Field Notes from Middle East Studies: MESA and the Pandemic

By Jeffery D. Reger

[In our April 2020 Field Notes, Ziad Abu-Rish discussed the early impacts of COVID-19 on Middle East studies, focusing on the immediate effects on teaching, learning, and research among students and faculty. This installment shifts the focus onto COVID-19’s impacts on two of the most prominent Middle East studies academic organizations: the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA).]


In November 2019, the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) Board of Directors formed a committee to study the growing phenomenon of adjunctification and precarity within higher education. Many of the crises aggravated by COVID-19 have their roots in structural inequalities and histories of discrimination and exclusion. The issues with the growing contingent majority in the professoriate have been a focus for MESA since at least 1990. These issues are not unique to Middle East studies, but impact higher education in the United States overall.

In March 2020, the MESA Precarity Committee pivoted in to focus on support for adjuncts on temporary contracts, which were the first types of cuts as universities automatically moved to austerity measures (rather than use endowments for operational expenses) as they faced losses of room and board revenue and dropping enrollments.

The MESA Secretariat conducted a survey on behalf of the precarity committee in March 2020 as well, which garnered about three dozen responses, reflecting widespread anxiety over economic insecurity, particularly among advanced graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

In the meantime, COVID-19 meant that we could no longer safely plan for an in-person MESA conference this October.

To accommodate participants whose employment status had changed, we offered refunds without requiring withdrawal from the program. Instituting this option and fulfilling refund requests required a lot of time and labor on the backend from our staff at the Secretariat, but we felt strongly that we should support our members in their time of need. We wanted as well to minimize interruptions and impediments to career and research progress due to the pandemic. We thank our members who registered at the full rate, which functions in part as a donation to subsidize the free registration for our colleagues facing unexpected hardships.

Registration for this year’s meeting remains open to attendees. Understanding the uncertainty and pressures of the moment, we continue to offer registration to members at three levels: the full ordinary rate; a fifty percent discount; and a nominal fee of $1 for any member facing hardship.

Individual registration is required for a number of reasons, but particularly to assign participant roles by session (e.g., host controls for screensharing by presenters). As an added bonus: registrants will retain access to the conference for the rest of the year. All sessions will be automatically recorded, uploaded, and accessible at attendees’ convenience.

In planning for a virtual conference, we had to consider a number of new problems. First, fatigue from extended virtual video calls. Second, multiple time zones from the West Coast to the Middle East. Third, keeping panel concurrency equal to or less than an in-person session (meaning less than twenty-five panels at the same time). Fourth, offering flexibility to participants who are unable to avoid daily professional and personal routines and obligations.

We therefore decided to expand the conference to October 5–17, in order to accommodate the entire accepted program given these parameters. This restricted sessions to a narrow window in the middle of the day on the Eastern Seaboard of North America. The original conference dates (October 10–13) have been reserved for special sessions of broad interest across the membership, during which there will be no other concurrent events.

In addition to the substantial number of panels pertaining to our present problems of precarity and pedagogy (the full program can be consulted and searched here) a number of plenaries have been planned in response to the coronavirus crisis that should be highlighted:

The MESA Board is also organizing a late-breaking special session on Lebanon and its crises, scheduled for 12pm EDT on Monday, October 12.

The MESA Precarity Committee invites anyone interested to join us for a networking and solidarity event at 2pm EDT on Monday, October 12.

We look forward to connecting, albeit on screens.


Jeffery D. Reger, PhD is the Executive Director of MESA