Invisible ink

WhatsApp Image 2020-03-30 at 12.15.52
What lies beyond the veil? Picture taken on the journey between home and the site of fieldwork.

I write this post in midst of a global pandemic that has somewhat drove life (and its subset, the PhD) to a halt. It is a distressing, disorienting and surreal period that warrants reflection, a moment of pause to take stock and to imagine what is to come. Since I last updated before the start of the new year–which seems so long ago now that we are in the eye of the storm–I find myself back home. In between, I have been conducting fieldwork in a secondary school in an out-of-the-way place* on the Malaysian Peninsular.

* many a times I was asked by teachers, students, community members, why here, of all places? Why us, of all people?

At the start of the 1 week school holiday in mid-March, I left the school for a short break to recharge at home before the last leg of fieldwork. These past few months have been equal parts amusing, disorienting, mysterious, and exhausting. When the researcher becomes the instrument, the instrument constantly picks up observations, stories, patterns–it operates on overdrive, eluding my control. This is a curious experience. Enmeshed as I was with the ebb and flow of school life, there were also moments where it slipped my mind that I was actually there to do research. So far, it has truly been an enriching encounter, living up to what Clifford Geertz describes as ‘deep hanging out’. Here’s a moment documented on twitter:

I continue to be humbled by the warmth of the school community, the generous people opening up their lives to me, taking care of me, telling me stories. What will I do with the stories entrusted to me? I ask myself constantly, I confided with friends. It seems that I must weigh them with care, sit a while with the contradictions and tensions therein, and together make knowledge, make worlds otherwise. In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing (2015) writes:

Without algorithms based on self-containment, scholars and policymakers might have to learn something about the cultural and natural histories at stake. That takes time, and too much time, perhaps, for those who dream of grasping the whole in an equation. But who put them in charge? If a rush of troubled stories is the best way to tell about contaminated diversity, then it’s time to make that rush part of our knowledge practices.

At the moment, I am unable to return to the school, although the holiday ended a week ago. A few days after I returned home, the Malaysian government executed a Movement Control Order (MCO) as a public health strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19. The order, which includes nationwide school closure, was initially meant to last until today; it has since been extended for an additional 2 weeks until 14 April 2020. What a time to be alive! With so much uncertainty in the air, I am incredibly grateful to be around family.

The implication for students is that face-to-face learning in institutions no longer become feasible in this age of pandemic. A learning crisis that exacerbates inequalities thus rears its head around the world, sharply affecting those without access to alternative online platforms–the poor, those in remote and rural areas. This letter by Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares highlights potential pointers for education systems to adapt to the current reality. Closer to home, my friend Pravin penned his opinion on how Malaysian students are affected, rightly pointing out uneven access to online learning. The Malaysian Ministry of Education released a statement on how learning should proceed during the time of MCO, highlighting their various online resources. They acknowledge the difference in access to technology across the board, suggesting possible approaches that can be taken by teachers. This directive assumes things will revert to normal in 2 weeks, but will it? Time will tell.

For my own PhD project, I had a supervision meeting late last week over Skype. It is easy to feel despair in these times, but life (and the PhD) marches on somehow. I am calm because my supervisors are measured and frank in their assessment of the current reality. Research designs will inevitably evolve, the new normal must be embraced. These are extraordinary times for everyone–we must all find ways to adapt, to endure, to care for one another, to survive. Amidst the uncertainty, I am comforted by the various resources that have surfaced in the academic community, such as #virtualnotviral. But if the PhD is a project of imagination, which I do say so myself, then the current predicament also calls for pause. I ask myself: What does it mean to do work, to be productive in the academy, on this novel plane ushered by a global pandemic? There are no easy answers. Which practices do I accept, reject and commit to reimagine alongside others? These are questions and ongoing conversations to grapple with along the way.

Looking ahead, the future seems shrouded in mystery, transformed by pandemic and the attendant pandemonium. Christof Mauch in this essay on Slow Hope observes:

“Hope, for Bloch, has its starting point in fear, in uncertainty, and in crisis: It is a creative force that goes hand in hand with utopian ‘wishful images’. It can be found in cultural products of the past–in fairy tales, in fiction, in architecture, in music, in the movies–in products of the human mind that contain the outlines of a better world’. What makes us ‘authentic’ as humans are visions of our ‘potential’. In other words: living in hope makes us human.”

So I try to enact hopefulness, somehow, in the current ruins. Be well and stay safe!

Reference

Tsing, A. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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