Finding our new normal lockdown blog by Dr Helen Swift

Finding Our Own 'New Normal'

Dr Helen Swift, Fellow in Medieval French, reflects on finding her own particular ‘new normal’ while adapting to working life in lockdown.

Widespread use of the phrase ‘the new normal’ has had me thinking back to a quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has remained engrained in my mind since A Level English: ‘Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now’. It’s the relativity of her protagonist’s statement about human survival and adaptability that’s been striking me, by which I mean that everyone has their own ‘as usual’; no-one’s normal is quite the same as anyone else’s, and may be markedly different. I’ve been reflecting on this for several reasons recently.

My own ‘normal’ for the past 15 years has been the life of a tutor of Medieval French, combining teaching, research, and administrative service such as being Tutor for Graduates in College; it’s become a profoundly familiar rhythm. In mid-March, however, I stepped sideways into the University’s administrative framework to take on the role of Assessor in the Proctors’ Office.This means no teaching for a year and relocating from my office in Hall Building, looking out towards the river, to the University Offices in Wellington Square. Everyone who has been welcoming me into this new role has kindly remarked how strange it must feel to be taking on the job at this time; but of course, since I didn’t have a sense of what it was like pre-Covid-19. Whilst it does feel strange (not least since Wellington Square was very quickly replaced by our loft at home in terms of workplace), I have no pre-history with which to compare it. So this ‘new now’ is usual to me.

Over the Easter vacation, there were a raft of inductions and briefings scheduled for us as the incoming proctorial team. This meant a lot of videoconferencing, which in turn meant an immediate perforation of the professional and the personal (at least before anyone started experimenting with backgrounds), since we were nearly all now working from home. This was another way in which the diversity of ‘normal’ struck me. Some people are privileged to have space and quiet; some have intriguing bookcases (for more famous examples, see Bookcase Credibility on Twitter); some have all kinds of responsibilities pulling in opposite directions; some don’t have access to a computer. As someone whose research explores questions of identity – the many voices and perspectives involved in defining who someone is and who they are held to be by others – this whole experience fascinated me.

One of the immediately defining features of the Proctors and Assessor is that they usually wear sub-fusc, which is more than sartorial convention – it rightly foregrounds how you are serving a representative office, not representing yourself as an individual. Whilst we decided that wearing academic dress at home would be a little outré, we nonetheless have a virtual equivalent, in that we each have a distinct online identifier. We pop up in video conferences as ‘the Assessor’ or ‘the Junior Proctor’. Learning how to inhabit that new role, whilst inhabiting my house, is on ongoing process.

Whilst some aspects of ‘whatever is going on’ lie wholly beyond our control, I’ve been fortunate to harness other forms of ‘as usual’ to create a pleasing sense of routine. I offer no ‘top tips’ or ‘lockdown hacks’, just a few notes from what I’ve done to make the present pattern of life familiar. These are all small things, but they are the stitches that have been making up the fabric of each day. On a weekday morning, I dress for work, pack my water bottle and mid-morning clementine, and head off upstairs to the loft instead of out of the front door. I’ve been able to keep the timing just about the same, which means that I never have chance quite to finish that mug of breakfast tea by the kitchen sink before ‘leaving for work’. It struck me a few days ago that I haven’t been wearing my lanyard, so I’m re-starting that habit, too. My lanyard normally so defines my workplace identity that I can’t believe I didn’t miss it before now (presumably because the door to our loft doesn’t require Bod card access…).

The desk I have up here is a lovely size. It’s also ornamented with familiar tokens – a Bodleian coaster imprinted with a page from the Roman d’Alexandre, the aforementioned water bottle (a gift from a former student), and a solar-powered dancing flower that normally sits on the mantelpiece in my office in College. In the late afternoon, after the final meeting of the day, I take my daily exercise as a long loop of a cycle ride. This brings me back via Magdalen Bridge and a view across to College, as if I were coming home ‘as usual’. After a challenging load one day, I was taken by the whim to wear my work ‘power shoes’ for my cycle (a pair of blue high-heeled loafers whose clatter, I gather, was immediately identifiable around College), which restored a sense of usual rhythm.

Whilst I may not be teaching for the next year (which hasn’t yet properly sunk in – I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon when I’d normally be marking essays), I am very happily still in touch with our St Hilda’s French students. But it’s a very different experience having a succession of personal tutor meetings where you’re entering everyone’s home as opposed to everyone entering your office in College. This, and all the videoconferencing with colleagues, has made me more aware than ever of how I’ve seen my workplace hitherto to provide distance, difference and detachment from personal life. For some people, it’s hugely important to maintain that distinction. For others, it’s hugely difficult.

I’d like to hope that we emerge from lockdown with a stronger appreciation of diversity – of how people’s professional identity, and I mean students as well as staff, is informed in all sorts of ways by what they’re juggling more generally, and this can both enrich our understanding of each other (and of the things that we don’t know about each other) as well as helping us not to fall into assumptions about what we ‘expect’ from people based on their role. So whilst, like many people, part of me yearns for things to ‘get back to normal’, I’m happy to use this time to interrogate that normality, to be mindful that ‘whatever’s going on’ is constantly changing, and to look forward to thinking more carefully about what’s ‘as usual, now’.