Two weeks into the semester, a student messaged me to say that it’s been hard to get everyone in his house to stay quiet during our online class, and apologized for any background noise that I might have heard when his microphone was not muted. I’ve often had to get up in the middle of a class to answer the doorbell or to turn off the stove (having forgotten about it when I started the class), or to quickly mute my microphone when someone in the house is shouting out something I’d rather not broadcast to the world. It’s become a meme, this shuffling we are all having to do between our at-home selves and our work-selves – essentially they have collapsed into one, now.
Last month our social media coordinator had a brilliant idea, to ask teachers to send in anecdotes about their pandemic teaching lives, and if possible, to illustrate them. This is unfolding in an insightful series of sketches and stories that we are sharing on our social media handles (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram). If you’ll notice, underneath the wry laughter and good humour are tinges of sadness and (dare I say it?) even irritation and a kind of helplessness. It’s hard to compartmentalize our lives any more; everything seems to spill into everything else. Because we are working from home, we are not bound by the ringing of any bell, we’re not required to stand straight in assembly, or wear a starched cotton saree every day. There’s no closing up of the kitchen, to be opened up only to make dinner when you come back from work. There’s no leaving one place and going to another.
It’s all here. It’s all the time.
The lack of separation between our paid work and our house work presents all kinds of problems – some trivial, some significant, some yet being understood – and we have to come up with strategies to create boundaries that can help us divide our time and space. At one time we may have been charmed by the idea of working from home, and the independence it seemed to hold. But in actual practice, you realize that many factors have to come together for this to be an efficient and satisfying arrangement, and one that does not bring in new stresses. For one, if you do not have a physical space that allows you to shut yourself off from the rest of your household, there can be constant interference. If you are among those who does better with an externally imposed time table, and find it difficult to organize your own time, it can be challenging to plan and keep to a self-directed schedule. We may have to be online during class times, but it’s up to us to plan and manage our other work.
Both home and job thus merge and the walls between the two crumble and sometimes disappear. My phone pings with WhatsApp notifications on the class group at all hours of the day, and I feel compelled to respond, just in case it’s a student with an emergency. And often, I find myself reading my papers for the next day’s class holding my phone in my left hand as I flip the dosa with the right. So far I’ve just about managed to keep the phone from falling on to the stove and putting my hand down to swipe the dosa!