Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes

Gradually, then Suddenly – caring and careful responses to COVID-19

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

“What brought it on?”

“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

The idea of gradually then suddenly was playing around in my mind, and it was good to find the source of the quote that was eluding me. I don’t intend to deconstruct the application of the quote to COVID-19 but I am thinking about the impact of what we do now on what happens later. I have been thinking a lot about what we might be doing now that we regret later, and more importantly about what institutions might be doing now that we, and possible they might regret later.

In the context of the cancellation of OER20 in London and it “moving online”, I wrote a post, only 10 days ago, where I said

We are having many moments in this current situation.  Let’s situate care for ourselves and care for others in what we do. We can postpone decisions, we can resist placing expectations on others. We can choose not to do certain things. And we can spare time from our work to have some fun.

The idea of prioritising work, making and postponing decisions, and resisting placing expectations keeps coming back to haunt me as I reflect on recent (and past) events.

I offer you a few observations based on self-care and care for others.

The value of feminist perspectives

On February 12 (that seems like a lifetime away), I was offered the chance to put together a team for a really wonderful publishing opportunity, involving feminist perspectives. Once I picked myself up off the floor, I set to and assembled a wonderful team of six including some I had never worked with. We read, we wrote, we talked, we learned from each other and bonded very well. Care was an important element of our approach, and as we worked, COVID-19 was affecting the world beyond where it began in China, gradually then suddenly in Asia, then other continents.

It can be hard to learn in a crisis, and I think that I was too focused on us finishing the Call for Papers to look properly at how our work fitted into the wider picture. Under difficult circumstances, we finished the Call to the satisfaction of ourselves and the editor. As we did, one of the members of the team questioned whether or not this was the right time to ask people to do this work, given the unknown but likely situation by the middle of April when we were asking for abstracts to be submitted. She reminded me that though for most of us the deaths from COVID-19 were numbers but by mid-April some of them would be real people for us, and the lives we’d be leading were unknown. Even though I was already focused on care in the context of OER20 and other things I was working on, I hadn’t applied it properly to the writing project, not just for ourselves but also for potential authors and reviewers. Thanks to this wonderful feminist and friend, I immediately saw the lack of care in our unfeasible deadlines, and the need to postpone. That’s the value of teamwork and listening to other feminists.

So our lovely project is sitting on the shelf, waiting for the right time. That’s not to say that we don’t need feminist perspectives on our current situation: we surely do. We might be able to share some of the literature we found but now isn’t the time to do the work of assembling and sharing in a polished fashion. I do have a 12 minute video to share that you might find useful for thinking about the present.


Decisions and separation in large organisations

I have often thought about the separation between those making decisions in organisations and those workers and customers/clients affected by them. Some of the most painful experiences I (and colleagues and students) had in HE were exacerbated by the ignorance of context that led to some really bad outcomes (usually a complex set of decisions). What was worse was that when those of us at the front edge tried to warn of more problems to come, we were brushed aside as nay-sayers.

To be honest, I don’t know why any senior managers in HE would even be thinking ‘strategically’ at this time, except to admit that the near future is an unknown, and the most valuable education will be happening on the ground, practical and material, rather than academic and online. OK for some of us, reading and writing may always be a solace and a distraction, but for many tending to the emotional and physical needs of ourselves and our nearest and dearest will become increasingly important and time-consuming.

Online, along with older technologies, such as telephones and talking through open windows/ doors, can play their part. I hope that Senior Managers are thinking about the welfare of staff and students as their first priority, and who does the work of providing that welfare.

Prioritising work and reducing expectations would seem to me to be good work. As the situation unfolds, those expectations will, in any case, be lowered, so better to avoid a crash of expectations with regrets of time wasted on recent work.

The professional and urgent academic work of healthcare demands sacrifices that we can support to keep people as safe. The rest of the academic work can wait as we shift our energies to family and community ‘work’.

Good advice from Sheffield Hallam UCU

Precarious workers

I heard two precarious workers (one in HE, another in the hospitality industry) speak of their last few days in work. They both spoke of the onerous nature of communicating with students/customers about what was to come as they (over-)worked their last paid hours.

Kate Bowles shared some good insights on the real lives of 2020 students in COVID-19

I don’t know how HE institutions are working to keep their precarious staff afloat, but they will be held accountable for that in future.

Being outside

Those of us with gardens can always go outside but public spaces like parks are looking increasingly vulnerable to closure. Let’s do everything we can to keep them available.

I am very lucky to have a small park at the bottom of our road, Victoria Park: I can see it from my front gate. Last week when we were all in self-isolation, Terry and I realised that we could safely walk in the park, maintaining ‘social distance’ and it was a real treat. This was the day before the schools closed

Social Distancing in Victoria ParkSocial Distancing in Victoria Park Macclesfield – click to see album

I don’t know how busy it’s going to be now and I hope it remains open. There’s a small block of flats at the bottom of our road, right opposite the park. It must be a really important amenity for the residents of the flats. I’m going to keep visiting the park while it’s open but if I get to the entrance and it’s too busy, I’ll just turn around and come home.

Learning from the young

A few days ago, this video appeared in the private shared Google album of photos of my grandson JT.

JT and the Stick Dragon (used with permission).

This was the conversation that ensued at the Google album.

Aunt E: Did he say “wag it’s tail”?

Daddy: The stick is a dragon so JT was just saying which end was the tail having previously explained “fire comes out” of the other end

Aunt E: He knows so much! And that explains the roar

JT has only seen dragons (they’re not real you know) on a TV show, and he was quite scared of them. He like to rewatch the programme but needs to sit on Mummy or Daddy’s knee while it’s on.

I like to think that JT is dealing with his fear of dragons by telling a story about a dragon. I wonder if that’s what we’ll do with COVID-19 – tell our stories sooner or later to come to terms with what may become the most significant experience of our lives. His parents are NHS workers, and his nursery (from which he is temporarily excluded) is for the children of NHS workers. I think that COVID-19 is going to touch JT’s life even if he doesn’t remember it in the future.

Please – be kind to yourselves and others.


francesbell • March 24, 2020

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