Historians in Lockdown (Part One)
20th May 2020
This is the first of two posts by our academic staff who share their experiences of working from home and adapting to the ‘new normal’ since the start of the lockdown. This post sees contributions from early career historian Micky Gibbard, Professor of Soviet History Melanie Ilic, and archaeologist/modern European historian David Howell.
Working in lockdown has been a fairly transformative experience. While so much of that which we do is done in front of a computer screen anyway, teaching is a totally different consideration. Digital learning is a distinct academic discipline, one which takes years to develop experience and expertise in, it’s not something that you just pick up and master overnight. So much of what we do in the History Team at UoG, depends on interaction, working together in the same space, sharing ideas and theories in communal settings – this applies to the office as much as it does to the classroom. Losing that element is huge. I’m sure in time, we could all get to grips with digital learning, but it’s not what we are used to, trained for, or experienced in – so much of teaching now feels like starting from scratch (which it comes to delivery). In short, lockdown ultimately means delivering the same work, but the work involved in getting to the point of delivery is significantly more invested than it would be in normal circumstances.
Of course, that doesn’t even begin to deal with the practical, or impractical considerations of trying to work and, more specifically, teach from home. Out here in Pembrokeshire, everyone in the household is locked down, including my daughters. Anyone taking any of my online classes, since lockdown commenced, will have at one stage or another met my daughters, as they either stormed in during a live recording of a session, or one was sat on my lap at the start of a recording because, well, because life is life, and in the home, life is not always respectful of scheduled session times. A highlight – having explained to my eldest daughter what I was teaching that week, she then wandered into a class and announced “papa, I’ve drawn my very special Hitler for you”…
There is also the issue of expectation versus reality. When lockdown started up, I said to myself ‘this is a great opportunity to nail a new article’. For the first few days the research was flowing, and the writing went really well. Then, over time, the writing quality began to drift, and the research lost focus. Being out of the academic environment, and the academic cycle, has meant my focus is shot. It might be down to having produced two articles this year already, and feeling a little ‘burnt out’, but still, being removed from the normal rhythms of academia has meant my wider work aspirations have suffered and stalled.
I’m grateful to be able to work from home – my wife is among the 120,000 high risk people in Wales who are told to be ‘shielding’ themselves. The government advice is intense: don’t share kitchens with family members; don’t use the same toilet as the rest of your household; don’t touch your children… Cards on the table, none of those things are happening, but it is good to be able to help keep her safe from wider exposure. Still, when the time comes to continue working in the way that we are used to, trained for, and, critically, enjoy, I will also be grateful.
As a part-time hourly paid academic, my working situation is perhaps a little different. The days I am working for the university in all likelihood look very similar to the permanent staff in the department: replying to emails, negotiating new technology, preparing and delivering online class, and marking assignments. If anything, I’m fortunate in having less administrative responsibility than permanent staff and even more fortunate in not having dependants, with the exception of a needy cat. Working as an early career academic during the global pandemic has, however, come with its own unique challenges, anxieties and lessons.
When I’m not undertaking my day to day work for the university, I’m doing one of two things: attempting to complete outstanding research articles or applying for new positions. The first of these is a challenge academics nationwide, especially in the arts and humanities, are dealing with. Archives and libraries are closed and despite the positive aspect of paywalls being lifted on repositories like JSTOR, gaining access to archival material is an impossibility in lockdown. The nature of a lot of my research, too, is in looking at the connections been people and place in rural societies. When leaves the realms of the early modern period, it involves getting out, walking the land, and speaking to its inhabitants, which is also an impossibility in the current situation. This means being creative with what materials I do have access to, thinking about new ways I can use them and queuing priorities for when lockdown is lifted.
The second of these is by no means unique to early career academics but will be acutely felt by those at the beginning of their academic careers. The global pandemic adds further pressure on an already precarious academic job market, which creates a not insignificant anxiety on future job prospects. This is something, too, that all students will be facing, and I’d encourage them to consider the diverse skill sets they have developed when looking for future employment. In addition to the widely reported reinvigoration of community-building the UK is currently experiencing, it is the skills and resilience developed in this difficult situation that might provide us with some solace in the challenges that will be faced following the crisis.
Compared to some of my colleagues, I’m probably in a relatively privileged position. I don’t share my living pace with any dependents or needy pets. My home computer screen and desk set up is much bigger than the space afforded in the office I share with Vicky, making online working easier to deal with. I’m also in the privileged position of having a whole room in my house turned over to a study. I have filing cabinets and loads of book shelves, with an extensive collection built up over many years – though many of the books I need for teaching preparation and delivery are currently locked away at FCH. The only thing missing from a really effective home working environment is a photocopier!
The benefits of home working are obvious – certainly in terms of less time spent every week on travel, which is a big saving for me (and the environment) because I live a long distance from FCH. Although working from home can in itself be tiring, it seems to be less exhausting than being at FCH. Fewer interruptions to the daily work schedule quite often mean that I can spend large portions of the day at my desk, and until marking started to roll in this also meant that I could give some attention to research.
The switch to online teaching has meant we have all had to get on top of the various tools embedded on Moodle that we’ve never been trained how to use. Some of my colleagues have mastered the art of these much more quickly and inventively than I’m ever likely to do. I’m still at the ‘one step at a time’ phase and feel pleased if I manage to add a new skill to my portfolio. We hold meetings online, but we all now have to try not to speak over or interrupt one another – and so this makes meetings more constrained and less spontaneous. There is a constraint also felt in the delivery of teaching online, most obviously simply in not being able to see the faces of the people we are talking to, thus making it difficult to gauge the mood of the room. The online set up also makes it harder for students to interrupt the session and for a proper ‘to and fro’-type discussion to take place.
Another downside of working from home is that the traffic can sometimes disrupt my concentration, but that hasn’t been a problem during lockdown. My attention this afternoon, however, was drawn away by the dulcet tones of the ice cream van, a sound which I don’t remember hearing since last summer. So, I’ll be getting my purse ready for when the van comes later in the week!