A Year of Closure

Today is 12th March 2021, which means it is exactly one year since Maynooth University campus closed because of Covid-19. Last year 12th March was on a Thursday and I remember doing my Computational Physics lecture in the morning and a computer lab in the afternoon and then hearing we couldn’t go back to teaching the following day. After that, as it is this year, it was the Study Week break (which includes the St Patrick’s Day holiday). Last year we all trued to use the opportunity to move all our teaching online.

I certainly didn’t imagine that a full year later we would still be working from home. Although the current lockdown isn’t as strict as that of last Spring we’re still told not to come on campus unless it is strictly necessary, and all teaching remains online.

When the campus closed last year I was living in a small flat with no internet connection, so the only way I could do my teaching was using my mobile phone data. It wasn’t great but I did the best I could.

At least I was able to use the semi-unlocking of the lockdown in late summer to complete the purchase of a house. I’ve been much more comfortable doing teaching from here for the last six months or so, although not leaving the house except to do shopping has led to an extreme sense of isolation which is not all ameliorated by endless online meetings via Zoom and Teams. That, together with the heavy workload, is all very wearying. It further annoys me how many people think “working from home” means not “working very much” or not “working at all”. What it does mean is never getting away from your work, except when you’re asleep.

I’ve noticed over the last few months that the agoraphobia from which I’ve suffered sporadically over the years has very definitely returned. Agoraphobia can be defined as:

…an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These situations can include open spaces, public transit, shopping centers, or simply being outside their home.

My long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, social distancing, etc) that it gets me very anxious for a new reason. Supermarkets are bad enough, but it’s more general. I’m now starting to realize that I’m going to find it difficult ever to return to a “normal” life of crowded lecture theatres and campus buildings after this pandemic ends, whenever that happens.

This morning I did a tutorial (via Teams) which was my last teaching session before the mid-term break. I was exhausted even before term started so it has been a very difficult six weeks. It’s not just the teaching, it’s also the relentless stream of demands from upstairs for other things to be done. There seems very little understanding from that direction of what life is like on the front line, to be honest.

My appointment as Head of Department for Theoretical Physics was nominally three years. I am now about halfway through that term and can’t wait for it to end.

Unfortunately there isn’t much light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Case numbers in Ireland remain high, and are falling slowly at best; they have actually been increasing for the last few days. Vaccination rollout is also very slow, thanks to supply issues (chiefly with AstraZeneca).

I am now fairly confident that teaching at least for the Autumn Semester of 2021/22 will again be online, as there is little chance of staff being vaccinated by the end of the summer. I know colleagues in other Irish universities who are planning for this eventuality too.

21 Responses to “A Year of Closure”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    It is a waste of a good physicist doing all this covid-related admin. Can you resign and exchange the job for a research chair?

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m certainly not going to resign while the emergency continues. That would just leave my colleagues in the lurch.

      • Do you have an exercise routine – or ‘workout’ even – that you can do, especially if you are uncomfortable leaving the house for e.g. a walk?

      • telescoper Says:

        Not really. I wish I had my exercise bike here, to be honest but it’s still marooned in the UK.

      • You really should try something – lots of suggestions for home workouts on-line – and will likely help you feel better. I have one from my physiotherapist – takes about 45 mins, 3 days on, then one day off – and I do feel better for doing it. Gets me away from the computer!

      • telescoper Says:

        I know I should do something. The problem is that since I haven’t been able to have my arthritis treatment for several months I’m not as mobile as I might be.

      • Sorry, forgot you had arthritis! As does my wife which greatly limits her movement never mind exercise. When Covid-19 is over – or at least when lockdown ends – you might want to speak to a physiotherapist who can advise on possible exercise routines. Indeed even now you can probably get an on-line consultation.

      • Yes, physio appointments (private) are still available. at least in the UK

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’d call it load-sharing. You are commendably public-spirited (I don’t mean it satirically), but are you managing to get any research done? Have you research students whom you would presumably meet via Zoom?

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m finding it hard to find time for research, but I do have a very good research student whom I meet regularly (via Teams, not Zoom).

      • Do you have a reduced teaching load compared to other staff given your admin duties?

      • telescoper Says:

        Nope. We all have the same teaching load. If I did less somebody else would have to do more.

      • Yes, but you are having to do what they do plus all of the admin stuff as Head of Dept. is that really fair?

      • telescoper Says:

        It wouldn’t be important if we weren’t such a small department. The underlying issue is having to run an entire degree programme and do service teaching with just 6 people.

      • Had not realised there were so few of you. (Just had a look at your webpages). I see you have a fair number of maths and stats people. But Arts and Social Sciences do appear to be the biggest areas.

        One learns something new every day. I assumed that you were in the same Maynooth that trains Priests, but looking at the interweb its a separate college – St Patricks – although you appear to share a campus and some facilities.

      • telescoper Says:

        There are actually 3 different institutions on the same campus: St Patrick’s College (the seminary); the Pontifical University and NUI Maynooth (aka Maynooth University). NUIM rents buildings on the South Campus from the other two institutions while most of the buildings on the North Campus belong to NUIM (including a new one).

      • telescoper Says:

        P. S. There are very few seminarians these days. Intake is typically half a dozen per year.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        For the avoidance of misunderstanding, I meant a research chair at Maynooth, not somewhere else.

      • telescoper Says:

        To be honest I’d quite like the kind of job for which I’d get paid €154,000 a year for doing nothing. 😉

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Yes but that’s not a proper subject. Universities that open schools of business management are simply indulging in academic prostitution.

  2. It’s always so easy to give advice to someone else…

    Still. A heavy workload, chronic health issues, a life that has not been spared by people along the way, and now Covid, boxing you into a house with Big Brother claiming you all the more. Much of Covid will certainly not be gone before summer, I expect 2021 to be a transition year. Under these circumstances, something has to give. If you do nothing, your health may very well be what gives. Please consider : are you willing to exit Covid with permanent damage for the sake of whatever reason you are doing this for ?

    If not, well, having shouldered that burden for a year now, maybe others could and should step up to the plate. Relieve you somewhat , so you can give much needed time to physical and social/psychological needs, including affective ones. Find time to consult an ( online ?) therapist, do whatever is necessary and can be done given circumstances. And please – you are not a hungry graduate student anymore – do splurge a couple hundred Pounds on a home trainer now rather than let your motor functions deteriorate further waiting for the bike marooned in the UK. It may save you considerable pain and distress down the road, not mentionning that lost motor function can not always be fully retrieved.

    I hope I do not come over as condescending or harsh, but the time has come to put yourself first. At the very least, consider what damage you are willing to incur or risk post-covid, given the path you’re on. Please do.

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