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Working from home during corona: Mike Schmidli

We continue to work from home as much as possible. How are the staff members of the Institute for History doing? Mike Schmidli shares his experience below.

Deep in a half-written essay on U.S. neoconservatism and human rights in the 1980s, I’m suddenly forced back to the present by a high-pitched squeal that pierces the air with a startling ferocity. I listen for a moment, surveying the mass of papers on my desk, tucked into a corner of the attic office I share with a washing machine, dryer, and a dusty weight bench. The sound intensifies—a shrill, angry grunting now, animalistic and fierce—raising the uncut hair on the back of my neck. I move to the window and tilt my head to peer into the neighbor’s back yard. The 5-year-old is yanking on a thin rope with an annoyed look on his face as his little sister, clenching the other end in her teeth, jerks about like a fish on a line and makes a blood-curdling racket. Ignoring the whole thing, the mother attacks some weeds in the tiny area of the yard not covered in bricks. The scene culminates in a predictable, emotional dénouement. Back at my desk, I take a pair of well-used airport-grade ear protectors and slide them onto my head.

In the time of the Corona crisis, research and teaching have not been easy. In the beginning, when I learned of the transition to online teaching, I was optimistic. I envisioned lectures that would blend lovingly-crafted PowerPoint slides, primary source video clips, and contemporary music into a potent historical cocktail, retaining the energy and enthusiasm of my in-classroom persona with the technological flair of our whiz-kid world. Whipping out bespoke documentaries I would be, I thought, a weekly Ken Burns for my knowledge-hungry students, only with more analysis and less narrative.

Since that time, I have learned a lot about the recording software KalturaCapture and, indeed, about myself. I learned, for example, that my voice sounds like I have a bad case of depression mixed with a stuffy nose. (Joost, my excellent tutor, offering advice with characteristic Dutch bluntness: “Can’t you try to sound a just little bit excited?”). I have learned that although Kaltura cannot handle music from an external speaker—the playback warbles like a telephone ringing underwater—it reproduces the sound of my wife Elisa’s voice, hollering from the kitchen that lunch is ready, with near-perfect pitch. And I have learned to close the sticky notes on my desktop before recording a lecture or risk inadvertently revealing them to all and sundry. (A concerned student email: “Professor! I saw your passwords!”). Most of all, I have learned that Kaltura captures a lot, but misses what I value the most in my teaching: those moments of connection in the classroom—the discussion, debate, the give-and-take—that illuminate for students why history matters.

If teaching online proved an abiding frustration, home-schooling my daughters was a source of surprising satisfaction. Unlike her father, my 7-year-old, Sibyl, is already fluent in Dutch and would start each morning with homework assigned by her regular teacher. Then Elisa would take over with reading and writing in her native Italian. After lunch it was my turn with a history or geography lesson in American English. My younger daughter Sonya often joined my sessions, albeit with unpredictable results. “Sonya told me that when she turns four years old you won’t need me anymore because she’ll start regular school,” Kali, our wonderful babysitter, told me one day. When Kali asked her what prompted the conversation, Sonya replied, “we were talking about slavery.”

My family and I have spent much of the quarantine in our back yard. I have laid bricks and built a pergola, planted strawberries and rolled out grass sod, made pesto from homegrown basil and given no quarter to invading armies of slugs and snails. The urge to build and sow seems contagious. Yet beneath the surface of our quiet life churns a deep unease. I worry helplessly for my wife’s parents in northern Italy and for mine in Oregon. I compulsively track the path of disease and death, the protests and counter-protests, the dangerous opportunist occupying the White House. I wash my hands much, much more than I ever did before.

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