University of Geneva – Spring 2020

Mary Holmes

A friend in Geneva sent me these photos and translations of posters put up by students.

After a semester of online teaching, the University of Geneva is holding a socially-distanced exam session. Among torn posters advertising pre-lockdown hip-hop festivals and social events, students are voicing their concerns.

I’ve been called for civil service duties – I’m working night shifts in a nursing home. Should I sleep or should I prepare for the exams?

I have three small children. The nursery is shut so they’re at home with me. I can’t study but I’m being forced to sit exams. I can’t afford another semester.

I can’t concentrate at home. I’m too anxious about the whole situation. I can’t follow, I can’t read. There’s no way I can sit exams.

I lost my job. My situation is very precarious. The real test will be to cope.

My faculty will remotely control my computer to check I’m not “cheating” during the exams. What should I put first – my diploma or my privacy?

Is this education or social selection?

Our lives have been locked down – Let’s COVID the exams!

Finding the Words

Derek Morris

In times like these, it is hard to find the words. For me, searching for the words help to give meaning to what I am feeling. Hiraeth is a Welsh word with a meaning that is hard to translate. It is said to have a meaning close to homesickness, but this doesn’t quite capture it, as a sort of hiraeth-lite explanation. Others have described it as a “longing for where your spirit lives”.[1] That is closer, maybe. It has a kinship with other words in different languages such as the Portuguese word saudade, which expresses its similarity as a longing for something that is not there. Another close word brings to mind my time in Istanbul: this is the Turkish word hüzün, the sense of melancholy and past that hiraeth can convey.[2] I am unsure as I don’t speak these languages with any fluency. But hiraeth and its kindred help to give some sense to these ungraspable moods, and may do the same for many people now in these times. These words are also often associated with immigration, and I am a migrant. I do know I certainly feel a sort of melancholy and longing for something, perhaps a place that no longer exists. These times feel a lot like that: losing the world we knew, wondering if it will ever return. Words help for what I feel, especially when I see my homeland in the news or talk to others, back there, in the United States. 

Being far from home has always been difficult, and now the virus makes everything more so. Although I am a migrant, my situation is quite comfortable compared to that of other migrants. Home, for me, is Oklahoma. My first journey to live abroad began with a year in Iraq in 2003 as a US army soldier. This period, like now, also required unfamiliar forms of communication with my loved ones. It was only letters home at first. Then, our entire company shared a phone. One hundred people. Eventually, there were call centers, a huge step-up from what past soldiers endured, but still difficult with the time zone difference amongst myriad other issues. In Iraq, spending time with Iraqis and also people from all around the US, my former beliefs were also challenged, and I returned home feeling somewhat like an outsider myself, something common amongst migrants that return home.

I eventually met someone who understood this aberrant feeling. My future partner had returned from France with the same sentiment. The wanderlust it produced in us both eventually returned us abroad. Zygmunt Bauman, a migrant himself, wrote on migrants being “rule-breakers,” breaking one of the biggest rules: the rule of staying put. Their countries of origin regarded it as “their original sin”.[3] We made the decision to live in Istanbul, Turkey, as sinners. 

C. Wright Mills once wrote, “in Europe an American discovers America”.[4] I agree. Again, my beliefs were challenged and in between Europe and Asia I discovered another America through fresh eyes and ears. I heard the critiques. I heard the praises. I read the love. I read the hatred. I tried to read and listen to all those in between. Next, the move was to Ireland. I again learned of new ideas from a different context and diverse views. Not only did a new country offer novel views, a master’s course on race, ethnicity, conflict made me even more aware of my country’s racist and colonial past. 

We returned home for a few years, but again pieces of us didn’t quite fit after those many years abroad. Those old feelings returned. We once again returned abroad where I find myself now, in Scotland. Here I am working on a PhD in a concentrated sociological study of my life through the method of autoethnography and the Documents of Life approach. Each time with each new place, it felt like our old world was lost. This does not mean we left that home behind though.   

Weeks ago, I had a 6+ hour phone conversation with one of my oldest and best friends from back home. He was having a crisis. The call ended early in the morning. There may have been drink involved. As mentioned, home is Oklahoma, which is about 5 time zones between us. He was having trouble in a long-term relationship where kids were involved. We have been having long conversations, for several weekends now, over the phone, that stretch well into my mornings. There tends to be lots of nostalgia to annoy my partner. In Covid-19 lockdown, this seems to be a much too common experience for us all. My partner and I spend a lot of time now on the phone and messaging with family, friends and friends that feel like family, back home, at our former homes and even in our new one. Over the years we formed a kinship with many who have a similar sense of hiraeth.

Back home, which is a terrible focus of the current outbreak and the dramatic failure of the Trump administration, my friends are in shock. It is a weird time where you see different countries having different responses: some hailed as good, some great, some bad, some infuriatingly bad. One of my friends mentioned to me how horrible the US response has been (as perceived from her perspective). She lives in a country with a suppressed media landscape. This left her wondering aloud in a WhatsApp recorded message if the response she was observing was partly to do with how it was portrayed to others abroad or if it was, in fact, that unbelievably bad. Had the US sunk to the level of the semi-dictatorial government she lived under now? There is a feeling to want to go to somewhere where things are better. Yet, if you keep moving, where will that place ever be? And there is the guilt you feel about those left behind.

Now, there is a new crisis in America. This piece was mostly written before the events succeeding the murder of George Floyd in the US. I hesitate to bring it up late in this piece of writing because a discussion on matters of race requires much more in-depth discussion, but I feel that not bringing it up would be a bigger error. In many ways it is not a ‘new’ crisis at all as the oppression and injustice wrought by what is considered ‘white’ in America on minorities has a long history. Much longer than America’s founding, it is a part of history than can be traced back across the Atlantic to the country I write in now, in the UK; it is a place that also shares a long history of oppression and injustice. It seems in the US, in 2020, the only people who are served proper justice are rich, white, heterosexual men and everyone else receives theirs in varying degrees to him. Something has to change.

Perhaps words such as hiraethhüzün and suadade do not do enough to bring what we are feeling “home”. Maybe words fail and action needs to take place. Maybe I am not missing a place, but a feeling. Maybe the words should be kept simple and in English: solidarity. 

Derek Morris is a PhD student in Socio-cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a former US Iraq War veteran with research interests in soldiers and their relation to society through autoethnography, narrative inquiry, and the Documents of Life approach


[1] Kielar, Samantha, ‘Hiraeth,’ Word of the Week, Sites at Penn State, April, 2016, https://sites.psu.edu/kielarpassionblog2/2016/04/02/hiraeth/

[2] Petro, Pamela, ‘Dreaming in Welsh,’ The Paris Review, September, 2012, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/09/18/dreaming-in-welsh/

[3] Bauman, Zygmunt, ‘On Writing Sociology,’ Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 17 (1): 79-90, 2003. Page 83.

[4] Mills, K. and Pamela Mills, C.Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Page 208. 

Walking

Mary Holmes

Looping out from the flat and back to the flat, my walks got longer. Isolated walks, without isolation. This was walking under strict lockdown and it hasn’t changed much yet, except you can stop. You can sit down for as long as you like. If there is sun, you can sit on the grass and read and drink coffee. This is exciting and having other people near, but not too near, is starting to feel okay. Before It was a challenge to find nice places to walk that were not too crowded. The canal was no good, unless the weather was bad. Other wise the tow path made it hard to stay 2 metres apart when passing. The best place for walking was the richer neighbourhoods nearby. People with big gardens and big houses didn’t need to be out, so the leafy streets were a good place to wander and to see spring blossoms and smell grass and trees. You could also eye up the property. Dreams are free.

Lockdown walking means not really going anywhere. That is different to going somewhere for something. Like Ashley Barnwell, I used to walk to get somewhere, to go to work, to buy something. Now ‘I walk to walk’. There is an extravagance in that, but also a parsimony. What else can you do?

At first it was difficult to be polite and avoid people at the same time. Someone thanked me for thanking them when they stood back to let me pass where the pavement narrowed. These are new social courtesies, and new interaction rituals; uncertain, a little complicated, slightly too much. Between encounters, when you are walking just to walk you can think, so I thought about walking. What would a Sociology of walking look like?

Walking has a history. For sociologists that might start with an appreciation of how industrialisation and urbanisation changed why, where and how people walked. For many ordinary new city dwellers, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it seems likely that walking long distances to market was replaced by walking shorter distances to work. City walking had its people watching pleasures, as early sociologists like Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin noted. However, as more and more people lived in urban areas, walking often became a leisure activity done in the countryside. Rambling clubs became popular from the 1930s in Britain. Later, as urbanisation turned into suburbanisation, suburbanites walked very little, getting into their cars to drive to suburban malls, where they walked to shop. As the ubiquity of cars has increased, pedestrians have been sidelined and spend more of their time watching out for cars than looking at the world around them. And yet walking is recommended as a fitness activity, good for our health and wellbeing.

Different kinds of people walk differently and we can compare. Women and men have different ways of walking, imbibed through socialisation and years of practice. Men are more likely to stride out, and women to be more contained, to take up less space. At least, that is what we might imagine if we extend Iris Young’s ideas about throwing like a girl. How we walk is also shaped by human technologies like high heels or fancy trainers or those weird toe shoes. Not everyone can afford good shoes, and various medical studies show that improper footwear can lead to back or foot problems. How much money you have also means that if we compare working class to middle class people, their options for walking will differ. Middle class people are more likely to be able to afford to access the countryside or live near parks, while those in deprived areas might be reluctant to walk around their neighbourhoods, especially if gangs are present or even just because there is a lack of green spaces nearby.

These comparisons help in thinking critically about walking, they help to consider what kinds of inequalities are attached to it. Women may not feel safe walking about the city, especially at night, constrained by fears of violence. In other places, some women may be constrained by cultural practices that do not allow them to walk out in the world  without a male relative to accompany them. Other women may walk too much, covering large distances daily to collect water or firewood. And to think critically about walking means thinking about those who cannot walk easily or at all due to a physical impairment. How are they disabled by the way in which society is organised and cities built? Think about the cobbles and curbs that can’t be navigated by wheelchair or the step-free routes that are too long for older people with limited mobility. And what about African Americans for whom a stroll to watch birds in the park can lead to racist abuse, or a walk to buy cigarettes can end in being arrested and killed by police? Power relations and structural issues like racism and sexism affect who walks where and with what consequences.

From injustice, resistance and change can come. Despite the still high levels of Coronavirus in the US, hundreds of thousands of people have been out on the streets marching together to protest over the killing of George Floyd. There is a history of freedom marches to fight against racism and walking with others has long been a form of protest against all kinds of injustice. I remember this when my daily walks feel like they are going nowhere.

Sources and further reading

Conley, J. (2012) ‘A sociology of traffic: driving, cycling, walking’ pp 219-236 in Vannini, P. (ed). Technologies of Mobility in the Americas. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang.

Freund, P. and Martin, G. (2004) ‘Walking and motoring: fitness and the social organisation of movement’ Sociology of Health & Illness 26(3): 273-286.

Harries, T. and Rettie, R. (2016) ‘Walking as a social practice: dispersed walking and the organisation of everyday practices’ Sociology of Health & Illness, 38(6): 874-883.

‘Beneath the pavement, the beach!’

Angus Bancroft

Young people sit out in the warm night, occupying the road, chatting and laughing until late on. The moon is bright, slightly yellow and clear. The air still. 

Like most of Edinburgh my area is car cluttered. An old photograph of my street from the 1900s shows it wide and spacious, before car parking hemmed everyone in. Looking at the teens using it now I glimpse another view, of road space made available for social life, of space to breathe and circulate. The road stops being a torrent of cars we have to scurry across. Pavements stop being narrow paths we teeter on. 

The cars haven’t vanished but the fear has. An empty parking space suddenly becomes part of the communal living room. Meadows live beneath tarmac. ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach!’ was a slogan of the 1968 Paris protests against the rigid social order of postwar Gaullist France. The city needs to breathe. The people using the street as if it was a public park are doing something new. It’s not a picnic space or a play space, it’s not a street party, it’s an extension of intimate domestic space into the street. This may be necessity. The typical domestic, public spaces we use – pubs and cafes – are closed, so new ones have to be found. 

One of the constant refrains of alcohol policy discussions over many decades now has been why can’t British/Scottish drinking culture be more like continental pavement culture. This is generally a vain hope. The image of shivering with a cold pint on a narrow, busy pavement, breathing in fumes and trying to avoid catching people’s eye was not wholly appealing. This bottom up extension of home space might be more viable and appealing model to start with should we try and learn lessons from the lockdown living.

‘Is it worth it?’ The future & what to do

Liz Stanley

In The Independent of 30 May, Alice Hughes reported on a survey conducted by MyUniChoices. A large proportion of its 1,000 college and sixth-form pupils stated they had changed their minds about higher education. ‘Before the pandemic‘, 37% of them had intended to go to university but were considering other possibilities, including not going to university and not taking a gap year because of concerns about finances, family and their future in general. More than a third of them were wondering if it is worth going to university at all because of such uncertainties. The survey also reports that these college and school students had expressed a more general uncertainty and worry about the future, both their own and more widely.

That many prospective HE students are questioning previously-made choices and have deep concerns about their future is of course not surprising, it’s very sensible. And it’s likely that a large proportion of the population generally will be thinking similar things. What is surprising is that the phrase ‘if it is worth going to university at all‘ appears as a simple statement in the Independent article without giving consideration to what this means and whether ‘worth‘ in terms of finances and the economy is a sensible way to think about higher education. Both the survey organisation and the ‘experts’ consulted raised a number of practical matters such as the uncertainty of using estimated grades to offer places and the possibility of a January start to the academic year. But what was not raised, at least as reported in the article, is this question of worth.

It’s by no means unexpected that a survey organisation might ignore the question, but is rather dismaying when an education journalist does so. Education is surely all about the future and being as well qualified as possible, in terms of having a good knowledge-base and usable and transferable skills that can be turned to a range of different purposes, thereby keeping their possessor well-informed and well prepared to make life-choices and to be able to fill their time productively in the widest sense of this word.

In this time of a pandemic, education is or should be more at a premium than ever before. It isn’t just about jobs, it’s about life and having flexible skills and capacities. This is of course not to suggest that such things can only be found in education, for the long ranks of earlier generations prove this wrong. But in the present context, it is one of the main ways that several generations of young people have done so; and it is by no means certain, indeed it is highly likely, that opportunities for them to do so within the economy will be considerably foreshortened for a significant period of time.

So yes, it is still ‘worth’ it, in both the narrow economic and the wider evaluative sense of the word. But clearly there are problems and issues.

Stop the clocks

Mikaela Springsteen

‘Clock’ by Denis Mihailov

There is an old clock which sits now in my basement. It has collected dust there for years, corrosion building around a battery which ought to have been pried loose from its moorings after the clock was taken off the wall of a childhood bedroom over a decade ago. It is forever 2:52 in that basement room.

May has lasted for months in the rest of the house.

Here in the mountains, time tends to move slowly—even in an ordinary year, but the pandemic has changed this place too. It slows time for days until a flurry of activity accompanies the arrival of some new package, or a resupply run, or some other contact with the outside world. Pandemic time does not pass smoothly.

It has been often remarked that pandemic time passes oddly, too. Wednesdays are skipped and breakfast becomes lunch. The nights are getting shorter here, and the days are getting hotter, and each and every day seems to last for a week. Pandemic time is deceptive that way.

But time still does move on. The lake thawed months ago now, and loons can be heard each night. Great excitement accompanied the year’s first sighting of the local bald eagle—a sure sign of hotter days ahead.

Isolated here, time slowly marches on—but somehow little seems to change.

That is always the way of the world, it seems. In the midst of things it feels as though nothing will ever change. That the way it is is how it has always been, and how it will continue to be from here on out. Life simply goes on.

I have always understood sociology to be, in part, a study of this consistency.

This comforts me.

All of this has happened before.

History mocks predictions of systemic change in the wake of this pandemic. Systemic change is rare. Systems resist change. They are very good at doing exactly what they were designed to do, and very rarely is capacity for change written into the source code of a system.

The clock in my basement ran forwards, only and always. And now it has stopped.

Some systems are more flexible than others—the mind of a honeybee is changed more easily than the mind of a human—but I am myself evidence of the capacity for systems to change. Only a few generations ago I would not have been permitted to vote, to have been educated so, to travel so freely alone. Even then, millions were forced to wait for years more for systems to recognize their humanity. Millions more still wait.

But there is more to life—and to sociology—than stasis. Living systems require change.

Sociology tells us not that things never change, merely that any change is hard-won and rarely novel—what is new in one local context is rarely new in all contexts. There is nothing new under the sun. Sociology catalogues changes even as it marks down consistencies.

So how are we to understand change in a context where time seems almost to have stopped? Where we all relive our days as we wait for the world to spin back up to speed? What new world will greet us all when pandemic days come to an end?

I have expressed doubts about prognostication already, so I will refrain from any such pronouncements here. What I will do instead is return to the comfort of sociology.

Sociology speaks often of the ways in which individuals can be caught up in the gears of an inevitable system. But it speaks too of the parts which constitute those systems. Society, and the many smaller systems it relies on, is ultimately built up out of each individual.

In the places where a system sticks, like in my poor old clock, someone has to pry off the housing, clean out the corrosion, mend what can be mended, and make anew all that which will not.

That is the wellspring of change. The world which exists tomorrow is the one which we make today. That is the promise—both blessing and curse—of path-dependency. People work wonders, systems change, and life moves on.

The hummingbirds have returned to the lakeside now, and are making merry war over the feeder. Cherries are back in season, and it feels somehow a small miracle to find them in the shop up here. Kayakers paddle past the house now, fishers lose lures in the rocks, and I’ve been down to dig out the old clock from the basement.

Time slips strangely for us all, especially—as we all now say—‘in these times,’ and so it feels somehow right that I will lay out some tools which belong to my father, which came from his father, and from his before that. I will lay out some tools from a century ago and try to find the future in the ticking of a clock.

The last clap?

Liz Stanley

The tenth Thursday clap, on 28 May, is likely to be the UK’s last. There was that sense in the air, for the sound was louder and more varied and came from more parts of the village, from further up the hill, from the central village, to the houses at the edge, to us on Coach Road and Warton Crag. In addition to all the clapping there was a makeshift drum, many car horns, elaborate whoops and amazing whistling, and a wider variety of pots and pans used as tymphony. To the carers.

The tenth clap

Sonorous landscapes in an Italian city

1) Sonorous landscape 1. Lockdown in an Italian neighbourhood – 12/04/2020 (1.10 p.m)

Watching from the roof, at the bottom of a palace a young girl invites her neighbours, overlooking from the balconies, to do some training. Someone puts on some music, someone laughs and an old couple is taking the exercise very seriously: the unusual normality of a lockdown day.

2) Sonorous landscape 2. Walking toward the grocery shop: meeting the police – 13/04/2020 (17.49 p.m)

Walking down the street of an empty city to buy some food, the police get close to me. While they are watching me, silent, I continue walking, feeling uncomfortable because of this state of legal oppression. I question myself on the ‘security’ topic.

Chiara Lombardi is a PhD student who will start at her research at the University of Edinburgh in the new academic year.