Katharine McKinnon

6 July 2020

As an academic, Covid-times have been revealing on many levels. Being locked-down introduced a new affective slant to the experience of leaving the house. The travel that used to seem an essential and unavoidable necessity of working life suddenly became impossible. Being forced to stay put has revealed that the expansive carbon footprint associated with academic travel could perhaps be reduced after all, and that the benefits of staying put might actually be considerable. 

First, for me and for many of my colleagues with young families, is the sudden expansiveness of time at home. It has enabled a slowness to creep into everyday life, and a welcome reprieve from the now unnecessary rush of daily schedules and stress of being on time. The freedom from the rule of institutional time frames is a blessing. 

A second layer of benefit is to discover that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually possible to do without travel. I recall a colleague commiserating with me about having yet another flight to Europe and saying: It’s impossible to be an Australian academic without travelling, because how else do you maintain intellectual collaborations and connections? And for a development scholar like myself, how can you do fieldwork without travelling? In the midst of the pandemic, suddenly we have to learn how false these assumptions are. 

Third, a massive and shocking set of changes to how everyone lives, how we earn our livelihoods, and what it is possible to do with our surplus incomes (if we’re lucky enough to have any) has revealed that fast and radical change is actually possible. Governments can make stuff happen in response to the warnings of science. People will respond and alter their daily lives, and organise themselves to sustain and support each other (as many new initiatives of formal and informal of mutual aid around the world have shown). What would it take to apply such rapid change to, for example, climate policy and a radical de-carbonisation of the economy?

Finally, as the Black Lives Matter movement enfolds Covid-times, it has helped to nurture a critical questioning of the institutions that define life and livelihood all over the word; institutions that remain as the legacy of colonial times with racism and ethnocentrism so deeply ingrained in the operations of their bureaucracies that they are almost invisible. As Colin Hoag has pointed out, bureaucracies are adept at what Haraway called the “god trick”, they mask the exercise of power “in the guise of an always emergent—but never attained—perfect order.” Thus when a University hiring committee fails to favour an application from an indigenous scholar because a candidate must be decided on ‘merit,’ bureaucracy uses ‘due process’ to mask what can only be re-performance of white-right. The pandemic response shows us rapid change is possible, so surely other kinds of rapid changes are possible too? Institutions (even the most wicked and lumbering of bureaucracies are) made up of human beings, and human beings have proved adept at rapid change – surely these lumbering beasts can be changed also.

Moving into post-Covid life I am learning that staying still grants a moment of liberation from the inevitabilities of institutionalised life, and that moment provides a chance to think what a post-Covid institution might look like. No travel? Great! Hand that research over to the locals, learn strategies for a genuine decolonisation of methodology. Can’t get to the conference? Excellent! Make the collaborations and the conversations locally (who needs Europe or the US anyway). Perhaps as a new post-pandemic ‘normal’ creeps into view, there is a moment to reshape the norms of the institutions that we academics help to shape? 

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Katharine McKinnon is the Tracey Banivanua Mar Senior Research Fellow with the Department of Social Inquiry and La Trobe Rural Health School, La Trobe University. Later in the month Katharine will take up the position of Director of the Centre for Sustainable Communities at the University of Canberra. She is also the Director of the Community Economies Institute and a friend of IPCS.