A Wrinkle in Time

Scott McLemee explores a series of essays on working from home during the pandemic.

August 28, 2020

I had a dream come true last weekend, quite literally. For the first time in about six months, I was able to browse in a bookstore (one in my neighborhood that's reopened with sanitary and social distancing protocols clearly posted) while wide-awake. In the past, leaving the store without buying anything had felt like a triumph of willpower, but this time it involved some guilt. Only one other person was in the store during my visit, a clerk, and it only seemed fair to her to purchase something. Next time, for sure.

To be clear, I am not exactly wanting for reading material, but the element of wish fulfillment is intense even so. Likewise with my spouse, who reports having theater dreams. She has attended at least one play a week, on the most conservative estimate, throughout her entire adult life -- or did until this spring. Performances by excellent companies are livestreamed now, and she has been able to take theater classes online. But there’s more to going to theater than seeing a play -- a ritual-like aspect that can’t be broadcast. Browsing indulges curiosity and involves a degree of chance. The hunger is not for content but for certain qualities of experience, in part communal, that are lost or on hold for the duration.

The possibility of turning crisis into opportunity comes up in one of the essays on working from home that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing. “How many of you,” asks Erika Dyck, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan, “have dreamed of pressing pause on the work treadmill? I am talking about a genuine freeze-frame, reset, and rethink, or a chance to read something that isn’t directly related to a task with a deadline.”

But think again: “Let’s not kid ourselves; working from home during a pandemic is not that.” Before the pandemic, Dyck had what seemed like a modus vivendi that balanced parental responsibilities and academic work, including her role as a co-editor of the Canadian Bulletin for Medical History. “Now,” she writes, “despite being relatively isolated or even hiding in a home office, I consistently feel tired and am unable to focus on anything, especially when it comes to writing … My mind has constantly wandered, whether drifting toward the contents of the fridge and the looming prospect of dinner, or more often enveloping me in a fog of wondering whether any of the work we do as academics really matters, or whether we will still have academic institutions in a post-COVID world.”

Dyck’s is the most confessional of the essays and, no doubt for that reason, the one that made the most impression on me. At some point her trouble writing it became integral to what she had to say -- in particular, to acknowledging the trouble with “feeling like we need to be productive while people are dying, losing jobs, hungry and scared.”

The other four contributors to “A Compilation of Short Takes on Working from Home” recount different levels of difficulty in adjusting to the disruption. Bryan Birchmeier, an intellectual property coordinator at Michigan Publishing and the University of Michigan Press, frames it as a less physically grueling version of the phase known as “tear-down” or “total control” that he went through as in boot camp: “It’s meant to break down any barriers recruits may have to adjusting to a military schedule and to military procedures … We have had to create or adjust to a new schedule and new procedures because so much about our daily routine is different …”

At the other extreme is the experience of Olivier Lebert, the manager for two Canadian journals for 15 years, who has telecommuted for 11 of them -- and from France for the past 10. It sounds like the pandemic has not called for that much change in routine, and he can sum up best practices very clearly: establish a schedule. Stick to it. Meet deadlines. Outside your set working hours, relax: “stop responding to professional calls or emails.”

Lebert’s recommendations are sensible, and they line up closely with the advice offered in the same symposium by Sarah Buhler, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, and by Kathie Porta Baker, described as “a self-employed manuscript editor, proofreader, and production assistant living and working in Northern Virginia.” But for Lebert, the boot camp-like transformation took place quite a while ago. Work at home has become second nature, though he does not indicate how long that took.

We are coming up on six months since the familiar broke. Marking the anniversary of a change sometimes helps to put it in perspective. In this case no commonly accepted date is available to punctuate time into before and after. (March 10 seems a little early, while March 15 is probably too late.) The turn was sudden, sharp, yet a blur. We make adjustments that seem to nudge things a little closer to normal, but with an uneasy awareness that there is so much more loss still to come.


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