A Note from Quarantine in Oxford

Jay Sexton

Professor Sexton at his window, photographed during quarantine by students from a room above during one of the much appreciated open-window conversations.

Greetings from the U.K., where the Kinder Atlantic MA delegation is nearing the end of our mandated 6 days of self-isolation in the graduate housing Liddell complex of Corpus Christi College. This quarantine has been a stress test on us all. But I’m delighted to report that our students are handling it with remarkable poise. The highlights have been our happy hours spent hanging out of windows (see attached photo) and, the real treat: an unexpected fire alarm (who pulled it? extra credit to whomever that was!) which gave us no choice but to briefly leave our rooms for the outside. It was the best five minutes of 2021!

This experience has helped us to gain a deeper appreciation of social and historical phenomena. An obvious parallel is the traditional transatlantic passage, which even in the days of steam still took 8 or so days, almost all of which would have been spent in a maritime form of isolation in small cabins, or, for the majority of passengers, down below in steerage. Our time in quarantine also has provided opportunity to empathize with those incarcerated, past and present – the conditions here are obviously not those of a prison (the rooms are lovely with large windows!), but even just five days in a small room provides a deeper understanding of an experience that far too many of our fellow beings endure.

Our self-isolation paradoxically has been a collective experience. Even though I have not yet met many of the students in person (!), I feel closer to this group than perhaps any other in my career as a result of our shared experience. What a refreshing contrast this sense of collectivity is to the social fragmentation that prevails in our age of privatization, identity politics, and culture wars.

What is more is that this experience is one that will now serve as a common reference point connecting those of us Missourians on this trip to the millions of people from foreign lands who have had to make similar (and often far greater) sacrifices on behalf of the public good during the pandemic. Such a shared experience with other peoples comes at an important time, for the pandemic has deepened the chasm between the United States and the rest of the world. It hardly needs to be said that our experience in Missouri has been different than that in other societies, a result of both American power (measured here in the form of our overflowing, yet undersubscribed, war chest of vaccines) and American paralysis (the divided politics and widespread distrust of public authority that has inhibited social coordination and collective action). For these 39 MA students, at least, I hope there will be a better appreciation not only of how the pandemic has unfolded in different political regimes, but also of how individual sacrifice, as well as gain, is the bedrock of all healthy forms of social organization.

 A huge shout out, in sum, to all the students for handling this with such class. Also, to our colleagues and their teams in Corpus Christi (led by Helen Moore, who gave a great zoom lecture to us the other day) and the Rothermere American Institute for helping us through the planning and myriad adaptations. Our Kinder faculty have been great, conducting double classes each day during quarantine to free up time once we all ‘get out of jail’: Daive Dunkley, Rob Fletcher, Lawrence Goldman, and Sonia Tycko. Finally, a special shout out to our indomitable Stakhanovite, Caroline Spalding, who not only endured her quarantine in a room without windows before we arrived so that she was free to help us through this, but also has worked overtime ever sense to make this quarantine as painless as possible for all 40 of us. Thanks Caroline!

 The group will ‘test to release’ first thing tomorrow morning (indeed, at 12.01am!), hopefully with luck getting out in time to experience the England football match in the Euro Cup final. From there, we will hit the ground running with a full programme of events. Wish us luck and for tomorrow night’s game, as they say here, ‘come on Enggg-errrr-land’!