by Regine Criser (University of North Carolina, Asheville) &
Ervin Malakaj (University of British Columbia)
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched, disrupted, and changed nearly every aspect of our lives. It has emphasized and increased the divisions and inequities inscribed into whatever has come into view as normality. Those of us who have for long been suspicious and victims of normality are eager, more now than before, to push for meaningful change and refuse to continue or even to return to business-as-usual. The pandemic has cast into sharp focus how serving the status-quo is not the only modus in which we can operate. In fact, we have seen that rapid change to accommodate pressing needs is possible—that bureaucracy and red tape can be circumvented when those in power deem it necessary and important enough. Or, more importantly, when individuals bond together and demand change.
When the DDGC emerged in 2016, it sought to challenge inequitable structures. It was driven by the collective’s refusal (and inability) to accept things as they are. The system in place was broken, for it obstructed access and caused so much harm to many. It remains broken today. With the system we mean the academy, our institutions, departments, programs, scholarly associations, and subdisciplines. We also mean all the pressures through which the system makes itself legible on different bodies in different ways depending on privilege. We will be glad to see the violent system expire as new, just structures emerge.
The values of the DDGC are as important now than ever. Where do we turn when we realize that for Germanists, as for everyone else, suffering is unevenly distributed at a time of crisis? What does this realization mean for our work? What does it mean for our institutions? How do we move forward? As a collective, we have aimed to center care in the way we operate in the present and plan for the future. And care remains central in how we relate to the pandemic as well as the attendant issues it reveals about and poses for our discipline.
Care for Ourselves
We know that remote teaching, virtual classrooms, asynchronous and synchronous engagement with students and colleagues are exhausting on their own. This exhaustion is compounded by this pandemic and for many of us by increased caregiving responsibilities and the decrease of external support. More than ever before, work, home, and family have collapsed into one space and all seem to require our attention simultaneously.
Writing about the stultifying, arresting, and traumatizing effects the pandemic has had on the world, Arundhati Roy notes that “our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture” (2020, n.p.). We recognize that the impulse to cling to the past and hope for its return might offer some solace in desperate times: when so much of our time and energy is claimed by unideal working conditions; when those around us are losing their jobs and are facing tight budgets for the foreseeable future; when our friends and family are falling sick—or worse. However, in tandem with Roy, we recognize that such hopes of a return to normalcy are insufficient because “the rupture exists” (n.p.). It is a reality from which there is no return.
Notwithstanding the pain it has brought about, this rupture creates openings. New paths emerge that can lead us forward. As Roy notes, this rupture "offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. [...] Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it" (n.p.).
This is a tall order. And lots of organizing in various corners of the world is underway to usher in change akin to the one Roy imagines for these desperate times. But in light of the crushing burden of anxiety, restlessness, and fatigue characterizing so much of our daily struggle, how can we be or become ready for such change? What do we need to support this change?
For us, as it did for so many before us, this positioning for change begins with self-care. Much has been shared about the importance of self-care during this time of extraordinary uncertainty. One only needs to browse social media outlets for inspirational quotes gently asking us to “keep calm” and “soothe our soul.” Our inspiration comes not from a contextless quote captured in a stylized instagram-ready square. Rather, we draw on the work of and are severely indebted to a long tradition of queer women of color critique.
In “A Burst of Light, Living with Cancer,” Audre Lorde famously asserted, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (2017, 130). Reading this sentence, Sara Ahmed has noted its prowess. “It is a much-loved, much cited sentence. It is an arrow, which acquires its sharpness from its own diction” (Ahmed 2017, 237). The sentence, and the knowledge it indexes, has reverberated through POC, feminist, and queer communities. Lorde wrote the sentence in a diary after she found out she has cancer (for a second time) and that death is approaching. She wrote from the perspective of a queer woman of color living in a world hostile to queers of color. The realization that for her death was on the horizon fuses in her writing with the devastation of the realization that not all bodies are meant to survive. As Ahmed notes, the sentence contains within it the critical impulse behind the realization that "when you are not supposed to live, as you are, where you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive a system" (237).
What do we need to survive? To live on? A search for answers to these questions sometimes, as Ahmed notes, leads people to be suspicious of the ultimate goal of the project of self-care, for “self-care gets dismissed too quickly as neo-liberalism and individualism” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.). But self-care has other potential. As Ahmed notes, “in the hands of Lorde, caring for one’s self is about how we inhabit our fragile bodies that have capacities that can be exhausted; it is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.). This is a self-care that is not just about the self. “Caring for oneself is also about caring for others, that important work, often painful, that practical and domestic work, of maintaining the conditions for each other’s existence” (Fitzgerald 2017, n.p.).
In this spirit, we ask again: what do you need to survive? The answer to this question will be different for each one of us, for, as stated above, suffering is not equally distributed. But the key here is that you might not need to answer this question alone. For if self-care should also be about the caring of others, then through mutual self-care we can find a way forward. This is the cornerstone of (our) community and even more important now that we have lost the luxury of proximity.
We were so very heartened to see such gestures of care register in our immediate circles. People reaching out to check on their friends, their comrades, their family. And reaching out to check on others is reaching inward to check on ourselves. But being the recipient of such a message of care is, to a certain extent, also a marker of privilege. There are so many who are left out. There are so many who are or feel alone. Have you reached out to them today? Do you know who they are? What help can you offer and how can we collectively help one another survive? And how can we make asking for help easier, even normal for everyone, no matter if they are already part of our circle or not?
Care for our Institutions
We recognize that the ability to look beyond the immediate existential needs of this moment is a privilege that not all of us who are part of this community share. However, we believe that the pandemic urges us to take stock of what is working, what is possible, what is desirable, and to what kind of work environment and world we want to return to once we can.
Self-care is vital for compassion and criticality, two concepts particularly relevant for the work we do in DDGC. Higher education – take, for instance, how it structures the experiences of graduate school, the job market, and peer review – is not structured around kindness and compassion. In fact, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick has noted, it nurtures a “competitive individualism,” which “contradicts – and in fact undermines – all of the most important communal aspects of life within our institutions of higher education” (2019, 27). Many of us have resisted this competitive culture and the core of our collective is intentionally in opposition to the power hierarchies and competitive mindset of the academy. The current rupture of our day-to-day lives has shown how imperative it is to center kindness and compassion in our engagement with students, colleagues, and ourselves. Moving forward, we believe that centering such a practice of compassion that grows out of critical self-care into a habit of mind and action could alter our institutions long-term and for the better.
While we would argue that none of us will move forward from this pandemic unchanged, we also know that its impact is harshest for those among us who were already more vulnerable because of their minoritized status in the academy: faculty of color, faculty with disabilities, contingent faculty members, and faculty who are caregivers are among those who will be most affected. Aside from the mental and physical toll this rupture will take, their professional labor as measured in service, teaching, and scholarly productivity—the latter being a prized marker of value and success in the academy—will be negatively impacted long-term.
To this end, many institutions have already extended the tenure clock and promotion timelines; however, it is likely that the disruptions in scholarly productivity will last longer than measurable by a semester or a year. This casts the concessions imagined by current administrators and advocates as insufficient and reminds especially those of us with tenure and long-term employment of our task to ensure that mechanisms are in place to support and protect faculty for many years to come.
Moreover, while plans for tenure-track and tenured faculty were presented rather quickly and in relative unison across institutions, contingent labor issues remain largely unresolved to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our communities. The proposals that have so far been publicized, have mainly excluded adjuncts, VAPs, lecturers, and even graduate students from institutional recovery plans. What is worse, we have seen examples of contracts not being renewed, previous offers rescinded, or durations of appointments being shortened, which left people without income and reduced access to health insurance. Those contingent faculty who are able to continue at their institutions are faced with increases of labor through the shift to emergency remote instruction for the spring and to online courses for the summer term. Many contingent faculty depend on the extra income that summer teaching can offer and are now faced with the labor intensive development of online classes at a time when they are already overburdened.
Contingent faculty are at the core of many of our programs.Their financial insecurity and increased workload requires our immediate attention and deserves our uncompromised support. Even more than before, these labor concerns need to be at the center of the work that our scholarly associations are undertaking over the next months and years. Free webinars and resource sites are important and have supported faculty in finding their footing in what is for many the new arena of remote instruction. We are grateful for the collaborative energies that have emerged in various social media outlets, which have supported the emergency transition to online. At this point, however, the precaritization of German studies as articulated in the dependence on contingency of so much of the professional staff of our field requires the critical attention of all national and international collectives and scholarly associations. Contingency has been a major issue in German studies before the pandemic; because of the pandemic, however, contingency will become more prevalent over the next few years. Moving forward, we believe that our scholarly associations will have a duty to center questions of labor and become major sites for collective organizing that demands and institutes fair working conditions for all.
The anxieties of the present at times feel like insurmountable issues, especially if we lack the resources that permit us to catch our breath and look at the world beyond ourselves. However, we still need to organize and envision the German studies of the future, a field which adequately and accurately reflects and nurtures our intellectual missions and personal lived experiences. While we attend to the needs of ourselves, our students, our colleagues, our institutions right in front of us in this moment, we can also continue to come together to envision the German studies that could emerge from this rupture.
What Care Means for Members of DDGC
Mark Beirn (Washington University in St. Louis): “It has been like looking at the world through bifocals seeing my faculty stressed at varying levels adjusting to working online from their own homes with kids+parents+pets around, while my grad school colleagues adjust a greater amount of unstructured time in a place that isn't really home, far away from loved ones. For the grad students, we've established a drop-in Zoom Cafe from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to share stories, ask questions, and make art work. For those students who are still awestruck by their faculty, they are now seeing them as real humans, which is a welcome change.”
Benita Blessing (Oregon State University): “I am so grateful for the opportunity to keep teaching, whatever form it takes and whatever happens to the syllabus. It is not just my students who need the routine and interaction.”
Sonja Fritzsche (Michigan State University): “I have turned all of my meetings into check-in meetings. The leadership faculty development has turned into what leadership in a time of crisis looks like. The task force on non-tenure track pathways at the college today is now focused on a discussion of how these faculty are faring at the institution. The college inclusive practices committee meeting tomorrow will be about a DEI focused discussion on impacts.”
Maureen Gallagher (University of Notre Dame): “I was really struck by how much of the messaging from my college focused on two contradictory messages: that everything was business as usual and we all need to “make the best” to continue to do our teaching and research, even in spite of library and laboratory closures; and that nothing was business as usual and we needed to go out of our way to find new ways to build community and connect with our students, particularly seniors who are struggling with the abrupt end to their senior year. We are called upon to act like everything is normal and continue with our research and teaching, incorporate new technologies and pedagogies at the drop of a hat, connect with students in new ways and come up with new programming ideas. All with no promise of a tenure-clock extension for the untenured faculty members or an extension of funding for graduate students. All with no acknowledgement of the inherent inequity between tenured and tenure-track faculty and adjuncts and other NTT faculty. There was certainly almost no consideration given to how we were feeling and that we might need space and extra support to come to terms with everything—increased caregiving responsibilities for some, increased isolation for others, increased anxiety for everyone. There has been no discussion that some of us are likely to get sick or need to be caring for those who are sick. I described it on a post below as a “collective delusion” we seem to be operating under that things will continue on as if everything as normal, as if we can and should all stay productive and juggle these additional responsibilities with fewer resources and no additional compensation long term.”
Adrienne Merritt (Washington and Lee University): “Care means taking the time to reinvest, particularly when you put effort and energy into activism and advocacy, whether on a personal or professional level. Care reminds me of caritas, a love for all humankind, but it’s a reminder that we are each of us part of that group, meaning that depleting ourselves for the sake of others or something we find significant will falter. Care, therefore, means multidirectional support for the good/ advancement of the community.”
Evan Torner (University of Cincinnati): “Academia is lots of invisible carework, in addition to what we do for our elders, partners, and children. Grad students and undergrads have different needs, as do staff, administrators, and colleagues, and EVERYONE is on edge in a crisis, with different needs all manifesting themselves at once.”
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Fitzgerald, Adam. “Sara Ahmed: ‘Once We Find Each Other, So Much Else Becomes Possible.’” Literary Hub. April 10, 2017. https://lithub.com/sara-ahmed-once-we-find-each-other-so-much-else-becomes-possible/. Accessed April 10, 2020.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light and Other Essays. Mineola: ixia Press, 2017.
Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca. Accessed April 10, 2020.