Research abroad during the coronavirus pandemic

Conducting research abroad during the corona pandemic: young women work on their laptops
© Getty Images/eyecrave

Dr Sandra Fluhrer is conducting research at the University of Berkeley, supported by a awarded by the . Here she describes why she is able to benefit from her stay abroad despite difficult circumstances during the pandemic.

Dr Fluhrer, you left Germany in mid-February 2021 at the height of the coronavirus chaos and have since been doing research in the USA. What did it feel like to leave the country?

Originally, I had intended to take up the in October 2020, but because of the pandemic, I postponed the start until January 2021. This was then further delayed by a few weeks due to the current somewhat more complicated visa process and the lockdown in Germany, which resulted in enormous restrictions on operations at the embassies and consulates.

At the time I left, the situation in Germany was slightly better than in the US. In both countries, public life – including universities and libraries – was only going to be possible in virtual form in the long term. As a literary scholar, I can fortunately work almost anywhere where there is peace and quiet and an internet connection. As such, I didn’t have any major worries that there would be any further cuts to my research as a result of the change of location.

The most nerve-racking thing was not knowing for a long time whether I would get my visa in time for the planned departure date. Yet another postponement would have caused me considerable problems. The amount of the fellowship payment and also the health insurance are based on when you leave the country, and I had also organised a fixed interim sublet for my apartment in Germany at some point. In the end, everything turned out well and the trip itself went very smoothly.

Why did you option to go to Berkeley for your research project?

Berkeley is a very distinctive place. Here in neighbouring Oakland and in San Francisco, several major freedom and civil rights movements emerged around 1960. Something of that spirit has been in the air here ever since, especially at , the University of California – a vibrant, diverse and feisty place. I was very impressed by this atmosphere when I came here on a conference trip a few years ago.

Specifically, I’m here to complete my postdoctoral lecturing qualification thesis on figures of transformation in literature and political theory. In terms of the connections between politics, myth and aesthetic experience that I am exploring here, Berkeley and especially the where I am based, offer a very stimulating environment. Especially during the final writing phase, I find it tremendously helpful to broaden my academic horizons once again and to get a new perspective on my work, which has been in the pipeline for such a long period of time.

One reason for a research stay abroad is to further expand one’s own international network. How are you managing to do this under the current circumstances?

That’s definitely falling short at the moment. While I’m grateful for the digital tools available to me, I believe only a fraction of what constitutes intense academic engagement is possible in virtual form. For me, part of a good conversation is physically sharing a space and a situation. Since my arrival in February, however, the situation in Berkeley and indeed throughout California has improved significantly. So there is hope that there will be more opportunities again from the summer onwards.

Have you found a home away from home in Berkeley?

In the pandemic, much stands and falls with the housing situation, which has to be a good place to work, too. I live in a small studio here that was formerly used as a home library and practice. The owner emigrated from Germany in 1960, studied in the USA, worked as a therapist and ultimately absorbed the political and intellectual life of the 1960s and 1970s in the USA. So completely by chance, I ended up in a fascinating place: not only do I get to work here surrounded by books, I also have a direct view of the Golden Gate Bridge from my desk.

How are people in Berkeley experiencing the pandemic?

When I arrived in February, case numbers were still relatively high. The streets and the university campus seemed almost deserted. Even outdoors, masks were compulsory in California until a few weeks ago, and in my experience almost everyone in Berkeley adhered to this scrupulously – not least because the mask also became a political symbol during Donald Trump’s term in office. Week by week, however, the numbers are now dropping, with half of Berkeley’s residents already fully vaccinated.

More and more public life is returning and day-to-day routine now feels much less influenced by the pandemic. In places, Berkeley seems like a paradise of solidarity and tolerance. Almost the entire city supports the positions of the New Left – on cardboard signs in people’s front gardens, on window panes, garage doors and rear stickers – and pays its respect to the essential workers for their commitment during the pandemic.

The gap between rich and poor is wider here, however, and quite a few probably struggled to survive last year. Even in a tranquil place such as Berkeley, many people live on the streets or in their cars. The building in which I live always gives shelter to homeless people, so I have witnessed the practical embrace of solidarity here at first hand. However, there is no doubt the USA faces enormous challenges in terms of social justice. The same applies to Germany and Europe too, of course.

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