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Letter from Countess Wear

By Morwenna Ludlow

The last fortnight has turned our lives upside down. Just over two weeks ago, I was busily booking trains for a series of work trips; in the next few days these trips were all cancelled. Appointments to give seminar papers, journeys to academic conferences, all fell over in succession like dominos.

In many ways, academics are better placed than most people to work from home. Many of us in the Humanities spend large portions of time—in university vacations, on study leave—researching and writing off campus. We rely on books, libraries and archives—and there was a big scramble a week ago to collect books from offices as the University closed buildings off completely—but there is a surprising amount we can access on-line. In the past few days several major academic presses have released big collections of books free-to-access for the upcoming months: thank you  Bloomsbury , many US publishers via Project Muse and Cambridge University Press ! (Follow the links: you do not need a university library account; there are lots of historical and cultural books of general interest; the Cambridge offer includes many textbooks for those now home-schooling).

However, it still university term and what we are not used to doing is conducting teaching and meetings from home. In just ten days the University of Exeter has changed its examination regulations for the summer term and has moved all exams and teaching for its 25,000 students to various forms of on-line delivery. This has been an absolutely enormous piece of work, involving team-work of a complexity I’ve never before experienced. This all comes at a time when individual colleagues are of course negotiating their own transitions to new ways of working, many combining this with unexpected home-schooling and child-care.

We’re also making great efforts to keep in touch with our students by email, so much of the work of the past days for my colleagues and myself has been responding to very many anxious enquiries—but also just checking where our very international population of students are. Of my PhD students, two come from East Asia (but are currently resident in Exeter, far away from family) and another lives in Lombardy (putting research on hold to help his local town council). Most of us, too, have networks of academic colleagues across the world. This crisis, astonishingly, is affecting us all. When I don’t hear from the copy-editor of my book (whom I’ve never met, because she works from India) I worry that her city has gone into lock-down. Touchingly, emails from a potential academic visitor in Turkey (again, I’ve never met him) conclude with sincere prayers for my family’s health. Small kindnesses go a long way, even at a distance.

And small kindnesses from those nearer at hand give one a much-needed smile. These past ten days have been so busy with emergency meetings, that I am way behind with my marking (shhhh). This morning I opened an email from a student whose work has been in my in-box for far too long: it turned out that he wasn’t nagging me for a mark at all, just worried that I might be ill because he hadn’t heard from me.

And what a week of meetings it has been! The most crucial one has been between the College Dean and Heads of Department across the College of Humanities. We have “met” most weekdays for an hour. It’s here that we’ve debated the fairest ways to assess students’ work for this academic year. We’ve tried to balance the needs of students with the limited capacity of staff who are working at their limit. We pass on to the VC and Registrar any consistent patterns of concern that we’re hearing from students and colleagues. We support and give encouragement to each other, because we’re each absorbing a large range of emotions from people in our departments: fear, frustration, anger, disappointment. Each time we meet I am heartened and grateful for the sheer care and commitment of my colleagues.

But I’ve also learned some interesting things from my swift initiation into video-conferencing. In the past I’ve been very snooty about video-chats. Piers and I spend quite a lot of time apart and we have had far too many bad experiences of late-night video-calls in hotel rooms with bad WiFi. I know what my husband looks like by now. A simple phone call is just fine. And I know Piers so well, and his voice so well, that I can tell when he’s worried, or cross, or simply plain tired.

With others, though, I’m learning that a picture really helps. It helps one gauge those half-jokes which make most meetings run smoothly; one can have a better sense of when not to press a point when one sees the face of the person one is trying to persuade. One has a clearer sense of which points really matter to others.

As a counter-point to the seriousness—and the plain scariness—of what we are talking about is the endless fascination of observing other people’s rooms behind their head. (Apparently, there are facilities for blurring this out, but we have either not worked this out or don’t really care). During the first five nervous minutes of the first meeting you could tell we were all assessing the bookshelves behind each others’ heads. It turns out that my lovely colleague who has an eagle eye for correcting the minutes also has immaculately tidy book-shelves. One of my colleagues has the skull of an animal on his wall. Another has positioned his camera in such a way that we can mostly see his head and the ceiling. There are definite signs of damp patches above him… at what point is it polite to point this out? Does he know?

In conclusion: what have I learned in this fortnight of rapid transition to a new way of working? It’s clear to me that in a virtual world bodies still very much matter. I’m finding it easier to discuss difficult things with people I can see. On gloomy days I am inspired by my colleagues’ compassion and determination and I find it in their voices and in their faces. I have also discovered that I am very judgmental about other people’s curtains (although I am so far managing to keep my opinions to myself).