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!
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.