It’s 11:13 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Edo Berger, a professor of astronomy at Harvard and Radcliffe’s 2019–2020 Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow, e-mails a reminder to the rest of his fellowship cohort: “Today’s talk will start in 17 minutes.”
The Institute’s 53 fellows vacated their offices in Byerly Hall last month, but their work continues in an unofficial capacity—via Zoom, like so many other activities during quarantine. In the days after the early end to their fellowship year, as the group shared sad farewells and traded harrowing travel stories via a listserv, Berger saw an opportunity, and quickly set up an open Zoom meeting. Immediately, fellows began using it as a drop-in space for discussion—imagine a virtual water cooler—and organized a “Wine and Wake” for their lost fellowship time.
“We all knew that the year was going to end and were already lamenting that fact back in January,” says Berger. “But it felt like it just got snatched away from us too early—we still had two and half months to explore and to build more connections.”
Early in the year, Berger had organized a weekly 101 series: short introductions given by fellows on their disciplines followed by Q&As. “People have found a lot of interesting connections through those meetings,” he says. “Everybody’s siloed in their departments—and even within departments people are siloed within their research areas. This really felt like an opportunity to break those boundaries and get a bird’s-eye view.”
Berger proposed using Zoom to keep the 101s going, along with online versions of fellows’ presentations. The first week included a regularly scheduled private talk and, coincidentally, a previously scheduled 101 on epidemiology by Camara Phyllis Jones—the 2019–2020 Evelyn Green Davis Fellow, a physician, and an epidemiologist—for which she used COVID-19 as a case study. (The talk also happened to fall on Berger’s birthday. “Somehow people found out, and everyone sang after the talk—off key and off time,” he says.)
“The Zoom presentations actually work really well, and it’s nice to see everybody’s faces,” says Berger. “And it’s interesting that the questions still follow the same pattern, the same dynamics, that we have while sitting in the same room. It’s really nice to see that.”
Participation has been high—as many as 30 fellows for any given talk. Gala Porras-Kim, a Los Angeles-based artist and the 2019–2020 David and Roberta Logie Fellow, managed to join from the road as she made her cross-country trek. “Because the close was sudden, there was no time to say a proper goodbye,” she says. “For us who are not local, there has been no chance to reconnect to our regular community yet, so in this weird limbo it’s good to have connection.”
“People are now scattered in so many different places, but they’re making the effort,” adds Berger. “For some, it’s early morning when we have the talks; for others, it’s the evening, so it’s nice that that they’re so dedicated to it.”
For the artist and writer Every Ocean Hughes—the 2019–2020 Mary I. Bunting Institute Fellow—the sessions are a way of giving back to what she calls “one of the most dynamic and generous groups I've ever been a part of.” The robust Zoom gatherings don’t surprise her, given that the fellows had been supporting one another in many ways since the fall. “I continue to show up out of respect for the work we were doing together, and for the joy of seeing the faces of my brilliant fellow fellows—and wanting to honor this extraordinary year we were gifted,” says Hughes, who joins the calls from her home in Stockholm, Sweden. “I’ll take every bit of it every way I can.”
Lucky for Hughes and all others involved, there’s much more in store.
“People are excited,” says Berger. “There’s a sense of wanting to keep the momentum going. When I sent an e-mail asking for more volunteers for talks, I got responses within 10 minutes. Nobody wants to lose out.” A number of fellows have volunteered to give their as-yet-undelivered presentations or to lead 101s in their disciplines—enough for twice-weekly meetings through late April or early May—despite having been officially released from their fellowship obligations.
“The Radcliffe Fellowship Program excels in building a strong sense of community and robust, interdisciplinary exchange among our fellows,” says Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, also the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “I’m pleased but not at all surprised that Edo Berger—a wonderful University citizen and deeply engaged member of this year’s fellowship class—has found ways to help maintain community and conversation among fellows now scattered across the globe instead of together in Byerly Hall. I am grateful for Edo’s creative efforts to keep the Institute moving forward during this challenging time.”
Berger hopes the exchange will continue for as long as people are in quarantine—perhaps even beyond what would have been the regular close of the academic year.
“I can envision that if people are interested, we can just keep going,” he says. “We can see each other and talk and discuss various things, and we don’t have to stick to the schedule of the original fellowship. It’s not like people have a lot of other stuff to do.”
Before leaving campus in March, Daniel M. Callahan collaborated with Gala Porras-Kim and Sawako Kaijima on this public service announcement/love letter to their fellowship cohort. Video by Daniel M. Callahan