Teaching and Time

Jay Sexton

The pandemic has made me realize something: we can adapt to new circumstances quicker than we often think. Physical distancing has been going on for only two months, yet those of us lucky enough to have avoided the contagion and to have kept our jobs have settled into a new normal with unexpected speed.

In pre-COVID times, my daily pattern was structured around work.  Now it is the homeschooling of my clever daughters that gives shape to my day. I was once told that it is wise to do the most dreaded task first thing to start the day, so in the mornings we hit the math and science, separated by an intermission of four square in our basement to keep us sane. It isn’t until the afternoon that we get to the important stuff: history, creative projects, and what my daughters call “social studies,” which I’m not sure existed when I was in their shoes in western Kansas in the 1980s.

In gaps during their school days, I transition to my other educator role, teaching “zoomba” classes to my clever Mizzou students, who have adapted to the change with remarkable ease and poise. Indeed, it has been a career highlight to watch Missouri college students seamlessly adapt to the new normal. They have made the change easy for me, rather than the other way around. I’m grateful!

I have learned quite a bit about how digital formats can be used in a pinch to deliver traditional methods of teaching and learning. That being said, my views on online education haven’t changed: sometimes it is appropriate and necessary, but it will never replace the real thing. I’ll die in the ditch and fight to the last breath to preserve the public university in its bricks and mortar form.

The change in daily work patterns – and an email from Missouri student Alex Hackworth – has led me to revisit one of my favorite history essays, E.P. Thompson’s “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” In this all-time classic, Thompson argues that industrial capitalism changed the way in which people understood time. Pre-industrial societies, he pointed out, structured their daily life around communal work that tracked the rhythms of the natural world. Sunlight, tides, weather patterns, and so on determined when and what work needed to be done, with the labor carried out in social groups, such as families and villages. But as the industrial revolution made time into money, daily life came to revolve around individualized wage labor on the factory floor. The result was a new separation between what we now call “work” and “life” (and what British scholars like Thompson often refer to as “labour” and “leisure”).

Thompson’s key insight was to note that this new conception of time was more than simply the result of the proliferation of clocks, time-cards, and factory bosses; it was the contingent creation of cultural forces – religion, print media, gender roles – all of which mediated to the individual this new method of structuring work and life.  Inward changes in notions of time, Thompson concluded, were as much internalized via complex cultural processes as they were imposed upon wage labourers by the commanders of capitalism. I know of no essay that better showcases the culturally attuned historical methodology of the new left Marxist historians, of which Thompson was the leading light.

Back when I taught in Oxford, I assigned Thompson’s essay every year to the incoming “freshers,” as Freshman are called there, to discuss in their first college class (and I now teach it in the first class of my Global History in Oxford class here in Jesse 410). I remember one student, around 2013 or so, pointing out that technological innovations like smartphones were blurring the work/life distinctions that industrial capitalism had created. The student discussed how Facebook on office computers brings personal life into the work world, just as work emails and texts disrupt family dinners.

What a clairvoyant point that was. COVID-19 has slammed this trend into hyperdrive. For all the talk about how the pandemic is creating a “new” normal, perhaps in this regard it is taking us back to an earlier world, a time in which work and life were all tangled up, both conditioned by the vicissitudes of the natural world, which includes viruses as well as sunlight and tides. With that history point made, back to the dreaded morning math!