It’s week three of the academic year and I’m late for my first physical engagement – a real life seminar! I pant franticly through market square, yelling internally at my fatigued post-covid lungs to get a grip, and cursing the wasted years of begrudging loyalty to a rigid running regime. Splashing along the river of rainwater that streams defiantly down over the bridge across the actual river – “dare to step outside in Durham and getting wet is a non-negotiable”, it seems to say. And so I arrive in a hail of flight juices, stumbling chaotically to an abrupt and unanticipated halt so that a stout man in a high-vis jacket can direct me in the very vague direction of my seminar room. A somewhat amusing voluntary measure by the University, I think to myself, as though having something similar to a budget airline flight attendant for Elvet Riverside will effectively aid the prevention of the spread of Coronavirus.
Similarly, comical quirks bejewel the seminar proceedings. My seminar leader sports an excessively heavy-duty mask which rides up with the waggling of his chin, repeatedly lifting his rectangular, rimless glasses off his nose, and giving him a side profile not dissimilar to that of a rhino. Two boys watch on from a zoom call in the corner, frequently raising tedious questions that result from inevitable mishearings and misunderstandings. I can’t blame them. I feel equally adrift in a sea of confusion. It’s hard enough trying to understand a philosophy seminar at the best of times. But attempting a vaguely comprehensible and productive group discussion of Frege’s theory of sense and reference masked, socially distanced, and (in the two boys’ case) remotely, proves impossible. The proceedings soon disintegrate into more general chatter.
Yet the mood is positive, I can’t help noting, unnaturally so for 9am on a grey and drizzly Thursday morning. Despite our collective bewilderment, we stumble through the hour eagerly responding to each other whenever we can come up with a mildly coherent argument. No more do seminars feel like one has been forcibly corralled into an intensely awkward and formalised social situation with a bunch of equally unenthusiastic hungover strangers. Gone are the days of excruciating silence.
On the one hand, earnestly attempting to vocally apply oneself in the realm of academia feels refreshingly childlike. Yet, I can’t ignore the subtle sense of desperation that accompanies this new-found energy. Our contributions puncture the air like hungry gannets plunging for fish. The mood is famished and frantic as we satisfy our craving for a kind of human contact we now distinctly lack: the anonymous kind.
Daily connection with modest acquaintances is by and large a thing of the past in the endless bubble-hopping of contemporary student life. But this leaves a yearning for the coincidental crossing of paths. For those serendipitous moments when stories merge, and strangers become friends. And for when they don’t. For when nothing more is exchanged than a sincere closed-lipped smile and a slight incline of the head, letting you know that there are others out there, muddling through just like you. A confirmation of common humanity has been single-handedly wiped out by a singular 2020 phenomenon – the facemask. Perhaps this is romanticised. Yet I think my use of such rose-tinted glasses only serves to prove my point. We don’t tend to romanticise that which is in ample supply.
So how are face-to-face seminars in the era of Covid? Well, they are clunky, awkward and more often than not, damp. But they are also vital. Long may they continue.
Featured image via Georgia Heath