On academic detachment and relational research

A few months ago, I started a postdoctoral position at the University of Cape Town. Becoming part of an environment of active and supportive(!) scholarly exchange made me realise how much I had conditioned myself to work independently so far in my still rather pubescent academic life. While that is not a bad thing per se, I firmly believe that research is inherently relational. It is a form of knowledge production that requires a stimulus beyond stoically practicing data collection and writing in the ways we have learnt to be academically sound.

I have technically been working ‘from home’ for quite some years now. Doing my Masters by dissertation meant that I was only on campus for departmental seminars and irregular meetings with my thesis supervisor. This was after I had done a six-week qualitative research project on refugees in Cape Town and practices of dreaming for my Honours degree, which had given me an appetite for more in-depth research. I missed being part of academic life during my Masters but was really excited to conduct my first long-term ethnographic fieldwork. It allowed me the time and space to immerse myself in a topic for much longer – this time doing research on suburban neighbourhood surveillance groups. I would get a degree for spending my time observing, interviewing and writing – I was thrilled! And it really was a great experience at the time, even if not without ups and downs. I established my routines and enjoyed being able to do so without being impeded by class schedules and other academic obligations.

After embracing my degree certificate for my work, which, thankfully, had not felt torturously laborious for the most part, I worked for a health research organisation for three years remotely. Even though the topics I got to research interested me, my junior status and the fact that the project I was hired to work on did not materialise had me working on bits and pieces of other peoples’ projects. There was therefore no substantial, stimulating exchange with colleagues beyond brief Skype updates. When the situation did not change and funding became even more limited, I pursued my PhD on Tinder dating – another opportunity to spend A LOT of time talking to people about a topic that fascinates me.

I have always embraced a sense of independence. As a younger girl, I envisioned myself growing into a journalist when older, travelling around the world, covering all kinds of exciting topics. The anthropologist I grew to embody instead has roamed the world much less than I would have liked – mostly for funding reasons. I have, however, still managed to go out and explore the very themes I felt strongly about. It has taken a moment, but I feel like I’m getting closer to positioning myself in academia and thinking of myself as a ‘digital anthropologist’ – whatever that may actually mean. Especially through writing many an application in search for a postdoc, summarising my interests concisely over and over helped with that.

Having my first ‘proper’ (as in, fully paid) position pursuing my own research interests and now being part of a lively even if still remotely operating academic environment makes me feel the last years of academic detachment. Particularly so after the past 1.5 years of COVID-19-enforced remoteness. I am hungry for fieldwork and even more hungry for exchanging ideas with other scholars. Scholars, that is, who harbour a collaborative rather than a competitive sentiment – something that is not to be taken for granted.

I got a strong sense of what a collaborative spirit can do when attending my first hybrid workshop on UCT campus the other day. The big screen was not working and the five of us who were present in person were all still looking at our respective computer screens with our facial expressions hidden behind masks. And still, it was a very different feeling from following the same meeting from my kitchen table. The workshop went on for more than three hours, but I felt enlivened by the mere physical proximity of colleagues with whom I could exchange thoughts on our projects located within the same research cluster. It may have been the combination of the ability to share our progress and insecurities within this space, working on a similar research topic and having been deprived of unmediated support for a long time that made for this animating effect.

For me, the takeaway from these experiences is to, yes, embrace the autonomy research allows me when it comes to going to a certain field and approaching a topic in an exploratory manner – even though this autonomy in always also impeded by funding, institutional expectations and the pressures to fit moulds in academia. And the way things have panned out for me also cautions me to value not just my relations to the people I work with when conducting research but also academic environments that offer me space to develop frameworks to think with. Even if it is sometimes hard to admit, at the end of the day, none of it can be done alone.


Presenting at the SSAG-SAAG 2021 Online Conference.

During my PhD, I have been conducting research to produce the first peatland map of the Angolan Highlands. As a young scientist, the opportunity to present this research at a conference was extremely exciting. Academic conferences provide a platform in which you can showcase your research to an expert audience, demonstrating your research techniques, results, and conclusions. Conferences are also an opportunity to network with fellow researchers and engage in scientific conversation.  

The Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) and Southern African Association of Geomorphologists (SAAG) are professional bodies who specialise in conducting research in both geography and geomorphology within the Southern African context. A joint online conference was held online from the 6th to the 8th of September 2021. My supervisor, Professor Jennifer Fitchett had encouraged me, along with many of her other students, to present my research at the conference.

It was my first time attending a conference, let alone presenting at one. I was scheduled to present results from the research I had conducted. I was due to present on Tuesday the 7th, the Monday was a completely brand-new experience for me. Through my inexperience of having attended conferences, I expected that the conference would simply be filled with many presentations just as my own.

To my delight, the conference was in fact a lot more than just presentation after presentation of research projects and publications. For example, a panel of academics and professionals spoke about their experiences during the pandemic, which gave me a sense of awe. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, ‘I am not alone. The troubles that I have endured, had been endured by many others as well’. Although sad to hear about people struggling during troubled times, their words provided immense comfort to me.

After learning an incredible amount from the first day, I took away some distinct lessons from those that had already presented. The most captivating presentations were by those who were able to convey the message of their research through a compelling story. These storytellers, to no surprise, were usually those with incredible research experience. I truly admired the way in which they simplified complex research into well rounded and comprehensive stories, creating genuine interest and intrigue in me. I also learned that keeping to time is of critical importance in the conference as facilitators place time caps on individual speakers. We had a total of ten minutes to present, with five minutes for questions.

Tuesday came as quick as a flash, and before I knew it, I was called to start my presentation. I was well prepared; I had my presentation ready to go and I wanted to start off on a good note. First impressions last forever, even online ones. My presentation was entitled: Towards a peatland inventory for the Angolan Highlands using Google Earth Engine where I presented the very first peatland map for the region.

The online audience who attended had prominent researchers who have research interests in peatlands, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing (RS). These were the main scientific disciplines and tools that I had used for this research. During my presentation, I felt that I presented well. I kept to my time limit, and I felt that the message of the research was conveyed effectively. I received positive feedback, and I was able to answer all questions adequately. It was a great success; all the hard work and practice had paid off.

The remainder of the conference was an absolute blast for me, I could finally relax and enjoy the presentations even more so now that I had finished my own. It was a breath of fresh air for us geographers who have been away from our research sites. Seeing new research, faces and ideas was much needed.

All good things must come to an end, after three academically stimulating days, the conference had ended. I am so thankful that I could participate alongside my colleagues, supervisor, and fellow researchers, some of which I had only read their work and never met. In the end, I truly felt as though I was made to feel part of the SSAG and SAAG family. I cannot wait for the next Biennial SSAG Conference at the University of Pretoria in 2022.