(Professor’s edition)Step into our professor´s view on the ongoing pandemic. slide down
Love and Friendship in Times of Covid: What Boccaccio Can Teach Us About the Pandemic
Dr Bram van Leuveren – Cultural historian of early modern Europe
Email: [email protected]
Me on a misty day at St Andrews beach, Scotland, during the lockdown last year.
No-one is ever prepared for a pandemic.
Giovanni Boccaccio knew as much when he wrote the preface to Il Decameron, his famous collection of novellas set against the backdrop of the deadly plague in Florence during the summer of 1348. In it, Boccaccio described the varied ways in which Florentines responded to the outbreak. Some did the sensible thing and went straight into quarantine, such as the ten storytellers of Il Decameron, while others partied like there was no tomorrow ‘and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke’. Many locals fell for the charms of charlatans and conspiracy theorists, neither of whom could bring an end to the staggering number of deaths. Others abandoned the city altogether and headed to their luxurious country houses ‘sparing no thought for anyone but themselves’.
History tends to repeat itself.
Illegal parties, Covid deniers, and rich people fleeing their home country on private jets make up a by now almost familiar sight. No-one is ever prepared for a pandemic. We try hard to deal with and make sense of it all. During the pandemic, I often thought of the advice that Boccaccio gave in his preface to fourteenth-century readers who felt equally frustrated and confused about the inexplicable machinations of the bubonic plague. Rather than looking for explanations in quackery, reckless partying, or vile escapism, Boccaccio asked his readers to value their relationships with loved ones and to care and show compassion for those in need. ‘To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess’.
It can be incredibly comforting to read about the thoughts of people who long before you have lived through – if not the same – than at least similar times. While living in Scotland in spring last year, the pandemic created much uncertainty. Friends and relatives were affected by the virus, many jobs in academia were put on hold or cancelled altogether, and I did not know when I would be able to see my partner again, when in early summer we were both forced to live on two different continents.
As I spent part of the lockdown in St Andrews, a small coastal town near Edinburgh, I was blessed to be surrounded by friends, my housemates. We cooked delicious curries, went for walks on the beach, danced to Afrobeat and Bollywood songs, and shared stories (not unlike the protagonists in Il Decameron!). This was the friendship and compassion that Boccaccio had talked about more than 650 years ago. They made the lockdown a little less daunting, the pandemic a little less scary.
When I began lecturing at the University of Groningen in September last year, my colleagues and students in the Arts, Culture and Media Department did much to make me feel at home, despite the lockdown restrictions, for which I am deeply grateful. My partner has since moved to the Netherlands and we now live happily together. Boccaccio would undoubtedly approve.
Upcoming Marie Skłodowska-Curie research project: ‘Public Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe: Theatrical Entertainments for the State Journeys of English and French Royals into the Low Countries, 1577-1642’ (for more information, please visit https://www.rug.nl/research/icog/news/2021-05-11-msca-van-leuveren).
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, trans. by George Henry McWilliam, 2nd edn (London: Penguin Books, repr. 2003 ), p. 7.
Ibid., p. 8.
Sophia Ankel, ‘India’s richest people are fleeing on private jets as the country hits almost 350,000 COVID-19 infections in another daily global record’, Insider, 25 April 2021 < https://www.businessinsider.com/super-rich-fleeing-india-country-records-new-daily-global-record-2021-4?international=true&r=US&IR=T> [accessed on 14-5-2021].
Boccaccio, The Decameron, p. 1. Shona Kelly Wray has written a beautiful article on Boccaccio’s plea for compassion in Il Decameron, which inspired me to reread the collection of novellas during the lockdown. See ‘Boccaccio and the Doctors: Medicine and Compassion in the Face of Plague’, Journal of Medieval History 30.3 (2004), 301-322.
Prof. Vera Veldhuizen
October 2019 was a moment of great change in my life; I moved from the UK (where I’d lived for 5 years) to Groningen (a place I had never visited), and started my first ever academic job here at the RUG. After several months of voluntary hermit-dom and monk-like dedication to finishing my Ph.D., I could finally start making friends and discover the city when, while preparing a seminar one Thursday evening, we all got the email that we were not to return to on-site teaching anymore. Another moment of great change.
This has put me in a position quite comparable to most of my students. I had only very recently moved to Groningen – migrated, even – and before I had the chance to get settled into my new life here, it had come to an end. Add to this complication we all have had to learn to live with that I had to learn how to teach and how to design courses during a pandemic, and you have a recipe for a challenging time. Conferences were cancelled, delayed, moved to online venues, course designs had to be changed with only a few weeks’ notice, and settling into Groningen had to be delayed indefinitely. What I have found most disruptive and saddening is that there are students I have taught for 2 years that I have never met, may never meet. I have worked closely with students, supervising them, and I have no idea how tall they are, for example.
Maria Nikolajeva has argued that through the pandemic and lockdowns we have gone from linear, goal-oriented time (chronos) to circular, mythic time (kairos). Kairos is a characteristic feature of senescence and childhood, chronos of busy, busy, busy and ambitious adulthood (and adolescence). The frustration for us, in lockdown, comes from the clash between our chronos-based societal expectations, norms and values, and our kairos reality. You’ve no idea what day of the week it is, but you also have a seminar at 9AM on Wednesday. The freedom from linearity can be a relief, but when we still have deadlines, goals, and time-based ambitions (your essay deadline remains time-based, after all), this causes a deeply frustrating cognitive dissonance. However, although the situation has been tough on everyone, I do not want to define this period through negatives. It has forced me to learn how to teach very rapidly, and in an extraordinarily intense situation. I had to pay close attention to all elements of my course designs, thus learning rapidly and be more in tune with my students’ needs than ever before – no more explaining away uninterested faces (or its modern equivalent, switched off webcams) by the heat of the room; the seminar is probably interminably boring. I have also found more than before that my students are kind, thoughtful, critical, independent, and supportive. Although I don’t want to downplay the difficulties my students have experienced, and are experiencing, I have enjoyed engaging with them and through our online discussions discovered that I love teaching. Who knows the role the pandemic has played in this? I choose to believe that it is the highly supportive, intellectually inquisitive (and yes, at times bored) community that we have here at the RUG that makes this time and space special, and that allows all of us to learn and develop as rapidly as we have had to.
The dark (k)nights of the pandemic:
I don’t have time to write this. But I’m writing this anyway (so I do have time to write this? I don’t know. These things are confusing). I’ve done a lot more in the past year that I don’t have time to do than ever before. Is that what this is supposed to be about? I don’t know, but I don’t have time to worry about that (or do I?).
Teaching during the pandemic has been very much about experiencing time in new ways. I’m a music scholar, so thinking about temporalities is something I do often. I’m often thinking about the ways speeds and slowness from music get into my body, into the rhythms of my days. The pandemic has brought new slownesses into my life, and I’ve appreciated those (and I’ve paired them with music that has slowed them even further), but I’ve also spent most of the last year wishing for more of those slownesses. They’ve been palpable but few. Teaching during the pandemic has mostly brought increased demands on my time. More to do. Much more. So much more that I’ve learned new things about my limits, and new things about how I jeopardize my ability to serve others when I listen only to their needs and not to those of my own body, mind, and spirit.
Growing up with Batman, Jesus Christ, Hulk Hogan, and Rambo I learned to love playing the saviour. I romanticize pushing myself to the limits, rising to a challenge, being tireless, channeling superhuman streams of energy, being in the groove, catching and surfing the wave. These kinds of heroes know no limits. These kinds of heroes don’t break down. These kinds of heroes write pandemic diaries for the IK Association Publishing Committee when they’re asked even though they think they don’t have time and they know that it will add another another small crack in the windshield of the Batmobile, and that those kinds of repairs don’t come cheap (Have you ever tried to get your Batmobile repaired? If not, trust me, it sucks).
This year I’m trying to say no to more IK Associations than I did last year when the lockdown started (not the real one though, it appears). I’m trying to suffer less cracks in the glass. I’m trying to listen more to what I need to be healthy so I can serve my students well. I’m more aware of what happens when the glass shatters and what I need to do to keep it from shattering.
It’s crunch time now. I’m making some of the same mistakes. But less mistakes. Pandemic, round 2.
Will there be a round 3? If not, will I need again to adjust to different speeds and slownesses? Of course. Life is constant change and you’re an improviser getting better at knowing how to improvise well, getting better at knowing you can choose differently, you can learn to hear things you’ve been ignoring. You’re a Batman with a tube of epoxy, sealing up a very expensive windshield.
Dr. Steven Willemsen. (University Lecturer)
It’s a question that keeps coming back: ‘So what’s it like, teaching in a lockdown?’
I still haven’t quite figured it out. Online teaching might be easier on the nerves compared to a lecture hall with 120 eyes directed at you, but it also has its own strange intensity.
For one, the job of a teacher has moved closer to that of a screen actor. There is no one directly in front of you, yet you want to make this communication as humanly meaningful as possible. One strategy is not unlike Stanislavkian ‘method acting’: you go and tap into your inner reservoir, remembering what it was that once made you excited about a topic in the first place. Then at home, in front of a camera, you dig up that enthusiasm and display it, hoping it will resonate. It takes energy, and a small leap of faith, to actively remind yourself there is a real audience out there. Everyone who has ever given an online presentation will know the haunting feeling that creeps up on you when you realize there is a possibility your connection has already dropped out, and you have been sitting there, talking and wildly gesturing, conveying your ideas to absolutely no one.
But my most dystopian expectations about online teaching were disproven. Every week, the muted dark-grey of the videoconferencing platform gave way to a feeling of real contact and exchange. It is riveting to see and hear students engage and share ideas, and a good class will still produce a very real shot of adrenalin and dopamine. It makes for a strange comedown when the session is over. You close your laptop and are transported back to a quiet living room – hyped up, with nowhere to take that energy.
Recently, I have started to intensely romanticize the lecture breaks: the once rather banal moments during which we’d go out for fresh air, stand in line for mediocre coffee. The breaks, I now realize, were never really about having a break; they were opportunities to get to know you, students. To learn about the exhibitions you organized, the bands you’re in, or about the amazing diversity of people and backgrounds converging in a class. It is probably what I miss most, and it’s been replaced with ten vacant minutes around the house, with which I am never quite sure what to do.
Most of all, I feel it is important to keep recognizing the daily effort of students. This has been a year of lessons in scale and agency for all of us: how tiny, seemingly insignificant actions amount to complex, large-scale effects. As a student, you face the task of remaining concentrated, motivated, and attentive while sitting alone at home, with zero external pressure, and logged in on the most distraction-rich device in your house. It’s hard, unsexy, day-by-day work, but it is also the only thing that will make a class come to life. And you pull it off—week by week. The dedication I have seen is truly impressive, and I am certain that it, too, will amount to something significant, complex, large-scale, and impactful.
Prof. dr. B.P. (Barend) van Heusden
21 April 2021
It has been a bit more than one year since the pandemic started. During this period, and especially so while we were in strict lockdown and had to work and teach from home, I have been wondering about what ‘makes’ a university.
In our course on Empirical Methods (Ba 2), we teach students about social systems as ‘systems of communication’ – these systems, or institutions, exist in and through language. A university is such a social system. There are, of course, buildings and people – but these become a university only because of the discourse – the documents – that provides them with a shared meaning.
On the basis of my experiences over the past year, I would nuance this a bit today. A university is a social system, certainly, but not only because it is a system of discourse. There is another social dimension to it, being the working– creating something – together. If no work is attached to it, the discourse sounds hollow. It does provide the framework, but without the work, it lacks content and purpose. We did not stop, during the past year, working and studying at a university, yet at the same time, we weren’t, or only partially so.
(The same, by the way, is true for the arts world, which suffers from the absence of ‘the real work’ even more than we do.)
In our teaching, whether in hybrid form or fully online, we, of course, tried to create an environment where students would feel that they were being involved in such a cooperative and creative process – mainly by stimulating interaction, conversations, debate, thinking aloud. This isn’t easy, however: creatively working together on something requires physical interaction – standing, sitting, walking around together, being there.
Which is why I am looking forward to that moment – after the summer – when I will be able to leave my working desk at home, biking back to the real work, and world, with students and colleagues.