Op-ed: Don’t pretend it’s business as usual
UG academics, lead by example
It took some time for me to grasp how big the corona epidemic really was. I wasn’t very worried a few weeks ago. I told my family over breakfast one day that I found it all exaggerated, and that there is really nothing to be worried about.
Then I cycled to Zernike, where I met a colleague with Italian roots, who told me what she had heard from her family and friends in Lombardy. About doctors feeling powerless in the face of a growing epidemic. About the limited number of beds in intensive care. About people expecting to lose their jobs in the tourism industry.
That evening over family dinner we talked about corona again. ‘You seem to have changed your mind’, my children said. Yes, I had, because I had started appreciating another point of view.
Listen to others
Listening to people with different views is more important now than ever. Think about all your students and colleagues of different nationalities, from different cultures, different religions. They will bring their own ways of dealing with uncertainty. They have their own views about life and death. They may have widely different expectations about the responsibilities of the state – or they may trust the state much less than you do, or more.
Imagine what you would want to do if you were in Italy or Iran right now. You would want to go home. Many of our non-Dutch students and colleagues are in that situation. But many borders are closed. They need our care more than ever.
Many of our non-Dutch students and colleagues need our care more than ever
This is not the time to be competitive. This is not the time to tell everyone how productive you are, working 24/7. On Twitter, some people remind us of Shakespeare, who is reported to have written King Lear in quarantine. Or they ask advice on how to remain ‘productive’ in times of distress, with children vying for attention.
Some people feel the need to constantly update the world about the smooth ways in which they manage their research and their teaching, about how they made the change to online education as if really nothing has happened.
Others aren’t as lucky
Compared to so many other sectors of our economy, academia is an intensely privileged world. Before you lament the time you lose now or seek desperate productivity advice, think about self-employed entrepreneurs facing bankruptcy, think about those lorry drivers who are still forced to ‘voluntarily’ drive to corona-ridden areas, think about employees of large firms who will doubtlessly lose their jobs.
Some of us have to work with children at home, as schools have closed. Many of us are just too frightened about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people dying to get anything done. The number may be overblown and there may be other global crises much worse or serious. But the mere fact that many people fear the future matters.
Lead by example
So should we give up? Not at all. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s just business as usual, only online. Seize the opportunity and lead by example and share your wisdom and humanity with your students and colleagues.
Go on, and teach mathematics, history, economics, and show people how the beauty and wisdom of scholarship and knowledge can enlighten us, even or particularly when times are difficult.
But also realise that if we forget to help our students and colleagues with our personal wisdom and assume the responsibility we have for reinforcing our academic community, we will at some point indeed be forced to give up.