When COVID-19 hit New York City in March, 2020, I was prepared for it in a way that I had not anticipated. I had just returned to New York a few months before, following a 15 month research period in Japan. When I first arrived in Japan, I initially struggled to continue my working momentum without the structure of my academic community, or the rhythm and resources I was used to. Without classes to take or teach, I was relatively unfettered in a way that was both liberating and alarming. In order to create structure for myself, I spent part of my first several months developing and refining an Academic Productivity Planner that was built around the research that I was developing for my dissertation. The Planner helped me conceive of my dissertation holistically as well as through its smaller components. I have continued developing this Planner, and I just uploaded the most recent version (2.2) in the Resources section.
Another thing I did in Japan was reach out to find community. In addition to becoming a regular at a few coffee shops and my host affiliate's graduate student research room, I joined a Facebook working group for academic womxn. Through this group, I found both sympathetic support and aspirational examples. Upon realizing that a few of these academics were based around the Tokyo area, I set up a working meet-up a few weeks before I left the country, which helped me to not only connect with fellow academics, but also prepare to return to my home university.
When COVID-19 hit, I had gotten into the groove of being back in New York and having my library resources available to me. By the time the university locked down, I had taken out enough books to tide me over until the libraries developed online workarounds and pick-up options. I had also joined an on-campus working group through the university's newly established Writing Center, which continued to meet weekly even after the sudden campus shutdown. In essence, I had sufficient resources and even a small sense of community. However, I was not prepared to do the bulk of my work at home. To this point, my primary working environments were coffee shops and libraries. Home had distractions, chores, baking, and relaxation. It was not a conducive space for me to work in.
When my spring break plans to attend a national conference fell through, though, I decided to try my hand at designing and hosting a week-long online writing workshop. I hoped that the chance to work with others would help me utilize this sudden and unexpected change of plans into an opportunity to get work done at home. I reached out to the academic womxn Facebook group and quickly found a group of approximately 10 people who wanted to participate. I designed a simple form for keeping track of goals, and set up Zoom chats to check in throughout the day and reflect upon our progress.
There was a sea change in New York during that week. The university announced classes were moving to all online formats, outside activities were heavily curtailed, and the wail of sirens at the nearby hospital dramatically increased. During my writing retreat, I not only had to learn how to productively work at home, I had to do so while being in the midst of a developing pandemic hotspot. At the same time, the others in my group were going through their own COVID-related challenges. Professors suddenly found themselves having to learn how to teach hybrid classes, parents had to juggle childcare with teaching and research, and graduate students found research trips and funding cut or put in question. The writing retreat became an unexpected source of support and inspiration for us all.
By the end of the week, the majority of the group elected to keep working together. As time went by, members invited friends and colleagues to the group, thereby keeping it going even when several professors went dormant when the fall term started. When we needed a boost, I put together another writing retreat to keep us working and bring our professor friends back in.
My experiences in developing structure and community for myself while in Japan became the foundation for my daily working community during COVID. I still cannot go to libraries and rarely work at coffee shops (and even then, only outdoors), but I have been able to stay productive and keep working throughout this pandemic. I expanded upon my writing retreat structure to create check-in lists for declaring working commitments and connecting with our group to discuss how our work (or lives, or pets, or states) are faring. I have also developed blank formats of these forms for others to duplicate and use in developing their own online writing retreats and communities.
The extreme losses to the global population, economies, families, cultures, and to the academic community itself cannot be diminished by suggesting that there is an "upside" to this disaster that continues to ravage the world. Nonetheless, because of COVID, I not only have a community of online colleagues that I speak with each day, I also have developed the at-home working habits and skills that I had struggled with before. I still have unproductive days, of course, and my work has only compounded due to preparing materials for the job market and developing my teaching training. Even so, I have an online community of academic peers who I check in with three times a day, for better or for worse. And that keeps me going on my work and keeps me feeling connected to my discipline and my academic aspirations.