Just Getting By: Coping and Learning

The pandemic is teaching each of us individually many things. Some may be things we might not want to know about ourselves: how resilient we are; how well we cope with four walls and a screen, perhaps with no other adult in sight; and how to stay optimistic in the face of global uncertainty. Other things may be more immediately useful. In that category I would certainly include mastering a range of different platforms for holding meetings, teaching, exams and just social chitchat. Personally I haven’t yet had drinks on a Google Hangout, but did do something similar with a few other heads of house over Zoom. I have also had to appreciate the complexities – and difficulties – of MS Teams when you have more than one identity, or perhaps I should call it affiliation.

That attending committee meetings (or indeed, any other kind of meeting) via Zoom is exhausting has been frequently remarked by many. Chairing a meeting over such a platform is indeed a challenge. All the things I’ve written about chairing meetings on this blog go west when body language is largely hidden (can you see that someone is tapping impatiently on the arm of their chair? No, of course not.) Nor is it easy to see who is trying shyly to contribute. Although the mechanism of a virtual Zoom hand raise is helpful, someone has to have sufficient confidence to activate that and not just sit there looking anxious and trying to catch your eye.

Indeed, I find knowing where best to ‘look’ is difficult, when the camera isn’t centre-screen but off at the top. You can’t really make eye contact, as another way of gathering subliminal messages. I’m afraid, however, that making eye contact is really most cheering when someone is rabbiting on endlessly and you want to share a conspiratorial smirk with a colleague who you know shares your views on said irritating colleague. That’s gone west. Anyhow, I really haven’t solved the lighting in my room. Sidelighting from the window whenever there is bright sunshine outside always puts half my face into deep shade which the miserable desklight I have cannot correct. Of course I could turn my ‘office’ metaphorically upside down and move my desk and everything else, but the ‘60’s built in bookshelf and desk makes that incredibly hard. A kitchen table might be easier for this specifically.

However, these new skills, such as they are, are likely to be needed for a long time yet. I remarked in my last post about the need to think much harder about the differential impact on careers for different groups of people. Since then, another carefully researched article has highlighted the pandemic challenges for academics working from home coupled with domestic responsibilities, highlighting women of course. Thinking harder about the skills we are needing to practice now and how value them on CV’s absolutely must be a focus of those drafting advertisements (when jobs finally start to appear again) and sitting on appointments or promotion panels when devising their criteria. I was interested to hear a discussion recently amongst university leadership concerning postdocs in different disciplines who had volunteered to help during the pandemic with e.g. testing facilities. The skills they were learning in order to operate, for instance PCR machines, may have little to do with their formal research projects, but surely they should get credit for good citizenry, diverse skills and – quite possibly – clearer thinking about logistics? The new normal we all know we are going to have to face, should include a radical rethink of what behaviours in an academic should be incentivised. Business as usual just won’t be good enough on this, as on so many fronts.

Logistics. A topic which this government appears to be struggling with. I am, in the spare time conferred by not travelling up and down to London as usual, working my way through Andrew Roberts’ massive and impressive biography of Winston Churchill. Reading of Churchill’s attitude towards waging war (I’m sure I’ve heard that metaphor used more than a few times in the case of COVID-19, although for Churchill it was only too literal), his eye for the smallest detail of naval positioning, the supply chains or scientific developments in radar or bombs, is obvious. Somehow we seem to have lost the ability to think through logistics adequately. Someone in my university suggested maybe we will need to think harder about setting up a future course in logistics to help leaders of tomorrow’s pandemic. Certainly, without former captains of industry – those who understand just-in-time manufacturing, or the need for local as well as national control – at the centre of decision-making, the supplies and testing so badly needed during these dark days are failing badly in the UK.

We all know these are dark days, days of fear, uncertainty and little sign of chinks of light in which we can believe. We have our good days and our bad days, neatly summed up by journalist Gaby Hinsliff over Twitter.

Tempting though it may be (and it’s a failing I’m certainly guilty of) of trying to deduce why today feels so much worse than yesterday, we really shouldn’t do this. The sun may be shining but one’s mood dark and one’s productivity low. It may pour with rain but some urgent task actually manages to absorb sufficient attention that one emerges feeling something has been accomplished successfully. I need to internalise the wise words I can write – but not necessarily believe – as we all struggle on through uncertainty.





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