The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted lives in the Americas for more than six months now. The 2019-20 academic year fizzled as everyone went home. Then summer happened, and here it is, fall again.
Of all the ways this year has gone topsy-turvy, a particularly cruel one for scholarly people may be that we didn’t get the familiar relief, joy and anticipation that comes as the academic cycle washes away the previous year and brings a new first day of college. The calendar has reset, but normalcy has not.
This year has seen our working selves and home selves blended to a degree that no one could have anticipated. There will be lasting consequences that impact both our public lives and our private spheres. And it is not over yet. Rarely in the past century has there been so much time for reflection. If contemplation is the fount from which scholarliness springs, then knowledge runneth over. We’re going to need a bigger cup.
Half and Half
In North Carolina, where I live, the governor’s shelter-in-place order came about a week after the spring equinox, almost half a year ago. The sun rose a little before 8:00 a.m. and set a little after 8 p.m., giving us 12 hours and 24 minutes of daylight. It had been a cold week, but that day started at 54 degrees Fahrenheit and climbed 27 degrees, reaching its peak just before 6:00 p.m. It did not rain at all. The grocery nearest my house sold out of bread, eggs, milk and frozen pizza -- things people here buy when a winter storm is forecast. It also sold out of flour, pasta, rice and dried beans -- things that struck panicking shoppers as good to store in preparation for hard times.
It is easy to quantify such aspects of that day, but harder to measure what happened next. Colleges shut down, and our day-to-day work moved online. Prices fell, but our wallets seemed to tell us otherwise. To-do lists were compiled; self-improvement regimens were adopted; resolutions were made about completing tasks that would advance one’s career or bring one closer to finishing graduate work.
Six months later, we can look back on the naïve beings we were in the spring, with all those plans and goals. So much that could have been accomplished faltered before starting. So many projects have taken longer than expected. It does not matter why: we all have our challenges these days. There is no medal for being the most overwhelmed. Every unfinished task is unfinished in its own way.
Tomorrow, Sept. 22, is this year’s fall equinox, when day and night will again be about 12 hours long. For the next three months, the days will get shorter, until the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. My place will get about eight hours of sunlight then, which is plenty compared to what grad students at the University of Tromsø, the northernmost research university in the world, will see. There, the sun will set the day after American Thanksgiving and not rise again until mid-January.
Persephone, in Greek mythology the queen of the underworld and the bringer of spring, is a personification of the agricultural cycle. In the Roman poet Ovid’s version of her story, she spends half her life among the pantheon and half doing field research among the dirt nappers in Hades. I have thought of her often this lost spring and summer. Fall is when the seeds are planted in the Peloponnesus, where Persephone was from. Today would be her day to recheck her lists and run last-minute errands, and to buy her share of bread, milk, eggs and frozen pizza before heading back into the darkness.
Nature’s cycles are reasonably reliable, so Persephone knew about how many weeks it would be before she could return to the world of the living. Graduate students face a less predictable system. Results of multi-institution surveys of graduate students on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have begun appearing. In two recently reported surveys, 35 percent of engineering doctoral students and 25 percent of doctoral students from a broader group of departments reported that they expected their progress toward earning their Ph.D. would be delayed -- with engineers expecting delays of six months or less, and the broader group of students anticipating delays of six months to a year. A quarter of surveyed humanities doctoral students and 17 percent of doctoral students over all indicated that their career plans had changed since the pandemic began.
Locally focused surveys from multiple institutions show that graduate students are worried about paying for basic necessities and rent and maintaining their mental and physical health. The Council of Graduate Schools surveyed graduate deans in May and found they share graduate students’ preoccupation with financial problems generated by the pandemic. Seventy-four percent of responding deans said that they expected to honor their financial commitments to current students. Most reported that their institutions have moved activities like dissertation-writing workshops and writing retreats online to help students move toward completion.
How We Spend Our Days Is How We Spend Our Lives
The preceding thought from Annie Dillard from A Writing Life resonates with me these days. So does “Be patient and persist,” as Ovid advised in one of his nonmythological works, adding, “This unhappiness will benefit you one day.” Ovid was kind of a wiseacre. You know what sort of progress you have been making on your research and educational goals over the past six months. Maybe you are thriving, or progressing, or keeping your head above water. Maybe you feel like you have gotten little done toward your academic goals. It is a strange time.
If focusing has become impossible for you these days, reach out for assistance. Your institution probably has resources available to help you keep your bearings. Alternatively, if you are keeping your eye on your objectives, whether they are academic goals or adherence to the things that matter most in your personal life, know you are in pretty good shape even if you feel frustrated.
Look at the things you are getting done! Are you reading fiction again for the first time in years, giving your mind a break from worry about your dissertation, your literature review or your laundry? Did you pin up the pieces for a quilt you started making years ago? Have you moved your furniture around, cleaned your closets and drawers, and given a truckload of your possessions to charity? Have you spent your evenings on the phone with friends, with your laugh and your voice helping them find their way?
Effort put into mowing a lawn may take you away from your knowledge work, but someone needs to do it. Why not you? Getting children tuned in to their schoolwork is time not lost but invested, with dividends arriving in years, not hours. Shopping and cooking for vulnerable relatives or friends were not on most people’s schedules before but are today. Giving your time to someone you love is not contrary to your intellectual progress. A life of the mind needs the life of a body, and no body stands alone.
This season I have unexpectedly grown a garden entirely from food scraps, producing heads of celery and garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and a strange little cabbage. A born cheapskate, I wonder why I have not done this before. It would have been a helpful hobby in graduate school. I know the answer, of course: I have not been a gardener because everything I tried to grow before withered and died. But this year gave me reason to try again, and I have learned that I am not the bane of the plant kingdom. Who knows what else I need to revisit? Maybe I gave up too soon on dancing, birdwatching and wild-fermented beer.
What have you done this year that you never thought you would do? What have you thought about while making dinner, folding the laundry or looking out the window at the trafficless street? When your mind cannot abide pondering the unknown, the virus, your fears, the economy, the fires, the election, your job prospects and the plight of schoolchildren cut off from schools, what occupies it instead? Are you thinking about your research or other great questions in your field? Has the scale of your imagination changed, taking you from the global to the local, or from the particular to the general? Or in those moments have you stopped thinking of research at all? Living in this moment is changing you. Seeds are being planted. It is thrilling to see what will grow.