Being productive in times of crisis, making the crisis productive?!

By Ruth Falkenberg

Being productive in times of crisis, making the crisis productive?!

The corona pandemic we are currently facing is certainly an unprecedented crisis – a crisis in which science, medicine and health(care), global and national politics, socio-economic, and even environmental dimensions are entangled in complex and often seemingly elusive ways. As such, the current situation represents an immense and multi-faceted STS case study. As an STS scholar, it is hard not to think about what we see and hear in all kinds of media channels through our various STS lenses. Increasingly, there are also formalised calls to respond to, research and accompany the current pandemic from an STS, or more broadly, social scientific perspective.

Analysing, commenting and reflecting on the current crisis from a critical (scholarly) perspective is certainly crucial, as we find so many interesting, remarkable, but first and foremost worrisome things going on around us – things that would not have even been imaginable just a few weeks ago. As such, the current situation lays open many of the values that are so tacitly embedded in the ways the social worlds around us are organised. Furthermore, the shifts we are currently witnessing open up multiple versions of a ‘new normal after corona’, creating spaces for change and transformation that can happen in many directions. STS perspectives and (academic) interventions are therefore indispensable and can play a crucial role in shedding light on some of the complex entanglements of this crisis and in shaping the pandemic and its aftermath.

In short, the value of timely STS contributions to the corona crisis seems out of question.[1] Nevertheless, over the last days and weeks I increasingly find myself wondering and reflecting about scholarly responses to the corona pandemic. While I am following current discussions and conversations within STS and the broader academic community on various channels such as mailing lists or twitter, I cannot help myself asking what is actually driving our work and professional engagements in these times. (And I deliberately use the term ‘our’, since these reflections certainly also pertain to myself.) Do we produce papers, proposals or other forms of output related to the corona pandemic out of a wish to contribute something to the current situation that is of relevance and help to other actors, whoever these may be? Is it a sheer curiosity, finding so many (undeniably) highly interesting things happening right now? Is it maybe a way to deal with the current stressful and novel situation? Is it a pressure that as an STS scholar one has to make a contribution to the current situation, to turn this crisis into a form of productive output? Or is it a convenient option to add another item to the CV, or to get some quick grant money?

While lecture halls are empty, other aspects and logics of academic life are not coming to a halt.

(Image licensed under creative commons)

Certainly, the complex relations between these different aspects that guide our practices are impossible to disentangle, in these times as well as in other moments. Yet, it seems that these days it becomes particularly salient how fine and blurry the line is between providing a valuable contribution that may be of interest or help to other people, and rather productivity- and competition-oriented considerations. Which is not meant to deny the importance of any of these factors that may drive our work – clearly they all come from somewhere. For example, writing about the crisis as a way to cope with the own impressions, thoughts, and emotions can definitely be an important and valuable practice. And, of course, also the need to somehow continue to produce output, to stay visible and contribute to the academic discussions of the own field is something that cannot be neglected – the accumulation logics of epistemic capitalism do not simply stop in times of crisis.

Yet, at the same time, the current situation that produces so many exceptional states and lays open so many weak points of our societies, can also be an encouragement to reflect on the values, considerations, and tacit norms that actually guide our own practices. What is it that we produce output for? Who do we actually want to be as researchers? And what effects do our own practices sometimes create?

At the moment, there are new potential forms of competition and stress created for some people, in relation to contributing some scholarly output to the current crisis. At the same time, the current situation also radically exposes how closely the possibilities for academic productivity are tied to the own personal circumstances and always compete with other practices, roles, and ways to contribute – at the moment, there is a large gap between those who do not have many teaching, care, or other responsibilities and who may therefore indeed experience the current situation as a sort of deceleration, and those who need to juggle more duties than ever and may hardly have time to follow even their basic tasks. Furthermore, even some of those who have the time to write down their thoughts may rather feel a need to become active and engage with the current situation in a non-academic manner. What, then, does it mean to be a good scholar, and how to think about academic citizenship in times like these?

What is a valuable (academic) contribution in times of crisis? And who does, amongst many other tasks, actually have the capacities to engage in solitary writing? (Image licensed under creative commons)

It would not be possible to answer the questions that I have raised in the scope of this blogpost, but this is not my aim. Indeed, finding answers to such questions is to some extent a very individual and subjective process and there may be no absolute right or wrong. Yet, it is certainly important to (collectively) reflect on and discuss these issues – at least as far as the current state of exception allows it.

I want to thank my colleagues from the STS department who shared with me their thoughts and feelings on being productive in the face of the corona pandemic.

[1] For a nice example of this, you can just scroll down to read the post by my colleague Kamiel Mobach.

Ruth Falkenberg is a PhD student at the Research Platform Responsbile Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. She is interested in meanings and practices of “relevant research” and in valuation practices in academia, particularly in the context of contemporary neoliberal regimes of research governance. Her dissertation is part of the project Valuing, Being and Knowing in Research Practices, which investigates how valuation practices and processes of subjectification are entangled with strategic decisions in researchers’ work.