Continuity, Change, and Cohorts during COVID

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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When the University of Cincinnati decided to switch to all online instruction in March, I was unsure of what my life would look like for the foreseeable future. Like many, I did not know what it would be like to go to class online, to be an online teaching assistant, or to simply live in a state of semi-isolation. At the beginning of the stay-at-home period though, I was stuck by how little actually changed. Work continued much as it had, and instead of being bothered by students on speaker phone in the library, I worked from home with my partner, who on top of being an immunology PhD student who explained the science to me on a high school level, is also exceedingly quiet.

For all the disruptions the virus caused in the wider world, Cincinnati did not (and hopefully will not) become a hot spot. So I read at home. I attended class online, and besides the awkwardness of video chat book discussions, they proceeded as normal. The class I am a teaching assistant for quickly provided online lectures, and the students already turned in their assignments electronically. I was only a grader in that course, so even that did not change significantly. Perhaps the biggest change was I found myself with a little more free time to waste.

My largest concern was my ability to study for my comprehensive exams, but even that was mediated quickly. While I am a Luddite who greatly prefers paper copies of books to electronic versions, beggars can’t be choosers, and databases like HathiTrust, Jstor, and most importantly, the National Emergency Library, have made it possible for me to access the vast majority of materials I need to study. This obviously puts me in a privileged position. My job this summer is to read, not research, and I know the impossibility of the latter is the central concern to many outside and inside my department. For all of us without major research obligations though, this summer may not look all that different to what it would have without the virus.

Despite all of these continuities, a few weeks into the stay-at-home orders, I felt a deep gap in my life. I was busy, not bored, and I had someone to talk to every day, so I was not lonely. Yet I could not understand why I felt so dislocated. It finally dawned on me that I really did miss my friends. This seemed odd to me, because in this age of constant communication, I talked with them every day, whether in a group chat or in a video call on one of the platforms that now runs our lives. I even have grown closer to some old friends from my undergraduate because few of us have the excuse of being too busy to talk anymore. Despite this, I missed my cohort in a way that I could not really place.

My cohort here is certainly very close, and that explains some of the discontent I feel. But the more I thought about it, the more I landed on three important aspects of department life that I love and that because of COVID, I no longer have. The first is probably the simplest, and that is the ability to just talk to one another. There is something vastly different between a group chat, or a scheduled call and walking into the office and shooting the breeze about whatever is on your mind. The office provided us with a place to socialize and talk about anything from serious discussions about our research or classes to perhaps more serious questions about whether it is soda or pop and why pop is wrong. I did not really appreciate the ability to just drop in and say hi, have a stale bagel, and be with my friends in the middle of the day until we could not do it anymore, and I think we all have really felt that loss.

The second aspect is a little more serious than just conversation. At UC, the masters students write their thesis, a journal-length article, in their second year. The crunch time to get final edits in, send them to committees, and defend them, is in March and April, exactly when the masters students in my cohort ended up at home. Thankfully, I did not have to face this, but my friends did. When I wrote my papers, I remember how important the all-office gripe sessions could be to simply have a release valve. Rarely do we learn anything from these, but it feels good to just have the chance to vent a little and reset your mind. The stress is shared with the community, and try as we might in a group chat, it is not the same as sitting in the same room. More than griping though, this builds a sense of community, a feeling that we are all in this together. Simply knowing that there are people with you who support you is crucial, but it is hard to feel that alone in an apartment, however connected we may be. We lost that, and my friends had to go through this process in a very different way than I did.

Finally, and most upsettingly, I realized how little I would get to see my friends again. My cohort was masters heavy, which means I will be here while the rest of them, for the most part, leave this summer for new departments or the ever-coveted real paycheck. We have talked about this a lot as a group. As Ohio opens up, there is a chance we will get to see each other a bit before we scatter, but we realize there are times we are not going to get back. We will not get back our graduate student conference, we will not get back the end-of-the-year party (our department did hold a virtual one, including pizza delivered to each of us) and we will not get back the graduation celebrations. Perhaps more importantly, we will not get back the after class beers, the movie nights, and the general “I’m bored, let’s do something” moments we were so used to. That is the real change for many of us, and that is the one that I think most of us will remember the most.

So, what are we to do with this sense of normalcy coupled with deep incongruity? The obvious answer is to stay in touch in the ways that we can, inadequate though they may be. I could not buy the masters students who passed a beer out, so I left them one at their door. Having mundane video calls, even if it means watching a movie or, god forbid, someone play a video game. Virtual happy hours will never replace the real ones, but it is better than a text message with a martini emoji. None of these things will replace the real contact we lost this year, but each can help sustain us for when we actually do get together again. Whether it is at a cookout soon, or a conference later in our careers, the very fact we are trying to stay together matters and will continue to matter. COVID took the year, but we get to keep the friends.

[Kevin McPartland is a PhD Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Cincinnati History Department.]

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