Swarthmore College

Dear AF: I have actually liked a lot of my Covid-19 working routines. Is there something wrong with me?

It’s just great to wear the same sweatpants four days in a row and feed a sourdough starter in between Zoom meetings, isn’t it? Except of course for having to also keep a four-year old occupied while staying out of the background in your partner’s Zoom meetings in the room next door. 

The answer really depends somewhat on how different your professional life has been in the past year. For faculty who already teach in hybrid settings or who are practiced at remote teaching, their working lives haven’t been dramatically changed even if their personal lives or routines might have been. For faculty accustomed to teaching residential students in-person at a small rural college, on the other hand, it’s been a big change. 

We normally don’t know that much about the working routines of colleagues, and much less so now. Even the small fraction of tenured faculty in secure working situations who can speak out freely about their preferences and experiences often have some reason to tend quietly to their own business instead–if you anticipate working alongside the same people for decades to come, you often avoid conversations that will reveal dramatic or raw divergences between colleagues over their respective professional ethos or practices. Every such conversation is an invitation to have someone try to push new norms that may restrict or marginalize your own preferences or outlook. 

For the significant majority of working faculty and virtually all administrators at all levels who have few if any protections, those discussions always have the potential to create an immediate professional threat. 

Most faculty and administrators–save for the occasional unhinged Hoover Institute Senior Fellow appointed as a White House advisor–genuinely accept the guidance of public health officials on Covid-19. As a result, many also embrace and demand that their own institutional leadership adopt protocols that safeguard the ongoing health of faculty, staff, and students. But that’s really different from the ways we feel about it all. 

That’s a range of feelings echoed in many professional and white-collar workplaces. There are material conditions that have the same impact on any work-from-home employees but that the pandemic has aggravated in very particular ways: parents who have lost out-of-home child care options and who are often serving as the unpaid teaching assistants of K-12 instructors are in all cases dealing with inimical conditions that most employers at best acknowledge in the barest and most grudging of manner. While we’re sure that there are some pleasures for some people in having more contact each day with their children and their dogs, balancing that with work that is supposed to be full-time and ongoing? That at least we don’t need to be uncertain about: it’s impossible. 

But otherwise? We can well imagine that there are faculty (and students) who are like the child character Billy Rowan in the film Hope and Glory, having a great time amid the Blitz in London while everyone around him feels misery and terror. Maybe some people really enjoy teaching on Zoom. Or enjoy faculty meetings on Zoom. More importantly, maybe some people find it relieving for a time to not be physically in the unfriendly towns or communities where their universities or colleges are located, or find it soothing to connect mostly with colleagues who lift them up rather than drag them down. 

There is something about the public culture that is expressed through social media that makes it difficult to share an idiosyncratic perspective on an experience that many other people have described as depressing, stressful, painful or unbearable–that can feel like an unintended rebuke or a dismissal of those common feelings. It may take time for this to surface reflectively, for us to decide whether there was anything at all that we found appealing about an unplanned change in the way we worked and lived. Or it may simply be too wounding to share those thoughts or too self-indulgent. 

All the more because of the eager clustering of consultants and thought leaders and others on the make around trying to sell the post-Covid world as an opportunity to fire people, reorder professional life, and erode governance, just like they tried to sell those opportunities before Covid. We’re particularly wary about the branch of consultants and planners extending the logic of austerity into “space utilization”. They’ve been obsessed for decades with the prospect of eliminating faculty offices and they are ready once again to argue that the time has come at last for marching the professors off to open-office plans, cubicle farms, or home offices. Where the real-estate is dear, there’s money to be made in selling off some campus property. Where there’s no buyers, there’s money to be made in the remodeling of buildings. 

But however you’re feeling in those sweatpants–go on feeling it without feeling like you’re doing it wrong.

About the Author

Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games.

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Posts by Timothy Burke
April 29, 2021