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Unable to Research Abroad, Juniors Adapt Theses Topics, Techniques, and Timelines

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In a year full of uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, juniors in the Class of 2022 hoping to pursue thesis-related research abroad have had to adjust their travel and thesis plans in accordance with public health guidelines and University travel restrictions.

Harvard first announced in April 2020 that it would temporarily prohibit all University-related non-essential domestic air and international travel, and later extended the ban indefinitely. In mid-August, administrators announced a petition process for faculty, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral students, and staff to travel for urgent or critical research, but a similar option was not available to undergraduates.

Such travel restrictions have pushed students writing theses to adapt in various ways — either finding ways to replicate their original research plans online or adjusting their research topics. In some cases, students postponed their academics altogether and took leaves of absence, hoping travel restrictions would be lifted by the time they returned.

In light of these changes, some departments — including Government and Social Studies — delayed thesis submission deadlines for this year’s graduating seniors.

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For the first time in over a year, University-related domestic travel and travel to select countries rated low risk for Covid-19 will be allowed for fully vaccinated Harvard affiliates beginning May 15, the school announced Friday.

‘Nearly Impossible’ To Continue Projects

Many concentrators in social science disciplines whose theses relied almost entirely on information from research conducted abroad have decided to put a hold on their academic careers amidst the restrictions.

English and Social Anthropology concentrator Kalos K. Chu ’22-’23, a Crimson Arts chair, planned to spend the fall 2020 semester abroad at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, after which he would conduct a comparative ethnography on elite universities in the U.S. and China through his experiences there and at Harvard.

Chu wrote in an email that he learned in summer 2020 that he had been accepted to Tsinghua, which was essential to his original thesis plan, but it “didn’t really mean much” because Harvard had announced the suspension of all fall study abroad programs.

“I got where the administration was coming from; minimizing the spread of Covid-19 and keeping students safe is important,” he wrote. “Obviously, I was a little disappointed — especially considering how under control the pandemic was in China — but I understood their decision and ended up taking a gap year instead.”

Like Chu, History and Social Anthropology concentrator Waseem S. Nabulsi ’22-’23 was relying on traveling abroad to conduct field interviews for his thesis on regional Palestininan nationalism.

Nabulsi said he decided to take a year off because it would be “nearly impossible” to do any part of his project without travel to the Middle East.

He said he and other social science concentrators were concerned about maintaining the integrity and quality of their work if they adapted the projects to an online format.

“There’s sort of this internal dilemma of continuing to do your research, and making sure you’re on track to finish in a timely manner, and then also this fear of diluting your work,” Nabulsi said. “Sort of taking the original idea, diluting your original idea, and producing something that might not be of the same quality.”

“The benefit of taking the year off has been that I can put my plans and my research on pause until things open up,” he added. “But I know at the same time that a lot of other people don’t have that luxury and haven’t had that ability to take the year off.”

Zoe A. Eddy, the Anthropology department’s assistant director of undergraduate studies, said social anthropology concentrators like Chu and Nabulsi rely heavily on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews for their theses.

“Almost 100 percent of our thesis writers — regardless of number — 100 percent of our thesis writers do some sort of field work, whether they’re studying in another country, they’re studying in the U.S., or they’re working in an archive,” Eddy said. “We’re a bunch of anthropologists, many if not most of us work internationally and all of us travel for some part of our work.”

“[Ethnography] does involve this kind of tightly-knit, consistent, everyday interactions and observation in the space and like, obviously you can’t really get that with Zoom,” Eddy added.

Eddy noted that students have more limited timelines and funding to shift their research projects, so most of the thesis writers she is supervising have shifted to completely remote research.

Down But Not Out

Other students have found ways to adjust their research methods or topics as their travel plans were forced to change.

Justin Y. Tseng ’22, a joint concentrator in East Asian Studies and Social Studies, originally planned to conduct interviews and archival research in Taiwan, looking at how people in Taiwan view the U.S.-China power competition and the rise of China.

“It would be pretty interview-based, like trying to seek out interviews with regular everyday citizens on the ground and also some officials,” Tseng said. “I just had hoped to be able to talk to people.”

Tseng had intended to conduct these interviews in Chinese. He had also planned on going through archival documents from local governments about Taiwan and its history — most of which are physically located in Taiwan.

In response to the travel restrictions, Tseng had to cancel his trip. Though he said his transition to digital archival work has been relatively smooth, online interviews have posed an additional challenge.

“I might be able to reach out to people who are known writers or academics in schools and people in governments there, but I think it’d be quite difficult to conduct some more grassroots-type research,” Tseng said.

“One of my fears is that I won’t be able to get as many on-the-ground perspectives, and that I’ll have to rely more on American perspectives,” he added.

Kiara H. Gomez ’22, a joint concentrator in Government and Social Anthropology, was planning on conducting participant observation in New York City and then Paris or London for her thesis on labor organizing in the fashion industry.

“The part with Paris and London, that has to change, and I have to figure out some organization or some fashion council or an agency that’s based there that will let me work with them virtually, even if I’m in the United States,” Gomez said.

“I would have really liked to go,” Gomez said. “I’ve just been really looking forward to that with anthropology because participant observation is so crucial to the concentration.”

While several students expressed disappointment at having lost the opportunity to pursue research abroad, Gomez also mentioned that the digital transition has some silver linings.

“People have said, like from the previous concentrators from this year, that interacting with people has actually been a little bit easier, and getting more interviews has been easier, just because people don’t have to make the time to arrange for transportation and all these things,” Gomez said.

Students also noted that their respective departments have been accommodating and helpful with making the transition easier.

“I’ve talked with both the ADUSs for Gov and Social Anthro and they were helping me fix my proposal ideas or my thesis grants and things like that, and offering feedback to make sure that I could still do the research that I wanted to in a remote setting,” Gomez said.

Despite the various challenges, Eddy highlighted the persistence and flexibility of students — as well as the creative ways in which they’ve been transitioning their research.

“We haven’t had one person drop the thesis,” Eddy said. “One of the things about using digital spaces that they’ve done is really kind of tuning into how Zoom interviews work, and like what you can learn about people in a Zoom interview and trying to use the remote space like digital fieldwork.”

‘More Creative Than the Professors’

While students have made various adjustments to their research, faculty and advisors have also had to adapt resources and guidance for thesis writers.

Eddy said faculty in archeology, which typically relies heavily on in-person excavations, have tried to distribute resources as best they could, including dropping off dozens of books outside of students’ apartments in the Cambridge area.

Marcella “Sally” Hayes, a History Ph.D. candidate who organizes the Center for European Studies’s junior thesis workshop, wrote in an email that “every single thesis writer” who attended the workshop had to alter their plans in some way.

The workshop, according to Hayes, offered advice on various strategies for virtual thesis research — including locating existing scholarly networks and archives, using Zoom and international calling cards for interviews, and applying for remote research grants.

Eddy said the students she works with have been “incredibly resilient” in maintaining excitement and momentum for their research projects while also attending classes online.

“Those of us who are anthropologists with our doctorates were really resistant to start doing digital work, but our students got really, really creative,” Eddy said. “I think the students were able to kind of be more creative than the professors in some ways.”

—Staff writer Maria G. Gonzalez can be reached at maria.gonzalez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariaagrace1.

—Staff writer Dohyun Kim can be reached at dohyun.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @dohyunkim__.

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