communities. When things align well, we are able to care for our students, families, communities, and ourselves. Often, though, we are hit by crises.
Academia During the Pandemic
During this global pandemic, longstanding crises in academia and the world have been exacerbated. Online teaching has shifted classroom dynamics, impacting student relationships and learning. While we may virtually connect with our students, the inability to physically build community as a class has made it difficult to interpret discussions. Also, we find ourselves figuring out how to critically conduct and sustain research remotely, how to develop relationships and networks of support that are usually accessible at conferences, and how we can cultivate and benefit from emotional support electronically.
For many of us, caregiving and familial obligations are not new responsibilities. The challenge during the pandemic is that the vulnerabilities of our family members make their health more dire. Many have lost jobs or had health complications. While we share our colleagues’ concern about the state of the world, personal well-being, and academic work, we are again confronted with the underlying inequalities that are more drastic and direct during a pandemic. Moving in with parents, taking care of family members’ basic needs like medications, groceries, housing, and healthcare are just new layers of responsibilities. In addition to in-person caregiving, some of us continue to have close ties to family members in other states and countries that are ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic, resulting in added responsibilities to send money for basic needs. And during justified national protests, we are called to support the Movement for Black Lives in multiple ways.
While the pandemic has made our personal lives more visible in the context of our work lives, the impacts are uneven. Many of our colleagues either have more resources for caregiving or do not have the additional responsibilities of being caregivers. For instance, while many are struggling to stay motivated or concerned about needing to shift their research design, some of our struggles are about juggling homeschooling, childcare, and writing, on top of organizing to get food and cash assistance to community members and frontline activists. And while some express sympathy, too often educators uphold the system and practices that overburdens students with academic work.
Our Response During the Pandemic
In this new world we’re confronting, we are reinforcing our commitment to transform academia. We facilitate spaces of learning that acknowledge, validate, and incorporate students’ experiences and funds of knowledge. We employ a compassionate and active approach to reversing inequalities that are critical in students’ ability to continue their schooling. We consider ourselves fortunate when students trust us enough to be vulnerable, when they share that they cannot afford textbooks, cannot access internet services or electronics, or are generally unable to concentrate and produce the kind of work we would typically expect. They may be dealing with the loss of loved ones, with economic challenges, or food insecurity. As instructors, we can model compassion by adjusting assignments, experimenting with instructional materials (film, break out rooms, lecture, group work, creative projects), minimizing exams, and providing direct aid.
As a group, we encourage building community by connecting with other scholars who share similar values and experiences. In our case, we do this by organizing virtual writing groups, sharing goals through electronic documents, exchanging book chapters and grant applications, sharing ideas through email, phone conversations, or virtual meetings. Our exchanges are based on equal reciprocity with the expectation that it is okay to not be okay right now. We heed the public health call for physical distancing, but we commit more fiercely to supporting one another in creative ways. In these virtual and telephonic spaces, we express compassion for each other by being present and flexible with expectations of ourselves and of each other. We center our humanity by checking-in about life (inside and outside of academia), sharing resources, and sending memes to laugh and alleviate stress.
As a new approach to collective support, during the first several weeks of stay-at-home orders under COVID-19 we wrote this piece collaboratively over a month-long process that allowed us to be vulnerable about our particular challenges. Our conversations became generative and regenerating, as we learned new details about each other’s lives. Committing ourselves to weekly meetings (with the flexibility and grace to lovingly understand when someone cannot be present) fosters a sense of stability and community when we know that we will show up for each other next week and the week after that—whether we happen to be thriving at research, writing, and teaching or not. We celebrate enthusiastically when members of our group complete their MA thesis, file their dissertation, earn jobs, grants and fellowships, or are designated chair of their department! We also support each other when our articles or grant applications get rejected and we affirm the value of each other’s work and of our presence in the institution.
Building and sustaining community has been essential to our survival in academia. Because we have done this collective care work through multiple and ongoing crises—including presidential election results, immigration policy changes, the rolling back of rights for transgender people, police brutality against Black people—we feel well-equipped to continue to cope and adapt collectively in the uncertainty. Compassionate pedagogy is our philosophy and our praxis. It is based on the understanding of cycles of oppression and resistance that shape the university and propel us to imagine new spaces. Now more than ever it is critical that we continue molding and transforming our previous approaches, weaving in communal strategies to persevere in the years of uncertainty to come. As we face the possibility of recurring moments of quarantine and we fight nationally in support of the Movement for Black Lives, we encourage more scholars to abandon the individualistic values of academia. Let’s envision a new university rooted in compassionate pedagogies and community; one that stands in honest solidarity with those fighting to end anti-Blackness and the oppression of racialized groups.
About the Authors:
Leisy J. Abrego is a Professor of Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Andrea Gómez Cervantes is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University.
Briceida Hernandez-Toledo is a Ph.D. student in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Leigh-Anna Hidalgo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University.
Lucia P. Leon is a Ph.D. Candidate in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Joanna B. Perez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Iris M. Ramirez is a Ph.D. student in Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.