Productivity at Home During COVID-19

     We’re almost there. A couple weeks, then we’re done, but we’re not there yet. The end of term is May 22nd, and before that “finals.”

   Almost everyone I speak to tells me immediately that they are doing great. As soon as New York State on PAUSE started, I heard how “distance learning” and “working from home” was going great. Even if that was true, how did they know so fast?  At the same time, the ads on YouTube ubiquitously spoke about the “new normal.” Is this social engineering? Has enough time passed to qualify the term “normal” or is this another example of words not having any meaning? 

   So what if things don’t feel like they are going great? We are about to enter finals and that never feels great, even when there isn’t a pandemic, and to say this is an (insert explicative) semester is an understatement.

   Let’s face it, things are not great! As of May 10th, there have been just over 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths in New York City and that number is going up. Unemployment is the highest we’ve seen since the Great Depression. Alcoholism and domestic violence are way up. 

   Even if you haven’t been affected by the virus directly, it’s likely you know someone who has. You wonder if you will lose your job or if you or someone close will catch COVID-19.  

   A professor of mine said to the class via Zoom last week that since we are home, we should be able to get more work done. A few days later, a mentor to many told me about how productive Shakespeare and Issac Newton were during self-isolation during the plague. So I guess if we aren’t changing the course of knowledge by staying at home, we are total losers. To quote President Trump, “sad.”

   Let’s look at this. 

   M.I.T. Professor Thomas Levenson casts some serious doubt on the argument that there is a cause and event relation between the phenomenal body of work produced by Issac Newton and his time in self-isolation. Levenson writes: “This is the popular fairy tale of genius: great ideas don’t require the tedious work of sustained attention and hard thinking; they arrive in lightning bolts of inspiration, which in turn come only in the right circumstances, like enforced isolation during an epidemic.”

   He argues that Isaac Newton started his great work before the isolation, and continued it after self-isolation ended. Newton said his progress came from solely and constantly thinking about his ideas and that these discoveries happened during his most productive years. If you look at great minds across science, they make the most of their advances during early periods of their careers. Just think of Albert Einstein’s Golden Year of 1905, when he wrote four major papers that changed physics forever. He was 26 years old and there wasn’t even a self-isolating pandemic occurring at the time. For Newton, that period just happened to coincide with Newton in isolation for some of it. It stands to reason that Newton was very well off to just be able to live comfortably in the country and just think.  

   Those of us at Brooklyn College live in the middle of New York City. We don’t have a lot of space and have to worry about annoying things like money. 

   Now, let’s look at the argument that more time at home during a deadly pandemic equals greater ability to do school work. In a brilliant opinion piece in the New York Times, by R.O. Kwon, she writes about how she always wanted to have a long period of time to write, and now she has it. But she can’t write. In fact, she could barely read. The reason why is because she is grieving.  

   We are all grieving. We are grieving for our former lives. We are grieving for everything we have lost. We are grieving on some level for everyone who has died.

   We are also exhausted. We are exhausted because every time we go out for anything it takes up so much mental energy. We put on our masks. We try not to touch anything, especially our face. We wash our hands so much that no amount of hand lotion will restore them to their youthful softness. We are exhausted from the politics that tell us to sacrifice ourselves, our parents, and our grandparents in the name of an economy that will probably not come back, even if everything were to open up today exactly like it was before. It’s exhausting thinking that there might not be a vaccine for a year or two. 

   Now we think about our classes at Brooklyn College. For those of us who are trying to learn hard things, we have it harder.

   I feel like I have been trying to read chapter six of my database textbook for the last month. Every time I start it, I feel that I have never learned to read, then I switch to the book I am reading for pleasure. Somehow, I need to learn and code linear regressions, and it feels like a Herculean task. 

   I think we need to be kind to ourselves. Making mental space to deeply learn hard things in a cramped New York City is something we need to learn how to do, and have been given no guidance for. Unless you have a nice country house like Issac Newton. 

   There must be a way to get centered to a place within yourself where deep work can happen. If you have ever been to a mediation session, they somehow transcend a small room filled with uncomfortable chairs into a space of relaxation. Somehow Zoom parties lessen the pangs of social loneliness. There is no one right answer. Everyone is different, with different solutions.

   On the other hand, finals will come. We will panic and somehow get it done.

  We get through hard things by looking it in the eye. Not by aggressively pontificating Nike ads that sound like a high school gym coach or some guy trying to sell us cheap life insurance policies. Ignore those distractions.

   Good luck on finals!  You got this. You’ll do great!