Researching international student mobility into a post-pandemic future (Part II)

Published 11 June 2020 / By Yi’En Cheng, Peidong Yang & Cora L. Xu

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A conversation between three scholars

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

Read part I of the conversation here.

Re-imagining ISM: the researcher and the research subject (Part II)

Yi'En Cheng

Peidong Yang

Cora Lingling Xu

In the first half of our conversation, we discussed how international student mobility (ISM), and specifically the figure of the mobile student, might need to be reconceptualised as we move into a post-COVID world. In this second half, our focus is more reflexive, zooming into our relationship with our research field and research subjects.


Peidong: Cora, the last time we left our conversation with you mentioning this notion of the slow-caring scholarship, could you share more?

Cora: Sure! When this notion occurred to me, I had just recovered from a near collapse due to excessive workload, which was partly a result of this pandemic. Since the beginning of COVID-19 outbreaks around the world, I have been bombarded, daily, by scores of commentaries and projections, survey and interview invitations, and increasing volumes of peer review requests from journals and publishers. Admittedly, I have been, too, one of the culprits that contributed to this COVID-19 research fatigue. While I appreciate the importance of timely scholarship and information sharing, my recent burnout has prompted me to contemplate the possibility of an alternative mode of work and being, as scholars.

Peidong: I see, and what does this alternative mode entail?

Cora: One epiphany that I reached while sleeping in bed trying to recover from my burnout was that I am only human. In this time of the pandemic, I am reminded of Freire’s thesis about humanisation and dehumanisation. Maintaining that humanisation ‘has always… been humankind’s central problem’, Freire (2017: 17) aptly posits that ‘in concrete, objective contexts, both humanisation and dehumanisation are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion’. Such consciousness of our own incompletion could subject us to academia’s ‘injustice, exploitation, oppression’ (Ibid: 18), dressed up as scholarly ambitions. These ambitions concomitantly engender an urge to produce quick (timely) scholarship that is sometimes achieved at the price of our health, mental health in particular; such ambitions can also strain our personal and family relations, which can be more sensitive and fragile during the time of a pandemic, as exacerbated by lockdowns and physical distancing. While we strive hard to roll out multiple writing and research projects revolving around COVID-19 and its impacts, we are placing our expectations on a wide range of stakeholders, such as international students and institutions. In a sense, we are burdening them with our research ambitions.

Yi’En: This is such an important point, Cora. I think we could all agree that not everyone gets to retreat into spaces which allow for enhanced productivity during lockdowns. How do you think this might impact our relationships with our research subjects?

Cora: I think it is high time to remind ourselves of the humanistic task of scholarship: to treat ourselves as researchers and our participants (the researched) as humans desiring to achieve freedom and justice. To this end, adopting an ethics of care to conduct more thoughtful and slower scholarship could be one way to go. In this slow-caring scholarship, we allow ourselves and our participants time to pause, to reflect and most importantly, to feel the pain, the fatigue, the isolation and the sorrow during this pandemic; we keep a caring distance from our participants, refrain from nudging them and their lives into our data sets, and give them breathing space to feel their pain, their fatigue, their isolation and sorrow. In this slow-caring scholarship, we celebrate space and time of nothingness and reject space and time packed with agendas; we allow scholars and their participants time and space to feel, and then to think and rethink.

Yi’En: That is a very thoughtful way of framing the relationship between the researcher and the research subject. I think our conversation has revealed to us – just as how the pandemic has revealed to the world - the complexities and assumptions which surround ISM and higher education. Our conversation has also pointed to a need to cast our gaze beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to consider issues of resilience, inequalities, and ethics tied to educational mobilities and, as Cora reminds us, to ourselves as both researchers and humans.

An ending note

The current pandemic is a time of great transformation for international student mobilities as it is also a space where multiple meanings of the im/mobile international student are being reworked. We are all bound up in this process as scholars of ISM, in our own ways. The familiar rhythm of international student mobility will return, but with a different beat; and we hope that this conversation serves as a new starting point for us to take time to contemplate on our anthropological, geographical and sociological imaginations.

About the contributors:

Yi’En Cheng is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Peidong Yang is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Cora L. Xu is Lecturer in Education at Keele University, the UK


Freire, P. 2017. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. St Ives plc: Penguin Classics.