Academic life in a lockdown

Working as an academic in times of corona poses challenges. Only now we realize how important it is that we, every now and then, meet each other in the flesh. Of course there are these random encounters in the corridor that we miss now, and we realize that it has added value to exchange a few jokes at the coffee machine and to see each other's body language.

But we shouldn't complain. Basically everything goes on as before, but in a slightly suboptimal way. Teaching feels rather odd without seeing the expressions on your students' faces, and the same holds for research without our rituals around the whiteboard. But the workarounds that we have found work quite OK, thanks to today's technology.

It led me to a thought experiment: what would have happened to the world if corona would have hit us in 1990? Or in 2000? So my thoughts went back to my early years as an academic, wondering how we would have coped with the pandemic a few decades ago.

I must confess that I don't remember all the details. For instance, was there email when I started as a PhD student in the early 1990s? And when was it that the review process went from regular mail to online? Late 1990s? In any case, the daily routines were pretty different from what they are now: regular visits to the library to check out books or to make photocopies of relevant papers, phone calls with colleagues you were working with, and every now and then sending them a fax with your great new proof.

Back then there were strong incentives to work with nearby colleagues, simply because the communication with them was so much easier. Now you can in principle work with anyone on this planet -- I even have papers with researchers whom I've never met.

But what would have happened if corona would have struck in, say, 1995? I think it would have been way more disastrous than now. Most people just had a phone at home, no pc nor fax. Calling abroad was about a euro a minute (!!), so not affordable. In a lockdown, I suppose we would have been forced to communicate by regular mail. In our research we could use only the pile of papers that we had a photocopy of, and the limited pile of textbooks that we owned. And teaching? -- I guess there would simply be *no* teaching...

So, again, for us in 2020 there are actually no reasons to complain. Academic life in times of a lockdown or other corona-related measures is slightly unpleasant, but by no means the fatal disaster that it would have been a few decades ago.

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