I’m not sure whether I’m surprised that it has already been three weeks since we began extreme social distancing here or surprised that it hasn’t been even longer — normalcy itself seems so distant now! It seems remote in both directions, too: hard as it is to think back on the relative simplicity of ordinary life before, it is even harder to look ahead because there is so much uncertainty about when and how those conditions will return. That’s as good an argument as any for trying to take this massive disruption one day at a time, which is certainly what I have been trying to do. My success varies, as does my ability to get through each day with anything like the (again, relative) equanimity and focus I used to have.
I have done a decent job (I think and hope) at sorting out my classes, at least. Over time it has gotten easier to let go of the plans and expectations that originally shaped them, which in itself is a necessary kind of progress, I guess! I chose the simplest way possible to deliver additional material: rather than recording lectures or trying to wrangle synchronous or interactive components at such a chaotic time, I’ve been making up PowerPoint slide sets in which I have tried to balance information and explanations of my own with questions, pointers, and suggestions for how to keep thinking about the class material. This has been primarily a finishing-up exercise, focused on texts we had already begun work on in class, which helps: the overall direction of our inquiries had been set. It has taken a lot of work, though, partly because I ordinarily use PowerPoint (when I use it at all) to supplement or illustrate or outline our classroom conversation, not as a stand-alone component: I’ve had to think very hard about how to use each slide, how to shape the overall presentation, and of course how exactly to say everything, as I’m not there to clarify, correct, or elaborate. Now I’m moving on to review materials for the students who have opted to write the take-home final exam, and of course I also have to make up the exams themselves — and I have papers to mark, too, an activity that seems a lot more attractive right now than it sometimes does because, unlike almost everything else, it is exactly the same process as ever.
One of the many ways I feel very fortunate right now is that neither of my classes this term is very large. If my teaching load were heavier (as was the case last term, and as is the case for some of my colleagues now), this would all be much harder. Although I am trying not to look too far ahead right now, it is impossible not to be conscious that there are no guarantees that our fall term, including my large first-year writing class, won’t be at least partly online as well. I would not want to teach any class, never mind a writing class, entirely through slide sets, of course! What we have been doing this term is handling an emergency situation as best we can, which (as many people have reiterated in online discussions) is not the same as a purposeful transition to online teaching with due diligence around best practices for learning, engagement, assessment, and accessibility. Everything I have read about online teaching tells me that it takes more time and more planning (and more resources) to do effectively than face to face teaching. Much as I hate the thought of it, because I love being in the classroom so much, it seems foolish to put off learning more about those best practices in the hope that I won’t need to, so I’ve signed up for a course we’ve just been offered through the university (itself asynchronous and online) on ‘online design and delivery.’ Part of the appeal (besides the professional obligation to keep doing my job as well as I can) is taking at least a bit of control over the situation: maybe I can approach the possibility of taking my classes online as a creative opportunity, albeit an unwelcome and unsought one!
I haven’t been able to do much really attentive reading since I finished Threads of Life last week. There’s not really any good reason for this: it’s mostly lack of willpower as much as nervous distraction! But my sister thoughtfully sent me a selection of tempting lighter reads for my birthday (along with a lovely assortment of other treats!) so I’ve been making my way through these, including Grace Burrowes’ The Captive (she’s a new-to-me historical romance novelist, and I enjoyed this one enough to put some others in the series on hold at the library – ebooks, of course, since the physical library is closed!) and Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (which is charming, if almost too much so – its premise and plot are cute enough that I think the book would actually be better if Waxman didn’t try so hard to be funny–or ‘bookish,’ which inevitably means, among other things, lots of handwaving to obvious fan favorites like Pride and Prejudice – see also You’ve Got Mail, for example). I also read a short book I’ll be reviewing – Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders – so that was not just distracting but also productive!
Like most avid readers, I always have a good selection of unread books on my shelves, but like Colleen I’ve been finding them somehow not quite what I want. In some ways this is a familiar problem for readers: sometimes you just have to wait for the right moment to read a particular book! I’ve had books on the shelf for literally decades that one day just suddenly leapt into my hand, or at least into my awareness, as if at last they were perfectly ripe for reading. But right now it may also represent the difference between choosing books just because they look interesting and choosing books to read when the world is in crisis. Thanks to the King’s Coop Bookstore, whose lovely manager is doing home deliveries by bicycle, I now have Miriam Toews’ Women Talking and Emily St. John Mandel’s Glass Hotel to hand, and I’ve also just sorted out my copy of The Mirror and the Light, which had been stranded in a closed Coles but is now en route to me by mail. I feel that familiar readerly tickle of excitement just naming them here, so hopefully I’ll be deep into one of them soon and that will help my one-day-at-a-time coping strategy feel less grim and more grounded. After all, reading has been the one constant through all the changes in my life, good and bad. It’s not going to let me down now.
So, that’s where I am: trying to keep my head in the moment and not let myself spiral into frantic ‘what if’ or ‘what next’ scenarios, and trying to appreciate the good fortune that means I still have my job, even if for now I can’t do it on the terms I’d like, and to focus on all that we have, rather than what we can’t do. I continue to be grateful for the community of readers I belong to through blogs and Twitter: as so many of our relationships have always been at a distance, in this at least I feel the comfort of continuity.
Like you, I suspect that we will still be in our current situation for some considerable time. I know that one local university is considering holding back on teaching new first year students until after Christmas, if only because of the problems round admissions. I think if I was a current university candidate I would be thinking about taking a gap year in the hope that things would be more stable eighteen months on.
I am envious about Glass Hotel. I noticed yesterday that its publication has been delayed here until August. I wouldn’t be surprise if that decision isn’t taken up by a lot of publishers.
There is going to be fallout of so many kinds from all of this. It has been heartening to see bookstores and their customers really trying to rise to this occasion.
I think you’re right about some students possibly deferring their admission (see Liz’s comment below as evidence!). I can also imagine some parents urging their kids to go to whatever university is closest for a while, rather than going away, which will have real consequences for universities like mine that take in a lot of students from other parts of Canada – and a lot of international students. But this kind of thinking about the future does not help me stay in the moment! Sigh.
The comfort of continuity, good phrase. It is indeed nice to have one place where people are doing the same things. I just finished reading The Mirror and the Light and thought, as usual, that no matter how bad things get, they still aren’t as bad as Tudor England, where people were still being burned alive for not professing whatever beliefs were defined as the right ones that year.
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That’s definitely one way historical fiction is useful: putting things in perspective!
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I am in much the same place: it feels as if we’ve been in this surreal limbo forever, but I’m still struggling to find a workable routine and structure. I’ve read one mystery in the last 3 weeks (and a poetry collection), but I’m starting to be able to focus more so I hope that changes. Mostly I try not to look ahead into the unknown, but like you I’m thinking I need to plan for online teaching in the fall, at least to start, and also that my younger child, who does not do well with online learning, should delay the start of university. So many plans have been upended, and the things I was worried about a couple of months ago seem ridiculous now.
I know what you mean about looking back on what seemed vexing or worrisome, even just a few weeks ago, and wishing those were the things on my mind right now! But at the same time it isn’t reasonable to live all the time as if the world is in (or soon will be in) total crisis, so I give our past selves a pass.
Like you, I have issues with some rom-coms that try so hard–too hard?–to be funny and likeable that they end up farcical or silly. And for some reason, contemporaries, these days, are veering into the rom-com territory rather than dramatic ones.
I have always been grateful to Twitter and Facebook for allowing me to keep up with people and talk with every day. Despite my hate for Mark Zuckerberg and his politics, I am grateful to him for his product that allows me to keep in touch with people from all over the world, including my Kindergarten teacher. These days, I have added Zoom as another way to keep in touch. I have Zoomed with Kindergarten friends, cousins from all over the world, and many others. Despite all its privacy and security issues, for private conversations, it works well.
I tend to prefer romances with a comic touch (perhaps because it quiets my inner cynic, who doesn’t believe at all in HEAs!). But some writers don’t seem to trust us to get it!
Yes, Facebook and Twitter and other social media options are going to be real sanity savers, though I have to cut myself off from too much news, which often feeds my anxiety without actually giving me any useful new information.
So happy to read your musings! I have heard good things about The Bookish Life, and will check it out (and be ready to have it be TOO charming, which is worse than not charming at all).