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Decolonizing Academia via Zoom? – The BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme in Times of COVID-19

By August 5, 2021January 7th, 2022No Comments

How do I angle my screen to avoid my interlocutors getting too much of an insight into the private sphere of my room? Which wall or piece of furniture in my home is neutral enough to serve as a ‘professional’ background in a first session with a BIEA supervisor? Will my internet connection hold while moderating a group session or freeze me with an awkward to potentially embarrassing facial expression mid-call? And how do I prevent roommates, partners, parents, kids (or cats) from suddenly popping up in the background (or foreground!) of an important presentation? 

Some of these questions will be all too familiar for those of us working and learning in the ‘Zoom-iverse’ of the ongoing pandemic which (amongst others) has fundamentally changed the structure and course of the BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme (GAS) that we were a part of in 2020/2021. It is clear that our experiences as attachés were radically different from those of our predecessors having taken part in the programme in previous years (Oh, the jealousy of reading about hands-on archeological fieldwork or real, in-person events!). But despite the faint disappointment about, and the occasional strain of, conducting research (for the most part) from behind our computer screens (or with considerable hurdles on site in Nairobi or Kampala), and regardless of the fact of only ‘knowing’ each other as disembodied upper bodies and (pixelated, and yes, at times, frozen) faces, we also came to appreciate some aspects of our virtual GAS experience.

There certainly were many more opportunities to connect with members of the different attaché cohorts (there were three in total this time around) or to take part in the numerous activities of the institute and its affiliated researchers. Many of our thought-provoking debates literally took place across the globe; the weekly BIEA reading group in which we shared and listened to insights from Bukinghamshire to Ajmer, India, or from Bavaria to Nairobi is a perfect example for these exciting dynamics. The fact that this group and other formats offered by the BIEA could be joined from the comforts of one’s home – or even ‘on the go’ at times – did do away with some of the obstacles of joining conversations and making one’s voice heard at eye level with each other.

Debating the issue of the decolonization of knowledge production and academia within our cohort in preparation for the first part of this blog series, we asked ourselves whether these positive aspects of the virtual format of this year’s Graduate Attachment Scheme could in fact offer a building block within the ongoing project of challenging power structures in academia. Could online reading groups, group discussions and research forums become platforms for a true plurality of voices?

There certainly is some promise in virtual formats in this respect. Next to the reading group this also became apparent to us during the Completion Series seminar organized in February by some of our fellow attachés, which demonstrated the power of diversity and interdisciplinarity within the community of young researchers interested in Eastern Africa that had built over the past months: topics as diverse as digital archaeology along the Swahili Coast, the impact of financial technology in Abuja, social media and the recent elections in Uganda, pineapple waste composting, and educational aspirations in Dadaab – projects which were carried out online for the most part and had rich cross-connections to issues like digitalization and technology –  and the ensuing lively Zoom discussion were great examples of the potential of online collaboration, global communication and the opportunities these provide for a ‘true’ and more equal co-production of knowledge.

Still, access to reliable, inexpensive internet connections, to high-quality scholarly literature in digital formats, or to chances to submit one’s work to distinguished scientific journals, remains highly unequal even in our digital age. This of course continues to reinforce the same old patterns of ‘givers’ and ‘takers’ in academic knowledge production, cementing the roles of passive knowledge ‘consumers’ and active knowledge ‘extractors’ along the North-South hierarchy. No matter how heart-warming and inspiring it can be to see a group of diverse faces and listen to a multiplicity of voices via Zoom or in other digital forums, it remains important to ask the hard question of whether everyone joins these conversations on an equal footing.

So, all in all, the answer to the question whether the virtual BIEA Graduate Attachment Scheme 2020/2021 could serve as a model in the struggle of decolonizing academia, is probably yes and no. As often, a new and exciting tool or technology can only be as transformative as the overall context and structures it exists in let it be. As long as North-South hierarchies and global inequalities remain, online or hybrid formats in academic conversations can only be a tiny ‘chisel’ chipping away at Eurocentrism and colonial structures. But after all, maybe some of the hard conversations we need to have will be less difficult if we have them while wearing comfortable pants!

The authors of this piece would also like to thank their fellow Graduate Attachés Ed and Shuaib for sharing some of their valuable insights about the program with them.

Hannah Schild graduated from the Research Master in African Studies from Leiden University (Netherlands) in 2020 and is currently working to develop a PhD proposal at the University of Bayreuth. Her research interests include the intersections between gender, parenthood, kinship and coping with uncertainty, which she had a chance to further delve into during her time at the BIEA.

Lewis M. Mwaura recently finished his BA course work in International Relations where he majored in International Development. He describes himself as an urban imaginer and his current research at the BIEA focuses on Community Justice Systems in informal urban settlements around Nairobi.


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