Recognizing New Styles: How Graduate Students Are Coping with COVID

Oct 29, 2020

Published in Conversations | Issue 3

D’Arcee Charington, Ohio State University 

Dylan Colvin, New Mexico State University 

B López, Syracuse University 

Moderated by Alexandra Hidalgo

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By Alexandra Hidalgo

I began my PhD in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University in 2008. Coming from a background not in rhet-comp but in philosophy and creative writing, I was in for months of inexorable confusion. By nature a composed and confident person, I found myself sitting across from my future dissertation chair, Patricia Sullivan, and weeping uncontrollably after class ended and my fellow graduate students shuffled off to read two impenetrable theory books by our next class meeting. I can’t even remember what I was crying about since there was a vague yet persistent cloud of dread looming over me that first semester. What I do remember is that Pat’s eyes watered as she watched me fall apart. 

She placed her hand over mine with a warmth that radiated empathy, and we cried together for a while. We, no doubt, spoke about whatever was bothering me, but what has been indelibly recorded in my memory is that moment of shared pain, that simple gesture of crying alongside the student you’ve only begun to get to know but can still relate to. I walked out of that classroom with a renewed sense of belonging, and soon the field and the intricately brutal dance required of graduate students began to make sense. At that moment, I found my rhythm. 

As I write this account 12 years later, it’s hard to imagine being able to do the same for the new cohort of PhD students in my department, whose welcome-to-graduate-school course I’m currently teaching. Not only were we in a physical classroom together, but Pat connected with me in the most basic way humans know how, by gently placing her hand over mine, much like my mom and grandmother did when I was sad as a child. It brought me back to the generations of strong women I descend from and reminded me I would prevail in the end, no matter how confusing it all seemed at the time. 

And prevail I did, and I believe the new batch of PhD students in my course, whose faces greet me over Zoom every Tuesday afternoon, will prevail as well. And yet, the challenges they face are infinitely steeper than the already turbulent demands of a PhD student in what we might as well call “normal” times. Of course no time is normal, but being a graduate student in 2020 makes 2008 seem like some long-gone utopia. 

As Megan Zahneis and Audrey Williams June write, almost a quarter of graduate students surveyed by a National Science Foundation study reported experiencing food and housing insecurity. Not surprisingly, 31% expressed experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. As Zahneis and June argue, it isn’t only the pandemic but also this year’s relentless instances of police brutality against Black citizens and the Trump Administration’s policy to force international students to enroll in face-to-face classes if they wanted to keep their visas. Although that policy was eventually rescinded, it caused an inordinate amount of stress on international students and to the institutions that would have to figure out how to ensure they continued their education under those circumstances.

Add to all that what feels like the defining election of our times, the fact that many institutions across the country have stopped hiring new faculty for the foreseeable future, as well as graduate students being asked to figure out how to teach students online with little training from their faculty—who are often at a loss for online teaching themselves—and you wonder how many metaphorical hands and empathetic tears it will take to support graduate students right now. I do not have an answer to that question, and no one else does. It will take decades to understand the repercussions of this year on academia and on our global society at large. 

As we process our present time, however, and try to find ways to support the future of our respective fields, we need to listen to the stories of those experiencing this unspeakable turmoil and finding ways to endure. I couldn’t be more proud to share with you this conversation between: 

  • D’Arcee Charington, a doctoral student in English and Disability Studies at The Ohio State University.
  • Dylan Colvin, a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at New Mexico State University.
  • B López, a doctoral student in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric at Syracuse University. 

Their courage, honesty, and resilience will open many doors for them and for us who get to learn from them as we find our way forward together. 

At a global level, we are all seeing our lives transformed in small and monumental ways by COVID19. How has it affected your lives as graduate students? 

Dylan in front of school bus home. Photo by Zach Borts.

D’Arcee Neal: As a person who is both black and disabled, looking at ways the academy is treating students and faculty within the industry has been quite a blow. I came into the department a year ago from Washington D.C. giving up a job as a Federal employee, working directly for the Secretary of the Interior. Part of my coming here was with the understanding that the university would work to make sure that I had what I needed, and COVID has basically seen those assurances practically stripped away as you see what the real priorities are; and I say this as a wheelchair user who doesn’t drive in a city where public transit is severely limited. I thought the university would consider how such things work against me, and the response has suggested otherwise. Looking forward, all I can think is how this will work in an industry where I am all but invisible, and COVID seems to make the situation 10x’s worse.

Dylan Colvin: I feel you on watching how students and faculty are treated and just feeling, I don’t know, I always go with disheartened (but I know it is more than that). It has been rough to see how I’ll fit into this long term, while also sitting with the realization that when I worked in nonprofits I wasn’t any better off. It is hard to know where to go and I absolutely love teaching and reading/writing alongside others. I don’t know. I guess it is easy to feel invisible, like you said, or pushed into ‘doing’ academia in a certain way that just perpetuates all the awfulness.

D’Arcee Neal: Dylan, I’ve recently gotten a lot more active on Twitter, and watching Academic Twitter talk about what you’re mentioning has been really interesting. Specifically, I follow a lot of professors of color whose work I follow and they often talk about having to do a lot of the heavy lifting in their various departments here in the age of COVID to try and connect with students of color, as though the universities themselves are still trying to figure out the best way to handle it. I think the University of Chicago’s English department is a great example. I applaud their decision to shift their focus to black identity and topics of research for the next PhD cycle, but of course, right after I was super happy reading it, I immediately realized that those future students might end up falling into the pit that I currently find myself in: not having anywhere near enough faculty of color to address the topics that they were brought in to research. So it goes back and forth between me wondering about the performative nature of the response, and how much good it really does.

B López: D’Arcee, I feel this deeply. One would think the university would take into consideration the various identities we (queer and/or trans BIPOC) have when recruiting, but they have no idea how to support us— and they don’t care to.

Dylan Colvin: A little over a year ago I moved to New Mexico from Ohio, in a school bus my husband and I converted to start a PhD program. We were looking to create room in our budget for student loans and to be able to save. We felt like we had just horrible work/life balance. It seemed like a great idea to move into 200 square feet with two dogs, and it has been a great idea (not having a mortgage or rent during this pandemic is huge). But now we’re both working from home and it is difficult. It just feels like space and time have no boundaries anymore. It was already difficult for me to navigate academic culture before, and now it sometimes feels impossible. My parents didn’t go to college and the year I started college I was diagnosed with multiple chronic medical conditions. I left the R1 institute I was at because I saw no way to complete undergrad (much less go to grad school) under the conditions there. When I started at smaller state schools I often found supportive faculty but truly terrible administration and institutions. It created this weird dynamic of never knowing how fully I was supported and being constantly afraid of what was to come.

Image of signs for my mentor’s moving away Honk-a-thon. Photo taken by B López.

B López: Dylan, I hear you about the no boundaries as I definitely feel that with my own work schedule. It has become more difficult to focus on my work while also taking care of my cats, and feeding myself, and doing the things I should be doing on the daily, but being at home also makes me want to stay in bed all day because my depression embraces staying at home. That’s such a great point about support and being afraid of what’s to come— I think that’s such an accurate way of describing academia.

It’s impacted my life in major ways especially as a queer and trans Latinx graduate student living in upstate New York. There aren’t many people of color out here, so visiting my loved ones in California is one of the things I look forward to the most. COVID-19 has impacted my ability to travel safely so it has kept me here in Syracuse. I don’t know a lot of people here, and there aren’t many people in the academy who I can rely on. I didn’t realize how important it is to have community while being in a PhD program because there are so many people who want to see you fail and they’ll make it much more difficult than it needs to be. Being in a place where I have experienced anti-transness and racism makes it that much more difficult to stay focused on my own research. It will be a year since the last time I was able to visit home.

D’Arcee Neal: I definitely understand that part, B. I’m very thankful that the last thing I was doing before the COVID crisis was connecting with several Latinx members of the department at a conference in New Orleans. We’d never really spoken before, and considering the limited portion of black people within my department, it was really nice to get to know them. Now, they’ve become literally indispensable, because they’re practically the main people I interact with now. I feel like COVID cut down the time we had to get to meet other people and develop connections outside of professional relationships, and so anyone you knew beforehand becomes a kind of ‘instant family’ out of the precariousness of the situation.

Now that it has been over six months since COVID19 began to have a more visible effect in the US, what strategies have you developed to cope with the pandemic and its repercussions? 

B López Facetiming with their grandmother while she makes face masks. Screenshot taken by B López.

D’Arcee Neal: Honestly, creating a COVID bubble of POC students who live in the same building has proven to be the most wonderful thing. We often see each other over the week, and sometimes it’s to meet to do homework or reading, other times to watch Lovecraft Country and theorize about how it works within our research as we’re equally fascinated/horrified. Aside from that, trying to develop a sense of timing, making sure that I’ve taken enough time that day to rest as I work, has been really helpful. So I will typically do work for several hours, then go and rest for a while, then rinse and repeat and that’s a typical day. I don’t know if that’s any different outside of pandemic times, but I know that if COVID wasn’t here, I’d be finding other places to do the same work, with probably a bigger network, but we have to make do with what we’ve got.

Dylan Colvin: Woof, I mean…I wish I could say I’ve developed something to help me cope. I guess I mostly try to take it day by day, and not beat myself up too much for not getting to all my goals the day before (but I was also raised Catholic by a pretty strict Irish grandmother so guilt is my default emotion). I try, in general, to live by the 8/8/8 system labor unions fought for. 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for things that fulfill me/my community. I’ve gotten into letter writing since I’m far from my family. I’m also taking the time to learn from the Housing First program in Las Cruces and working to have sustained involvement there. Unfortunately, I also took a lot on this year thinking that it would somehow keep me motivated or connected. I think it has kept me involved but not necessarily connected to people.

D’Arcee Neal: Dylan I think the 8/8/8 rule is GOSPEL. I used to feel really guilty about splitting my days up like that, but honestly I feel like the fact that we’re literally trying to get a DOCTORATE in a PANDEMIC is already beyond most people’s scope of possibility. The amount of work we have to do doesn’t actually go down, we have students that depend on us, and research that has to be completed and turned in on deadline. The situation would be maddening otherwise, and so I think whatever we can do to make it more liveable and understanding is permitted. I no longer feel bad about playing Jhene Aiko or Madonna on my zoom meetings when students stop through. I was already doing other things, and they have to understand that I am a person too, and that Spotify is my daily meditation spread throughout the day.

Dylan Colvin: Ugh, I need to learn how to spread some kind of daily meditation throughout the day. I feel like I always think I should just power through the ‘work’ part to get to the ‘relax’ part. I know it is just a recipe for burnout.

B López: D’Arcee and Dylan, y’all both said things that I am definitely trying to do more. D’Arcee, I am so happy for you that you have a COVID bubble of POC students who you can work with and spend time with because dang these are lonely times! Dylan, I got letters from my grandparents yesterday and I was bawling my eyes out. I want to write back to them and in general hope to write letters to them as often as I can as a way to document my experiences with them. I mean just seeing their handwriting and seeing their personalities come out on paper made me so emotional. They’ve been on my mind the most during COVID so hearing from them always makes me cry.

That’s a great question and I’m still thinking about how I cope with the pandemic and its repercussions. I don’t think I have a detailed list of strategies but when I think about it—really think about it— I’ve always had strategies I’ve gone to to help me survive pre-pandemic. An important one is to prevent digital overload burnout and prioritize virtual hangouts with my loved ones. I try not to overload my schedule with meetings so that I can make time to talk over the phone or FaceTime with my friends, but oftentimes we end up talking about how unfair it is to exist in the academy. I also try to let myself grieve for the things I can’t do, and being at home has allowed me to be that much more vulnerable with myself.

D’Arcee Neal: I totally realize I do this without meaning to. My friends generally meet every Friday on Zoom to watch movies or to hangout. We just fell into the habit, and it’s something I look forward to, which I think during this time is what is lacking. People seem to have lost motivation for good things to anticipate, and so developing a reason to create something is one way to deal with this.

Dylan Colvin: I really like the suggestion of prioritizing virtual hangouts. I think that was something I was good at before this and I didn’t realize how much Zoom would take out of me. I worked hard to have accommodations like working from home before COVID to make room for medical treatments. In so many ways WFH has been unrolled in ways that just mimic all the problems already in the institution. I find myself having a harder time prioritizing myself/my loved ones/my community and establishing boundaries in this space.

How have your institutions responded to COVID19, and which approaches have you found particularly helpful? 

B López posing with their close friends and family over Zoom to celebrate them receiving the CCCC’s Gloria Anzaldúa Rhetorician Award 2020. The conference was cancelled due to COVID-19. Photo taken by Monica Lopez-Lara.

Dylan Colvin: I can’t speak much to the ways NMSU as an institution has responded. It has been disappointing and used as an excuse to drastically cut budgets with the university president saying something along the lines of, we can get off the bus if we aren’t happy (I’ll find and post the direct quote). That was scary considering I just came from a university with a long and contentious strike. However, I’m grateful for the help of individuals in my department that have worked so hard to ensure our teaching and learning environments are safe. The campus is open and the English department fought hard to make sure we would teach and learn remotely. They even worked to ensure we had working laptops, headphones, and internet. I didn’t have a working laptop and honestly didn’t even think to ask, which is ridiculous…obviously we should have the material needed to do our jobs. One of my instructors really helped me navigate getting the department to provide me with what I needed and just generally chatted with me about working to get over being seen as the ‘poor’ or ‘needy’ student (something I carry with me from always being the poor kid in private schools).

D’Arcee Neal: And that, Dylan is something I think about often whenever I consider the fact that so much of the world has shifted online when the question of access and the pre-supposed “digital divide” is waved off. People being forced to find ways to maintain their livelihoods without networks of support seems completely inappropriate and often disingenuous from the academic side. Finding ways to convince students to consider the work of analysis and rhetorical composition within their real concrete lives and outside of the internet has proven to be really helpful for this fact, because we can’t just assume everyone can do everything with the aid of a computer when support is spread so thin.

B López: Dylan, wow that’s pretty great that they worked hard to make sure that folks had working laptops, headphones, and Internet because that’s definitely not something that’s going on here. That’s definitely something I think about in terms of my classes, and making sure I emphasize transparent communication between my students and I. We’re all going through so much and I’m definitely not going to add to their already existing stress.  They do have the CARE funding that students can apply to and for COVID related expenses but I believe that they are going to stop doing that once they have spent all the funds that they dedicated for that. And I don’t think a lot of students even know about this funding.

D’Arcee Neal: So OSU has been particularly aggressive, which I appreciate given the circumstances with 60k undergrads under normal days. They require we get weekly COVID tests (as I live in graduate housing), and have cordoned off apartments off campus for 2 week quarantine zones if anyone develops symptoms, to make sure they remain safe and healthy. I also accidentally clicked that I was symptomatic when filling out a form for trace contact (I was not) but I got to see firsthand what happens when you do so— it notified every teacher I had, all my employers, and the health services automatically. So I think they are trying really hard to consider ways to maintain a sense of normalcy in exponentially disruptive times.

When I came back to campus in August, having traveled back from my family’s house in Florida, they required me to quarantine for 2 weeks but brought food 3x a week which was really surprising and appreciative. The classrooms themselves are spaced out which I think is a weak move for safety personally, but I’m glad they give me the flexibility as the professor to modify the class the way I want for my personal peace of mind, and so I have split my classes in half in person/on zoom for that reason, and I got no push back for it. That’s the good side. Of course, every single English GA was cut which was a drastic and nasty surprise for all the returning students, even as they pushed other GA’s back into teaching to try and support them financially in ways they weren’t necessarily prepared to do. But we’ve tried to find ways around that, and as an example, I took a job grading lab reports for the engineering department which was an open and available resource I never even knew existed. It has forced everyone to become thrifty and more caring as we all literally just try and look out for each other in the best ways we can.

Dylan Colvin: My sister goes to OSU and has been really happy (after almost taking a year off because she was so worried). I am so sorry that all the English GAs were cut. That is such a scary thing to go through and it is helpful to hear how you navigated that.

B López: Dang they are really doing extra things to make sure y’all are safe, which is huge. I mean I’m still tripping out about the fact that they gave you food three times a day, what?! And you didn’t get pushback about how you wanted to structure your classes whether it’s remote and half in person, what?!

Surprisingly they’ve been updating everyone at least on the daily (if not weekly basis) about measures they’re taking, such as making everyone take COVID tests and making students quarantine until they’re cleared. But to be completely honest, they can be a lot better with how they update everyone on testing results. If there are over 100 cases in the span of 14 days then they said that they would turn to full remote learning. But the issue is they do not report hourly so in the last report there were 80 something cases, and they said they wouldn’t close because that was the total for those 14 days. However they stopped reporting at the end of their business day around 5:00PM and I’m sure if they reported hourly they would have reached 100 cases. That’s about all I know in terms of how they’re responding because I generally avoid reading emails from SU.

Dylan Colvin: I’ve also avoided the emails from the university. I found they were so wrapped in this sort of student and business working hand-in-hand that it was impossible to read without feeling completely deflated.

In the US, COVID19 has brought to light the inequalities many of us were already painfully aware of by disproportionately affecting people of color, people with disabilities, the working class, and the poor. Many in academia see this as a chance to rethink our educational system and our society so they become more egalitarian. Do you also see this as an opportunity, and if so, what role do you think graduate students can play in creating that change? 

Image of desk built into a skoolie with books, laptop, and pictures. Photo by Dylan Colvin.

Dylan Colvin: I think that unionizing and organizing as graduate students is key, while being sure to include the rights of students (language, grading, accessibility). I think creating mutual aid projects among our graduate communities is key to working under these conditions. Much of the work has already been done for us. Disability activism and research has been telling us the moves we should make. Specifically, we can think about things like workload, due dates, absence policies, and work to redefine what ‘rigour’ looks like in the classroom and in our fields.”
B López: “Yes to organizing and unionizing 1000%! I completely agree about the mutual aid projects and in general think about how our student rights can be incorporated into policy. The moves that universities have made to navigate COVID shows that they can easily change the language in their policies.

D’Arcee Neal: I mean as I said earlier, being a wheelchair user already makes this super weird. People don’t ever consider the optics of how I could go on the market to campus interviews, or having to hear discussions of “cost of ADA barriers” when you’re just trying to promote your best self in an area that you know is already hostile to folks outside of the usual white, cis-het, ablebodied, male crowd. I think making sure that graduate students purposefully ensure their departments both know and recognize all of their true selves as they make their ways through their various departments will be a key aspect to this.

B López: Oooooh say that again! “Recognize all of their true selves!” You definitely touch on how abled bodies are prioritized in universities and now more than ever universities need to center and prioritize disability justice frameworks. My good friend and I always talk about how our program’s timeframe centers the experiences of cishet able-bodied folks. We often rewrite the timeframe to better fit our bodies.

D’Arcee Neal: I completely agree, B. I think that we have in fact reached a turning point in how we consider the work of “intellectual labor” to quote Mauricio Lazzarto, and the fact that people often find it difficult to equate the work of virtual work to physically demanding, value driven, results. We are in a moment when we can rethink the way we do even basic staples of academia like rhetoric and composition, for example. I work in a field that combines multimodality and digital media with rhetorical theory and black disability; and trying to convince seasoned, established scholars you aren’t full of fluff when you present the idea that we can change the view of “writing,” and “reading” to encompass more of the world at large in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable, is another way to push this envelope and suggest that since we’re beyond the pale in teaching digitally, keep going. Recognize new styles of scholarship, teaching, and work to give people more ways to access the academy and expand our notion of knowledge even further than we did before COVID.

Dylan Colvin: Yes! I love the idea of changing our views of reading and writing in ways that ensure we keep going. That has been such a frustration of mine. It seems like there are faculty that use, for example, the language of anti-racist pedagogy without taking the steps to recognize the ways their classrooms are complicit in the structure of the university. I know that in my MA I was taught to see students as adversaries who needed to be taught how to read/write properly in the institution, and I was taught this by people who held tightly to the idea that their work was anti-racist, as if we were doing a public service by integrating students into this system. I realized as much as I fought back as a student in the classroom I often perpetuated it as an instructor in the classroom.

B López: It definitely makes me think about how the University makes certain things more complicated than they have to be. More than anything it makes me think about the ways I can continue to advocate for emergency funding and funding in general for BIPOC students. In the past, I’ve received pushback about receiving funding for BIPOC students in my program. COVID-19 demonstrates the kind of support—both monetary and emotional support—that is needed to succeed. I feel like there is more exigence now while we are still in this pandemic. I think that graduate students can support one another by advocating for BIPOC students and other folks in the margins who need more from the university. In general, I feel like graduate students already have too many rules and now is the time for admin and faculty to actively demonstrate their support to us.

D’Arcee Neal: I wholeheartedly support the notion that BIPOC students need more funding and support. Considering the academy built itself off and away from any of our intellectual (and oftentimes physical) labors, then if we’re trying to truly have a discussion about equity and making sure more BIPOC people appear and thrive in the academy, then you have to be in a position to physically do something to change the playing field. You can’t simply sit around and wish that more funding would appear to help you get those “dream candidates” as you stare at your various diversity working groups. That requires investment, cultivation, mentoring, and support to raise the entire community of academics to a standard it claims to represent.

How has COVID19 changed your approach to your graduate school experience and to your thoughts and plans for the future? 

Selfie of D’Arcee Neal.

D’Arcee Neal: I think if anything this situation has forced me to be more vocal about questioning the decisions my department makes in regards to my educational future and my research. In the past, you could simply just go to a professor’s office to see who was around and ask questions, and I know now that in the world of Zoom office-hour requests and rest, making more time for students has become a game where you balance your own world with the requests of the students that work with you. Whereas before I would’ve simply waited, these days, I freely move between the administration and the faculty to get answers to my questions because of the situation. We all know this is stressful, and to prevent adding more stress to my schedule I need help, even if it’s not always from the same people. It has also made me super thankful for the therapy and mental health services the university offers, and I take advantage of it every chance I get.

Being black in a primarily white institution is already difficult, but with the pandemic, such things can threaten to swallow you whole if you let it. I think when I do go on the market, I most definitely plan to ask any future employers what their response to COVID was, and very specifically how they supported their faculty during the crisis. It will be telling to hear directly what plans and direct actions they took to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees, and it’s something that will empower me both as a job seeker and future faculty member in a world where everything has changed. 

B López: Yes!! I completely feel that about being forced to be even more vocal about questioning the decisions that departments make. I love that you’re going to ask your future employers what their response to covid was because that’s so important and speaks to how they’re going to react to future crises, and how they will support you. I would even add that you might wanna ask their current graduate and undergrad students how their Department really reacted because we know departments can perform support but not actually be about it.

Dylan Colvin: I’m pretty extroverted and really thrive off conversations that happen in the in-between— hallways, offices, parking lots. It has been a rough transition that feels very isolated. I hadn’t really gotten the chance to build community here and I was the only PhD to come in last year. It has been good in some ways. I feel a lot closer to the reading and writing I do. Going through a strike as I finished my PhD application really shifted my thoughts and plans for the future. It frames every question I ask of the faculty I work with, every interaction. I wouldn’t say I necessarily feel confident about where I’ll end up, but I feel more confident in making sure I know how to work with my peers to get what we need and to uplift each other.

D’Arcee Neal’s cat Shuri assisting with work.

B López: I feel like my answer is going to be sad but it’s the truth. It’s definitely going to help me in terms of advocating for funding, but it also reminds me it will continue to be hard to do so because of the lack of support my department has for BIPOC folks. A BIPOC student had to ask them if they were going to give a statement in support of BLM protestors?? That’s sad but that is the truth. COVID is going to allow me to give the most honest perspective about remote learning/teaching specifically in terms of not needing to be in a physical space with other graduate students and faculty who oftentimes do not see me, care for me, and/or advocate for me/with me. I’ve actually really enjoyed not being in the same space with people in my department because it’s been such a toxic space for so long. Being able to work from home has helped my mental health in terms of helping me preserve my energy and emotional labor.

D’Arcee Neal: That’s real talk, B. It’s a lot easier to do your work in a place where your energy flow is usually calm and happy, than having to dodge and weave around microaggressions or ignorance on the daily. I’ll say that I’m seeing much more of my apartment that I ever wanted these days, but I can’t deny that at least I know I have the opportunity to get good work done because the vibes are good, the music is good, the food is tasty, and my cat will never ask me about my hair. I feel this!

Dylan Colvin: I really appreciate this. I think it is so telling that the first question in every department ‘listening session’ is something about ‘seeing’ the issues in the field, or how we can ‘see’ students more fully. It just makes me think about the damaging ways ‘seeing’ can be used.

Cultural rhetorics values storytelling as one of its key methodologies. How do you think graduate students can use their personal stories of living through COVID19 as a way to bring about change for themselves and for others?  

D’Arcee Neal: So much of our work in English revolves around the conceptions of power and agency, and working during COVID is the realization of that work in realtime on the ground. I would encourage students to think about the ways their own bodies have come to work in their world, and to use that to inform their thinking and theories. We have to consider in the age of the Black Plague and other massive times of death and uncertainty that the work of imagination, of looking at inequality and societal change,  didn’t stop. There were academics who did the same kind of work that we are doing now, and their words remind us now that such things are not permanent, even as their results may be. I think putting yourself in the space of your type of research, and thinking about how you might be affected by the work you do (even if it’s not directly related to your experiences), thinking about how you might read the work you produce in the world now, will help to construct a deeper connection to the research in ways you never imagined. I’m not saying everyone should look at the pandemic and draw inspiration from such things (and in many ways, I’m very much averse to such things as I look at the ways black disabled life continues to exist and flourish through Afrofuturism) but I think considering the ways massive change works to both affect and effect the world is something that cannot be ignored; on the contrary. It can help you produce real and substantive work that is both relevant and poignant to people you may never meet.

B López: Ooooh yes to putting yourself in the space of your type of research and thinking about the ways you will be affected by it. That’s so important! Thinking about how the work impacts me emotionally sometimes gets me stuck in a sad place. My good friend told me that BIPOC folks have been doing work, but we just need someone to tell us we can submit the work we have been doing. Oftentimes, I will think too much about imposter syndrome and forget about my capabilities and potential. I think graduate students can use their personal stories of living through COVID 19 as a way to bring change for themselves and others by being honest about the struggles they encountered. When potential graduate students reach out to me about my program and Department, I will definitely let them know what it was like living here during a pandemic and the lack of support I received. I mean just reading about some of the support that Dylan and D’Arcee have from their universities is kind of triggering-— I’m happy for them and also think we all deserve more support than we are given. Support isn’t the right word there, it’s another way to describe this, but the pandemic has taught me that folks who are most marginalized are going to continue to be marginalized (and ignored) so we need to receive something more than support.

Our existence needs to be seen and valued. I need faculty and admin to do better. There needs to be more BIPOC faculty hires and efforts to keep them here. Also this makes me want to expand the BIPOC support community I’ve helped create here because we need more than a handful of folks. We all have our bad days (for some of us it’s more than days), and we need more people in our community ready to support each other. I’m not talking about just calls or FaceTime calls but food deliveries, community refrigerators, and honest hourly check-ins.

Darcee Neal books during COVID.

D’Arcee: That part. For the life of me, if I’m being honest I cannot understand how universities with ridiculously large endowments cannot figure out how to pay their GAs in the time of a crisis, while continuing to charge tuition and randomly explained fees. I think that if they were openly demonstrating the ability to support students in the ways you suggest, people would be much more likely to approve and assist in the various kinds of circumstances that arise with a diverse student population. It’s just staggeringly bag optics when adjunct and GA positions are cut while administrations continue to draw huge salaries, with nary a mention of how they are lending their support beyond sending out truth-bent emails that change on the hour. That said, I’m trying to stay in the space of the belief everyone really is just doing the best they can in the face of an unfathomable level of uncertainty. But just because things are difficult, doesn’t give the academy an excuse to lower its own standards of excellence, it just requires new ways of reaching the goals, which BIPOC people have been doing for generations. Maybe they could learn a thing or two from us.

Dylan Colvin: I think it is so important to redefine what support means. I mean, I was so excited that they provided a laptop for me to work. And yet, I would never expect my partner (an engineer) to feel grateful for being provided the tools needed to do his job. Sure, that was support—but it clearly supported them too. I totally understand how hearing of that support would be triggering. I know I was shocked to hear of friends who were supported in their moves when they got into PhD programs. I would have never thought to ask for that. I know I often relied on the food people would bring into the office and I don’t see that sort of support provided or discussed.

B López: D’Arcee, I stay skeptical about admin’s roles because they have been acting the same pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. I get what you mean though about thinking that everyone is doing the best they can yet they don’t seem to extend this same thinking when it comes to GA’s and students. I feel like the pandemic has given some folks more of a power trip because they can hide behind their screens-— I can’t always see the ways their microaggressions and racism comes out through email. I’ve heard horror stories about the expectations some instructors have for their students over Zoom, and I can’t believe how ableist and classist they can be! They can definitely learn a few things from us, but they have to pay us first for sharing our knowledge.

Dylan Colvin: I spent a lot of my life trying to hide my life outside of school. School was the place I had control. I didn’t want teachers or classmates to know I didn’t have the resources to complete certain assignments or that I didn’t always have reliable access to internet, meals, clean uniforms. I found so many ways to hide my family and my neighborhood. I’ll also say that, obviously, this was a privilege. I’m a white woman who is able to easily blend into these institutions. And for a long time all I wanted was to blend. I would go without meals, I put myself in risky situations to complete school, and I’m sure I unknowingly made life harder for others by refusing to call out school administration for their policies. It was also really lonely because I pushed people away so they wouldn’t know the financial struggles I was going through. I guess, what I’m getting at is I wish I had felt like I had a space to be honest throughout my education. I’m realizing now that it was a safe place because it was created to be safe for people like me, and how harmful it was for many of my friends who aren’t white. I want to work harder to support each other through that sort of honesty.

B López: I hear you about hiding and control— I-feel that deeply. If people can be this honest and also hold space for BIPOC folks to do the same, then damn that’s the kind of support that would make a huge difference.

Works Cited

Zahneis , Megan, and Audrey Williams June. “How Has the Pandemic Affected Graduate Students? This Study Has Answers.”, 3 Sept. 2020,

About the Authors

D’Arcee Charington is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Disability Studies at The Ohio State University in Rhetoric, Composition and Language. His work focuses at the intersections of digital media, narrative and rhetoric, as he considers the problem of ableism produced throughout Afrofuturism, or Afrophantasm.  Noting the absence of digital black disabled work, he is currently producing an immersive audio narrative alongside his dissertation research; as well as an essay in College, Composition, and Communication on Hidden Disabled Black Technoculture, and a chapter in Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural Politics of X-Men: The Animated Series discussing Storm’s oft-missed role as a black disabled woman, both currently in progress. 

Dylan Colvin is a 2nd year PhD student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at New Mexico State University in the English Department. At NMSU she teaches composition and technical communications and works as a writing center consultant. As a writing program coordinator she pursues her interest in curriculum design, critical pedagogy, and Writing Across the Curriculum. She does research in posthuman pedagogy; embodiment, place/space, and complexity in composition; and labor issues in higher education. She enjoys spending time with friends outside academia talking about and doing writing, art, and theory projects beyond/through campus spaces. One such project can be found in the recent collection, Teaching Gloria E. Anzaldúa Pedagogy and Practice for Our Classrooms and Communities in a co-author chapter entitled “‘May We Do Work that Matters. Vale la Pena.’: Gloria Anzaldúa from Classroom to Community.” Currently, she is doing some communal thinking through of extensions to that project that focus on graffiti, composition, and conociemento. 

B Lopez is a Composition and Cultural Rhetoric doctoral student at Syracuse University and a Writing Instructor in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition. They are also the Assistant Director for the Rhetoric Society of America’s Summer Institute at SU and Assistant Director for SU’s Writing Across the Curriculum. They do research in Trans Rhetorics and Writing Studies. They are the co-producer for This Rhetorical Life, a podcast created by graduate students in Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program. They most recently contributed to a co-authored policy report for the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, “Combating White Supremacy in a Pandemic: Antiracist, Anticapitalist, and Socially Just Policy Recommendations in Response to COVID-19.” B has taught WRT 105: Practices of Academic Writing, WRT 205: Critical Research and Writing, WRT 114: Creative Nonfiction, and WRT 105: Design Learning Community.

About the Moderator

Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker, theorist, memoirist, and editor, whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 15 countries and been screened at universities around the United States. Her videos and writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, The Criterion Collection, and Women and Hollywood. She has a PhD in English from Purdue University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and is associate professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures and co-director of the Doc Lab at Michigan State University. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition received the 2017 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. Her academic video essays have been published in Enculturation, Kairos, Present Tense, and Peitho, among others. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers and of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Production Credits:

Copy Editors: Alexandra Hidalgo and Naomi Johnson

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca

Posted by: Naomi Johnson