University in the Time of Coronavirus: Q&A with Serhii Plokhii

October 21, 2020
Screenshot of Serhii Plokhii on Zoom

serhii plokhiiThese are particularly challenging times for everyone. The switch to remote learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all members of the Harvard University community. Back in mid-March due to the outbreak, much of Harvard’s campus shut down along with its libraries, museums and recreation centers. With the start of the fall semester most of those facilities remain closed, only part of the student body is present on campus, and all teaching for the year is taking place remotely.

We sat down – virtually – with Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian History and director of Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, to ask him a few questions on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the Institute and its day-to-day operations, and the challenges it presents going forward. 

HURI: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many institutions are forced to put some of their plans on pause.  How has a shift to remote learning and remote work across Harvard schools affected the way the Institute conducts its day-to-day business? What are the biggest challenges so far?

Plokhii: First of all, thank you for inviting me for this interview. I would also like to thank you and every single member of the staff as well as the members of the Institute’s Executive Committee for doing their best under very difficult circumstances to transition to the online work. In reality, we do not work from home, instead we brought work to our homes, making space for it in both physical and emotional terms, and I am grateful for all the sacrifices that were made in the process by my colleagues. As a result, we not only continued with our plans, but in some areas are doing better than we did before the pandemic. 

MAPA language mapWe had no idea that many things that we were working on in the last few years were in fact a preparation for the COVID lockdown. I am talking first of all about our web presence and activities. A few years ago, we had a discussion of HURI’s new mission and decided that our audience was not just Harvard, but the academic and non-academic community worldwide. With our MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine project we established HURI as a pioneer in the field of digital humanities as applied to Ukrainian studies. In the last few years significant resources, human and financial, were put in designing and launching brand new websites for Harvard Ukrainian Studies, for the books publishing, and finally for the Institute itself. The launch of some of those sites took place already “under siege.” I want to thank Oleh Kotsyuba, the entire publication team, Kostyantyn Bondarenko and Kristina Conroy for making it possible.

At the end, we turned out to be ready to face the new reality probably better than we would be otherwise, but it does not mean that the transition went without challenges. The main thing that we all lack at the Institute is the opportunity to see each other’s faces not on the computer screen and have conversations which are more human, less regulated, and where one can talk over another and still be heard. So, I do not think that the work that we are doing has suffered, but we, the people who do it, have to put more effort to have that work done.

HURI: It may be a while before things will return normal. In what way are these changes affecting the Institute’s priorities and plans?

Plokhii: We did not change our plans or long-term priorities, but we moved our activities online, and some of them will probably stay there in one form or another even after the emergency measures and travel limitations are over. We spent days, if not weeks, thinking about whether we should continue with the Summer Institute this year. We did not know whether the professors would agree to teach, and the students would agree to enroll in the online courses. They all agreed, and we got this year record number of students.  Going back to “normal” will be quite a challenge!

Our online presence that until recently was an important but still additional part of our main work has become the main form of our existence as an institution. We learned that certain things can be done better online and do not depend on the presence of people in the office anymore to solve this or that problem. We all hate meetings, and online meetings probably are not an exception, but it turned out that the Zoom ones can be sometimes more effective than the face-to-face meetings, if only because there is a limited time given to each of the participants and we use that time more effectively, thinking more and speaking less. Besides we can join the meeting from wherever we are at the moment, or even watch the discussion later at our convenience if the meeting was recorded. 

HURI: Traditionally HURI conducts a weekly Seminar in Ukrainian Studies and regularly organizes and hosts symposia, colloquia as well as memorial lectures and major conferences. While some of those events and activities, like the annual TCUP conference, had been put on hold, others just moved online. Does this mean that people can now watch them live and even participate in them on HURI’s YouTube channel?

Plokhii: Yes, moving the TCUP conference when basically everything was in place and people were looking forward to a set of interesting and stimulating discussions was emotionally a painful experience. We dragged our feet as long as we could before making our decision to postpone. But as we now look forward to having the conference online early next year, we think also about the positive things that come with the move and the change of venue—such as the ability to reach much broader and geographically diverse audience. 

Regarding the HURI seminar we’ve already had a number of very successful events both last semester and this year, reaching the kind of audience that we never thought we would reach. There can be some technical problems especially when they happen on the other end of the line, but I am sure we will learn how to overcome those. The challenge now is to find the right time for the seminar to allow everyone who wants to participate – whether in the US, EU or Ukraine – to join our discussions. I want to use this opportunity to welcome our newest member of the staff Megan Duncan Smith on board the HURI ship. As the person whose responsibilities include the coordination of our events, she does an excellent job of steering this ship through the stormy waters of the new online world.

Screenshot of YouTube seminar

HURI: If you look at the calendar for upcoming events on HURI’s website, you will see that it’s quite busy. One of those events is a New MAPA Module Launch: Donbas and Crimea with Viktoriya Sereda and others. MAPA: The Digital Atlas of Ukraine is, of course, the Institute’s ongoing research project and you are its Faculty Director. Now that this most recent module has been completed what’s next? 

Plokhii: My guess is that this interview will be published already after the launch of the Donbas and Crimea module. Thus, I invite those who have not seen the presentation or have not yet visited the module on the MAPA website to do that. It is part of our Revolution of Dignity project and a result of the multi-year work of Viktoriya Sereda, Kostyantyn Bondarenko, and our partners in the European Union and Ukraine. The module is an important contribution, both in terms of the data presented there and the research opportunities it offers, to our ongoing discussion on the temporarily occupied territories and their reintegration into Ukraine.

With the Revolution of Dignity project getting on par or becoming even larger than our Holodomor project, with which we had started MAPA, we are now entering an exploratory phase for developing a major new project dealing with the history and consequences of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster; in many ways a turning point in Ukrainian and world history, especially environmentally. The current pandemic and the impact that it has had on the operations of Harvard University prevent us from inviting MAPA fellows here, so we are looking for new ways of establishing effective and productive partnerships with our old and new friends in Ukraine. There are difficulties, but I am sure we will overcome those.

HURI: Another area of disruption related to the pandemic is HURI’s research activities. Obviously, the Institute is not able to host this academic year’s research fellows. Is that a problem that could be rectified in the future?

Plokhii: Yes, it is a problem, and it already influences our MAPA plans. That is the area where the pandemic affected our programs the most. We managed to complete the last academic year with some fellows being in residence, while others had to return home and continued their research in their home institutions. From the very beginning our fellowships program put emphases on the participation of the fellows in the academic life the Institute and more broadly the entirety of Harvard University. That participation provides the fellows with a unique opportunity to become part of the academic life at one of the world’s leading universities and at the same time contribute to the creation of productive intellectual atmosphere at the Institute. 

The result has been the establishment of long-standing relationships between our fellows and us. The inability to invite our fellows to Harvard means that both they and the Institute are robbed of an important part of the fellowship experience. We turned to our prospective fellows and asked them whether they could move their travel plans to the next academic year. We are very pleased and grateful to them that they agreed to do that. We all look forward to welcoming them here next fall.

Screenshot of Serhii Plokhii on ZoomHURI: You are teaching two History courses this semester: The Origins of the Cold War: The Yalta Conference (1945) and Frontiers of Europe: Ukraine since 1500. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to teaching them? Has it changed as a result of this pandemic?

Plokhii: First of all, I had to rethink and redo my syllabi, limiting the sources and literature to those that were available online. To my surprise, a lot of things are available these days, and the syllabi did not suffer much, or even gained in some cases. The approach has changed as well, especially when it comes to the lecture course. Lecturing in front of the camera is a much less rewarding and effective way of communicating with the students than when you are in a real classroom situation. Thus, I am trying to put more emphasis on discussion, which was always the core element of the seminar course, but now plays a bigger part in survey courses like the one I am teaching this semester on the history of Ukraine. 

HURI: With Harvard’s transition to remote teaching and most interaction with students happening in a “Zoom classroom,” some faculty who prefer teaching in person are worried about the limitations of the online lecture setting. What has been the biggest challenge or the biggest surprise for you thus far? What is your secret of keeping your classes as engaging and interactive as possible?

Plokhii: You can’t communicate in the same way with the students, which hurts. But there are some good things that come with Zoom as well. One of them is the feature of “break out rooms.” The students can work in groups and then come together to compare their conclusions. You can’t do that in real life—you are eternally grateful at Harvard that you get one room for your class, thinking about two, three or four is insane. Regarding my secrets, let’s wait and see what the students’ evaluations will be at the end of the semester. If they are good, I will disclose the “secrets”. If not, I will keep them to myself.

Cover for book: Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern FrontHURI: On a slightly more personal note, you are a prolific scholar and a prolific writer, among other things, how have all the COVID-related uncertainties and hardship of travel restrictions and virtually no access to libraries or archives, and limited access to scholarly forums, affected the way you conduct your research and carry on work on your current projects? (Speaking of which, you probably have a few new ones in the works?)

Plokhii: The library limitations and then the ban on the traveling came in March 2020 as a great relief to me. I was overcommitted in terms of travel and participation in the conferences and seminars outside of Cambridge and the United States, and the ability to move some of those talks online and cancel others meant that there was more time left to focus on research and writing. But you are absolutely right, the question of access to the sources and literature became a problem as soon as I acquired more time to do research. What that meant for me was that I had no excuse anymore to postpone the completion of the projects that I have been working on, for which I have already collected sources and literature that had been sitting on my shelves for a while. 

Harvard did an excellent job of providing access to e-books from Harvard and non-Harvard libraries. That made further research much easier. But I began buying more books than I did before, some of them in e-format, so in my future publications there will be more references to the pages in the e-books (I learned how to do that). That hallmark of the pandemic will be detectable years and decades from now, and probably not only in my books. Regarding the archives, there is no substitute to those. I can’t wait to get on the plane and renew my work in the Ukrainian archives.

HURI: Paradoxically, some people find that they can actually be more productive during the pandemic and dedicate more time to their work. Has it been the case for you?

Plokhii: It was the case, but I am afraid is not anymore. The first two or three moths indeed were more productive. But then the productivity began to fall. Scholars in humanities are often introverts, at least when they do their research and writing, but even they need to recharge their batteries by talking to others, discussing their ideas and borrowing from the ideas of their colleagues, whom they meet face to face. The online format works well to present the research already done. It puts, however, limitations on the ways in which we get feedback, academically, socially, and emotionally. 

HURI: Your research and writing cover diverse topics and time periods. When you move from one topic to the next one what inspires you? Is there a method to it?  

Plokhii: I am not sure there is a method, but there is a pattern. After spending days, nights, months and years on one topic or a particular project, you get tired of it, emotionally exhausted. It is always good to put it aside and come back to it later to look at what you have done with “fresh eyes.” For me there was always a question of what you do while you are waiting for your eyes to get “fresh.” More often than not I end up looking around for another “cool” project and getting hooked on it. Then the story repeats itself.

Book Cover for Serhii Plokhii's book - Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear CatastropheHURI: You have earned recognition from a lot of prestigious book prizes. To name just the most recent ones: Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction for Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (2018) (which also won The 2019 Pushkin House Book Prize), and just this month your «Забуті покидьки східного фронту» (Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front: American Airmen Behind the Soviet Lines and the Collapse of the Grand Alliance, 2019) has won the BookForum Best Book Award 2020 in category “history”. When did you realize that you were an author and not only a historian? 

Plokhii: I remember reading a comment on one of my academic books placed on, where someone called me an “author.” I thought: “Well, this is a cool thing to be, I never thought about myself that way.” I do not think “author” as an identity takes anything away from “historian.” It actually adds to it. I am less comfortable, or rather not comfortable at all, with the term “writer,” which sometimes is used in my regard in Ukraine. I do not think what I write is on that level, or in that genre.

HURI: People are now talking about this pandemic as a one-of-a-kind experience and “prophesying” about how things are never going to look the same post COVID-19. What is your outlook? How do you think the world of academia in general and HURI in particular will reemerge from this experience? Is there a silver lining in any of this?

Plokhii: Yes, we will change, we are changing already, and yes, there is a silver lining. I already commented on a couple of things that will stay with us—we now know that we can get together online no matter where we are and in a few minutes solve issues that would take days to solve via email, or waiting for everyone to be in the same place in the same time. We will do our events in the way that will reach audiences beyond our physical spaces—we now know how to do that and are comfortable with technology. The pandemic closed the borders, ironically making us more global than we were before, and I see no way back on those changes and developments. 

For HURI, which as I mentioned, was online and in the field of the digital humanities earlier than others, the challenge will be how to maintain that leadership when everyone else has awakened to the importance of all things digital. Finally, we will have to reconnect with each other and learn to live and communicate again in a “real world,” relearn how to be comfortable with more people in the room than just us. I do not think though it will be much of a problem. In any case, I look forward to the day when it happens.

See also: Serhii Plokhii