Lessons I’ve learned from six weeks under stay-at-home orders

One of the core tenets of my teaching philosophy is that people learn more outside their comfort zones than inside. These past six weeks working from home have reinforced that lesson to me in an indelible way.

Like many academics, I’ve been faced with restricted access to my campus, virtualization of my resources, a sudden pivot to remote teaching, and the added challenge of handling child care responsibilities during working hours. My academic responsibilities, on paper, are unchanged – I’m still expected to be putting in at least forty hours a week on my research and teaching responsibilities. What’s different now is that I’ve got child care layered on top of this multidimensional parfait of time management.

In no way should the following entry be construed as me complaining. I’m acutely aware that 30 million Americans’ incomes suddenly dried up, and thousands of Americans have been sickened and even died. My gratitude journal reads like a litany of middle class privilege. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare my privilege in having access to continuous employment, good public schools, quality child care, advanced health care, and robust internet connectivity. I am also grateful that my three graduate students can remain in my employ. For my part, I’ve done my level best to contribute what resources I can to organizations assisting those in need, and to supporting local businesses struggling to stay afloat. I offer one dual-career academic’s experience of the COVID-19 crisis at a Midwestern U. S. university in hopes that the lessons I’ve learned will help others, and contribute to the larger cultural narrative of this unique moment in history.

Since becoming a “professor mommy,” I’ve worked hard to compartmentalize my life, i.e., I keep my work and domestic responsibilities separated in time and space. (I was raised by compartmentalizer parents, and I believe I am a better person for it.) When 5 p.m. rolls around, I switch from work mode into domestic mode. I sign out of my workstation, pick up my kids, and from that point on, I’m 100% focused on my family and my home. I strive to make these boundaries clear to everyone I interact with regularly, including my colleagues, my students, my friends, and my family. (It’s even in my syllabi.) Of course, there are occasions when work “leaks” into my domestic space-time, such as when big grant proposals are due, or exams loom. I also catch myself contemplating dinner plans after 4 p.m. But I chafe whenever these boundaries blur.

In early March, as news headlines filled with dire warnings about coronavirus’ unstoppable spread, disrupting higher education worldwide, I sensed that I facing a tectonic shift. Every day, I would open my email inbox and mentally play back a record scratch. Between 2 March and 10 March — a period of just over one week — my institution’s administrative messages escalated from vague references to ‘continuity plans’, to explicit instructions to teach and work from home. My husband, also on tenure track in the same department and teaching his own course, faced the same inundation of messages.

As the next two weeks unfolded, my older child’s school shifted to remote instruction, and my younger child’s therapy center shut down completely. I was extremely fortunate to have a partial backstop; our part-time day care center was able to take my older child on full-time, but could only continue to care for my special needs younger child part-time. My husband and I would have to manage him for more than half of our nominal working hours each weekday.

After years of staunch compartmentalization, I was suddenly obligated to invite work into my domestic space. Like an unwelcome visitor, it took over our guest bedroom (now my remote office). I cleaned off the cluttered desk where my disused gaming / video editing workstation sat, brought home a few indispensable books and papers from my office, ordered a large monitor to connect to my work laptop, and tried to delineate “work space” by affixing yellow masking tape to the carpet. (Some friends pointed out that I inadvertently re-created a scene from the 1970s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.)

A desk with two monitors, a laptop and a chair.
My home office has never been this clean since.

The physical transition was easier than the mental transition. I found that my internal connections between setting and activity were deeply ingrained, and now I had to unlearn them in a hurry. For the first few days, my eyes kept wandering around the house, looking for chores to do. To resist those urges, I worked from coffee shops and the library for a few hours a day, until those facilities were closed statewide on 16 March.

But for my younger son’s care needs, the transition from that point might have been smooth. However, he insists on being in the same room with me at almost all times. How can I blame him? I’ve instilled in him since maternity leave that Mom will be 100% present for him, physically and mentally, when she is at home. Both my kids have had to adapt to the idea that Mom and Dad have “work hours” at home now, during which they should not be disturbed except in emergency circumstances. My older son has adapted well to this new paradigm (e-learning keeps him busy). But, as anyone who has interacted with me on WebEx in the last month-and-a-half can attest, my younger son has no respect for my work space or hours. He tore up the afore-mentioned yellow tape about two weeks after I put it down. He’s made countless appearances in my WebEx meetings and office hours, in various states of undress. My pets have made their presence known, visually and audibly. I’ve stopped apologizing for these types of incidents. What would have been considered a professional faux pas prior to March 2020 is now acceptable, even commonplace. We’re all in the same boat!

Teaching remotely is difficult, but not as hard as I imagined. (My use of the term remote rather than online is deliberate, informed by articles like this one and this one.) I was in the middle of teaching radar meteorology, an upper-division course, when I suddenly had to pivot to remote teaching. Fortunately, we had already completed our field trips to two radar sites (KIND and XTRRA) in February. I had already began to incorporate more online resources and tools (LMS, Gradescope, Slack, WebEx) in past courses, mostly as a matter of convenience. The COVID-19 crisis scattered my students across multiple states, and forced me to adopt technological solutions wholesale, all at once. I began by cultivating my institution’s online resources, leaning more heavily on our textbook, and recording video lectures using tools my institution provided.

What did I find? Through meticulous preparation, I could condense material that would normally occupy a 50-minute lecture into two or three five-minute videos. (Skeptics of higher education might point to that statement as proof that I’m overcompensated. To that argument I answer, each five-minute video took approximately two hours of laborious research, scripting, and editing.) Before the shift, the other 35 to 40 minutes of each class period were used for interaction with my students: asking questions, clarifying concepts, sharing personal experiences, and reading the room to make sure that they are getting it. I attempted to replace that interactivity in two ways: over Slack, by posing a few specific questions each day based on the videos, and WebEx office hours twice a week. The students, for their part, actively embraced this new routine, and I enjoyed watching them chat and deliberate, both in real time and asynchronously. My job as a professor isn’t simply content delivery; I’m not Grubhub for information. Fully two-thirds of my class periods are spent actively engaging future professionals in knowledge transfer, empowerment, and mentoring. The pandemic is casting a long shadow over our fall semester as well; I’m making a “Plan B” for every course I teach from here on out.

My research has definitely suffered. The research project that I was working on has essentially ground to a halt — my field program for this year and the storm chasing class that I’ve been documenting for scholarship were both cancelled. Proposal writing requires an intensive focus that’s in short supply around my household. It’s impossible to focus on “deep work” with a rambunctious three-year-old climbing on my back and pulling my hair. (I was even struck on the head with a child’s footstool while writing this!) I’m lucky if I can carve out a consistent 30-minute block each day for writing, let alone long, uninterrupted, multi-hour blocks that my type of research and writing require. My institution has recognized these difficulties, and even offered to let me extend my tenure clock by an extra year if I so choose.

Schools are not “closed.” When the pandemic recedes, public school teachers deserve a ticker-tape parade, healthy raises, lengthy vacations, and an entire chocolate raspberry cheesecake. Each. Teachers (and their support staff) are having to work harder than ever to stay connected and engage kids outside the classroom. My older son’s first grade teacher was already using some online teaching tools in class, tools that took on new importance. As I worked to set them up for my son, I was impressed with their content and quality. My older son’s teacher did an amazing job communicating clearly her expectations for the transition, and what tools we needed to have in hand. She stayed interactive, replying to comments in online chat, even had a virtual lunch with each student during the month of April to maintain her presence in their lives.

Fortuitously, I’m of an age where I’ve internalized that nothing in life is permanent. Many aspects of my adult life in which I’ve never experienced disruptions — public school, social gatherings, going to libraries, or simply eating at restaurants — were suddenly off-limits. I’ve cultivated a mindfulness practice that allows me to live fully in the moment, and face the challenges in front of me without yearning for the past or worrying (much) about the future. Oh, I’ve had my fair share of anxiety about my family’s health, sleepless nights, and mental chatter about the future stability of my institution and academic career.

But, like Star Trek‘s Borg warn us, resistance is futile. I understand that change is an intrinsic part of life, and attempting to cling to what is lost will only make me miserable. The writings of Dr. Aisha Ahmad, in particular, have been an anchor of sanity. Adaptation is stressful. As the Beastie Boys once opined, “The only way around this sh*t is through.”

I’ve alluded to gratitude throughout this message. I’ve made it a daily practice, and I think it’s allowed me to remain relatively peaceful as I move forward, one day at a time, further outside my comfort zone and into an uncertain future.

Child writing with sidewalk chalk
My son completes our giant thank-you card to our community.

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