Field Notes from Middle East Studies: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on BRISMES
By Nicola Pratt
[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).]
As I write, the full impacts of COVID-19 on the work of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) are probably yet to be fully felt. The major effect so far has been the postponement of our annual conference, which should have taken place between 29 June and 1 July 2020 at the University of Kent, Canterbury, with more than 400 expected delegates. The decision to postpone was taken in the third week of March 2020 as several countries began to impose national lockdowns and/or international travel restrictions. We discussed the possibility of moving the conference on-line. However, given our lack of experience or expertise in this area and the relatively short timeframe of three months, there was a consensus that BRISMES did not have the capacity to effectively undertake this transition in time for the 2020 conference.
Luckily, by postponing (rather than cancelling the conference), we did not incur any penalties from the University of Kent. However, by not holding the conference, BRISMES has lost some income and there are the costs of the time and labor already invested in organizing the 2020 conference. In order to minimize these losses, we decided to roll-over the delegates, rather than re-open the call for papers for the (postponed) conference.
The conference is now scheduled for 28–30 April 2021. However, the issue of organizing the rescheduled conference is far from over as it becomes increasingly unlikely that a vaccine will be approved and rolled out by spring 2021, thereby bringing into question the possibility of holding in-person international conferences in the next year. We have therefore begun to explore options for holding an online conference, looking into different providers. Online conferences, seminars, and events are now becoming more and more common. MESA is holding its 2020 conference on-line, as are other UK academic associations. Meanwhile, BRISMES itself has already organized some on-line (primarily events, using Zoom); namely, the annual general meeting (which we are obliged to hold in line with our constitution) and a very successful mentoring event for students and early-career scholars. We also moved all Council meetings online, and willhold our annual lecture online. We are currently planning additional virtual events.
The use of online platforms for meetings and events has some benefits. It somewhat erases geography, making it possible for anyone, anywhere in the world, with a decent internet connection to attend events. This provides BRISMES with opportunities to reach out to people who would not normally be able to attend our events because of the costs of travel and/or the increasing difficulties and costs associated with obtaining a UK visa. Since holding Council meetings online, we have seen an increased attendance rate. It is much easier for busy academics to set aside three hours for an online meeting, rather than setting aside a whole day to attend a physical meeting in a different city (as members of Council are based at universities around the Unite Kingdom and Ireland, whilst meetings have historically rotated between cities). However, it is very difficult to replicate online the sociability experienced when meeting colleagues in-person, particularly the sorts of spontaneous and serendipitous meetings with new and existing colleagues that we experience at physical seminars and conferences.
Alongside the challenges of moving events online, we have also discussed the possible impacts that the COVID-19-related financial crisis is having on UK universities and the possible implications of this for Middle East studies. Most UK universities have announced considerable financial losses as a result of the lockdown over the spring and summer, as a result of which, several universities have announced plans to make staff redundant, as highlighted in a letter that we wrote to the relevant UK ministers, in June 2020, calling for more public funding for universities, and which was signed by 47 other academic associations. At the time of writing, it is not clear what the longer-term impacts will be on Middle East studies in the UK but, in the short term, the burden of university cuts seems to be borne disproportionately by graduate teaching assistants and early career scholars. It is a matter that BRISMES will continue to monitor and we have asked members to send us information in this regard.
Nicola Pratt is an Associate Professor of International Politics of the Middle East as the University of Warwick, UK. Pratt is also the Vice-President of BRISMES.