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 Year 18/19 is here. Properly. The students have arrived. For some freshers’ week starts Monday, for some it’s just been and ‘proper’ teaching starts. Of course some courses (and therefore colleagues) have been ‘back’ a while on courses that don’t fit the traditional undergraduate timetable. I love and hate this time of year in equal measures. I love the buzz it creates on campus and at the same time find the busy-ness tiring and sometimes stressful. I like the promise that every new academic years hold – the promise of inspiring and being inspired. The promise of me keeping on top of emails and filing (ok that’s a promise I have long learned not to believe) and of deadlines not yet missed. This time of year signals the start of that all too fleeting time we have to try and engage and inspire, to share our knowledge and to learn from our students, to share a tiny part of their journey and to not fuck it up.
I think about the first year students arriving. In a couple of weeks I will have literally hundreds of them sitting in a lecture theatre in front of me. How do explain to them that the structures that we work in are far from ideal, that there are too many of them and not enough of us, that we all do the best we can but that that often isn’t good enough because it can’t be because, well just because. How do I explain that we are exhausted before term has even started because our jobs get ever more ridiculous every year. How in all of that do I make clear the most important thing of all – that all of them matter, not as student numbers that generate income, but as individuals who will change the world? I can’t wait to meet them but there is also something niggling. What would I say to them if I could reach each one of them individually? I think maybe this:
I may not know your name because I have over 300 new names to try and learn and I’m not good with names. Sometimes I may not recognise you as one of my students as I rush across campus to get to the next class or meeting because I wouldn’t notice my own mother in that moment – my mind is on what comes next not on the right now and once term starts I am perpetually late. It might take me longer than it should to reply to your email because I get too many every day and try as I might my inbox isn’t controllable. I may forget to call you back or I might miss your voicemail because, if I’m really honest, I don’t like the phone and I’m avoiding the phone, not you. I will get frustrated at your lack of preparation, because I will have spent hours preparing and thinking about how to best help you understand and think about the issues we’re dealing with and I’ll be frustrated with myself for not having been able to hold your attention and interest. I will get annoyed when you push me for the right answer (which doesn’t exist) and ask me what’s being assessed and what isn’t – but its not anger at you, it’s at a system that has created a culture where almost everything is about the test result and almost nothing is about the pure pleasure of learning. I want to say sorry for all of those things now and I want you to know this: I see you, each one of you, in that sea of faces in the lecture theatre. You are not a student number, you’re you and I wish there was the time to get to know each of you as you. I want you to know that it’s a privilege to be part of your journey and if I can contribute just a little bit to that journey being a successful one then this job, insane as it is, continues to be worth doing.
I also want you to know that you’re enough. University can be an amazing, exciting, wonderful place but it can also be lonely, dark, scary and it can be easy to get lost in that sea of faces around you. Make it a place to find, not lose, yourself. Please don’t ever presume I’m too busy to care, please never be worried about emailing me or coming to see me, never be scared to ask for help. I am where I am because I always had help, at every step of the way. I now have the privilege of being able to pay that forward.
Now go be whoever you want to be and change the world
Jess (or Dr Guth if you must, but not Miss, never Miss)
Today is a pretty big day. No, it’s not a special occasion, I have in fact done very little and nothing has happened – but it is still a big day. I started working in the HE sector some time in August 2004. Ever since that day I have not taken all of my annual leave. Every year it would get to the end of the leave year and I’d have loads left – like double figure days left.
Not this year. My leave year ends at the end of August and today I took my final day’s entitlement. I have used up all of my leave. All of it. Every single day. And I plan to do the same again next year and the year after that and the year after that and every year until I stop working. I love my job. I have been tempted today to read some work related things. It is hard to separate out academic me from me me and there is considerable overlap but I drew the line at a Public Law textbook today – even though I was genuinely interested in how that particular book deals with the rule of law. Anyway, I digress.
So, annual leave. Over the years I never felt like I needed to take it all. I felt like I had plenty of downtime and plenty of time away at conferences and work related stuff. I was young and stupid. Conferences are work and exhausting. Meetings away are not like going on holiday even when they can be combined with an couple of hours getting lost in the Natural History Museum. Not only did I not take all my annual leave, the leave that I did take was often not actually really holiday and switching off. I’ve finished papers from sun loungers (and hospital beds for that matter – fucking idiot); I’ve written teaching materials in hotel rooms and exam questions on flights. I’ve read research papers while sipping a frozen margarita and my holiday reading was always always work related. The downtime I imagined I was having was just that – imagined.
But the thing is, I don’t think that’s sustainable. Well actually I know it is not. It leads to complete exhaustion over time and it makes it so so hard to recover because you unlearn how to relax and have to learn all over again. I have taken all my annual leave and I have felt pretty good all academic year. I have not been ill (I think I might have had a day with a slight tummy issue), anxiety and depression have been mostly fairly low and certainly manageable and my work is, I think, better.
I was away for all of July and most of that was holiday with a short conference stint in the middle. I took my work email off my phone and I didn’t look at it. I took my conference paper and a chapter I was working on with me to look at during the conference period. I didn’t read. Yes that’s right. I did not read. I spent time listening to the sea and the rainforest; I spent time just being; I spent time letting my mind toddle off to wherever it wanted to go; I spent time with Kath and I spent time with me. Less doing, more being. It brings perspective.
I know so many academics who use their annual leave to get stuff done – work stuff I mean. People who actually take a week off to write their teaching materials because they can’t make the time during the day job. That’s wrong. Something is very wrong there. Others who do all of their research during their annual leave. Also wrong. I get cross when I see people in the office on their annual leave and they’ve come in because ‘I just need to do this’. I’m not cross with them. I’m cross with a sector that has normalised overworking to such an extent that the sentence ‘I’m on annual leave but I’m here because I just need to finish x’ doesn’t sound wrong, it sounds normal.
So what did I do with my last day of annual leave in this leave year? Well I didn’t jump out of bed when I woke up but lazily and luxuriously stayed in bed with the cats. When I did get up I went for a long run which felt naughty because long runs are not a Monday thing. I had coffee and watched a TV programme I had recorded in the middle of the day. Then I went to a yoga class and then I watched Snow white and the 7 dwarves – just because. I’ve never really seen it all in one and I’m running the Dopey Challenge in January so I wanted a reminder as to why I like Dopey. I drank more tea and sat with the cats, I pottered about putting bedding and clothes away and books on shelves. I spent time doing nothing at all stroking a cat until I realised that I must have stopped and the cat had long gone.
I have loved today precisely because it wasn’t anything spectacular. It was more being than doing and the doing bits of the day were a being sort of doing. Mostly I loved it because I just left my brain alone. I didn’t ask anything of it and it rested, ready for me to call on it again tomorrow.