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How I Write and Learn

2020: A Reflection

By Tony

2020 has been… quite a surprise, has it not?

It feels so long ago now, but I remember how my 2020 began. I was in the midst of fellowship writing and making preparations to return to Cuba for my dissertation research. I knew that the process would be challenging, and I knew that there was going to be a great deal of work and sacrifice ahead, but I felt that over my years in graduate school, I was prepared for just about any challenges that would come my way. Then, COVID hit. I, along with most of my generation of scholars, was thrown into total limbo!

crowd gathered in plaza on a sunny day
In 2019, I was with a million people during the International Workers Day celebration in Havana, Cuba. How times have changed in 2020!

All of a sudden, my home became my office, I converted my bedroom into a workspace, and funding sources started drying up. The very nature of my field was changing! In the midst of the chaos and the shift to remote learning, I had to come to terms with some challenging new realities:

Being flexible is key!

I found it easy to fall into the mindset that the changes we are experiencing are only temporary and therefore I need only wait, because we will be “back to normal” at some point. It took me a number of weeks to come to grips with the fact that even though libraries and archives were closed, I still had to write! It is difficult to write something from nothing. I thought about the people who opened their homes to me in Cuba and who have supported my work. I found myself having to think outside the box about how to tell the stories I have devoted myself to telling. I have adapted my project to include heavier visual and audio components and have ordered dozens of primary sources from Davis Library so that I can continue to make progress until I am able to return to Cuba.

Jorge and Tony stand on colored tiles in Havana
My good friend Jorge and I in Havana. Thinking of my friends and colleagues in Cuba helps keep me motivated and passionate about my work.

You gotta move!

Before the pandemic, it seemed even some of my most stressful and busy days were more manageable. My days were split between classes and meetings and required physical presence. For me, it was always easier to go about my day with these transitions of space, from the home to the classroom, from the classroom to my office, from the office to library. My pre-COVID schedule required movement, so now I have found it important to look for ways that recreate that sense of movement, as much as possible.

You gotta move! That is what that little voice kept telling me over and over in my head. I found that part of why I felt even the most hectic days were manageable.. What I have found is that by moving where I work, even remotely, recreates some of that sense of academic kinetic energy. I read and teach on my patio to get sunshine and fresh air. I write in my office space to give me the sense that I am still carrying on as normal, and I coach from a comfortable chair in my living room. These sorts of small changes make a big difference in my productivity!

Jorge and Tony stand on colored tiles in Havana
Just moving where I work helps reduce fatigue!

Remote work is real work!

I often feel like these changes in academia are emergency measures put in place as a temporary Band-Aid during the pandemic. While I don’t always enjoy every facet of remote academic work, it’s no less important than my work beforehand. I believe this applies to all of us at the various levels of the university. In my own case, I have found it challenging to remain enthusiastically engaged after hours of conversation through a screen! To me it can seem as just one more hour to be staring at my screen. What I have found to be particularly useful is to think less about the inconvenience and more about the reasons that I chose my field of study. I try to put myself in the mindset that this is just a new phase in my life. This line of thinking has helped me adjust in many facets of my life, as a student, an instructor, and academic coach!

There are strengths to be learned through all of this!

While it may seem dark and overwhelming at times, and I miss how things used to be, I try to remind myself that none of this is a total loss! I feel that institutions of higher education are changing and we are collectively the front-line of the change. I know that it does not always feel like it, but I am not only reacting to what is happening, but as a student, I have the potential to shape how these things develop. It can be pretty scary, but change and opportunity often are.

I have found that it is easier to make progress toward my goals when I take moments to myself to voice my frustration at the current challenges, but then remember that I can’t progress without pushing ahead. I have been learning new ways to analyze the sources I have at my disposal, while continuing to make plans for when I can return to the archives. In other words, I have begun to take a more flexible and holistic approach in all of my academic endeavors. By continuing to make slow but steady forward motion and by learning from every interaction I have with students, professors, administrators and workers, I have grown a great deal during these turbulent times.

All of this is to say that in the midst of it all, as a student and learner, I still have agency over the way I learn and work!

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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