Silver linings: The consolations of a terrible year

The past 12 months will live long in the memory, for all the wrong reasons. But as 2020 nears its end amid fairy lights and optimism about vaccines, six academics tell us the bright spots they managed to find amid the gloom – from human connections to elasticated waistbands

December 22, 2020
Sunlight shining through black cloud creating silver lining, East Yorkshire, UK
Source: Alamy

Kitchen table wisdom

I began lockdown in a pleasant enough study. However, its lack of a window seemed to emphasise my sudden disconnection from the outside world. I missed my students, I missed my colleagues, and most of all I missed the energy that I drew from accidental conversations about teaching and learning. Online meetings do not easily provide that opportunity, so I felt that the creative side of my professional life was not being nurtured as much as usual.

For that reason, the best thing that happened to my working self during lockdown was a belated Mother’s Day present from my twin daughters – a beautiful (and speedy) laptop, given to lure me out of my study.

Those daughters live, with their husbands and children, in two cottages interconnected with ours – so our household bubble consists of 10 people. This cheerful and busy home life preserved me from the personal isolation that others felt during the lockdown – but I wasn’t anticipating that it would save me from professional isolation, too.

The elder of the twins, Anastasia, is a British Sign Language teacher who runs her own teaching company; she is also a sign theatre performer and interpreter. Her sister, Felicity, is a British Sign Language lecturer at my university (we teach in the same school) and is also undertaking a doctorate. Hence, family dinners always included conversations about pedagogy – but their focus and length was noticeably enhanced as we worked, as well as ate, around the same kitchen table.

We quickly discovered that we all mutter while we work. As one of us talked to their computer screen, expressing delight or frustration, the others inevitably looked up. We became adept at knowing when to leave that person to get on with things, but very often that muttering spilled across the table into a conversation about teaching and learning.

We also derived great benefit from overhearing. We all give CPD talks on online teaching and learning, so we were able to listen in to these. And we pricked up our ears, too, when one of us had an online meeting. We warned colleagues that we were not alone and offered to go somewhere private (even when the meeting was in sign language). But nobody took us up on the offer, and, on occasion, we all ended up actively participating in the meeting.

Even just saying hello to my daughters’ colleagues en route for the kettle made for a friendly atmosphere, and I now feel that I have a wider network for future teaching and learning conversations.

We all got the benefit, too, from listening in to chats with the university’s technical support team. However, technical glitches were often quickly fixed without that recourse because one of us usually knew the answer.

We were also able to share expertise about the technology we were using for online teaching – or considering using. Anastasia used Zoom Pro, and then incorporated Google Classroom. Felicity opted to use Teams and OneNote exclusively. I was tempted by that, but decided to go with BlackBoard (with integrated Stream), mainly because the reduced functionality is compensated, I felt, by the students' familiarity with the BlackBoard system.

We could even carry out experiments. When we wanted to try things (such as breakout rooms on BlackBoard, Teams channels or Class Notebook in OneNote) we were able to simulate a mini online classroom of three – or six, if we roped in the men of the household.

Furthermore, at a subject level, I gained valuable advice from my daughters on a year-one module that I am teaching for the first time this year, comprising one term on Renaissance drama and one on Victorian literature. As Anastasia is a specialist in theatre, particularly Shakespeare, and Felicity’s doctorate is in Victorian literature and social history, they were the perfect team to help me create some good online teaching material.

I was glad to see my colleagues again in the autumn, and I was grateful for the resumption of those chance conversations in the print room. But the opportunity to reflect during lockdown was hugely beneficial to my development as an educator.

Lucinda Becker is professor of pedagogy in English literature at the University of Reading.


mask 

Wheels of fortune 

In the late autumn of 2019, I took up a new post as “professor by special appointment” at the University of Amsterdam, an exciting secondment from my parent university to a city that I love.

The Pierre Audi chair in opera and music theatre, funded by the Dutch National Opera, aims to develop research partnerships between the university and the opera company. Accordingly, in early February, I went to Amsterdam to meet colleagues in both organisations and to scope out some projects – as well as to identify a convenient hotel and local eateries. I left a bag with overnight things in my palatial new office with the expectation of returning in mid-March to take part in a weekend of presentations of new work, give a talk at the Royal Dutch Academy of Art and to start some teaching.

However, by then, anxiety was mounting in both countries about the spread of the virus and I dithered as to whether to make the journey. Finally, I decided not to risk it. The very next day, the Dutch government announced a lockdown with immediate effect, followed a week later by the UK government. Now into the second year of my appointment, I still haven’t returned to Amsterdam to collect my toothbrush.

Consolations of lockdown, you ask? I turned, as you do, to Boethius, whose The Consolation of Philosophy saw no lesser figures than Alfred the Great, Dante and Elizabeth I through sticky times. Imprisoned and awaiting execution for treason, the Roman politician and philosopher enlists the Muses to help him rail against fickle fortune, when a woman appears. Her stature is difficult to judge: “At one moment she confined herself to normal human dimensions, but at another the crown of her head seemed to strike the heavens.” This is Philosophy, who has come to steer Boethius’ thoughts away from self-pity. Brusquely dismissing the Muses (“harlots of the stage”) who have encouraged Boethius in his plaints, she exemplifies what people mean when they say colloquially that someone is “philosophical” about life’s setbacks, reminding Boethius that earthly desires and rewards (including, no doubt, swanky overseas secondments) are ephemeral, and that only the life of the mind leads to virtue and the Divine.

The lockdown has certainly given those of us without domestic distractions space for intellectual contemplation. I can’t claim that it’s led me to the Divine, but, on the principle of mens sana and all that, it has led me to various previously underexplored parts of Islington, in pursuit of my regular fitness regime.

Normally with urban cycling there are just too many hindrances – traffic lights, junctions, dopey pedestrians, murderous car drivers, suicidal Lycra louts – to build up a proper head of steam. But during my daily (weather permitting) 30-minute bike slams, I found traffic-free streets in which it was possible to let rip, deriving all the cardiovascular benefits that are normally only possible on an exercise bike in a sweaty subterranean gym. And hooray, large parts of my London borough have now been designated as low-traffic neighbourhoods, meaning that even when the lockdown was lifted, our streets remained vehicle- and exhaust-lite.

But perhaps the cycle-friendly streets are compensation rather than consolation. And, sadly, not all consolations are so virtuous. Like many of us, I have overindulged with food and booze to render the flatlined days tolerable, with (despite the cycling) the inevitable outcome. Against which I judge the greatest consolation of our home confinement to be elasticated waistbands. Tucked out of sight below Zoom-call purview (I’m still vain enough to care), these expand so tactfully to ease the ballooning midriff.

Perhaps it’s a signal that I’m giving in to approaching old age, but it’s a consolation for which I will devoutly thank my kindly household gods every morning until I can return to Amsterdam.

Nicholas Till is professor of opera and music theatre at the University of Sussex and Pierre Audi chair in opera and music theatre at the University of Amsterdam.


gloves and sanitiser

Good relations

It is hard to think of any consolations arising from a global pandemic. Covid-19 has created nothing but chaos and tragedy in our world, with the result that finding solace in any of it can feel like an unattainable goal.

In many ways, I am fortunate to be living in New Zealand – a country whose government’s swift and strict response has protected so many (but not enough) of us from the impact of this virus. That is a blessing, to be sure. Indeed, this pandemic has made me increasingly aware of the other blessings that enrich my life – blessings that are always there, but that I sometimes lose sight of during the daily hustle and bustle of academic life. I am only sorry that it’s taken a global health crisis to remind me of their presence.

I am blessed by a beautiful family back in Scotland, whose support, love and encouragement never falter, regardless of the miles that separate us. This year’s lockdowns and travel restrictions have reinforced my sense of isolation here in New Zealand. Our borders have in essence been closed since March, and while I would still be able to travel to and from Scotland, the heightened logistics and expense involved now make this far more difficult than it once was. So, instead, I rely on regular Skype sessions with my sister and nephews.

We talk about the mundane and the meaningful things – online schoolwork, virtual birthday celebrations, patterns for home-made masks – that anchor us to our common experience in this new pandemic world. We share photographs and videos of sunrises and sunsets, garden birds and my cat’s spiteful face. We make each other laugh on the bad days, and look forward to better times on the good. I couldn’t survive without them.

I am also blessed to be working among some wonderful colleagues, whose friendship and solidarity never cease. Despite the relentless challenges and frustrations that have confronted us, the goodwill and collegiality have not faded; if anything, they have only grown stronger.

During the first lockdown, our head of school phoned every one of us to check we were OK. He even organised a virtual get-together over Zoom to celebrate the end of semester. And when we were thrown back into a second lockdown (with less than 24 hours’ notice), another colleague got in touch with me, offering to share her online teaching resources because she knew I was feeling swamped.

As a community of teachers and researchers, we exchange our best successes with blended learning and laugh about our worst Zoom disasters. We ask each other how we’re doing, and actually listen to the answer. Whether we’re in a meeting or chatting over a coffee (either virtually or in person), we keep an eye out for each other, and offer a hand – or a shoulder – when it’s needed most.

Lastly, I feel blessed to have taught so many inspiring students this year. Despite the relentless disruption to their studies, they have demonstrated a level of resilience that is both impressive and humbling. Many of my students have faced multiple difficulties, including financial hardship, family crises and all the anxiety that comes with living in this Covid-stricken world.

One contacted me during our first lockdown to ask for extra time to finish her assignment; she had to work overtime as an essential worker, as well as helping to home-school her younger brother. Another was struggling with online learning because she was the primary carer for two family members. And many more students have spoken to me with a heartbreaking clarity about the impact that this pandemic has had on their mental health and well-being. Yet they remain determined to persevere with their studies and their lives.

Reading back what I have just written, it strikes me that the blessings I count are all to do with relationships. This pandemic has reinforced for me that the people who fill our lives – both at home and at work – can so often be a vital part of who we are as human beings and how we muddle through. Being reminded of that is the biggest blessing of all.

Caroline Blyth is senior lecturer in theological and religious studies at the University of Auckland.


Person holding multiple rolls of  toilet rolls with a parrot and a bird on them

The urban village

Working from home certainly has its drawbacks, but the idea that it cuts you off from life certainly didn’t ring true for me this year.

Suddenly, as campuses were shuttered by the pandemic, colleagues had a new shared dimension, and work was put into a domestic perspective. I liked discussing people’s bookshelves and the various artworks behind their heads. And I enjoyed meeting their children and pets.

My own dog was a frequent Zoomer. He wasn’t there for every moment of every meeting, but at key moments – and whenever anything was delivered to the house – the dog marked the occasion. That, for me, was the highlight of this year.

The neighbourhood came alive as well. Rather than commuting, we now walked the streets with the dog each morning and saw our neighbours – and their pets. At the height of the pandemic, we would wave cheerfully at each other from more than 1.5 metres away. There were fewer cars than normal so you could hold a conversation across the roadway. We even waved to people sitting out on their front verandas like characters from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Then I started really noticing the neighbourhood itself. First, I was struck by the gardens. I started taking photographs of “urban agriculture” after noticing how much garden produce overhung the pavement. I tweeted pictures of beans, bananas, pawpaws and figs. Then I looked closer and noticed that people also had carrots, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes and strawberries in their front gardens. It was a time for the simple things in life, things like gardening.

Next, I noticed the architecture. When you think of Sydney, you probably think of the Opera House and the bridge, of the harbour and the sun. But, of course, Sydney is like any other vast city, with sprawling suburbs. Still, parts of the city were built at a magic period of architecture, between 1870 and 1920. The gold rush fuelled an economic boom and houses of all sizes were built so beautifully. Particular attention was paid to the post offices, fire stations and schools of the period. I’d long been aware of the faux-Gothic village churches with their sandstone spires and steeples but now I looked at every building.

The evening commute was replaced by tending to the family animals, domestic and wild. The kookaburras and cockatoos, noticing us more often in the kitchen, came down for food and became regulars. The chickens, which usually only came out on weekends, now wandered the garden every day, or sat on the windowsill watching us. Even possums – both ringtail and brushtail varieties – visited. I hadn’t even noticed them before.

Being less tired by travel, I had extra energy for exercise, so I began running. I wasn’t the only one. Friends and neighbours were out, too, either alone, in pairs or with their dogs. Some ran before nightfall, but others later – like me, avoiding the heat of the day.

Then it was time to relax. No evening events, after-dinner speeches or ribbon-cutting this year. Just conversations, books or Netflix. Quality television has always been underrated, but this year we discovered that good series are actually better than 90-minute films. Somehow, bingeing on a series over several evenings has more of the quality of reading a book – it takes time for the themes to sink in and, as they do, they move you more, taking longer to fade in the memory.

The memories of this unusual time will fade, too, as the rush of life returns next year. But some of us who were not hit by hailstones in the coronavirus storm have enjoyed the consolations of returning to a quieter, more local and more human life. It’s not Walden Pond, but it feels like a taste of village life within the big city.

That said, the only way this visual learner is ever going to be on first-name terms with all the newly discovered neighbourhood people is if he sees their names clearly printed at the bottom of a screen beneath their faces. I’ll miss that very useful innovation next year, too.

Merlin Crossley is deputy vice-chancellor academic at UNSW Sydney.


Zoom screen people waving along with outside of buildings

Kindred spirit 

I had given up on finding words to describe 2020. That is one version of despair – to lack the will to even describe your experience.

That feeling of hopelessness feels especially strong with the holidays upon us. Yes, the vaccines starting to come are a triumph of science, promising a much brighter 2021. But we’re still not there yet and, in the US, we’ve already had a rather bleak, socially distanced Thanksgiving. When one is far from friends, perhaps even further from family, and travel is both difficult and ill-advised, where does one find the joy of the season?

I find myself reflecting on the spring shutdown and summer reopening, both mad scrambles of different sorts to manage a research group and a family and to try to ensure their safety and sanity. I would not wish to repeat those experiences, but they taught me surprising things about what gives comfort and solace to people in times of crisis – and, therefore, what is most meaningful as we look back on 2020 and try to celebrate at the year’s close.

I focused a great deal on what I saw as the most important things – coping with the end of experiments for my lab, the absence of activities for my children – but it was the small gestures, the human touch, that turned out to be the lifeline for everyone.

Each day of the shutdown I started by posting online greetings to my lab, saying good morning, giving an honest take on how I was doing and expressing my wishes for them. And they have told me that this little daily missive was – and continues to be, since I didn’t stop after we reopened – the single most positive and reassuring thing I have done.

I realised that further normalisation of remote communication – both written and video – has extended academics’ advisory reach. They have allowed me to guide my mentees even if they are stuck at home, to bring in further-flung guests for seminars, to reunite with far-away family who before might have never even touched a computer but whom we now see face-to-face much more regularly than once a year, during the holiday season.

The changes in situation and pace at work and at home continue to be difficult, and, progress with vaccines notwithstanding, planning ahead still seems a little foolhardy. So I have tried to put aside my eternal push to get to the next task, the next milestone and live the moments within each day as achievements in themselves, checking in with the people who matter to me, holding my children as we call their grandparents hundreds and thousands of miles away.

So can I summon any words for this year? The list could easily be long and dark, but I am a forward-looking person who prepares for the worst yet hopes for the best – so the words that come to me as I write this are reach and reaching out, kin and kindred.

Especially as the holidays come, it is easy to focus on the literal large voids: the absence of parties, reunions and other big events. But I now favour cultivating core connections. Now I understand that the daily hello and how are you? – to colleagues, friends, family – are the real gifts of this season: the gifts of any season.

Jessica Seeliger is an associate professor in pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University, New York State.


Couple wearing masks and gloves buying groceries/supplies in supermarket with sold out products.Food supplies shortage. People sitting on the shelves.

Making meta-conversation

Let’s be clear. No consolations mitigate the bleakness of this year. The buoyancy of my lockdown sourdough starter does not negate all the lives needlessly lost, the livelihoods destroyed or the mental health shattered – not to mention the crumbling of the facade of Western democracy.

Nevertheless, there are some small silver linings that help me restore a drop of humour, good grace or optimism to my daily life. These don’t shine equally for everyone; they exist only in specific, individual miniature. They offer no solutions to the disasters above. But, in that spirit, I offer one specific consolation that has improved my own 2020 and will surely see me into 2021: seeing live, oral events take on a new meta-level of textual commentary.

Shortly before Covid, I attended two conferences that had a strong game in local WhatsApp groups and live-tweeting. This meant that the participants lived out the talks and meetings all together, bouncing reactions and interpretations off each other during and after each panel. The events felt much richer for it, and I learned more. A year later, with all events being held virtually, the side chat has become the best part.

Side chat has tangible intellectual benefits. It is not distracting but, rather, engaging to ask speakers a question on-screen without interrupting them, text a colleague to check an interpretation of what’s just been said, post picture or a link to a related publication, or even just offer a silent thumbs up. It’s true in online classes as well. I can watch students write their commentaries right on to a text I have set them, collaborate on shared note-taking, and sometimes text rather than speak their answers to my questions in order to articulate them better. I recently taught a three-hour seminar entirely by text when my voice failed; my students variously typed or spoke. Having two simultaneous formats on offer gave us a shared written record, some welcome low-stakes humour and a fuller discussion.

Side chat makes administrative meetings bearable, too, when we silently play “made you laugh on screen”, take note of new haircuts and coffee mugs, and guess who will make which predictable comment. (Yes, we still pay close attention.) These games make up for the spontaneous chat we used to have while filing in and shuffling out of a room of chairs. But they go beyond play. They help. Last spring, during an online meeting, a colleague made an egregious, offensive claim. My role required me to respond, and I found it hard to keep my cool. Hearing my phone vibrate, telling me that the other attendees were as outraged as I was, made it much easier to find the poise I needed and the right constructive thing to say.

This metatextual approach, making a work’s interpretation inseparable from the work itself, is fittingly postmodern. But it also has a very long history (see: Scholasticism; see: Talmud). It makes sense that I, as a historian, would consider it a silver lining; historians are used to constructing alternative readings of an event and counter-arguments to a theory. Our training makes us better able to find positive angles on the new demands of our lockdown lives, virtual classes, distant friends and close, needy relatives. In other words, it’s not just our interest in the long view that helps up cope with the trials of 2020: it’s also the way we’re taught to think.

Like every silver lining, though, the constant meta-commentary that I so enjoy is surely another scholar’s dark cloud. For that person, maybe the “mute all” and “hide chat” buttons are the key to equilibrium. In short, when it comes to finding consolations, it’s not so much the consolations themselves that help the most. It’s the human ability to think of the right ones for each of us. Our own minds, in the end, will get us through this if anything can.

Although a nice sourdough helps, too.

Emily Michelson is senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Silver linings: the consolations of 2020

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