The joy of the old normal

After a uniquely difficult year, a return to campus is on the cards and we can anticipate the thrill of rediscovering small delights

April 29, 2021
lights reflecting in water at night
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Have you had your vaccination yet? I have not, which I am taking as evidence that I must be younger than I feel after a year that has put additional grey hairs on everyone’s head.

But I know it is coming soon, and can at last believe that in the UK, at least, every day brings something resembling normality a little closer. We all thank science for that.

The prospect of a return to at least some of the old ways is exciting, as is the sense of discovery that lies ahead: how will life settle down into new patterns as the pandemic is brought under control?

We will all have personal highlights ahead: seeing family, friends, colleagues and students in person is the most obvious one, since the limitations of entirely remote contact are clear by now.

There are, of course, huge disparities in how countries are faring at this stage of the pandemic, and even for those of us fortunate to be in places where optimism seems reasonable, it is a fragile optimism and one tempered by the news of Covid’s continuing march elsewhere.

But with that caveat, in this week’s issue we allow ourselves to look ahead to the return to campus – whether it has already happened, soon will or is on a more distant horizon – asking six contributors from universities in the UK, the US, India and Australia what they have most missed.

For Kristen Ghodsee, professor of Russian and east European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the call of the library sounds strongest: “The tactility and smell of the old books – many of them lonely after years of disuse – fully immerse me in my research,” she writes.

“Rather than flitting between a library search bar, my email and the thousand other distractions of the information age, I savour the quiet and stillness so conducive to sustained contemplative thought, occasionally waving my arm to trigger the motion-sensing overhead lights.”

Sarah Elizabeth Cox, media officer at Goldsmiths, University of London, has found plenty to like about homeworking, and plenty to consider about the opportunities it might open up for the future.

But, she says, she “will never again take for granted the chance to look in on an exhibition, talk, concert or performance on any given night. A student dumping a truckload of carrots on campus last year in the name of art caused some controversy…but it also sums up what I miss most about being in New Cross. Nothing that weird ever happens in my living room.”

Saikat Majumdar, professor of English at Ashoka University in India, looks beyond his country’s current travails to anticipate a return to campus that will feel “like a rebirth”. He is most looking forward to the day that human contact can return, whether that is “hugs, shaking hands, fist-jabs – whatever feels like the most authentic way of telling my friends, colleagues, students and the world that we’ve made it”.

For other contributors, the idea of an unscheduled meeting – the return of spontaneity and happenstance in professional interactions – shines like a beacon, while others are dreaming of bookcases and such transgressive acts as having a lunchtime pint with a friend.

In other words, it is the small stuff most have missed, which one suspects is a universal truth.

And those humdrum, day-to-day pleasures have already started to return for those fortunate enough to live in countries where the pandemic is currently in check.

“It is the incidental things that have made me happiest,” reports Tamsin Pietsch, director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, where the academic year began back on campus in February. “Students chatting as they lounge on the lawns in the sunshine, a library full to the brim, and the joy of being able to poke one’s head into a colleague’s office or bump into them in the corridors.”

Forget for a moment the hackneyed phrase “new normal”, and savour instead the anticipation of returning to the familiar fundamentals of the old normal.

The sense that we may soon be reclaiming at least some of that, rediscovering a world in which the thrum of life goes on in the background, is thrilling.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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