The relentlessness of academic work in lockdown
In a draft post from the end of February that I have just discarded because it wasn’t going anywhere I wrote: ‘I have also had flu and have been ill or not quite right for 3 weeks now. That means that work has slowed down dramatically adding to the perpetual feeling of being behind with everything…’ Well very soon after that everything changed, campus closed and university life moved online. I was as behind as I always am but not really any more so. I was making progress even if that progress was slow.
In lockdown the perception of time, of productivity and of what is important shifted. In one sense it just put into sharp focus that so much of what we do as academics is utter nonsense. For the first part of lockdown I struggled doing anything. I wrote about some of that in the two previous posts. For me it wasn’t a time thing, I don’t have kids to home school for a start, and it wasn’t that I don’t have the right set-up at home to work effectively – we’d just re-done our study so we can both work in it at the same time and it is really quite lush. No, it was about headspace and focus. Things improved a little bit as time went on but I was still struggling to get anything done really.
Then I started going to really detailed to do lists. I broke up everything into much smaller sub-tasks and wrote each of those down as a thing to do. It meant ticking things off more often, seeing the list get shorter and then longer again and generally created a sense of things moving along. With that system alongside a weekly planner on which I recorded roughly the plan for the week with times of ‘meetings’ blocked out and the time around them allocated to overall tasks like REF output reading, marking or edit joint paper, I had a couple of weeks of getting shit done.
But at the start of the third week I was anxious as hell, exhausted before I had even started the Monday, running on caffeine and really struggling to concentrate. I went through Monday and Tuesday like that – a completely heightened state of alertness (and not in the idiotic government message sense) and hyperactivity that had me racing from one job to the next. It felt like a race to tick things off the list. I stopped writing things on the list but then I promptly forgot them adding to stress levels as I wondered what I’d forgotten or got reminders down the line. I got to the end of that week feeling absolutely knackered.
So yes, I had spent 3 weeks getting shit done and was probably more on top of work than I have been in years but I felt wired, and not in a good way. Last week then I tried to start more slowly, to be more considered and to take more breaks and reflect more. Some of the work I got done was nice work. There’s a paper nearly finished, a new project nearly ready to go and they have been fun to think about. It is nice to have the marking done, some institutional level paperwork pretty much ready to submit by the deadline… so why did the working at home over those 3 weeks feel so relentless?
Well I didn’t work more hours overall. And I didn’t stretch the working over a longer day. What I didn’t do was allow myself time to come round and get into work mode. I basically got out of bed, threw clothes on and started work. It felt useful to get a head start. I stopped to have lunch but only to quickly make lunch and then eat it. I had my drinks at my desk and didn’t stop between tasks. The tasks on my list seemed so little that stopping between them to acknowledge having completed them seemed silly. The result: the feeling of rushing even when not, the feeling of urgency even when there wasn’t any, a slight sense of panic at the length of the list in spite of it shrinking quickly through the day. The tiredness came from the hamster wheel of work that needed to be kept going and therefore felt relentless. A three hour meeting on the Friday of that 3rd week nearly broke me. I needed a brain time out.
Last week was better. I was more aware of the risks of the list. I still want the list because I am forgetting stuff and flit around too much forgetting what I am doing, the list helps with that. But I am back to mornings being more deliberately slow, drinks also functioning as breaks, lunch being about more than quickly making it and eating it to get back to work, and the list as something to help remember things not as something to be rushed through. So last week was better. And next week, well next week will be better again because yesterday Odin, killer of feet, joined our family and he is the perfect play break enforcer!
More Academic Lockdown Reflections
My last set of reflection on the lockdown are now well over a month ago. In some ways it feels a lot longer and in some ways it feels like I wrote it yesterday. As I said then, time is a funny thing. So how have you been these last few weeks? Nah, it’s ok, I don’t really know how to answer that question either. Here are some rather rambling thoughts though on what it’s been like, on what’s been hard, on what has been quite nice and on what has helped keep me as sane as I ever am as we make our way through a very bizarre Mental Health Awareness Week in the middle of a global pandemic.
Time is a totally weird concept. No seriously it is. I know we all have days or weeks that feel endless and hours that race by in a flash. As a really bad runner, believe me I know that 30 seconds can last forever. But this is different. It’s like time doesn’t mean anything anymore. In some ways it reminds of summer holidays as a kid. Remember? The ones that stretched all summer, where it never rained and you cycled off into new adventures with your friends every day and it was always going to be like that. Except this feels like a more sinister version of that. More like time standing eerily still before the dementors attack in the playground while at the same time everything continues at a ridiculous pace. It’s like being in parallel universes at the same time. One where time has slowed to almost standstill and the other where everything has been accelerated. There is no normal time anymore. Things fly by, hours, days, weeks just gone and yet, somehow, nothing.
I think the initial drive for connectedness has eased a little. I think people are now craving actual contact, are maybe realising that face time etc just actually don’t do it. I am still perfectly happy not being sociable. But then I am also lucky. I don’t live on my own and Kath and I have enough space to stay out of each others way – so the not living alone doesn’t become an issue. Also, my Mum lives down the road and we have had some (distanced of course) conversations as we dropped of shopping and I am used to not seeing Dad often and just chatting on the phone with the occasional skype to see each other. All of this is sort of still within my normal range of not talking to people! So it’s not the not seeing people etc that I find hard.
What I do find hard are video calls. The new tech obsession I mentioned in April also seems to have calmed down a little. I had a nasty experience with Zoom which means I will never ever use that platform again (even if they fix the security etc, trust is gone) and have settled into MS Teams which I find pretty intuitive, the other platforms are just there to confuse me every now and again and make sure I don’t get too comfortable. Video calls are hard work. I don’t know whether it is because I take so much from body language and other non-verbal communication normally or what but I have to concentrate so much more to follow conversations and I find it much much harder to read people. There were several bits and pieces written on this which I was too tired to fully engage with!
So do I have a routine? Ha! You know me better than that. I was sort of beginning to settle a little bit: I was getting up at a similar time every day, starting with yoga or at least with some quiet time outside with a cup of tea, I was getting out to run short loops and I was working in sort of effective short little bursts. And then we ended up with some foster kittens for a few days. Cute and lovely as they were that was our routine gone. No yoga, no running, high levels of worry and anxiety (they were quite poorly) and completely random and inefficient working. Once they were gone I tried again. I seem to have a bit of a routine now, it seem to mostly involve putting off going for a run (I need to stop that, there’s a marathon on the horizon) and wondering what I can eat next though.
Interestingly it was marking that helped me focus on work stuff – it didn’t help me focus on marking of course, although I did get through the first batch quite quickly, but somehow it gave me purpose that translated into other areas of work and I made some progress. I wonder if it was because marking gave me a real sense of normality. When marking comes in I generally hide until it’s done. I have always been of the ‘just get it done’ school and tend to start and then just keep going for as long as I still feel like I can give the work the attention it deserves. Sometimes that can last for a very long time and sometimes that means one or two scripts at a time but for some reason I am quite efficient between scripts. When I am mid marking admin jobs get done because I can just do them quickly between scripts. I think the boost of seeing the to do list shrink a little as I ticked off all the tiny little things I had added to it helped.
The other thing that has helped is thinking about #100DaysofWriting (Google it) and I didn’t do anything with it or start it for quite a while. However, even thinking about it and wondering whether I could commit to writing most work days for 100 days or at least commit to working on a research/writing project helped me make some progress and enjoy it. It’s little things, we’re not talking articles appearing out of nothing etc but just getting a paper closer to being finished, clarifying a point in my mind, actually reading something for the ideas rather than because I have to evaluate it for one thing or another… the little joys of academic life. Having an idea.
I was surprised to find that actually talking to some very select people on the phone also helped me feel better about work stuff. I avoid the phone when I can but just having a quick chat with people sorted some things out quickly and saved a bunch of emails and talking through a joint paper really made me sharper about the ideas expressed within it and it is now actually not far off finished. Overall I’d say that the first period of lockdown stopped me in my tracks in terms of capacity to do work and think about things. I got nothing done and I was exhausted. I think I am now in phase 2. I am getting some things done but it takes much more energy and headspace to achieve those things than it ever did before – so I am still absolutely knackered and have little capacity for thinking about anything. I still have trouble holding onto thoughts for long enough to finish thinking them and inefficient reigns supreme. If I am looking at one document and then need to navigate away from that to say a spreadsheet to check something I will forget why I have navigated to the spreadsheet and also what document I was in so I’ll go back to email say and then an email will send me back to another spreadsheet or whatever and I can go round that cycle several times before eventually doing the thing… It’s very much a try to ‘do one thing at once with total focus’ time and so I am constantly writing myself a note of what I am doing. It’s actually quite funny. I’m also talking to myself which I think Kath finds more annoying than funny. Somehow all of this makes work feel relentless – and that’s something I want to think about a little more and maybe write about in another post.
Every now and again my thoughts flick to the future. Sometimes this is prompted by emails from the university asking for or providing information and sometimes it’s just that my brain quite likes thought experiments. There are moments where I am anxious about what’s to come, about what the Law School will look and feel like come September, how it will all work etc. Mostly though I am just watching and waiting. There is all sorts of planning going on but the reality is that none of us know what September and the start of a new academic year will bring. The problem with that is of course that good teaching, whatever form it comes in, takes time to prepare and time is something we don’t really have. I don’t feel too worried about this. I have a lot of teaching experience in different structures and settings and can probably adapt pretty well to whatever structures the university and law school eventually settle on. I feel for people new to this job and starting on their teaching journeys. How do you prepare for September teaching when you have no clear idea of structures, delivery modes or patterns? It’s hard, really hard.
In fact all of this is really hard, it’s weird, it’s unfamiliar, it’s unnerving and there are no answers… We might be getting used to some of this but that doesn’t mean that it is no longer difficult or that it gets in any way easier. In some cases it may well be getting harder. Let’s not forget about that. Let’s remember that just because many of us are finding more and better ways to cope with the lockdown, it doesn’t mean that we’re finding it easy or that we’re perfectly ok in this. Keep being kind!
Academic Lockdown Reflections
So today should be the day after the Association of Law Teachers conference in Stirling. I should be a happy exhausted buzzing with thoughts…Covid-19 had other ideas so instead of my annual sanity check and catch up with other law teachers I have been at home. I don’t mind being at home. As you probably know I find conference exhausting (not always in a bad way) and I need to ensure plenty of time away from people while there. I am very very glad to be an introvert in these weird times of lockdown. I think extroverts find this harder. People who draw energy from other people and need social contact to re-charge their batteries and feel happy and healthy are likely to struggle much more than I am right now. I like not being sociable! It’s what I do best. However there are a few things that I wanted to reflect on now that we are all settling into this very weird new way of being.
The Academic World is Run by Extroverts
At least that is what it seems like to me. There has been such a focus on, an obsession with even, connectedness. There seem to be more meetings, more phone calls, more emails, more messages. Meetings can’t be a conference call though, it must be video. We must still ‘see’ each other, we must ‘meet’ regularly, we must make sure to stay connected with each other, with our students with anyone we have ever met anywhere however fleeting. That’s what it feels like to me, to someone who is perfectly happy not seeing or speaking to anyone for, let’s say a few weeks, actually I can do longer I am sure, perfectly happily. The pressure is on to find the perfect angle for you webcam so it shows just the right mix of fun and intellectual books on your book shelf alongside the strategically placed family and pet pictures. I’m exaggerating of course but the pressure to connect with people has been immense over the last few weeks. And with that has come a pressure to respond to people. So many people have got in touch to check in so much more frequently than they would normally…. It’s exhausting. I am all for checking in (and not ungrateful, it’s nice of people to think of me and get in touch). I like to check in with my PhD students for example and with some of my colleagues – but I do that anyway. I check in with the people I check in with. I have not suddenly decided I need to check in with everyone who has ever given me a business card at a conference to ask them if they are ok and remind them to stay safe.
What’s with all the new tech?
And it’s not only this emphasis on connectedness, there’s something that comes with it – it’s the overuse of technologies that we weren’t using before. In the space of a few days I had to use several different apps/programmes to talk to people. From Adobe Connect via Google Hangouts and Skype for Business to Zoom and everyone seemed to feel the need to pop on their video, grab a pet and strategically position themselves to show off their home. And in addition to that 100s of Facebook and WhatsApp groups sprung up, email circulars exploded onto the scene at an alarming rate and the ‘answer some questions about yourself (so we can steal your valuable data) thingies popped up on Twitter and Facebook several times a day. That alongside increased email traffic because of a seemingly constant need to provide information – new or otherwise – has been really quite testing. It seems though that some people at least are enjoying this, that they are happily engaging with each other in this way and indeed even need that contact. I don’t understand that but then I don’t need social contact – or rather I need very little.
Academic carry on as normal rhetoric
Thankfully the thinking that we pretty much just do what we do usually has receded somewhat but somehow the underlying assumptions of the academic year and what we do, how and when have not changed. We are still talking about teaching the rest of the semester, of assessing the students, of progression and awards being decided at summer exam boards… I understand the need to think about these things carefully and think through the consequences and knock on effects but it also seems slightly ridiculous in a global pandemic to just carry on as normal. And mostly that’s what we are doing, we’re just doing it from home, without the infrastructure, without the time to plan it properly and with the assumptions that we can work from home as easily as we can in the office. I still see the odd ‘now that we have more time’ tweets and some people seem to see lockdown as an opportunity to get work done but I am not sure that’s the reality for most or even many of us – I’ll come back to that in a sec. I am not saying we should cancel assessments or that we should just progress students or progress them based on what they’ve done so far or that we find some random clever algorithm to tell us what degrees to award on the basis of grades so far and attendance and grandmorther’s cat’s middle name (or cynically of course parents’ income)… No, I don’t have the answers but I am concerned that we are not really asking the right questions. Are we too focused on getting the job done to focus on keeping each other and ourselves safe and sane or to even stop and think about what exactly this job that needs to be done actually is? I think it is a shame that as a HE sector we are not at the forefront of slowing things down and thinking really carefully about how we get through a pandemic doing as little damage as possible to ourselves, our colleagues, our students and our families. I also understand though why this isn’t really happening. The sort of thinking to do something different and not based on at least business as usual outcomes if not business as usual methods, requires headspace and a good sprinkling of bravery. In a pandemic headspace and bravery are in short supply and perhaps best spent on survival and getting the job at hand done. I honestly don’t know if pushing ahead with assessments etc is the right thing to do and I don’t know because I can’t seem to think it through fully. I get stuck on a thought or sidetracked with something else or I get hungry or sleepy… all further signs that things are really very far from business as usual.
Time is a funny thing
This sort of links to some of the things I have seen pop up on social media about time. There are lots of marketing things seemingly based on the notion that we now have time to get crafty, take up new hobbies, exercise more in the home, learn a language, learn to play a new instrument and in the case of academics, finish those millions of unfinished papers lying around waiting for us to have the time to spend on them. Right, so, is that notion so ridiculous? Do I have more time? Probably. For a start I am cutting out the commute. Door to door it probably takes me roughly an hour so that’s a couple of hours several times a week. Then I am not going out anywhere so time to travel to my gym sessions or yoga classes are also gone and any home workouts are generally shorter, as are the runs I am doing at the moment (although I have been out more frequently than I had been). But just being at home adds work – cooking, cleaning, tidying up all step up a gear when two of you are at home all the time and eating every meal at home etc. Then add the weirdness of lockdown and for me that has meant being unfocused and flitting about between jobs without settling to anything. It has meant struggling to hold on to thoughts for long enough to finish thinking them, it has meant being sleepy randomly and hungry basically constantly. It has meant desperately wanting to go out and being anxious about going out at the same time. So do I have more time? Probably yes, do I feel like I have more time? Nope! Do I want to spend time taking up a new hobby? Fuck off! I am spending the time I have on 2 things. 1. Getting the most important work things done so I do not let students or colleagues down and 2. staying as mentally healthy as I can so I can continue to do 1 as well as enjoy time with my partner and our furballs. So anyone who is managing to get shit done. Awesome. I am happy for you. For everyone else – it doesn’t matter!
And this is me, no kids, zero responsibilities really and with working at home being normal and nothing new and I didn’t even have to move teaching online because I wasn’t doing any face to face teaching this semester. People who have any sort of caring responsibilities in all of this do not have more time, perceived or real. They have less time and they are trying to work, educate, care… this ‘more time because we’re on lockdown’ is bollocks for almost all of us.
So have I learned anything?
Well, I can sleep 12 hours and still be tired and there are really very few people I feel the need to stay particularly connected to and I don’t at all feel the need to be more connected during a lockdown than I was before. I don’t really have any tips for handling any of this because I am not sure I am handling it all that well. The only thing I do want to say though is that all that advice that is out there about routines, about exercise, about being sociable… pick and choose what works for you. Last weekend I spent the entire weekend just reading (Book of Dust 2 if you must know) and clearing out the box room in little bursts. It was great to get lost in the book and not worry about anything else. That’s what helped me reduce the randomly sky high anxiety at the weekend. Walking up to the moor to see lapwings and curlews and take a few deep breaths before gently jogging
back down helped with focus and energy levels. Sitting in the garden having a little chat with the cats, the frogspawn and bumble bees helps with making sense of it all. What helps you will be different so work on that, not on some forced notions of connectedness or productivity (though if these things really do help you – and I can see that at some point getting lost in my academic writing could be helpful – then go for it). You do you and allow others to do what they want/need right now. There is no right or wrong way of doing lockdown as an academic or as a human. There’s just a way or ways that work for you.