On April 13, graduate students received a curious email from Suzanne Barbour, Dean of the Graduate School, with the subject “Ways to Stay Productive.” Having struggled with productivity myself in the last month, I was curious to see what the administration had to offer. It wasn’t very good.
In all likelihood, the remarks from Dean Barbour were meant to be uplifting and motivational — I don’t hold the dean in contempt personally. However, the suggestions in their letter seem to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what graduate students do at the University, and how they’ve been affected by the crisis. To put it more bluntly, it reads as tone-deaf and insulting.
Consider, for example, some of the particular suggestions for increasing productivity: do data analysis, write a review article with an eye towards publication, work on your advisor’s project, and, my personal favorite, “finally finish that manuscript.” These are the suggestions that one would offer to someone who was unproductive because they didn’t know what to do and needed some guidance. It’s the advice an exasperated parent gives to a bored child.
In case there’s any confusion about the matter, let me make things clear: no graduate student is bored during this pandemic. Nor is the loss of productivity a result of failing to realize that we could be publishing research or writing manuscripts. In fact, virtually everything on the dean’s list is something that we are already busy doing as academics, and that we continue to do even while sequestered at home.
Rather, the decline in productivity is due to two factors. The first is related to what has already been mentioned, and has to do with the fact that our workload has not decreased even as we’ve implemented social distancing. Not only have we continued with our coursework, taking area exams, defending masters’ theses and hitting department benchmarks, but many of us have also had to transition to teaching online overnight, checking in on our students, and adapting our existing course design. The pandemic has not freed up time for working on an advisor’s proposals; instead, it has taken up more of our time.