Historians in Lockdown (Part Two)

This is the second 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 modernist Erin Peters, Course Leader and historian of the United States Christian O’Connell, and Vicky Randall, specialist in British and intellectual history.

Vicky Randall

Ok, so this pandemic has re-confirmed two things I have always known about myself: I am a hypochondriac, and I am a control freak. The coronavirus crisis feeds directly into the darkest parts of my psyche. Most of my day then involves the following: trying not to check the news; washing my hands; checking the news; trying to breathe slowly; washing my hands; experiencing feelings of existential dread; trying not to check the news; checking the news ….Etc

My other main (interconnected) problems are that I do not drive and I spend too much time online. The end result of this is a period of time during the day (between about 10am and 1pm) when my home becomes a warehouse distribution centre. All kinds of thing arrive. Food. Shovels. Booze. A toastie maker, last week (my new prize possession). The food also arrives in no particular order so we have had some very odd meals. Yesterday’s consisted entirely of carbohydrates – sausage rolls with jacket potatoes!! Yum. 

Vicky’s workstation

I only share my home with one other person, but that other person is also a full-time academic (which produces endless pingings of email alerts which I think will scar me). My husband has the downstairs of our house to work in, and I have taken the upstairs, which mostly works but can be quite funny. I was recently on a Teams meeting with the Vice Chancellor when gangster rap was playing audibly from downstairs, and I also got shouted at to ‘come and listen to this ska version of “Son of a Preacher Man”’ 😀

I am trying my best to work out the new technology, and I am quite confident with Teams now. The Big Blue Button continues to confound and defy me, however. In addition to my undergraduate teaching, I am supervising a group of six MRes and PhD students, so their research and writing keeps me really engaged and interested. I am also the Vice-Chair of the Union so i am heavily involved in the discussions about the impact of COVID-19 on our University life. Health and Safety meetings used to be about the provision of correct office equipment. That has changed.

Lockdown is undoubtedly challenging, but there are many positives. The staff and students in History have really pulled together to support one another and that is heartening. I am reading a lot (mostly books about the structural inequalities of class, gender, and race – which means I am angry a lot!) I have also discovered Yoga, which i do daily, and go on an epic walk with my husband each evening (see pics below), which now takes us about two hours, but is beautiful. We are lucky to have so much green space around us. 

Christian O’Connell

The days before we all went into lockdown, we all knew that at some point in the near future we would be ‘going online.’ Some institutions had gone early, while many others seemed to be holding on as long as possible, especially as it was so close to the Easter break. When the day the decision came it was not a shock. However, no one was quite prepared. There seemed to be an assumption from the world outside higher education (and some within!) that going online would be as simple as flicking a switch. However, as academics and students across the country have been experiencing for months now, this is far from the case. Even with the best tools, teaching online is a very different beast to the traditional – and some may say ‘very much missed’ face-to-face – classroom. It is not just about learning to use the technology, as many in education are beginning to realize.

As David mentioned in the previous post, our teaching at Gloucestershire is centred on the interaction in seminars. Our small classes allow us to engage with students in a way that is not possible in other scenarios. They allow to us to do what we do best, which benefits our students in lots of ways. This made our transition to teaching online even more challenging. Nonetheless, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by what can be achieved online. After some initial teething problems, I have really enjoyed many of the ‘webinars’ and virtual discussions I’ve had with students. It may be that the loss of face-to-face contact, combined with the wider social and psychological effects of the lockdown, gave these sessions additional significance and they were not longer just routine classes, but instances where people got together, and were social (virtually) in an era of social distancing. It has also been great to see the levels of commitment, engagement and enthusiasm many students have shown in recent weeks. While everyone looks forward to the day we can return to the classroom, I do believe that there will be more rather than less use of online teaching. That may not all be bad, especially because the skills required to interact virtually in a professional setting will be essential in the world beyond the university.

Christian teaching a webinar on the Vietnam war. Please note, adjectives used by students on the chat referred to the conflict, not the webinar.

On a more personal note, the lockdown presented me with a different challenge, which many others working from home will be more than familiar with. Before, I was used to doing all my work on campus in an almost religious separation of work and home life. The closure of the campus meant that in a very ironic twist of fate I was forced to amalgamate the two, and change my way of working completely. I now work in shorter slots, meaning I have had to make use of more evenings and weekends than I would like, especially when it comes to preparing online teaching. On the flipside, the benefit is that I’ve really enjoyed spending more time with my family, especially when my son Dylan (who many students will be familiar with by now) is at such as great age.

Christian’s pet Luna, who always sits on his lap while he’s teaching.

One major setback for me was the postponement of my research trip to Italy in June, which was funded by the International History Review. I was really looking forward to seeing the ways in which the African American soldiers of WWII – the ‘Buffalo’ soldiers of the 92nd Division, one of the few all black combat units of the conflict – have been remembered and memorialized in Italy, where they helped defeat the German army. Fortunately, I can still take the trip next year. The additional time is probably welcome in the long run, as it allows me to prepare my journey properly, and pushes back the deadline by which I’m expected to submit an article.

Erin Peters

It has certainly been a peculiar semester! As many of you know, I took up a visiting professorship in the United States this semester, working at both the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University. In the 8 weeks of ‘normal’ semester, I learned a lot about the North American higher education sector, how the universities and teaching are structured over there, and what the students and university culture is like (I did my undergraduate degree in a Canadian university, but it’s a very different thing experiencing it from the point of view of the lecturer!). There was quite a learning curve and a lot of work to do, but I was thoroughly enjoying the experience. Then March hit. In the middle of March, American university students have Spring Break. Coincidentally, this was also when many of the universities there switched to online only, and the world went into lockdown. For my family and I, this meant that we needed to decide whether to stay in the States or to leave. Not knowing how long the lockdown would last, and with concerns about our visas expiring and the difficulties involved in getting a flight back to the UK, we made a swift exit from the United States to Canada.

Erin’s workstation in Toronto (not showing off at all).

So, for the past twelve weeks, my lockdown work experience has been based in Toronto. Although this has involved working across three universities and across three different time zones, it has also been an unexpectedly valuable experience. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the opportunity to be able to support students through this crisis and to see how they stuck with their modules, even through the last several weeks of uncertainty and strain (the US system affords different options and choices to lecturers about how to organise their modules). While online teaching is certainly not the same as face-to-face, I’ve also enjoyed learning more about this process and thinking of creative and considerate ways to deliver content online.

In terms of new research projects, this will have to wait until the semester ends and we return to the UK. For now, when I’m not busy home-schooling and hanging out with my children (their resilience, adaptability, and positivity through all this has been inspirational. To them, its all been one big adventure!), I’ve been working on the finishing touches for the edited collection of essays I am producing. The final draft is due back to the press this summer.

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