By Ronin Research Scholar Keith Tse
2020 has been a year like no other, and for obvious reasons. It came as no surprise that the word chosen as Word of the Year for 2020 by the American Dialect Society was COVID, since this has been and still is plaguing (literally) our global community since the beginning of 2020. The effects of the worst pandemic in almost a century have been disastrous for all of us, since with travel bans in place and people being discouraged from even leaving their homes many businesses, especially retail and tourist-related ones, have gone into recession, which will no doubt get worse in the coming years and drag our global economy down with it. In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment and many prospective academic hopefuls (myself included) are rethinking their career plans and even established academics are now considering leaving academia for financially more stable pastures (which may perhaps make them want to join our institute for independent scholars, though such causal connections are yet to be established).
In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment
The human cost of the pandemic has also been vast and grave, not only in terms of the number of daily/weekly reported deaths and the soaring number of infections overwhelming our public health systems, but also in terms of our collective mental health which has shown record number of cases of depression and suicide or simply mass anger as seen in recent protests and demonstrations against nationwide lockdown in numerous countries. There is light to be glimpsed from the end of this dark tunnel with mass vaccination now being put into effect by governments and well-credited pharmaceutical companies, though it would be naïve to think that our world will suddenly go back to its pre-COVID state just because we now have something that comes close to being a cure, especially since we have now discovered that it is possible for the virus to mutate and spread asymptomatically. The end of 2020 is truly a pivotal moment in our modern history, and as we transition into 2021, we seem to find ourselves in a crisis that only occurs once in a lifetime (let’s certainly hope so!). Nonetheless, being appointed Community Journalist at our institute since last July has given me a very different perspective on our Ronin community and beyond as I am now jointly (with the amazing Alex Lancaster) responsible for internal and external communications and have learnt a great deal about our members and our scholarly activities. I do believe that there have been some positives which have sprung from our global crisis, and these may prove critical in shaping the new normal in our research-related fields and beyond.
First of all, working from home. This has been encouraged by nearly all governments in countries which have contracted COVID, and our home has become both abode and place for work. This has drawn mixed reaction, since while some welcome it as they like the idea of working from the comforts of their own home, many others have found work-life balance much harder to strike, especially those who have young children to take care of at home. This is certainly reflected in some of the conversations I have had with our members, and although I have full sympathy for their dilemma, I honestly do not have a solution to it. That said, of all the industries that have been affected by our global lockdown (which pretty much includes all of them), non-experimental research fields are probably the least affected, since unless one’s research requires one to conduct experiments under very specific conditions (like in a laboratory) or to go on field trips abroad, our lives as researchers have never been confined to a rigid routine, like the 9-5 office hours which govern large sectors of the working population. In the words of our President Jon Wilkins at one of our meetings, ‘research is a continuous process that does not just happen during one’s working hours’, and we researchers often have to work through the weekend and holidays, especially when we are hooked onto a particular research idea which may end up keeping us awake through day and night. The advantage of this research lifestyle is that everyday is a holiday, since there is no need to go to work, but the disadvantage is that everyday is a working day, since one is in effect working all the time by thinking about the same things over and over again.
Speaking as a scholar who does research in theoretical Linguistics (some of which I managed to present at a Ronin seminar last November for which I am eternally grateful to the organisers, namely Jon Wilkins, Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster and Varsha Dani), my work has pretty much gone on as usual, since, despite the strict lockdown in the UK where I am based, I have managed to supply myself with all the stationary and inventory I need for drawing formal representations, and my electronic devices have worked well enough for me to continue as usual in annotating linguistic structures and carrying out statistical analysis. Soliciting linguistic data from native speakers of foreign languages has been more of an ordeal, but our social media is so powerful that it is possible to get in touch with anyone who has access to the internet and has the relevant social media apps at his/her disposal (Whatsapp, WeChat, Microsoft Teams, Google Meetup, and, of course, Zoom, which has become the default application among all our professional circles). In my case, I have managed to consult speakers of foreign languages on Facebook, WeChat and via email on many linguistic details which I need for my research (and I thank them for their patience, generosity and willingness to address my queries). Collecting and measuring natural data is well-nigh impossible without access to special equipment or going on fieldtrips, but for those who, like me, conduct social scientific research, social distancing should not be an insurmountable problem, even if we may still prefer in-person communication. I hope that COVID has not caused too many obstacles to those who conduct practical research.Continue reading Reflections on 2020: COVID, research, career and prospects