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.


Five ways academics can manage COVID-19 shutdowns

by Prof Willie Chinyamurindi

(Repost by The Conversation https://theconversation.com/five-ways-academics-can-manage-covid-19-shutdowns-133947)

The COVID-19 pandemic has begun affecting a range of African countries where infection rates have been rising, though not at the rates being experienced in the US and Western Europe.

Governments have been taking drastic steps to stop the spread of infection. One has been the decision to close schools and universities. This has been true in a number of African countries where schools, colleges and universities have suspended classes and even graduation ceremonies.

For most, this is a devastating interruption of the academic year as the bricks-and-mortar lecturing experience is shut down. But there are steps that can be taken to ensure that teaching and learning continues.

In the past decade my colleagues and I have carried out research in Africa exploring as a broad theme the relationship between technology and human capital development. The aim has been to contribute to developing digital citizens.

The research we have done shows how technology can be used as an enabler to development. It also shows what stands in the way. At the core of this, as we have found, are motives and how they shape and guide the technology we adopt and use. Understanding these motives allows us to make sense of usage patterns and the technology that we adopt.

For example, we were able to show that technology, through social media, can create solutions. A precursor to this was exploring motives that drive such behaviour. One such motive is the desire for convenience and ease of use.

In a follow-up study we later found the role of mobile devices, not just among young people but also the elderly, as key in the transmission of information.

Our work also identified a technology-savvy young generation that was adapting new tools to their lived experiences. Their attitudes were very different to that of the older generation. But this generation gap could work in favour of young people trying to complete their studies while universities are shut down.

Based on my research, as well as my own experience, I have come up with five ways in which academics can salvage some of what they need to teach. All involve the use of technology.

What can be done

Put recordings of classes online. I am due to start teaching a second-year Human Resources Management module with 130 students. In this module, I was due to teach two contact sessions adding up to six hours. I was also due to meet students for consultation.

Instead, I’m turning to different ways of delivering the work. A number of free online platforms exist that can be useful to host learning content in audio and video format. These include YouTubeSoundCloudTwitch and Audiomack.

Some of these platforms also allow for recorded learning content to be downloaded online onto a device and then played later by a user at no cost. This can fit well, especially if data costs are very high.

I find Youtube and SoundCloud helpful because they offer the convenience of presenting a class either in video or sound format. Students can select which they prefer.

However, caution is needed. Putting content online doesn’t add up to effective teaching. Some issues specific to the student and their environment need to considered.

In a study we carried out in South Africa’s corporate sector, we found issues such as gender, attitude towards technology and even the ease of use of the technology affected how the technology was adopted. These findings were also confirmed in a follow-up study we conducted using a student sample within a university context.

This points to the need to consider issues specific to the individual and their environment when content is put on line.

Conferences. I was scheduled to present a paper this month at an international conference on technical and vocational education. But the event has been postponed.

Academic conferences offer opportunities for networking and collaboration with leading scholars locally and internationally. An alternative is web-conferencing. This allows multiple users in different locations to meet in real time over the internet or intranet. This has also led the growing use of web seminars or webinars.

I have found web-conferences useful and often cheaper than physical attendance. The drawbacks here are the need for a reliable internet connection and missing out on the collaborations that often happen between conference attendances during tea, lunch and dinner.

Use of Skype and WhatsApp Audio and Video for meetings. I’m constantly in touch with my students, offering direction on their research projects and helping others complete theirs through these platforms. I also use them for meetings with colleagues and external stakeholders.

We use these tools because of ease and convenience. For example, in one study we found that this was why students used them extensively to hunt for jobs.

Skype and WhatsApp are easily available and are already popular. The issues we flagged in our research around ease, convenience and performance expectancy make Skype and WhatsApp favourable. Again, there is the need for a reliable internet connection.

Off campus library access. A number of universities offer access to leading electronic resources, journals and databases through off-campus access. Due to issues of licensing in accessing these resources, this privilege is usually for registered students and staff members. I’m increasingly recommending this alternative to fellow staff and students.

From the comfort of my home, I can access the physical library through the use of technology without being in public contact. Such features, as shown in our research, are key in forming online learning communities.

Keep informed, watch out for misinformation. Information has become more and more critical. At the same time it’s important to watch out for misinformation. A common source of misinformation could be posts usually shared through social media that are not verified.

In a study we carried out on social media usage within a higher education setting, we found that social media was mostly used for problem solving and communication purposes. This shows that social media is a crucial information portal. This heightens the role of information not just among academics but society in general.

But caution needs to be exercised. Equal to personal hygiene is cyber-hygiene. In our quest for information, we should watch out for misinformation and avoid spreading unverified information.

What gets in the way

My work has also highlighted the barriers to putting these ideas into practice. These include inadequate infrastructure and hardware as well as the fact that a number of communities and universities on the continent remain under-resourced. And as we have found in research conducted on the use of technology in the work place, technology can present its own set of problems, such as contributing to job-overload.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for both academics and students to further develop their skills. This requires seeing technology not as an old foe but as a new ally.

Prof Willie Tafadzwa Chinyamurindi is an NRF Rated Researcher (Y2) and an Associate Professor within the Department of Business Management at the University of Fort Hare. He also serves as the Research Niche Area Leader within the Faculty of Management and Commerce at the same university. His research interests broadly are within human capital development, career management and the use of qualitative methodology within the management sciences. Willie is also an avid user of technology within teaching practice. Twitter handle: @chinyaz