Living From Home: Day 1

by Sunita

This was going to be a different Day 1 post. It was going to be about our walk from Knettishall Heath, which is the official start of Peddars Way, to Little Cressingham, 15 miles up the path. And I’ll still write that, because it was a wonderful trip and I want to share it. But things have changed and I want to document that too.

Between the final time I looked at my university’s health guidelines and email messages before leaving London (Friday morning GMT) and when we landed in DFW for our connecting flight to St. Louis (Friday afternoon CDT), the UK had been put on the watchlist. Everyone returning from there had to check in with the health services and get instructions. Our layover was three hours long because we cleared immigration in no time (more on that later) and our flight was delayed, so we hit Starbucks and found some seats. Big cup of tea in hand, I started calling the university as instructed. I dialed two numbers and was told at each that I should call a different one (the first suggested the second, the second gave me a third). The third number had a recorded message which had clearly not been updated since the changed policies and claimed the health service was closed even though the recording went on to say it was scheduled to be open at the hour I called. At that point I gave up and called my department office to tell them TheH and I were on our way home and probably destined for 14 days of self-isolation. Our administrator, who was on another line dealing with a colleague’s more serious travel crisis, emailed me phone numbers when she was free, but they were the same numbers I already had. So I gave up and read the news until our flight boarded.

Yesterday was Day 1 of our self-isolation. I call it “living from home” rather than “living at home” or “working from home” because everything we do has to radiate out from here. We’re still working, indeed our work time right now is greater than it would have been without the shutdown since we’re figuring out how to transfer in-person courses into distance learning. We’re luckier than our poor students, since we are in our regular home. They left a week to 10 days ago thinking they’d be back in a week, and some of them didn’t even go home until they found out they couldn’t come back to school.

We spent yesterday unpacking, assessing our situation, and catching up with work. I sent emails to my grad teaching assistants and to my two classes. I made up multiple ToDo lists, just writing down things as they came to mind. There is a lot ToDo in the next week. I’m very grateful to have the extra week of “break” because shifting to online teaching will require some deep thinking about how to do it. I’ve never taught a course online, although I’ve considered it in the past; ironically, the one I’d thought of doing is the Privacy course I’m teaching now. But a full, planned-ahead online course is quite different from what we have in front of us now. More than half the semester has been taught in person, so now it’s a matter of figuring out how to revise the syllabus, requirements, and teaching approach, as well as to compress six weeks of material into five. At least I don’t have to change the finals week requirement. But I do have to consider whether group projects, which are the big assignment in the second half, are doable.

The first thing we’re doing is devising a survey that will help us understand the individual situations of our students. I have over 70 students total in the two classes, some of whom are international. I don’t know where they’ve been or where they are now. Are they even home? Where is home? How many time zones am I dealing with? What kind of study situations are they in? Even if they all have broadband (major assumption), how good is it? All the readings are on Canvas, so that isn’t an issue, but both classes are combination lecture-discussion and they were each developing a nice rhythm. The students were getting to know not just me but each other. Can I keep that any of that growing rapport, and if so, how?

In addition to my own classes, I’m in charge of the honors thesis evaluations and other departmental awards. The honors thesis students get another round of edits once the first and second reader reports are in, which is supposed to happen tomorrow. I also have to canvass the faculty for nominations for awards. Both of these processes will be trickier without easy access to materials for both the students and faculty. It is doable, but it will probably take more work. I am also on a scholarship committee that has had to transition from an in-person interview weekend to a virtual system and we’re still working out the details. I may be able to attend the final day, which is when the interviews will take place, or I may have to join the Skype/Zoom calls from home.

And finally, as Director of Undergraduate Studies I have to think about the department as a whole. Has everyone communicated with their students? Has everyone read the new requirements for online teaching and communication that the Dean sent out last week? Do they need help beyond the materials provided by the Teaching Center (which is completely overwhelmed right now)? We only have one regular faculty member who has taught a fully online course within the department, and that was a major production with professionally guided prep, video editing professionals, and the like. We won’t have any of that now, but he probably has some good advice for us, so I need to loop him into a conversation. And how do I do all this from the isolation of my home study, which is basically a desk, a bed, and some storage space in our spare bedroom?

I am so, so fortunate, though. Yes, we’re older and therefore technically more at risk if we get the virus, but we’re both in excellent health, don’t take any prescription medications, and don’t have any of the risk factors that make the virus more dangerous. We also know how to cook and have well stocked freezers, refrigerator, and pantry. St. Louis is nowhere near a lockdown and neither are we. According to the CDC we are in the low to medium range of risk, so we are practicing social distance and self-isolation. We are completely asymptomatic, so our actions err on the side of excess precaution.

Another way in which we’re fortunate: we came home before the travel ban took effect, on the same flights we originally booked. When we came through DFW the arrivals hall was nearly empty and without checked luggage we were through immigration and customs less than 30 minutes after landing. If we hadn’t had to spend 15 minutes getting to a gate in the furthest terminal away via the Skytrain we could have made an earlier connection home (we tried and missed it by less than 5 minutes after they closed the door). Contrast our experience to this photo in the Washington Post, where the immigration hall was packed and people took hours to get through each section: immigration, baggage claim, and customs.

I read this story in the Guardian in which residents of Hubei talked about how they are getting through their lockdown. They emphasized the importance of social connections and keeping diaries of their days. That resonated for me. Hopefully we’ll be able to resume a more normal day-to-day life, with appropriate social distance, after our 14 days are up. That is, if things don’t get much worse here in St. Louis; we have very few recorded cases but people don’t seem to understand the concept of asymptomatic transmission and are still going to bars, restaurants, shopping malls, and the like to congregate rather than just to get in, get stuff, and get out. We shall see. In the meantime, I’m going to try and write daily posts. Feel free to read, share, and comment. Or just lurk. Whatever helps and feels right to you.