I began writing this on day four of self-isolation, from the small desk in my home office. At that time, my University had only just announced its month-long closure, suspending all meetings and educational events, and moving all teaching and examinations online in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This closure has now been extended until the beginning of the next academic year in September. At that time, the Government in the Netherlands also announced the closure of all cafes and restaurants, as well as schools, which would only remain open with a skeleton staff to care for the children of health care professionals and key workers, measures which were implemented about a week ahead of similar measures in the UK. In this quarter’s column, I offer a philosophical reflection on this unprecedented time.
Seemingly spreading as quickly as coronavirus itself are the memes about the virus; and within academic circles, many of these centre around the inability of philosophers to use technology. I particularly enjoyed this from Ryan Webber’s McSweeny’s article “Welcome to your hastily prepared online college course”:
“We will use AOL Instant Messenger to recreate our passionate in-class discussions. I assume everyone has an AIM account, so please send out your usernames. Mine is HangingChad2000. For fun, I encourage everyone to include their favorite Donnie Darko quote as their away message.”
Fortunately, I only had one lecture left to teach this quarter, and so far all of the Skype supervisions have gone off without a hitch (I say this in the knowledge that I have two more scheduled for this afternoon, and that, having written this, they will now almost definitely go wrong). I of course have not been using AOL messenger, I’m not thatold, it’s MSN messenger all the way bebe. But this has left me wondering about online pedagogy.
I have seen a couple of useful tips about how to do online teaching especially in light of a global pandemic. The key insight seems to be don’t just assume everything can carry on as normal with no translation from a face to face to an online context. For example, Online Instructors @KIS have recommended asynchronistic learning, allowing students to work at their own pace, rather than offering real-time video conferencing and just replacing the physical classroom with the virtual one.
This greater amount of flexibility makes a lot of sense to me. This is not a normal situation, we are not all just working from home for the fun of it, we are working from home because there is a global pandemic. Another article (read: post I saw on Facebook), also suggested that students may well not have more time on their hands, but less. They may not be attending physical lectures and seminars, but they may have to care for elderly relatives or children who are now off school. Time may be taken up by having to make strategically planned shopping trips to get the supplies they need – especially in the wake of all the hoarding or in Dutch “hamsteren” (great word) that has been going on. They may be worried about elderly family members living hundreds of miles away, or about their own health if they are in an at-risk group. Having the attitude that it is just business as usual, can therefore be potentially harmful if we don’t take this into consideration and adopt more flexible strategies for these unprecedented times. And of course, this goes for staff as well as students.
Taking notice of these various constraining factors means being mindful of something that feminist philosophers and others have long reminded us: we are not isolated individuals – Hobbesian mushroom men, springing up independently without mother or father or social ties. We are relational beings, we depend on others and others depend on us. This is something we may often play down, conceal or underestimate in the normal course of things, but in times like this we are forced to be mindful of our interconnected nature, as it is brought into sharp relief, either by being cut off from those we love, or being forced into close – and for some – interminable quarters with them. Those who can usually “escape” from the realities of domestic and family life are being made to confront more directly all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep things ticking along. You can’t work a straight uninterrupted 12-hour day when you also have to care for the young or the elderly, or even just cook meals for yourself. Perhaps, when all this is over, employers will be more sympathetic to demands for flexible working, having now had to become more flexible themselves.
Many academics on social media have been viewing this quarantine as a potential time to finish that article / write that book, etc. Which is wonderful if you don’t have any of the constraints on your time outlined above, but are there really any people who fit into that category? Perhaps a couple of philosophy bros who have sacrificed all personal ties to pursue a nomadic academic lifestyle with no distractions like family, friends, or ill health, and to those I concede this is probably their wet dream, but for the rest of us, this is potentially a very stressful time, and focussing on work in a sustained way might just not be possible if you’re feeling stressed, exhausted, and cooped up. As someone who occasionally works from home anyway, there is something fundamentally different about choosing to work from home and being forced to. Although the content is the same (not leaving the house, not putting on make-up, having too much ready access to tea, biscuits and the “treat tin”), the context really changes the feel of the action. I’ve found myself far more lack lustre knowing I have no choice but to be here. It is much harder to get motivated and be productive than when I elect to stay home to focus on a specific task. I think the comedian Stevie Martin’s tweet really sums it up:
“oh my god stop tweeting ‘nows the time to finish that project!’ may we be excused from churning out quality content DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC PLEASE today i looked at my own leg for 45 minutes. just stared at it.”
Hopefully as I get into more of a routine, leg starting will be reduced to only 5 – 10 minutes per day.
In many ways though, we – those of us with salaried jobs and a stable internet connection – are very lucky. Having the internet means we are able to keep in touch and interact in ways that would not have been possible a few decades ago. We can Skype and FaceTime and Zoom and House Party, we have the time to catch up with friends hundreds of miles away that we don’t usually see. But there is something fundamentally different when all our interactions move online. As phenomenologists have long argued, communication is not just a linguistic act, it is something that is embodied. Without being in a room with someone you lose access to all the non-linguistic ways in which meaning can be communicated: through gesture, through movement, through touch. And for those without access to modern technology, forced to isolate at home alone, this is even more difficult. As Lisa Guenther argues in her book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives, embodied contact with others is what allows us to makes sense of our world, to orient ourselves in space, to have our perceptions and even our sense of ourselves confirmed and maintained. From a phenomenological perspective, we can see how prolonged isolation can do sometimes irrevocable damage to the self. As relational beings, we need contact, and physical contact with others, which is why no matter how comfortable your living situation may be, if you’re alone it can still be almost unbearable. But let’s not end on a bum note, could there be any upsides to this enforced isolation?
In early March, before the pandemic really kicked off in Europe, I noted that I did not have a free weekend until Mid-May, then overnight my whole schedule was cleared. Although I may still be desperately thinking of ways to try and recreate the two-week trip to Bali I should have been taking at the end of April, with only a washing up basin, a litre of gin and a photograph of a turtle, it was actually quite liberating to be forced to slow down and smell the artificial roses from inside the protective shield of my own house.
In Being and Nothingness Sartre famously argued that even the imprisoned person is still free because their consciousness means they can choose how to react to the imprisonment. In many respects, this is a frustrating and patronising idea, made from a position of privilege that operates with an absolute lack of understanding of what it actually means to be unfree, and the way our circumstances and other people can all but erase our freedom, as Simone de Beauvoir objected in her diaries at the time. There are, of course, degrees of imprisonment. I, for example, am very glad I am “imprisoned” in my beautiful turn of the century Dutch apartment, where I am fortunate enough to have a separate office, living area and bedroom, rather than being confined in the tiny shoebox of a flat above a Wetherspoons with five to seven crack addicts living in an electrical cupboard 12 feet from my front door (true story, they were actually very pleasant most of the time). And in this context of relative imprisonment, I think Sartre’s idea does have something to offer. Not that we should be making the most our confinement by upping our productivity, but that there are still new possibilities to be found and new things to be explored in our restricted living circumstances. The attitude with which we confront these strange times can make a big difference. So if you’re lucky enough to be in a relatively secure position, albeit confined at home, rather than bemoaning the beach holiday you could be on, try and focus on the freedom you do still have and the autonomy you can still exercise, by writing a new routine for yourself, picking up that book you never had time to read, attempting that yoga pose that has always eluded you, playing with your children, cooking a new meal. Or you know, just taking the time to stare at your leg.