Fieldwork interrupted: On identities, deep breaths, and difficult decisions

This blog was originally published on the Faculty of Education Research Student Association (FERSA) blog on 30 November, 2020.

We all carry a multiplicity of identities into our research, some of which are closer to the top of our minds at any moment in time. Some identities can’t be set down at any point– my whiteness, my American-ness, my academic home located in a country which once colonised the land on which I work.

One less visible identity is that of a person living with a chronic illness. Uncontrolled asthma hasn’t stopped me from competing in professional surf competitions and didn’t stop me from winning blades in last year’s Lent Bumps campaign. But it did land me in hospital with a sudden bout of pneumonia days after rowing to victory on the River Cam, as well as a return trip a few months later when my lungs once again began filling mysteriously with fluid, unresponsive to treatment. 

Before taking on the identity of PhD candidate, I was an international development practitioner engaged with education, gender, and health topics across the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working on multi-sectoral efforts to combat stunting, the most common form of undernutrition in the world, laid the groundwork for my PhD research on the links between stunting, cognition, and classroom learning. Although the prevalence of stunting is decreasing worldwide, the absolute number of affected children continues to rise in West Africa. With a call for disaggregated data to support the mobilisation of Ghana’s recent inclusive education policy, I chose to conduct my research in the Northern region, where stunting affects one in three children under the age of five. I arrived in Tamale, Ghana in January, which is situated in the middle of the Harmattan season. For four to five months each year, a dry, cold wind blows a fine, white dust from the Chad basin across much of Western Africa, swirling the globe before depositing itself over South America, providing over half of the mineral dust fertilising the Amazon river basin annually. Concerned about my respiratory response to airborne fine particulate matter, my luggage contained a half dozen inhalers and medications. 

Scattered shea trees are silhouetted by an orange sun and pink skies.
Fine particulate matter makes for beautiful sunsets in the savannah belt of Ghana, south of the Sahel.

Delighted to find my breathing unaffected, I set to work hiring and training my research team. Through January and into February, we translated research tools into Dagbani and piloted a project information script, household survey, and series of cognitive tasks with early primary students in rural and peri-urban government schools. 

A girl wearing a hijab points to a piece of paper while a man holding a stopwatch marks her choice with a marker.
A P1 student takes part in a visual search task which measures visual selective attention, visuospatial reasoning, and processing speed.

News of a novel coronavirus began filtering in from elsewhere. I kept working. The news crept closer, global travel interruptions mounted. I kept working, started worrying. I was haunted by stories of expats unintentionally displacing local patients at nearby hospitals as administrators added up the additional charges that would be paid without objection by an unwitting siliminɣa (foreigner). The doubts drummed on. Can I justify ending data collection now, when my enumerators are relying on the income from our project? What are the ethical implications of leaving, while my team stays behind because this is their home? My respiratory specialists are in the United States, but the virus is spreading faster there than it is here. On daily household visits, my mind wandered from my field notes to concerns about pandemics, pre-existing conditions, travel disruptions, and implications of rumoured school closures. 

In January, my incredible, hard-working team approached me as we finished piloting to suggest a six-day work week in order to complete data collection prior to the Easter school break in April. As Easter break was immediately followed by Ramadan this year, I was already planning to take a data collection break to avoid potential sensitivities around asking about food security while most of my team and research participants fasted. I couldn’t be more thankful for their initiative, without which – unexpectedly – this research would not exist. 

The president addressed the nation at 11pm on Sunday, March 15th: all government schools would be closed indefinitely, starting tomorrow. Whoosh— I exhaled. Although data collection took place in households, school was our entry point to systematically locate and select students who fit my research criteria. I tallied up the data collected thus far: 228 household surveys and cognitive test batteries completed with children from 11 schools, plus a teacher assessment for each student from 10 schools.  I imagined the ethical and practical implications of returning to collect data at the remaining 4 schools once they reopened. Students at those schools would likely perform differently following several months’ schooling interruption and could not be considered within the same parameters as students assessed prior to the pandemic. Of course, looking at cognitive performance before and after pandemic-related academic interruption could be fascinating — but (as all good PhD candidates are trained to say) while certainly a promising direction for further research, that falls outside the scope of this particular project. With research effectively suspended and border closures imminent, I made the difficult decision to return to the United States after the school closures were announced. 

As the United States’ coronavirus caseload skyrocketed over the weeks that followed my return home, I weighed my health needs alongside the ethical considerations of continuing or ending my field research. How would my lungs respond to coronavirus? What if I brought a latent infection back with me from the United States and spread it to others? What insights would I lose by not returning to conduct teacher interviews as planned? Were my existing quantitative data and field notes enough to make an original contribution to knowledge? Following thoughtful discussions with my supervisor, I decided to remain Stateside and begin writing up my work.

Four men laugh as they walk along a dirt path toward green neem trees, a large baobab tree, and traditional Dagomba houses with thatched roofs.
My enumerator team — the real MVPs– making their way across a village during piloting.

As of this writing, Ghana’s land borders remain closed to international passport holders, while air borders have opened for some foreign residents. While I am “safe” at home in the United States, as of this writing more than a quarter of a million Americans have died and response efforts remain stymied by political polarisation. Meanwhile, Ghana is innovating at the edge of the global coronavirus response. Utilising infrastructure originally intended to carry medical supplies to remote clinics, drones now carry nasal swabs from patients in remote clinics to regional hospitals with Covid-19 testing labs. Local friends report that the temporary ban on large funerals, while painful, sped up crop harvests and limited post-harvest losses, with positive implications for local food security. 

Bigger questions loom about the ethics of placing additional burdens on research participants during a pandemic, even in contexts where remote data collection is possible – questions  which extend to research dissemination. While my findings can easily be disseminated to high-level decision makers via email and video conference, I will need to wait for a vaccine,  and its equitable distribution, before returning to Tamale to discuss my findings with the students, teachers, and caretakers for whom this research is truly intended. I am completing my dissertation now, in-and-out of ongoing lockdowns, in hopes that I may return in the next year or so in a professional capacity, continuing to work on issues of learning inequity. I am looking ahead to brighter days, and to shifting identities once more from PhD candidate back to development practitioner – living with a chronic respiratory illness – this time, with a doctorate in hand.

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