Online Academic Collaborations in Situations of Forced Immobility: Lessons from Palestine

We recently published Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance edited by Giovanna Fassetta, Nazmi Al-Masri and Alison Phipps. In this post the editors explain how the Covid-19 pandemic has given the world a taste of the forced immobility faced by academics in Palestine.

The moment we had been working towards for almost two years was announced to us via an email that said:

Dear Contributor

“Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance” is now published. Your copy will be sent out shortly.

We gladly shared this happy news with our Palestinian colleagues at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), and elsewhere around the world, who contributed to the edited collection with their reflections, experience and expertise. The news, however, came at an unprecedented time for many of us: as we were celebrating our joint effort, huge numbers of people around the world were still experiencing severe restriction to their freedom of movement and to their ability to meet with others for work, family or pleasure, as the Covid-19 pandemic meant widespread and severe lockdown rules in most countries, including Palestine.

While a pandemic is an exceptional experience for everyone, some of the effects of lockdown are not new for our colleagues at IUG. The Gaza Strip, where IUG is located, is a tiny territory (only 365 m2) which is home to nearly 2 million people, the vast majority of whom are refugees from other parts of Palestine. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth. IUG’s academics, like all other people in the Gaza Strip, have been enduring a 14-year blockade that has crippled the economy and severely limited people’s freedom to move from/to the Strip for work or personal reasons. Being unable to travel and having to rely on online tools to remain in touch with the rest of the world is thus not a new experience for academics at IUG and the other educational institutions in the Gaza Strip.

Discussing the political and military situation in Gaza is beyond the scope of the newly published book, but the humanitarian, economic and academic repercussions of the blockade – further exacerbated by frequent bombings of the Strip by the Israel Defense Force – are not. Maintaining and expanding knowledge and scholarly work under circumstances of economic hardship, crumbling infrastructures and constant disruption, pressure and fear is beyond challenging. It requires a lot of determination, resilience and the steadfast refusal to give up hope for a better future which is the main component of ‘Sumud’. Sumud is “[…] a very distinct, Palestinian, idea […] the art of living to survive and thrive in the homeland in spite of hardship and under occupation practices” (Marie et al, 2018). This includes the strengthening of academic life through the online national and international exchanges of knowledge and expertise that are a core part of academic growth and advancement.

Driven by the need and the will to be equal partners in international academic collaborations despite the blockade and virtually impassable borders, IUG has, in the recent past, developed online, multilingual collaborations with a range of Higher Education Institutions worldwide, especially in Europe. These involve a large number of academics from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, and academic partners in several countries around the world who strive to connect with their Palestinian colleagues despite the challenges that come from having to work without being able to meet face to face.

Our book Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance collects reflections and discussions by seventeen academics from Palestine, Europe and the US who worked hard (online) over many, many months, and through frequent challenges and disruptions, to put together a book that primarily aims to convey the importance of online and multilingual academic collaborations as a form of ‘Sumud’ and of ‘virtual academic hospitality’ (Phipps, A. and Barnett, R., 2007). The interdisciplinary, intercultural nature of the chapters are the book’s strength, although they have also meant many compromises, tricky online discussions, changes, and delays. Different research approaches and subject traditions; unequal availability of resources such as books and journal articles; distinctive academic conventions and expectations have all been negotiated over several months to produce a book that, we hope, is informative in its contents but – crucially – offers an insight into what can be achieved when the will to collaborate and work together is stronger and more powerful than the difficulties faced along the way, especially in contexts of protracted challenges, crises and emergencies.

Drawing, among others, from expertise in TESOL, educational technology, the arts and humanities, architecture and teacher training, the chapters discuss research and capacity building projects that have used (and/or use) multiple languages and online technologies to ensure collaborations across borders. The crucial importance of online communication tools to ensure academic and intercultural collaborations when borders are impassable are at the centre of each chapter, meaning that the authors (unintentionally) anticipated a shift that most academic institutions worldwide had to face in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. As we were putting the final touches to the book’s manuscript, the online teaching and research which the book was discussing suddenly went from being an option needed by a few academics working in exceptional circumstances, to being the only available way to continue working for most educators and researchers worldwide.

However, most of our fellow academics can hope that, in the not so distant future, lives will go back to ‘normal’, and that well-known practices will be resumed. This is not currently an option for our colleagues and friends in the Gaza Strip (nor for other colleagues in similar contexts of protracted conflict and crises) for whom online collaborations will remain the norm even once the Covid-19 pandemic is a thing of the past.

What Multilingual Online Academic Collaborations as Resistance shows is that, even though it cannot and should not replace the freedom to move and live a life free from fear, online collaborations can be fruitful (as well as crucial) when they become a way to resist and defy constraints and a means to reach out to others, to share experiences, to foster mutual growth, and to offer – and receive – academic hospitality. What this book also shows is that the extremely difficult experiences our Palestinian colleagues have had to endure for well over a decade, and the individual and collective resilience and steadfastness (the ‘Sumud’) they have maintained throughout, can be a source of inspiration – and a lesson – on how to keep on going, and growing, through challenging times.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps.