Tuesday, December 1, 2020

ARTICLE: Separation Anxiety

(This article was originally published in Wordly Magazine in May 2020.  You can read the original article here: https://wordlymagazine.com/2020/10/19/separation-anxiety-a-love-letter-to-deakin/)

In the middle of a once in a lifetime global pandemic, I find myself wondering how history will remember the events of the last ten months. From the first cases of Coronavirus detected to full-scale lockdowns implemented in cities all around the world. I try to imagine myself as an old man, telling someone younger about my lived experience of an event they’ll most likely read about in Wikipedia (or some future analogue).  As my thoughts coalesce, one idea rises to the surface—the notion of separation. This year has been characterised by separations, both personal and professional. But the one I wish to discuss here is perhaps more mundane—separation from Deakin itself.

It’s difficult to believe it’s been six months since I last set foot on the Deakin campus at Burwood as a student. On my last day, after being told that classes were cancelled, I walked to my car and drove off the premises carrying a queasy premonition about the future. I had no idea when I would be returning.

Looking not unlike a miniature city in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, the Deakin campus is comprised of a discordant mixture of modern architectural shapes, each one unique yet stylistically cohesive. Surrounded by an ample creek (replete with walkers who generously allow me to pet their dogs)—it’s my university.

I never realised what a sizeable portion of my personal identity being a university student constituted. It was how I expended the bulk of my time and symbolised learning and progress. I was a ‘university student’, and proudly announced it to anyone who would listen (and sometimes to those who didn’t!). I relished the day to day routine—driving or catching the tram to campus and diving into the throng of students, all rushing to and from classes, moving like the tiny components of a vast machine. It may sound trite, but I found it exhilarating.

A few semesters ago, when the Gods of scheduling saw fit to give me an 8 am lecture with no other classes till 3 pm, I spent the entire day on campus, availing myself of my friends who weren’t busy or unashamedly napping in our luxuriant library. Sometimes I’d read, or write, or simply perch upon any number of pieces of plush furniture while watching Netflix on my laptop (fully aware that I should be using my free time to study!).

In short, I loved being there. Every moment. I never doubted how fortunate I had been to earn a place there. If our society does contain privileges, then being educated is surely one of them. For me, the old axiom of  ‘not knowing what you have until it’s gone’ was never true. I was determined to be a university student for as long as possible (the life of an academic seems particularly appealing to me).

Fast forward six months, and riding my bike through the empty campus is a surreal experience.  Walkways once bursting with students are now empty, and the entire place is blanketed in eerie silence, punctuated only by the sound of birds. 

Quite different from the emotional fallout of being separated from Deakin are the real-world, economic consequences of the pandemic. Staff cuts and redundancies at Deakin have been openly reported in the media. These job losses represent an incalculable loss of talent and experience—virtues which I, as a student, would have reaped the benefits of. Additionally, I also can’t help but be concerned about the sustainability of the handful of small businesses embedded within the campus, whose steady supply of student customers has been abruptly severed.

Of course, the basic function of Deakin can continue unimpeded in the form of online classes.  While I’m unenthusiastic about online learning, I sometimes chastise myself for taking its existence for granted. It’s a technological innovation that my parents’ generation would never know. But online classes simply aren’t the same. They can’t compare to the kinetic, participatory ritual of sitting in a class with other students, many who have complained about the online resources themselves! While some of these grievances are no doubt valid, I feel they unfairly ignore the truest resource Deakin has to offer its students—its teaching staff.

I can readily attest to being the grateful beneficiary of lecturers and tutors who generously (and willingly) gave their time after class. I’m indebted to the teaching staff who cared enough to help me—the stupidest of students—understand difficult concepts (Mervyn, if you’re reading this, I passed my Statistics exam thanks to your help!).

While I’ve taken lengths to extol the virtues of the Deakin campus itself, I would humbly offer that Deakin is more than a series of buildings—more than an institution. Deakin is the people, students, teachers, and staff from whom this unfortunate circumstance has kept us so painfully apart. I still hold out hope for next year, playfully imagining myself power walking across the crossbridge from the HE building. I’m probably late for class but have still managed to find time to purchase a takeaway coffee.

I miss being at Deakin, and I know I’m not the only one. Surprisingly, as a child who didn’t always enjoy formal education, not a day goes by now when I don’t think to myself, ‘I can’t wait to get back to school.’


No comments:

Post a Comment

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins