Education

Lessons learned during COVID about research collaborations (opinion)

Countless opinion pieces and advice articles have been written over the past two years addressing the deleterious impact of the COVID pandemic on faculty members’ productivity and well-being. By now, we all know that the pandemic has taken an unequal toll on faculty of color, particularly women, who have borne the brunt of caretaking responsibilities—including juggling domestic chores with waged jobs. Less attention has been paid, however, to collaborative projects that faculty members launched during and about the pandemic, how those projects came to fruition during such stressful times, and what can be learned from them.

Ours is a story of how two faculty members of color—who had never met before—built a rewarding research collaboration that arose from their almost visceral need to connect and heal at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. As members of two different minority communities—Anahí is an Argentine immigrant, and Vivian is the daughter of Chinese immigrants—we bore witness to the disproportionate morbidity and mortality rates affecting our respective ethnic groups, especially during the pandemic’s opening firestorm.

Barricaded at home, we initially found ourselves frantically browsing through devastating COVID-19 news cycles while anguishing over beloved relatives and friends who had contracted the dreaded virus. This journey continued into last year as we grappled with how to help elderly loved ones successfully deal with the complex online vaccine scheduling process in the city.

Despite what felt like pandemic chaos, however, we soon realized that we could not allow COVID-19 to catapult us into academic paralysis. Accordingly, we decided to turn our lived experiences into a research project. Here are some key lessons that we learned along the way about how to forge effective research partnerships during challenging times like the pandemic—lessons that will remain applicable after we finally emerge from it. Even as in-person meetings have begun to resume at our respective campuses, the pandemic has taught us that virtual get-togethers are here to stay.

Make the most of virtual meeting platforms. We work at the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public university, a sprawling system of 25 commuter campuses that houses a vibrant and diverse body of scholars and students within a highly disconnected system. Despite the fact that both of us were trained as sociologists and immigration comparativists, we probably would never have met in person—much less collaborated—in pre-pandemic times.

We met virtually in April 2020, just as the nation was coming down off its first wave of COVID-19 deaths. At the time, we were getting ready to join a panel discussion at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute called The Discriminatory Impact of COVID-19, a faculty webinar intended to make sense of what had just happened.

Anahí’s presentation addressed the unauthorized Latinx population in New York City and their particular vulnerability to the pandemic, especially given their lack of documentation and the structural conditions of racism they were experiencing. Vivian focused on Asian Americans and COVID-19 and their continued invisibility in pandemic discussions—nearly a full year before twin mass shootings in Atlanta and Indianapolis sharpened Asian American invisibility into an even deeper and more painful clarity.

We quickly became aware of our shared research agendas and, following the webinar, decided to get together online to brainstorm about what interested and troubled us the most. We then developed collaborative research projects that also served us as effective coping strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Write about what matters in your discipline—and to you. We wanted to make sense of what had happened during that crucial lead-up to the pandemic and knew that we needed to find a meaningful research topic. By then, we were already painfully aware of the COVID-19 stigma that Latinx immigrants and Asian groups in the U.S. and overseas faced. Not only did we share the fear of contagion (and death) that affected our communities, but we were also living with the ubiquitous threat of verbal and physical attacks—particularly against Asians. Therefore, we took our personal experiences as our launching pad to start writing about what was going on at the local and global levels.

Follow the funneling approach. During our initial Zoom meetings, we cast a wide net of potential topics and gradually began whittling down themes pertaining to globalized racism and COVID-19 stigma. This was coupled with our interest in deconstructing the widespread rhetoric around COVID-19 stigma advanced by national figures—including former president Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. We conducted extensive literature searches and read frantically, then we discussed our findings on how media framing had impacted the public’s beliefs about Asians and undocumented Latinxs as “vectors of COVID-19 contagion.” We read, wrote, emailed our literature reviews and summaries to each other, and then we zoomed to follow up on our research findings.

Decide on a single topic and set clear deadlines. Given our mutual interests and training in discourse and media analysis, we ended up focusing our research on then president Trump’s social media posts along with his speeches and press releases. We asked ourselves: Did Trump’s rhetoric resonate with the pandemic of hate directed at Latinxs and Asians in America? And if so, how did this happen? Once we decided on our research goals and data-gathering strategy, we divided the tasks and set definite dates for submitting our individual sections. One week before each deadline, we would email reminders to each other and ask for help if we needed it.

Find a publishing venue. Meanwhile, we began searching for calls for papers addressing COVID-19 research, hoping to frame our work amid current scholarly discussions while looking for a fast-track review process. A 2021 special issue of Social Sciences inviting submissions on Immigration and White Supremacy in the 21st Century served to anchor our efforts. We sent the guest editors a short proposal, which was accepted, and our research partnership officially took off soon afterward. Committing to submit our work to a special issue was extremely helpful in that it forced us to stick to a timetable.

Ultimately, our research results on Trump’s social media conclusively highlighted the role of white supremacy in stigmatizing minority groups. Our main findings underscored that Trump’s “divide, divert and conquer” communications strategy served as a rhetorical platform that exacerbated the deep political divisions taking place in the American electorate vis-à-vis the widespread public image of Asian and Latinxs as COVID-19 carriers. In due course, our research partnership led us to a better understanding of the power of white supremacy in shaping public discourses on COVID-19 and, along the way, helped us process our grief even as the health crisis continued.

Over the past two years, we have experienced bouts of intellectual paralysis, and this—paired with our many job and family obligations—has, at times, kept us away from our scholarly writing. Nonetheless, along the way, our research partnership has become a precious anchor holding us accountable for continuing to be engaged with the writing that matters most.

During a lovely evening last summer, we met in person for the first time to celebrate the final publication of our paper. While having dinner at a heated outdoor patio, we joked about the fact that—ironically enough—a pandemic that painfully kept humans apart had made it easier for us to remain engaged with our research work. Recently, we met again in person for the second time, and now as we finish writing this article, we have begun working on new research collaborations and just penciled in our next Zoom date.

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