Keeping on going

At the beginning of lockdown I had the intention of posting regularly (maybe once a week), and was initially successful. I posted about technological expectations of home working, about how life hadn’t really changed that much for me personally, and, at the beginning of this month, about a temporary relapse, when I felt very negative about everything. Well, now we are at the end of May, and have been in lockdown for nearly 10 weeks, it is certainly time for an update!

Early on in the month, the first batch of marking came in. This year my module on Digital Forensics was made available for more students to take, so I have about 100 case studies to mark. Progress has been slow, but I’m more than half way through. Then on Friday the first exam marking appeared in my inbox, and more is expected in the coming weeks. So I’m definitely busy.

Also on Friday my university announced its plans for next academic year. Essentially we’ll be teaching remotely for at least the first semester, although students will get some lab classes/small group teaching depending on their subject. Since I don’t run labs, it looks as if my teaching will be done remotely at least for the remainder of the (calendar) year (including undergraduate projects, if they run). That at least gives a basis for planning.

Regarding life in general, I am remaining positive, and trying to do things that have been neglected because I’ve been too busy in normal life. That includes sorting out blog posts! I am typing this post on my old Google Nexus, which I have had time to get set up again. Musically I’m playing the piano regularly, and thinking about starting some trombone practice (using a practice mute of course!) I expect June and the first part of July to be dominated by marking and some external examining, and then I can start planning for next year. I haven’t mentioned research, but that will return soon, once the marking is complete.

Of course I miss travel, conferences and my various musical activities, but they will return, and I will appreciate them all the more when they do. But for now, life is OK, and I do appreciate how lucky I am compared with many others.

A temporary relapse

So far, my lockdown posts have been broadly positive, concentrating on those aspects of the situation we are in that I can turn to my advantage. But at some point there had to be relapse, and this happened towards the end of this week. I’ve been thinking about what brought it on.

I think that two online meetings I ‘attended’ during the week, a Chemistry Course Management Meeting, and a Forensics Student Voice Meeting didn’t help. Both served to underline, if it were needed, the long term severity of the situation, and this was compounded by an email from our Vice-Chancellor on Friday, setting out 5 scenarios for the academic year to come, ranging from ‘business as usual’ (unlikely), to a continuation of the current lockdown. Quite how we are going to teach lab based subjects like Chemistry and Forensic Science if any level of social distancing continues is open to question (and I have registered for a ‘meeting’ next week to discuss how universities will respond to these challenges).

Another irritant was a post I read on social media, where a retired person was waxing lyrical about the lockdown, and how they hoped it would never end (and that they would never go back to the way things were, pre-lockdown). Although retirement isn’t that many years away for me, there are still things I want to do, and I couldn’t disagree with this post more. Even when I do retire, I will want to be able to travel, and to get back to being able to take part in musical activities, for example.

The net effect of all this was a building of a feeling of resentment, particularly focused on things I miss, including travel and scientific conferences. I haven’t attended many conferences in the last couple of years, partly because I went through a period of travel anxiety (see posts from 2018, but now thankfully gone), and also because there hasn’t been much that has appealed to me, given that I use funds I have built up over a number of years, and want to make sure they are well spent! So now it is clear I won’t be able to attend a conference for some time, somehow I’m missing them more.

However, after about 24 hours, the resentment passed, and I am back to feeling I can continue to make the best of the situation. Being able to finally finish a paper which has been dragging on for weeks has helped – I could never have done that in normal times, at least not as quickly. No doubt the negative feelings will return, but at least I’ll know they won’t last long.

Some personal consequences of the lockdown that are worth keeping

Although the consequences of the lockdown are very worrying for countries, for their economies, industries and work places, and for peoples’ livelihoods generally, I have tried to take some positives from it. Some of these are even worth carrying forward when normality returns, as I’ll discuss at the end. They include:

  • A slower pace to life, and less mental ‘clutter’. I’m still busy, but I can think things out more clearly
  • Less time-induced mental stress
  • Regular exercise is easier to schedule and achieve
  • Time to look at every issue, and not having to put things off for a future time that may never come
  • Time to catch up on reading, and listening to/playing music
  • Not having to deal with the increasing vagaries of bus travel
  • No ironing to do, with t-shirts and joggers being standard wear now.

I should add, time to enjoy the Spring, which has been particularly beautiful this year, although that’s more of a one-off.

To what extent these can be applied when normality returns is open to discussion, but I think that by applying the principles of Mindfulness, which I learned when I was getting a lot of anxiety worries, the first two can be achieved. The problem with scheduling exercise is my infinitely variable timetable during teaching periods, but with thought and determination, it can be done. Having time to deal with every issue is probably not something that will be realistic post lockdown, but I’m enjoying it while I can. Reading and listening to music can only be done when I have time, but maybe actually scheduling time for them is an answer? The point about bus travel doesn’t apply to me so much as to Angela, who uses the buses to do shopping and to travel to do her hospital radio show. During the lockdown she has recorded three radio shows so far from home, with one pending, and she has decided to continue to do this in future, to save trying to work with an increasingly poor bus service. To this end, we will make much more use of our car to do shopping in future – again it’s just a matter of scheduling.

One thing the lockdown has done is to give time to think about things, and to try to come up with solutions for everyday problems. Certainly there will be no going back on some of these issues, and I’ll no doubt post any progress (or lack of it) in the future.

Unexpected recollections – Professor Denys Harding (1906-1993)

The Covid-19 lockdown is having some surprising effects, as I commented on in my previous post. One is the clarity of mind that I have at present, and the absence of the usual ‘brain fog’ resulting from trying to think about too many things at a time!

I’ve been waking quite early recently, and having some thinking time before going out for my walk, and this morning what should pop into my head but a memory from my childhood of my parents’ friendship with the psychologist and critic Denys Harding.

My parents moved from London to Suffolk in 1962.  We moved to a small village, Wenhaston, where my mother became head of the primary school, and where she still lives to this day. My father had been working as a technician in the Psychology Department at Bedford College (a college of the University of London which later merged with Royal Holloway College in 1985 to become Royal Holloway and Bedford New College).  Bedford College was In Regents Park, London, and I remember my father taking me there occasionally. The Psychology Department was led By Professor Denys Harding; it was a small department, and my father knew ‘the prof’ well (it seems academic departments were friendlier places then!)

When we moved to Suffolk, my father retired from Bedford College, and 1963, Professor Harding also retired, to his house (the old vicarage) in Ashbocking, Suffolk, about 26 miles away from where my parents now lived. I remember that we would visit Denys and his wife Jessie from time to time, and my main recollection is the geese they kept, which were quite frightening, and certainly as effective as any guard dog. Another recollection was the very formal way in which Denys and Jessie lived, with separate cloakrooms for male and female visitors, to which we would be ushered on arrival. And they really were cloakrooms – with hanging space for coats, and washing facilities as well. (An interesting footnote to this is that I looked up the house, and it was most recently on sale for £2.5M!)

I don’t know when I last met Denys, but it was probably not later than 1975, when I went to University. He was always kind to me, and I remembered this morning that he had given me a copy of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’, to which he had written an introduction. And, miracle of miracles, I still have this book, which he signed for me (see photo below).

Denys died in 1993, a year after his wife Jessie. The obituary in the Independent provides a good summary of his working life, from his education at Cambridge, via various academic positions, to the Chair in Psychology at Bedford College. It notes that he was as much a literary critic as a psychologist (born out by his interest in Jane Austen’s works, for example).

This obituary was written by Dr Monica Lawlor, from the same department at Bedford College, who I also remember. Dr Lawlor visited us in Wenhaston several times. I naturally looked her up while writing this, and found that she died in 2013. There is a short obituary in the Royal Holloway and Bedford publication ‘Higher’ (scroll to pages 38-39). She was a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, with a special interest in Child Psychology.

Of course, back in the days when we visited Denys and Jessie, I had no idea of what I would do in my life. Quite what Denys would make of Higher Education now can only be guessed. But, looking back, perhaps there was a small influence there?

How we live now

If the title of this post looks familiar, it’s an adaptation of the film title ‘How I live now’, a film released in 2013 starring Saoirse Ronan (which I greatly enjoyed, in a grim way). Anyway, I thought it a good title for this week’s post, which looks at how my life has changed (or not) since the lockdown started.

When the lockdown kicked in, we still had a week of teaching to do, but by lucky coincidence, mine had mostly been done by then. I recorded the lecture I still had to do, and put it online, and tackled the backlog of marking that had built up. With little or no distractions, I finished that in a few days. Once the Easter vacation started it was possible to turn to other things, like research (more on this later).

One thing I have realised in the last nearly three weeks is that I don’t miss social interactions at all. As it is, I don’t get much at work (the fate of a former head of school), and though I enjoy going to pubs, I’m perfectly happy to be alone and talk to no-one while there. So I am very happy to be at home with my wife, and our family of soft animals (of various species!)

One surprising positive from all this is that communication with both my mother and with research collaborators has improved. In the case of my mother, because my office phone number now forwards to my mobile, she can call my office (a landline number) to speak to me any time (her phone service plan doesn’t include free calls to mobiles, but landlines are fine). And because my research collaborators around the world are in a similar situation to me, they are much easier to get hold of. As a result, I have nearly completed two papers with groups in Brazil in the past week.

So, what about negatives? I posted recently about assumptions made by managers concerning the infrastructure their workers had. I don’t have broadband at home (as discussed in that post), so although I can read and reply to emails, and download/send attachments etc., I certainly can’t do video conferencing and the like. It’s actually very liberating to be able to say ‘no, sorry, I can’t do that’ to a request, and to be perfectly justified in saying it. However, if the lockdown continues to June, these requests will only become more frequent. Probably the most serious negative is that any new research is not happening currently because I can’t access my research computers. Fortunately I still have papers to write up.

I am very fortunate to live on a university campus, and one which includes plenty of good walking. My day starts with a walk around the campus, when I usually see almost nobody. If for work reasons I need WiFi, I can take my laptop and sit beside or behind one of the university buildings (provided the weather is OK). I can access my office if needed, but I try to minimise that, as there is a key card system, and access is recorded. I want to be sure that if I do go there, it is for a good reason that can be documented. We have a supermarket and a pharmacy, and larger supermarkets in the local town, provided you don’t mind the queuing.

So, all in all, my life hasn’t changed greatly in the last three weeks, and as long as there continues to be an acceptance and understanding of my work situation, I’m happy to continue in this way for the immediate future.

Reflections on 10 days in lockdown

It’s 10 days since the government announced the lockdown – telling most people to stay at home and to only venture out for exercise, essential shopping or medical needs.

My days have settled into a fairly established routine – up early for a walk around the university campus, breakfast and then down to work. Some days also involve a shopping trip – on campus we have a supermarket that is thankfully still open, and a pharmacy, and yesterday I ventured into our local town, Newcastle under Lyme, for petrol and more specialised shopping. We tend to use Lidl rather than the bigger supermarkets, and yesterday there was a short queue. They didn’t have everything we needed, but the essentials were there, thankfully. Angela had a successful trip to the independent butcher as well.

Regarding working from home, last week I posted about the challenges involved, and the assumptions made by our managers about what we can or cannot do. With my main problem being internet access, one of the suggestions was to try a WiFi dongle, which I have used before with mixed success. I ordered one from Vodafone, and found that it essentially doesn’t work because the phone signal is poor. I am hoping for better luck with O2, and I am also looking into trying a WiFi adaptor with an antenna (because there is a WiFi service close by). Both devices have been ordered, and the O2 dongle has just arrived, so I’ll be setting it up today. The WiFi adaptor will take longer to be delivered, but it is a long term investment, as it will still be useful when things return to normal. Also, my local IT services have been in touch to say they hope to send me a MiFi device. So things are looking more positive on that front.

Of course, the most important thing is our health, and Angela and I are both fine. My mother (99), who lives on the other side of the country, is as well as can be expected too, but not enjoying the isolation. For now she has adequate local support, but this must be a concern for many people who have elderly relatives. We just have to wait and see.

Home working and technological expectations

Like many others, I am working from home now. The actual process of working is fine, but the assumptions made by my employer and probably by employers in general about the facilities we have, are, I will argue, unrealistic. It follows that their expectations are unrealistic too.

Because I live close to my office, I have never felt the need to have broadband in my flat. It has been an attempt to have some kind of work-life balance – I know if I did have this, I would be working most of the time. This has been successful, and if I really need to do something work-related in the evening or weekend, I go to my office.

The situation now is that we are expected to be able to do anything internet related from home, as my building and most campus buildings are out of bounds. I can use my mobile phone as a WiFi hub, and that is fine for low bandwidth tasks, like uploading lecture slides etc. But it’s unlikely to be able to cope with online vivas and interviews (using e.g. Skype or Google Meet), which we are also expected to be able to do. I have asked my line manager to contact IT services about this, and I have separately contacted them myself, but so far there has been no response. My School Education Committee suggested using a WiFi dongle, but my experience of these in the past has been mixed. I have ordered one (they offered to pay for it, so fair enough); delivery is going to take some time, it would seem.

Even when people have broadband, there are undoubted security issues in working from home, especially if one is handling confidential items like exam papers. At least now we can install VPNs without having to beg IT services, which is a step in the right direction. But our employer is still making the assumption that we have these facilities, which of course we are paying for! And I was amused at an email from senior management that warned about security issues – they can’t have it both ways.

Anyway, we will see how it goes. Going forward, I can only see things getting worse. As we approach exams season, there will be even more demands and expectations. My hope is that the whole process will be learning experience for employers. Only time will tell.

Chemistry, Academia, Travel, Technology, Politics and Music