Updated: Mar 24
The start of this academic year has been unlike any in recent memory, and yet I loathe to use the term “unprecedented.” As a scholar of early modern England, the plague was disruptive to institutions of higher learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in more recent history our four Maple League universities were affected by the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918.
Much has been made about how famous academics, artists, and authors were incredibly productive during past pandemics. When Cambridge closed during an outbreak of the Bubonic plague in 1665, Issac Newton left Trinity College and moved back home, whereby all accounts he enjoyed a “productive plague”; left to his own devices and stuck in his parents’ basement, Newton (so the story goes) invented calculus, developed a theory of optics, and discovered his theory on gravity and motion. (To explore how light and lenses worked, Newton apparently stuck a needle in his own eye, an extreme act that we might better understand having now gone through our own versions of family quarantine and social isolation).
During the same plague, Samuel Pepys wrote obsessively in his diary about London life in the midst of death and disorder: he was horrified at the social response to the pandemic, writing “This disease [is] making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.” When the mayor evacuated London, Pepys called his friend for help to bury some of his favourite things just in case his house was looted while he was away: they buried “my Parmesan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” Apparently, one generation’s toilet paper is another era’s cheese.
Shakespeare supposedly wrote King Lear when the theatres were closed due to an outbreak in the summer of 1606, and tackled the long narrative poem form (Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece) when the theatres closed for six months in 1592. Shakespeare rarely makes reference to the personal and professional tolls of living in the midst of multiple waves of infections (plague deaths were monitored closely so when the rates of infection became too high, the theatres, pubs, and brothels – as well as other institutions – were closed). However, the plague is everywhere in his writing, sometimes as a curse (“a plague o’both your houses”) and other times a plot device (in Romeo and Juliet, the messenger doesn’t deliver Friar Laurence’s letter because an outbreak of the plague confines him to quarantine).
The apocryphal stories about how productive these men were are not helpful in our current situation. In fact, these examples can be downright damaging if we imagine that others are doing wonderful things (Sourdough bread starters! Running marathons! Finishing books!) while we are failing to keep up. We need to challenge the “productive plague” narrative and resist OpEds with titles like “5 Famous People who were amazingly productive in quarantine.” We need to tell other stories – ones that are messy, human, and authentic.
As we pass the six-month mark of this global pandemic, our ability to live and work under duress is starting to wane. We are getting “COVID cranky” as the adrenaline that has enabled us to operate in an intensely stressful situation – what Ann Masten calls our “surge capacities” – wears off and fatigue sets in.
The solution to our exhaustion does not lie in weekly wellness mailouts, however well-intentioned. Rather, we need to normalize a mindset where we “expect less, replenish more” – and find ways to slow down, check our own pulses, and check-in with others. Newton himself said as much. When asked how he worked out gravity, he replied, “By thinking on it continually.”
We often think that people who are productive are thriving. This summer, as my husband recovered from invasive cancer surgery, one of my colleagues started an email with “It seems, from a distance, as though you’re having a fine and productive summer.” What I realized in that moment was that my coping mechanism (for dealing with cancer in the time of COVID with small children) was to work. Work was the only thing that made me feel normal in the middle of very abnormal circumstances.
This is neither healthy nor sustainable behaviour, and it sets a terrible model for the young people I have the privilege to work with at Bishop’s and through the Maple League Student Fellows program. While I tell them regularly that working until exhaustion is not a badge of honour and that we need to practice an ethics of care, my words and my actions are out of joint. Not only is it essential to pause often, write more, and listen better to support our own individual wellness, together we can shift the narrative away from manic productivity and towards a more humane mode of living. After all, Newton, Pepys, and Shakespeare aren’t ideal models of balance, poking their own eyes and burying cheese. We can do better than that. This fall I commit to do more thinking around how we as a consortium can help create balance by alleviating some of the intense pressure on all our shoulders, continuing to build eco-systems of support, and finding ways to share resources so we can all slow down and replenish our energy: we need to have enough space to imagine and create rather than merely cope while we hope for better days.
— Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities