I’ve been in lockdown with my partner for two months now. I have hardly left the house, apart from the occasional walk. Well I have been outside, of course, but in our small backyard and not proper outside outside, if you know what I mean.
My world has shrunk and, like a lot of other people’s, taken a decided turn to the digital. Teaching has migrated online but also other parts of life. My book group has gone Skyping and doubled its meetings. We used to meet monthly and combine socialising with serious text work. We’ve now separated the two and meet once a fortnight for “coffee” and once a fortnight to discuss our chosen book. And so it goes.
I’ve not taken up a new hobby. I haven’t suddenly started baking – well to be fair my partner used to have a bakery and still does all the baking we need. I was always a sporadic gardener and haven’t become more well acquainted with my fork and spade this spring than in any other year. But I do do some things less than before. I’m reading less fiction and rather more sociological and philosophical writing about the state of the world. I’ve become even more interested in thinking about where we might go as opposed to where we might end up if we don’t do anything different. And of course the corollary – I am doing some things more than before – using my exercise bike much more assiduously for instance.
I’ve also noticed that I’ve noticed more. Noticing, paying attention to what is around me, is very much part of my research process. I do a lot of ethnographic research, and even when I’m working in other methodological traditions, I’m often still observing and listening. So, now that I am not out and about doing research, I find myself noticing and observing my own changed behaviour, emotional responses and everyday activities.
I find for example that I am more aware of small things. Because I’m in the house all of the time I see the spider’s web immediately. Because the seeds are growing in egg cartons next to the kitchen sink, I mark their progress several times a day and can move them about to catch the sun. Because I am in my home office much more I feel obliged to try to reorganise the space so that there is simply more – space that is.
I notice how lockdown has changed domestic habits. For years my partner and I have been training ourselves to shop little, often, seasonal and local. This minimises waste, keeps us somewhat in tune with the weather and where we are living, and also ensures we don’t end up with hideous science experiments at the back of the fridge. Now we just can’t do this. In two months I have managed to secure three online grocery deliveries which supplement weekly fruit and veg deliveries. I have become my grandmother whose life in an isolated mining town was punctuated by irregular deliveries from the big smoke. And what excitement that was for her and is for me. What of the order actually arrives? What is substituted and is it really usable? What has to be gone without, again?
I notice that some academic habits have become glaringly obvious. I find it hard not to notice that I’ve got a case of what I could acronym FONDA – Fear Of Not Doing Anything. I see much more clearly now how I am prone to think I have done absolutely nothing at the end of the working day, when I have in reality answered emails, checked the latest journal articles, made contact with people on social media, reviewed a paper, written a reference, given feedback on some text, written a blog post. What’s that FONDA about then?
“Doing anything” irrationally equates to getting some writing or analysis done. Yet if you had asked me about what work I was doing during lockup on any particular day I would happily say that emails, reviewing etc all constituted my academic work. But also apparently doesn’t.
The work that gets counted in higher education is research and publications. Teaching counts too but it’s all about doing whatever it takes to ensure the numbers, income and satisfaction scores. And the rest of it – reviews, references, emails, establishing and maintaining networks, giving feedback – these are unseen and taken for granted by all of our institutions.
The lockup has allowed me to understand – yet again, as this seems to be a lesson that I find difficult to learn – that the kind of competitive productivity pressures about research and writing that I intellectually reject have sneakily inserted themselves into my life. I’ve let myself become prey to an evaluative emotional regime that determines what I feel good about accomplishing, and what I don’t see as real work. I’m stuck in emotional labour relations that aren’t good for my lockdown psyche.
But maybe I can get out of this space. Despite the conflict between the rational and the emotional, perhaps I can get a grip. Perhaps now is the time to follow some other lockdown lessons.
Do less? Well I could do less, but I actually enjoy writing and researching so I’m not sure why I would want to do less. What I actually want is to keep doing the writing and research and not feel guilty when I can’t get as much done as I’d like. Do more? Well no, I don’t want to do more of anything in particular as I think in general I do most of the things that need doing. So perhaps it’s do the same but differently? So still write and research whenever possible but don’t feel bad when not doing so. Well yes, that would be ideal. But how to get there?
I suspect doing the same but differently is easier said than done. But maybe the first step towards changing the academic guilt regime is to be aware of it. And making a kind of very late new year public resolution to try to get over myself and it.
FONDA is a crock. FONDA begone.