Monday 6 April 2020

Don't overdo it, lads

This salutary advice essay from The Chronicle invites academics to take it handy in the great transition to working from home. The transition will be exhausting: "Understand that this is a marathon. If you sprint at the beginning, you will vomit on your shoes by the end of the month." Similar advice from NYT - Stop trying to be productive in the maelstrom of Coronarama.

One of the lessons from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is that we don't multitask; heck even women don't multitask. The best we are capable of doing is task-switching which is mentally, physically and glucosely exhausting. If we are forced to juggle multiple administrative balls at once we finish up all wrung out and useless for the cubicle we inhabit. Insanely, many of us choose to add distraction to our working life: setting Outlook so it bing-bongs when a new e-mail comes to land; checking Friendface and Wassap far too often; having too many coffees and chats at the water-cooler.

Last Friday would have been the last day of the teaching term before the Easter break if we hadn't all been furloughed three weeks earlier. Nevertheless there was a big push from the Administration to a) get alternative examination arrangements out to the students b) get all the continuous assessment tasks finished and filed; make sure that final year research projects were getting a wrap. A lot of this was as a courtesy to the students so that knew what to plan for during April and May. Of course all bets are off in the case of a truly disruptive Covid Spring: if for example many of them get sick rather than just locked out of the library.

I started work marking 30 MS-Excel exams as soon as I put The Blob to bed at 07:43am. I broke off for an hour mid-morning to brace up one of my project students who was lost in bioinformatics space. Then I was entering continuous assessment data on a central computer; signing off on my plans for alternative May exams; fielding questions from colleagues and students. Round about the time I should have been having a restorative cup of tea, I was still sending e-mail to one of my co-teaching cohorts: "Come on now, you young chaps. I've uploaded my marks on the Teams spreadsheet, but I can find no line for QM1A Jimmy Pellet. He's one of the sharper knives in the drawer and I'd like to  record his marks somewhere. I tell ya b'ys, I'm knackered, let nobody tell you that this working from home lark is a doss".

True dat! And hour later the youngest and busiest of the team replied "Sorry I'm late to the party. In fact I have been in so many online-assessment-related parties in the last few weeks, I am all partied out. I'll put my marks onto the spreadsheet over the weekend or Monday. It will only take me 2 minutes to transfer them across, but I'm pretty sure that if I tried to do it now I would end up inputting 4th year project marks; or a bread recipe; or the scores from Bray Wanderers matches in 1999. My head is that fried!". Two too true dat!

Change is exhausting because it requires extra mental effort to adjust to novel circumstances. But, especially for active people, isolation and no commute sounds like free space to fill with something creative / productive. It is this delusional nonsense that has emptied the stores of flour because people imagine they're going to start baking all of a sudden. Could we have some of that flour back lads? You know it's going to stay at the back of your larder until is turns into weevils and Tribolium and mouse-poo. Here's the apparent reason for the lack of flour. The Millers have plenty of the stuff but most of it is processed into 16kg or 25kg bags for commercial ventures - including McDonalds for the buns - because only 10% of normal demand is for retail in 1-2kg bags. It is difficult and inefficient to switch the packing line back and forth between big and small bags hence the shortage on the store shelves. There is therefore a gap in the market for an entrepreneur to take a delivery of commercial sacks and aliquot it into  handier sizes for sale at a modest profit. Indeed, Dau.II's neighbourhood organic-lentil co-op is doing exactly that - they bake stuff in the back kitchen so have big flour sacks delivered.

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