A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During Covid-19

Research highlighted

Xu, X. (2022). A Sociomaterial Investigation into Chinese International Students’ Navigation of a Doctoral Trajectory During COVID-19Journal of Studies in International Education. doi:10.1177/10283153221126247

Despite the growing scholarship on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, there is a dearth of specific focus on how international doctoral students perceive their navigation of a disrupted study journey from a sociomaterial perspective. It is not yet clear what and how the performative roles played by matter and human forces shape this process of navigation from their emic views. Bearing these gaps in mind, this study recruited a group of Chinese international doctoral students (CIDS) to share their emic perceptions. Specifically, it employed a sociomaterial approach to enabling exploration, with the aim of tackling the relevant lacuna and being a timely contribution to international HE. 

This study adopts a sociomaterial approach to its analysis. In the domain of educational research, an increasing number of scholars corroborate a sociomaterial approach that challenges the subordination of materials to the human subject and foregrounds messy textures woven through hybrid assemblages of objects, discourses, bodies, technologies, etc. Despite discrepancies and convergences, restoring a focus on the more-than-human dynamics, this approach generally challenges the separation logic but supports an interpenetrated entanglement between the human and non-human as a constitutive force of building everyday action and knowledge (Edwards & Fenwick, 2014). Moving away from a view of either downplaying materiality or separating it from the human, this approach adds new insights from a relational and performative perspective.

To facilitate a deep investigation, this study employed a qualitative methodology. Circulated with a purposive snowballing strategy, the recruitment targeted CIDS who were either overseas or in China when an interview took place. The researchers stopped recruiting more participants when the recruitment secured 20 participants, reaching a point of qualitative saturation in relation to the key research questions (Hu et al., 2022). Despite this being a relatively small sample size that ensures neither a good representativeness nor generalizability of the CIDS cohort, it features diversity at several levels, somewhat mitigating limitations intrinsic to qualitative research.  All transcripts were transported into NVivo 12 for a thematic analysis informed by the data and the theoretical underpinnings adopted by the study.

This study brought sociomateriality of international doctoral education to the fore amidst the unprecedented health crisis. Firstly, it problematizes human-centeredness in conceptualizing learning practices that were peculiarly complicated by the precarious socio-historical context. Backdropped the pandemic, some activities, settings and relationships integral to doctoral training were disabled, with learning space morphed, material provision disrupted and extra scrutiny imposed. These destructive forces undeniably contoured the educational experience, serving to exclude, invite, and regulate particular forms of participation (Fenwick, 2014). Secondly, resonating with other studies that disclose how the ripple effects of the pandemic penetrated multiple facets of a study trajectory (Aristovnik, et al., 2020; Xu & Tran, 2021), instigating disruption of learning ecology, intensified racialization and bodily scrutiny, this study offers further insights by revealing how socio-material bricolages were mobilized to address these plights and even transform them into empowering energies. This process is facilitated by interdependencies of humans and material forms. Whereas human actors use and thus transform material objects, things as mediators of practices are also capable of transforming human actions (Brooks & Waters, 2018).  Conversely, material environment also moderates learning behaviors. As a consequence of the myriad interrelationships, new meanings were produced among these hybrid assemblages of materials, ideas, and bodies (Guerrettaz et al., 2021).

In light of the findings, this study offers some insights on internationalization of doctoral education and practical implications for stakeholders to better support international doctoral students in the current dire situation. Firstly, it lends empirical weight to a nuanced conceptualization of university internationalization against new circumstances. For many students stranded in China, they need readjustment relying at least temporarily on technology-enabled learning across geographic boundaries “abroad” while simultaneously remaining at “home”, which falls into the category of internationalization at a distance (Ramanau, 2016; Mittelmeier et al., 2021) that goes beyond the binary of internationalization at home and internationalization abroad. Echoing previous scholarship that endorses an integration of infrastructural resources in situ and opportunities provided through distance learning via this category (Breines et al., 2019; Mittelmeier et al., 2019), this study however contributes distinct subtleties that lay bare how internationalization at a distance is compromised when it is practiced not as a fully-developed educational mechanism but as an expedient response to the sudden and massive rupture following the pandemic. The managerial, technological, operational and mental unpreparedness of temporary readjustment at the institutional and personal levels diminishes doctoral students’ educational quality. This warrants practical implications for facilitating a sustainable doctoral trajectory, during and beyond the current health crisis. At the macro level, innovation of technologies and formalization of the virtual delivery, cooperation and research should be further strengthened (Huang et al., 2022) as internationalization strategies in the interest of local and global common goods (Marginson, 2020). At the micro level, international doctoral students should sharpen their psychological and behavioral responsiveness to future challenges, mobilizing and appropriating possible resources in order not only to survive but also thrive in unpleasant circumstances. As revealed in the study, one possibility is to tap the sociomaterial potential, facilitating human and non-human forces to form assemblages that act together through ongoing coordinating work (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010) to sustain stability of an educational journey. Having said that, we must admit that a fine-grained articulation of these efforts is neither the focus of the current study, nor can be succinctly elaborated in a piece of this length. Focusing on doctoral students solely, this study has not unpacked comparative (dis)similarities with other international student cohorts such as the course-based master students. We as researchers suggest future research attend to this limitation based on a larger pool of student participants with heterogeneous background characteristics. Also, future endeavors are encouraged to shed more light on sociomateriality of international education, which we believe can contribute to the sustainability of internationalization of doctoral education in a post-pandemic world.

Dr Xu’s other Research Highlights entries:

Authors’ Bio

Dr Xing Xu, Sichuan International Studies University

Dr Xing Xu (许幸) is a lecturer at Sichuan International Studies University, China. Her research interests include internationalization of higher education, doctoral students’ evaluation of educational experience, academic mobility, identity construction of doctoral students, and qualitative inquiry. She can be contacted via email: xing.xu@uon.edu.au.

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)

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