Academic communities thrive on interpersonal communication. It’s true that some of this is increasingly accomplished via the internet, among colleagues at different universities. But much of it remains the interaction with colleagues down the hall, in a department, a laboratory, or research center. Here academics also find students, whose questioning of basic assumptions prompts rethinking and new research ideas. For graduate students, these conversations are key vehicles to learning how to be a scholar in the field.
The commitment to social distancing by almost every university has disrupted these communicative features of academia. All of us are trying to recapture them in new ways. Collectively, we are inventing whole new genre of shared activities. Most of them involve the internet not to accomplish shared tasks alone, but to rekindle interpersonal ties.
At Georgetown, Zoom seems to be a common vehicle for these new ideas. There are virtual coffee breaks that work groups are taking – no business, just passing the time together, showing off the children who are at home, sharing complaints and jokes. There are groups that are having lunch together each day, via Zoom, commenting on what they’re eating in a way that brings back memories of grade school. There was a faculty bingo game. Another group is having scavenger hunts within an academic article that they’re all reading. There are wine receptions, letting everyone decompress from the week. There are start-of-the-day gatherings of work groups on zoom, with each day a new set of background images, suggesting that some members are near Golden Gate bridge, others are in Maui, others in Riggs Library. One member of a zoom group showed up in a funny hat and within minutes everyone had a funny hat on.
What is this all about? We’re all fighting a sense of isolation. The isolation can be a source of stress. Stress threatens our health. Recently, the Georgetown web site proffered ideas for individuals to fight the isolation. This is a shout out to Professor Abigail Marsh and Andrea Bonior, who devoted their careers to these issues. I want to cite some of their ideas, which are of benefit to all of us, most of which don’t require a group:
1. Avoid “Rumination and Catastrophizing.” Seek to identify the unduly negative to reduce its impact.
2. Keep a Routine. Consistent meal times and break times can ground us and calm our nerves.
3. Reframe Your Behavior. Think about protecting other people instead of protecting just yourself.
4. Protect Sleep, Exercise. Sleep deprivation heightens our sensitivity to threat and weakens our immune systems, but exercise has well-documented mood-boosting qualities.
5. Check Your News Diet. Rereading the same information about COVID can induce more anxiety.
6. Find a Purposeful Mission. Put your energy in concrete goals; focus more on them, less on yourself.
These are tools to help us, as we work alone, keeping us centered and healthy.