Isolation, Mission, Connection

The last month has been an utter blur. We traveled for spring break, which is on the early end of things here; we left Michigan in late February for a bit over a week in a quiet resort hotel in Cancun. It was our usual writing vacation: we stayed fairly well holed up and wrote and ate and drank and enjoyed the warmth and sun.

That trip now feels a bit like a fever dream, given everything that’s followed. We got home Monday night and I turned around and headed back to DTW on Tuesday evening for two days of work-related meetings. Inbetween, I had just enough time to teach my class, and I spent the first half of it talking with them about what they’d do if we were unable to finish the semester face-to-face. Did they have a place to go? Would they be able to get there? Did they have the connectivity they would need in order to finish classes online? I was worried at first that I’d really freaked them out by raising the possibility, but it gradually sank in how freaked out they had already been, and that it was a bit of a relief to get to talk about it.

That was the last time I saw them in person. On Wednesday at 10:00 am, while I was in those work-related meetings, we got word that the university was suspending in-person classes at noon. We’d just come back from spring break, so there was no cushion, no pause taken to allow everyone to adjust. The expectation seemed to be that we’d all pivot immediately. And there I was, in an increasingly apocalyptic-feeling airport hotel with 20 colleagues — many of them administrators with significant responsibility for faculty, staff, and students back on campus — all of us trying to do at a distance what we couldn’t do in person.

It was a weird start to the weirdness that has settled in all around us. The meetings at DTW wrapped up just in time for my Thursday class to start. I hopped online just long enough to say hello to a few students and tell them that the plan I’d tried to put in place the day before wasn’t going to work after all. Rather than sit in the hotel for an extra hour and chat with them online, I only wanted to get in my car and drive home, as quickly as I could. Sitting there, all I could think was that we hadn’t been grocery shopping in over two weeks, and that lack of preparation was feeling scary despite the fact that recommendations, and then directives, to stay home were still days away.

I got home safely Thursday evening, and Friday we did as much of a grocery stocking-up as we could. We also filled the car with gas. Since then — just over two weeks ago — I’ve left the house twice for further grocery runs. R. has gone out another couple of times, since we discovered that our Whole Foods has reserved the first hour of the day for folks over 60. (This, he says, is the first good deal he’s gotten out of “senior” status since Social Security.) In two weeks we’ve put about 20 miles on the car.

But Zoom. So much Zoom. I’ve had several weekly video/teleconferences on my schedule all year, but now every meeting I have — and I have a lot of them — is likewise on Zoom. As was our big annual symposium, which my colleagues did an absolutely heroic job of reinventing for an all-online world on ridiculously short notice.

Between classes, and meetings, and the symposium, and the sudden spikes in importance of projects like Humanities Commons that have grown gradually up until now, I’m busier than ever. And I’m exhausted, and stressed, and prone to whine a bit about it all. Or was, until I found myself chatting this morning with a collaborator whose family, without enough to keep them focused and motivated, is feeling acutely the effects of boredom and anxiety.

It is a good moment to have a mission. And so I’m taking part of this weekend to contemplate mine, to think about how the networks I’ve helped to build and the values I’ve hoped to instantiate might support scholars, their organizations, and their institutions as we all collectively weather this mess.

So despite it all, I am filled with gratitude for the work ahead, and for the safe place I have in which to do it. For the ability to connect. For all of you.


  1. These are indeed surreal times. I feel like I’ve gotten one less dollop of surreality by being on sabbatical this semester and so not having to deal with remote classes or meetings. At the same time, I’ve got an extra dollop by being holed up in a foreign country, not knowing much of anyone and not being able to get back home even if needed.

    Hang in there, KF, R, and everybody else. It’s not going to be the same world on the other side; I just hope we have a chance to make it better.

  2. Kathleen

    I am getting by by likening the situation to e-kindergarten. I’m a civil servant and although I do not have to interact with students per se, I can attest that I have been doing a lot of teaching and learning.

    Here in Ontario, Canada, we are indeed working from home (WFH). We are entering week three. The civil service as moved to distributed but connected mode — just as in an in-person office, we field calls, respond to email, initiate chats and participate in conference meetings. Work to deadline.

    As you can appreciate from you own experience, it has been pretty intense. We have all to do what we do using a new to us suit of tools. We are producing while we are learning.

    The combined intensity of the interaction (more of it, more of it recorded) and the general worry over the duration has made for a more stressful situation. It’s not a holiday.

    Here’s my takeaway for this first week of WFH:

    (1) I actually feel more connected to more of my colleagues not so much due to the technology as to the ethos of care that is permeating our interactions.

    (2) I feel stimulated by the new learning. It is all like learning to read (orientation) and write (action) in a different mode. Reminds me of my teaching days (with great pleasure).

    We also find ourselves advocating for some kind of arrangement (still being planned) for the folks with kids of whatever age at home. For those of us with kids, this matters since if our colleagues burn out, the team’s performance will not be optimal. Plus we have heard stories of those kids as the grow up. We are attached. Their well being is important to us too.

    Distanced but not isolated.

    Thanks for the air time



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