by Karin Wulf
My first “update” email to the OI staff about COVID-19 was on Friday, March 13th. Over the last two months I’ve added to that email regularly in what is now an absurdly long thread, but which I keep going as a reminder of how little time has passed while so much has changed. We also opened a dedicated Trello board for COVID-19 planning with everything from urgent HR information to the link to the sloth tour of an aquarium (if you haven’t seen it, trust me, you need to). In separate lists of course! The emails and the COVID Trello board are a reflection of the intense, stressful, and collective work of trying to manage through this crisis.
The sense of loss is real. That sense of loss is tempered by perspective, as the loss of life and livelihoods is shaping new forms and extremes of grieving and hardship even as the stress from smaller losses is marking us all. We have lost daily and regular things that have shaped our working lives at the OI, like daily banter around the office, and the ability to drop into an office to ask a question or gather around a table to work on a project or program or publication. We have lost the ability to share baked goods at the coffee station! We’ve lost the intense focus of the OI’s graduate student editorial apprentices around their worktable, and the lively presence of our undergraduate student workers –and being able to say goodbye to those who have been with us for years and have now graduated. We’ve lost the ability to welcome guests to the OI, to hear directly about and have lively discussions about developing scholarship. Earlier this month, we lost the annual opportunity to host the OI’s Executive Board and Council in Williamsburg, where we spend three days in meetings and events assessing and highlighting the OI’s work and planning for what’s next.
We have found some things in this crisis, too. The pandemic has exposed things we already knew, but perhaps appreciate more keenly. It has exposed the complex systems on which all of these things we have valued depended. It has exposed how variable access to functioning systems for delivering those things is and always was. It has exposed how much work we can do remotely, but also how much doing that work remotely depends, as it always has, on other kinds of access and often on subordinating the needs of ourselves, our families and our communities. It has exposed how differential the impact of the pandemic is and will be. It has revealed just how important it is for every one of us OI staff and the larger OI community, to be gentle with ourselves and others in this situation. We have found a renewed commitment to the welfare of our colleagues in the office, in our community, and around the world. We know that early American scholarship is vitally important; we also know that the work must be done within a framework of compassion.
As we gather every Monday morning for an OI all staff meeting via Zoom, we try to care for one another amidst these changing and challenging circumstances. We also, as always, think of all of you, and how we might, even amidst the changes and challenges, best support this community. As I noted in a newsletter in March, the OI’s staff is doing incredible work to meet our commitments to our community, even when we know that “incredible” is not a work standard anyone should be expecting. We already have robust digital programs, but like every organization we are moving even more of our events and programming online. We had already begun an initiative to review our events (seminars, conferences and workshops) for their in-person effectiveness, one aspect of which was the revised format for the 2020 annual conference (now to be held in 2021).
We are now planning a thoughtful assessment of our virtual programming. As we begin to roll out online events scholarly and public events in the summer, we will begin a six-month review process. By December, after six months of online events, we’ll know more and will be able to share more with the wider community about how effectively these programs are functioning for all of you. And that, in turn, will help us to better plan for what is necessary in a pandemic, but not ideal, versus what may function very well in any context. In other words, we’re sorting what’s found from what’s lost.
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