It should be unsurprising to anyone who knows me when I say that fieldwork plays a big role in my success as an academic. This is because I’m an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Greece. My fieldwork requires me to travel abroad for several weeks to months at a time each year, usually in the summer.
I am very sad that I haven’t gone to Greece in nearly two years. The reluctance of some of my colleagues to cancel field projects and research trips in light of the ever-changing COVID situation has also been surprising.
I get it, I do. The last year was a total setback for many archaeological projects, including my own. My dissertation has taken a new path thanks to the fact that I couldn’t do fieldwork last summer, despite my best laid plans.
But is getting that dissertation done or that excavation going more important than the lives of the people who live in your destination country?
The answer should be simple: no, it’s not.
The challenges to admitting this are many. It’s no secret that many programs and departments have grappled with how to deal with funding and time to degree for those of us whose research got derailed by the pandemic.
Some places, such as at Michigan, have found ways to support students needing extra time to finish, which lessens the burden on students scrambling to secure support elsewhere. However, I know this isn’t the case everywhere.
Deciding (not) to travel abroad this summer
I was inspired to write this post by two things.
First, it’s May now, which means that, in a normal year, we would be gearing up for field season in the next few weeks.
Second, I saw a tweet a few weeks ago that really spoke to me:
Although this tweet is speaking probably more directly to anthropologists, I think the implications of going abroad to research in any context without considering the potential impact on local populations are clear.
Those of us trained in Greek and Roman archaeology don’t think or talk enough about our relationships to our host communities during summer fieldwork. I think about this a lot when I consider why I keep working on my Modern Greek. Moreover, I also think about how often learning the language of our host countries is an initiative taken by individuals, not one encouraged at the institutional level. But that’s a discussion for another day…
In theory, the pandemic has made us think more about that relationship. When our 2020 field season was cancelled, it was because bringing a large group of people to the small town where we usually stay would put their community at risk. It just wasn’t a risk we as a project were willing to take.
But what about at the individual level?
This year, although the project’s status is still up in the air, my advisor has suggested on several occasions that it might be possible for individuals to visit the archaeological site and do work, even if the entire project can’t be there.
It was certainly a proposition worth considering.
My dissertation – although different from what it was before the pandemic hit – would seriously benefit from some in person analysis of materials. Plus, I have the funding to do it.
So, really the only thing holding me back is that nagging sense of actually giving a crap about human life (including my own).
I’ll also admit here that deciding to postpone my dissertation research (i.e. not return to Greece) was not an easy decision. But fortunately I was blessed with the financial support and the time to be a little picky about when I think I’ll be most comfortable traveling again. Right now, I’m aiming for early 2022, but who knows what the world will look like by then.
The future of traveling abroad
Hopefully we’re moving in the right direction by getting more and more people fully vaccinated. Not just in America, but across the globe. It’s not enough that you are vaccinated, just like it’s not enough that you alone are wearing a mask. There are plenty of studies that show that you can still contract and carry the COVID-19 virus after being vaccinated and spread it to others who, vaccinated or not, can contract it, too.
This thing only works properly if we’re all doing it together.
I think I’ll feel better about traveling once a significant percentage of the world population is vaccinated. I’m not sure when that will happen or how long it will take, but hopefully it’s soon.
It’s not my intention with this blog post to actively discourage anyone from doing their work.
However, if you do plan on going abroad this summer, please consider whether it’s possible for you to do that work safely. Again, this is not just for yourself but also in light of the impact that your presence in a foreign country could have on local communities.
Some tips for planning your travel abroad
I received the following advice from a University of Michigan workshop on international travel a few weeks ago.
Familiarize yourself with current COVID-related policies and restrictions in your destination. The US State Department’s Country Specific Resources on COVID-19 is a good place to start
Schedule your COVID-19 vaccine with enough time for it to become fully effective before you leave (approximately six weeks total). The vaccine becomes fully effective approximately two weeks after your final injection.
Book direct flights to your destination, if possible. This will minimize the amount of contact you have with people in a variety of locations. Additionally, it may help you avoid any COVID-19 related complications that might arise during layovers.
Plan for any unexpected COVID-related expenses in your budget. This includes money for quarantine housing, precautionary testing (which may not be covered by travel insurance), and departure delays