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Graduate school in the time of COVID-19: Rethinking my dissertation

There are many things to write about COVID-19 and how it’s impacting graduate students right now. It’s overwhelming. I struggle to find words. The words I’ve found are about research travel, so that’s what I’m writing about now.

The Endangered Language Documentation Programme (ELDP), one of the major funding agencies of linguistic fieldwork, announced on March 20 that they will not be reviewing applications submitted during the 2020 cycle:

"In light of the current COVID-19 crisis, and after many consultations and careful consideration, ELDP has decided to cancel the 2020 grant round. Given the global developments and required restrictions, ELDP will not be able to support any work that involves fieldwork or any other kind of travel and face to face interaction for the coming year."

This is the right decision on ELDP’s part. However, it’s anxiety provoking for graduate students who might have submitted an application to start fieldwork this coming fall, as delaying fieldwork could mean adding an extra year to their dissertation process.

Before COVID-19, I planned to start my dissertation fieldwork on Tlacochahuaya Zapotec with an eight-week trip to Oaxaca this coming fall. I was also planning a shorter trip to Oaxaca this June. Now, it’s unclear if research-related travel will be possible at all this year. Currently, borders are closed, and UT Austin has prohibited international travel on university business. Even if traveling to Oaxaca is possible this fall, I still need to evaluate whether it is safe and ethical to travel, as I will be working with older people and in communities which have limited access to medical care.

I’m lucky to have a number of different paths I can take without completely revamping my research. In particular, if my fieldwork opportunities are limited, I could shift my research to focus more on data from colonial resources, like the documents on the Ticha Project. I could also work with Zapotec speakers who live in the US, for example in Los Angeles. But both of these options still require a major shift in my methodology and potentially a new IRB (ethics board) application.

My dissertation research is not my most urgent concern, but it’s still constantly on my mind. It’s another layer of anxiety in this anxious world.