On Dissertating During Quarantine

When my cohort received the news last month that the library was shutting down until further notice, we messaged each other frantically on our group Facebook chat. What on earth are we going to do without the stacks? 

We—my small PhD cohort of five—had just finished our comprehensive exams in February and had been planning a celebratory outing before diving into our respective dissertation prospectuses—the last step before reaching candidacy. Then our university, like most others, announced its closure. And then the library. For me, the dissertation has been what I have most looked forward to: two years of an essentially uninterrupted research rabbit hole that I wouldn’t have to justify to anyone (except, of course, my ever-patient advisor). 

Beginning my dissertation during quarantine has meant letting go of many of my quirky research habits that I’ve accumulated during my time in grad school. Pre-COVID, I began every large research project with a ritual: I find a comfortable nook in the library reading room, venture into the stacks with a list of texts related to the topic, and then toddle back to my spot with the teetering pile of books I have extracted from the shelves. I spend an afternoon assessing and reading introductions and bibliographies, flipping through indexes, making lists of more books that I need to look up. I take extensive, chaotic notes of half-formed thoughts, paragraphs-long quotations, and dubious questions. It might not be the most efficient of research processes, but it is how I become comfortable with the topic at hand. Then I do it all again the next day, and sometimes the next, and the next. This ritual is the time I give myself to mull over dense thickets of information so that I can later decide how to best engage with the material in my writing. 

But now I am embarking on the biggest research journey of my academic career to date, without the comfort of that ritual. Writing my dissertation prospectus while under quarantine is, for lack of a better word, frustrating. There is no replacement for the feeling of a physical book in your hands. That said, never have I been more grateful for the ever-growing compendium of digitized texts and archives. As I write this blog post, multiple browser windows fill my computer screen, each with countless tabs linking to articles, eBooks, and dead-end Google searches. It’s no replacement for a desk sprawling with open books and papers, but it is what I have to work with. 

Through quarantine I have continually returned to Aisha S. Ahmad’s prescient article on productivity and working during the pandemic: “Now more than ever, we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic. Our essential mental shifts require humility and patience. Focus on real internal change. These human transformations will be honest, raw, ugly, hopeful, frustrated, beautiful, and divine.” So, what will we do without the stacks? It is time for a new ritual. My new ritual involves making the conscious decision to be kind to myself for not being able to get all the work done as quickly as I could before quarantine. I attempt to do one “productive” thing per day, whether it is writing 200 words of my dissertation prospectus, cooking dinner for my partner and myself, or going on a bike ride. My new ritual has allowed me to grieve my old rituals, where in their absence I have considered possibilities in my work that I never would have seen otherwise. “We will know that we can do this, even if our struggles continue for years,” writes Ahmad. “We will be creative and responsive, and will find light in all the nooks and crannies.” And so we will.