Glimmers of hope a life more ordinary is possible

Sunday National, 21st June 2020.

The punishment the Greek gods devised for Sisyphus was devilishly simple. Every day, he would roll a boulder up to the top of a high hill in Hades. Every day, the pitiless rock would roll back to where it started. Every day, he’d repeat this task, never making any real progress, never fixing his burden in place, never able finally to lay it down.

At the end of its thirteenth week, looking back, life under lockdown has sometimes shared something of this Sisyphean quality. Its circular days have slipped into circular weeks, and tumbled into three circular months, rolling on in a seemingly interminable cycle of dawns-to-dusks. You plod the same streets, day after day. You visit the same shops, week after week. The same bars and restaurants are boarded shut. With rain in the air and clouds in the sky, phase 1 still felt like life lived on a postage stamp, less of a liberation than you might have hoped. For many, the headlines of phase 2 may not seem much more emancipating either. 

Much of the time, any sense of collective progress has felt elusive. I know some of you will have been glued to the governments’ daily briefings, with their dynamic picture of infections, deaths, “R” rates and evolving regulations – but I’ve found even those have acquired a kind of unreal quality, describing the progress of an invisible virus through our society. These figures are hugely meaningful for our intensive care wards, for families whose relatives have fallen ill, for people who are shielding and vulnerable to infection.

But at the same time, they feel weirdly unanchored in the daily rituals of life. For the last few months, that’s meant Keep Buggering On from day to day, meal to meal, living in the animal moment and avoiding thinking about the future too much for fear that contemplating all the can’ts and won’ts of this summer will just depress me. The continuing health measures may be justified – but by gum, they’re boring.

But this week, it has felt like there is just a twinkle of something else on the horizon, and the edge of a prospect of escaping from this interminable lonely cycle into a life more ordinary, living a peopled existence again. Having criticised the lack of nuance from the Scottish Government on the particular predicament the lockdown regulations imposed on those who live alone or who live apart from their partners – I was encouraged to see this particularly addressed in this week’s announcements, authorising singletons and single parents to extend their household. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this change for many Scots, from grandparents to younger people, though you can only laugh at the perjink way the Scottish mandarins described this new liberty. As euphemisms go, “meeting indoors with overnight stays and without physical distancing” is unsurpassed. The spirit of Miss Jean Brodie lives.

It also – finally – feels like I’m beginning to be able to think about what the future may look like, by the time we tick through July, August and September. And professionally, that means thinking about the shape of the next academic term. In official thinking about the future of education in this country and in the media, Scotland’s universities and colleges have played a muted second fiddle to the ongoing discord about what primary and secondary schooling might look like after the summer. There are certainly some good reasons to prioritise the school experience. It effects more people, for starters. Last year, there were some 697,989 school-age kids in Scotland, compared to just under 296,700 students in Scottish institutions. Some 39% of Scottish school leavers go on to further study.

Then there are the knock-on effects on parents and care-givers. If primaries and secondaries are shuttered and daytime provision patchier, that has huge implications for working parents who rely on schools to look after their kids during the week. Students, by contrast, should be able to fend for themselves – though of course, some of them will also have children. School provision will have real implications for their own capacity to attend and participate in their higher education. There are also institutional factors in play here. While public money is an important source of university incomes, they aren’t the direct responsibility of local government to deliver.  But the future of higher education next session is increasingly the focus of Scotland’s universities, as academic staff and students try to work through what next term can and should look like, and university managers work out how to handle the colossal budgetary shocks of lost revenue this year, and the black hole left by international students who decide stay home next year.

If you were a teenager, contemplating your future in the wake of Coronavirus and minded to take your education further, would you be keen to start university or college next September? This is a question admissions departments are now anxiously contemplating, as next year’s potential undergraduates make final choices about whether to begin their university careers next autumn, or to try to defer entry in the hopes of a more ordinary experience in the autumn of 2021.

My impression is the economic factors will be decisive. Bars and restaurants remain closed, and with them, the kind of work many young people might look to as an alternative to the lecture hall. Recruitment and retention in the hospitality sector seem likely to be shaken by a massive economic shock lockdown has represented. Travelling the world may seem a less romantic and chancier project too, with closed borders, the threat of renewed lockdowns and compulsory repatriation hovering over your trip of a lifetime.

Against the backdrop of all of this uncertainty, getting going with your studies may seem reassuringly solid life strategy, rather than waiting around pennilessly for the world to revert to normality with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Certainly, Covid-19 may make the first months or year of your studies strange and dislocated, but with a four-year degree in front of most of them, new undergrads may pin their hopes on more recognisable university experiences returning before long.

For academics, the outsize question is how we will be approaching teaching and all the work needed to make it so. The messages currently emerging from university managements are carefully hedged, at once committing to some campus-based teaching, while at the same time, requiring staff to massively ramp up online provision with a view to digital delivery from October. This raises more questions than it answers. Learning can be blended – but the balance of the blend is highly significant, and currently remains unclear.

Keeping one or two square metres of sunlight between students should be viable in seminars and tutorials, but the sardined lecture hall remains a staple of most university teaching environments, where we still borrow Ryanair’s ethos, and pack ‘em in and pile ‘em high. Until the prevalence of the virus in Scottish society tumbles, and the curve isn’t just flattened but crunched – I can’t imagine the Scottish Government smiling on the prospect of hundreds of people travelling to central locations to sit elbow to elbow, cheek by jowl, in rooms with plenty of surfaces and limited ventilation.

But like in schools, digital delivery of university education raises its own questions of accessibility which we must be alive to. In our law programme at Glasgow Caledonian University, by way of example, a substantial proportion of our students come from the some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. If access to online education is going to be meaningful, it means stable internet connections and private computers which it can’t be assumed all students have access to.

I enjoy teaching – but I’ve come to realise the human factor is a huge part of what makes the job fulfilling. You can make available all of the reading in the world, marshal every judgment and turn out a podcast for every legal concept you care to mention – but education isn’t about the linear transmission of data from brain Q to brain X, Y and Z. During the last few months, I’ve found that I’ve seriously missed the spontaneity of the encounter, the energy in the room, the sense of connection and understanding which seems impossible to achieve remotely, whether it is spotting the quiet student with a point to make, or reading the room and realising your summary hasn’t landed – and keeping at it, till you know your students have understood what you’re trying to say.

This may be the frustrated actor in me speaking. There’s a huge privilege in sitting a hundred people down and talking to them for two hours, and although academics are not entertainers – we’re mostly people who live for the written and the spoken word. Others will feel differently, but for me, lockdown teaching has muted much of this emotional colour. It is just one disconnection, among all the others we’ve all experienced, which I’ll be glad to see go – if the infection rates continue to fall and the prevalence of the virus in the Scottish community continues to contract.

Maybe I’m being too optimistic. But for the first time in months – it feels like Sisyphus will be able to plant his rock on top of the hill, take a seat, and enjoy the view.

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