In March 2020, the UK, like many other countries, adopted a sweeping set of radical policies to try and control the transmission of COVID-19. I had already been in self-isolation because I had returned the week before from a trip overseas and my university was asking everyone to work from home for 14 days following international travel. As it happens, I had been to New York in the first week of March– which we can now assume was when some of the early spread of COVID-19 was happening in that city. Following that, I had travelled to Gilgit in Pakistan– another site of early infection as a result of returning pilgrims from Iran. As a result of this slightly premature self-isolation, I have now been working from home for one month. I thought I would take a moment to reflect on what is different about doing the job of an academic from home, as opposed to going in to an office every day.
First, I should say that I’m no stranger to online meetings. I work at a university that is distributed across 6 countries and we regularly have meetings that include people scattered across 11 or 12 time zones. I have resisted the invitations to join meetings at 3.00 or 4.00 in the morning (except when I’m travelling on the West Coast of the US, when I sort of feel like I need to be flexible to my colleagues in Karachi), but meetings anytime between 7.00 in the morning and 7 in the evening are a regular occurrence. Before I came to AKU, I was using video meetings to stay in touch with the executive board of my scholarly organisation every other month. But that is really only a part of what I do– the administrative part. What about the rest?
For research, working from home works well at the point where I need to sit down and write things up. It’s not brilliant for airing ideas or talking through things that I find confusing or difficult to articulate. Coffee conversations are integral to my thinking process for producing research papers. Departmental seminars, conferences and workshops are similarly beneficial for practicing the narratives that ultimately find their way on to the pages of my articles, chapters and books. None of those things really happen with me sitting in my little home studio by myself. Luckily, I am married to a scholar who also does anthropological research, so I have another human with whom I can talk about my research at home– normally. Unfortunately, when the world went into lockdown, my partner was carrying out field research in Japan and is now stuck there for the near to medium future. Our children are delightful in many respects, but when I start to discuss my research, I can see their eyes glaze over and their non-verbal boredom signals start screaming loud and clear. Obviously this is my failure as a communicator rather than any inadequacy in them, but that doesn’t do me much good for getting some solid feedback on my research.
Transitioning to teaching online has been surprisingly less painful than I imagined. At AKU we normally teach our MA programme in 3 hour blocks. That has proven to be a challenge for both student and tutor, so we’re being flexible about that. Using Zoom for the synchronous contact time seems to work reasonably well. I’ve been asking for all teaching staff to be given a full Zoom account to host group meetings that last longer than 40 minutes for some time, and the lockdown has given that request a little more urgency. Breakout rooms online are hit and miss. I drop in on the different rooms and discover that while most students are doing exactly what I asked them to do, some like to take the opportunity to socialise about other things– so no real difference to pair and trio exercises in a face to face class, I guess.
My social life has been affected in mixed ways. I am not one of those people who is out with friends every night, but I occasionally went out and caught up with friends after work in a pub or a cafe. Now, all of my evenings are spent socialising with my kids. This is a tiny blessing in an otherwise pretty depressing scenario. I get my teenage kids back (so to speak). I have been watching them grow and explore the world independently of me for a few years now. Their peers seemed to be occupying more and more of their time and they didn’t seem to have much interest in their parents anymore. Now they sleep late so I don’t see them for breakfast, and lunch is a movable feast for me that depends on my work activities, but dinner is family time again. It has always been family time, but my kids couldn’t eat fast enough to get on their way to meet their friends either online or in person. These days, we linger at the dinner table and they actually ask me about my work. The first time this happened, I gave them the same answer they always give me when I ask how school was, ‘It was good’, I said. I assumed they weren’t really interested, as I suppose they assume I’m not really interested in their school day (for the record, not true– I am interested). But then I expanded and told them about the challenges of replicating the casual social interactions that make work a little more fun and make disagreements a little easier to negotiate to everyone’s satisfaction. We talk about COVID-19. We talk about the dumpster fire that is the US Presidency. We joke and laugh and complain. So while my social life has suffered in relation to my friends in London, it seems to have quietly benefited in relation to my children at home.
Unfortunately, my wife was in Japan when global travel came to an abrupt halt and has not been able to enjoy the extra time with the kids. I feel badly about this because I know she would make the most of this time with the kids. We both knew that they were growing up and would be moving out and being independent people much sooner than either of us were prepared for. I think she felt this deeply. She withdrew from the external labour force when our first child was born and stayed home to be part of that unacknowledged labour force that is so vital for everything else. She cared for our children full time until our second child was entering reception at the age of 4. She then took on part time work that could be fitted around the kids school schedules. Over the years she has gradually increased the working time outside the home, but has always prioritised the kids. Two years ago, she resumed her graduate studies and began her PhD research at the University of Newcastle. She had just left to carry out the fieldwork phase of the doctoral research a few weeks before lockdowns started happening. We had planned things very carefully. The kids and I were to go to Japan and she would come back to the UK at regular intervals so that we would never be apart for more than 5 weeks at a time at the most. That plan has been replaced by an indeterminate period of unexpected, and unwelcome, separation.
Oddly enough, most of the time, working from home and this bizarre form of quasi-isolation, doesn’t impede my life nearly as much as I might have imagined. Don’t get me wrong, I will be extraordinarily pleased when it’s all over, but while it lasts, I will continue to cherish the unanticipated ‘benefits’ of lockdown– cleaner air, very short commute times and, most importantly, precious moments with my kids who are on the cusp of adulthood and greater independence.