Diary of a law academic, trying to make law graduates fit for the workplace, trying (and failing) to be the perfect manager, mother and mate

I am an academic and manage a law department. I am also spouse to a frontline hospital consultant and parent of three children. For me, the past five months of this global pandemic have been both exquisitely heavenly and painfully challenging.

I have enjoyed working from home and having my children at home: no school runs, no afterschool activities, no making of packed lunches, and no demand or expectation to go out – rather three happily shared meals and lots of time to talk.

However, at the same time I have felt horrendous and all-consuming guilt. Guilt to my spouse: did I support him enough? To my children: how much home schooling did I really do? Did I ignore them while I dealt with the concerns and education of other peoples’ children? To my workplace: did I put in enough undistracted hours? Was I a good enough manager and colleague? Was I a faithful friend? Was I a good daughter?

My husband says I overthink things – he says that I did all I could do. I’d be interested to know your experiences and whether you felt the same?

My situation was exacerbated by the fact that for the first time ever I was responsible for everything domestic – ALL the cleaning, ALL the housework, ALL the childcare, and ALL the cooking (how I hate cooking). My husband didn’t just continue to go to work every day, he worked longer hours and more days, ensuring that his patients got out of bed and exercised to clear their airways and, that those who were dying had a ‘good’ death. He became a stranger, home time was spent in an exhausted, broken state, and his nights spent fretting, punctuated by nightmarish sleep.

The past five months have been a rollercoaster of a ride. For me it all started on the 14th March, when the husband went in for his normal weekend ‘on call’ and came home, quite literally, a broken man (he worked for the London hospital Trust that was first hit by Covid-19). The following Monday I spoke to my team, trying and failing not to alarm them, about the oncoming tsunami. Then I went to senior management and told them I was stopping my team from face-to-face teaching the following day. They treated me as hysterical, but interestingly didn’t sack me.

My team and students were grateful and supportive. Only one student asked: ‘How is this going to work?’ I wasn’t, at that stage, entirely sure. I know from academics at the Open University that remote learning takes years of preparation. However, all but one of my colleagues (and boy have they been difficult to manage) went above and beyond expectations. They transitioned to online teaching overnight, without institutional help (that would come a week later when the university finally closed its physical doors to staff and students). My team care. They believe in education, equality and inclusivity – words often bounded about with no real meaning - but my team personified those words. They were on call to students 24/7. We were all painfully aware that our students were frightened – very different from later tabloid accusations of young people spreading the virus by illicit meetings and partying with no regard for the rest of the population.

My team have changed. We were always a ‘nice’ team, but after months of supporting each other, experiencing some really dark times (for example student sorrow), and talking – not the usual team meeting talk – but REALLY talking. There is, dare I say it, a lot of love going round, an unthinkable team description five months ago.

After two decades of teaching I had forgotten how young and vulnerable many students are. I was jaded: students pay fees and are treated by senior university management as consumers/customers. The onus and responsibility for student learning is heaped on us, the lecturers. The student has no obligation to independently learn, it is just our duty to pass them with a ‘good’ degree. Opportunities to have an honest conversation with students is lost because of fears of complaints to the Office of the Student or poor NSS results. But, this crisis brought out a courage and maturity in many students, their resilience shown when faced with ill and/or dying relatives in pursuing their education and career dreams. Many of my students worked in supermarkets and care homes during lockdown and their single mindedness in carrying out a public service often left me tearful during ‘clap for carers’.

Our law community has grown as a result of virus. Students really know we care. I started writing a daily email to students, nothing exciting, just advice such as: study independently for 4-5 hours a day, read this website for good mental health tips, visit this website for workouts etc. These emails, I later found out, were a lifeline for many. They felt connected and cared for, a community.

So, what now? Gone are the days of research in the summer. There is online teaching to prepare for, students and colleagues to continue to support, admin to catch up, revalidations and chapters to write, REF submissions to finalise, lectures to update…

Oh! – and emails to reply to, those endless emails, like this one:

‘My apologies in advance; Estates have brought to our attention that some glass panels on the doors have notices etc obscuring vision into the offices. This is a fire hazard. I’d be very grateful if you could put notices regarding your office hours on the solid part of your door…’

But, all of us still working from home! I’m not sure that university administrators like academics very much. From life and death to futility.