My walk to university from where I stay could count as my exercise for the day. It takes about 20 minutes usually, but if I’m running late it takes as little as 10 minutes. If I do it that fast, I need to have a face cloth with me to deal with all the sweat, and no one wants to start a day with a shirt that is soaked in sweat. The 20 minute walk takes me to the main gate of the university, and I then need to walk a further 8-10 minutes to get to the library. By the time I get to library I am exhausted, but I still get my research done.
The library is where it all happens. It opens at 8:30 and by 8:15 every morning, Monday to Friday, I am at the library doors waiting for them to let me in. It always feels like I am an executive. The security lady who opens every morning knows me by my first name, by now. So, we exchange greetings and I proceed to the post-graduate cubicles. A small room in which I stay cooped up all day long while scratching my head and staring at my laptop. That is before the COVID-19 pandemic of course.
And that is the thing. My research is desktop-based. I do not have to go to the field to gather data, or to the lab for experiments. I am a Master of Arts in Literature student. I read novels and philosophically and scientifically interpret them, situating their narratives in the existing contexts of humanity. It all sounds easy I know. But no, it is not as easy as it sounds. There is a lot of reading that happens before a chapter of my thesis can be produced. As a literature student, the selected novels I read for a study are my primary data, the journal articles, critical theory, interviews and other material are my secondary data.
Now with COVID-19 everything is different, as you can imagine. The library is closed as it is seen as a closed space that could easily become a hotspot. That means there is no need for the walk. It also means a drop in productivity because I stay in my room and try to do my work. While I am working I see dust on my kitchen counter I get up to clean it, then I see a spider I get up to take care of it, you can imagine the constant distractions when I am at home. But I think the most important thing worth noting is even with these distractions I am not like the other researchers whose work came to a complete halt because of COVID-19 because all I need is a table, chair, my laptop and a bit of internet and then I set the house on fire.
Yes, we have normal lives like everyone else. It is not easy, but it is very exciting.
While the world is up in arms, united against the Covid-19 pandemic, some of us are studying a degree in the Humanities. The big and right question to ask of course at this moment is what would a BA or MA or PhD in the Arts and Humanities help a student and the rest of the world in a period which seems to be scientifically orientated and driven. The race to find a vaccine to curb the deadly Covid-19 virus is on, the need to development and improve ICT for various means to support communication and interactions in the ‘new normal’ is also on. Now what does a student in Humanities do to help? Indeed, these critical questions can leave any student in the Humanities confused and in doubt of the relevance and importance of their education and its contribution to our society at this point in our lives. All these points to what seem to be a crisis in the Humanities or rather Humanities’ crisis. It leaves one asking the questions of whether we need the Humanities? Should governments, patrons and universities continue funding the Humanities and developing curricular for these faculty or is it about time all funding and resources are redirected to scientific departments and faculties which yield tangible research output which can help humanity in a time like this?
I am truly curious, it is confusing and terrifying. How do critical and philosophical essays by Plato help us get through everyday today? What do Shakespeare’s plays mean right now? What use is it to read and quote Lord Byron’s poems? How do African classics of Ngugi wa Thiongo, Bessie Head, Alan Paton and other great African writers help us not only cope but get through everyday life and towards gaining control of our lives and going back to how life once was?
We have all (those of us in the Humanities) with our intellectualism retrieved to the comfort and safety of our own spaces/homes etc. Away from the dangers that lurk on the streets. What does this mean? What does it say about our contribution to life? It would seem the real heroes, those who make tangible contribution to our everyday lives are out there in white coats and in the labs trying to find a way to ‘return’ us to ‘the good old days’ when hugging a loved one was not conflated with contravening any regulation. But all we have done so far, is to stay back and stay safe and let ‘them save us’. Are we a part of a world we are unable to adequately contribute to? Are we the ones who consume without producing? I speak about production here in the actual sense not intellectually. From where I am writing from even poetry and all kinds of fiction seems not be so enjoyable right now with all the anxiety in the world and the fear of death of a loved one or of contracting the Covid-19 virus. It seems we live at the mercy of our peer the “hard science”. Post this pandemic, should we still call them our peers? Should we still sit in halls in groups of hundreds and talk about various classicals plays, short stories, poetry, novels and so forth? Maybe the Arts and Humanities are a field for those who want to avoid everyday life, those who want to shy away from reality. Is there a crisis in the Humanities? Are the Humanities in a crisis?