When the semester launched in January, none of us at the Weatherhead Center imagined the harrowing ride we would take, together and in isolation. Those who study global pandemics—in real time and in the past—have been busier than they could have imagined. Many of our colleagues and students who study related topics are also sharing data and analyses in productive ways. Scholars of government transparency, resilience, nationalism, urban planning, and migration are quickly bringing their research findings to bear on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, regional and area specialists in our ranks are called on to advise leaders in their areas of the world. The Weatherhead Center community has responded to COVID-19 in so many ways that we created a collection of our affiliates’ virus research and analyses in a searchable table on our Epicenter website.
This collective mobilization comes at a high personal price: social atomization makes life—including work—difficult. Whether we live alone or in a crowded home, making time for ourselves, eating well, exercising, and sleeping have been difficult. Many of us have dealt with illness, at home and from a distance. We cannot always be with the people who need us, and being with those in our immediate vicinity can be exhausting. Juggling work and home life, not to mention the stresses of adjusting to the “new normal,” puts large demands on our time and mental energy, to put it mildly.
Still, we learned to use Zoom software on our computers, tablets, and mobile phones. We moved our classes, workshops, seminars, and meetings online, where the presence of familiar faces connected us across the gulf of social distancing. Meeting people virtually was stressful at first, but the common interest in research, teaching, and learning helped us overcome our anxiety. Writing articles, reviews, op-ed pieces, and other prose seemed impossible, but we made slow progress and shared our work. This issue of Centerpiece is the first ever produced entirely via remote collaboration. Most of the content, graphic design, and layout were all done without face-to-face contact. We hope it reflects our commitment to sharing life at the Center to our community near and far.
Typically, the Weatherhead Center funds many different research activities every year, and our faculty and student grant competitions ran as usual this term. We sent out dozens of award letters, but each includes a section about flexibility that will require further consultation if research plans cannot be executed. And what of the community members who were in “residence” at the WCFIA this term? How has their productivity been affected by physical distancing and the fact most have had to return to their homes? We are doing our best to keep everyone moving forward, but it is difficult not to see at least part of 2020 as a collective gap year.
Despite these challenges, I am acutely cognizant that these strains are minimal compared to those experienced by frontline health care workers and those working in “essential” businesses; the millions who have lost their jobs or whose businesses are closed and face precarious futures; and people who are especially vulnerable to the virus and its socioeconomic aftermath. At the same time, taking a step back while our society and economy come to a virtual standstill, it is humbling to see the sacrifices that so many have made for the greater good, and to see in stark relief the value of—and need for—social solidarity in our communities. Here at the WCFIA, I have seen community and solidarity in action while virtually attending Center meetings and events, and I am awed by the resilience of the staff and other affiliates.
As my year as acting director of the Weatherhead Center draws to a close, thank you for joining me in this warm and robust community. I wish we had more chances to mingle in the halls and share lunch at the Weatherhead Forum in the last part of this academic year. We certainly will not take such experiences for granted in the future! I look forward to reconvening physically in the fall, when Michèle Lamont returns as WCFIA director.
Weatherhead Center Acting Director
Photo credit: Alexandria Mauck