It didn’t feel like the semester was starting when the semester was starting. There was no packing, no four hour car drive, no move–in, no saying bye to my mom, no walking around campus. There was no walk across campus from Gregory to my first class. Instead when I say I’m going to class I mean I’m going to search for the Zoom link on Canvas and click a few buttons. It feels unreal to both be in class and looking at the digital two dimensional representations of my classmates’ faces, but I sometimes forget that people didn’t always have to turn on and off their mics before and after saying something in a meeting.
Zain Mian, a third–year PhD student in comparative literature says that during the pandemic, “most of our time during the day, our experience of time becomes isolated and more individual,” but “when you Zoom with others you get a sense of, one, I think time passing a bit more quickly, but also the fact that you’re experiencing it with others, so it’s almost as if we experience time in bursts when we join the classes in this way.”
Mian is teaching a course called "Narratives of Memory" and says his class has been discussing “how memory is not a single thing that’s static and which you simply recover, but our relationship to the past is always dynamic and it’s implicated in the present.” He says “one of the really obvious ways in which we saw the pandemic shaping our relationship to the past and to sort of time itself,” is when the class looked at Ellen DeGeneres’ famous 2014 Oscars selfie. They not only noted how “our relationship to some of the main people in that photo,” Ellen DeGeneres and Kevin Spacey, is different from in 2014, but also discussed how seeing photographs of “people huddled together” gives the class a feeling of “shock or anxiety and then they have to tell themselves, ‘Oh wait, this was before the virus hit.’”
Having used my Google calendar every day, I know it’s mid–October, and having experienced various changes in my life as well as the world around me throughout the past several months, I’ve felt the passing of time, but when I look back on the semester so far I don’t remember walking down Locust, climbing the stairs to a Van Pelt carrel, or running into acquaintances. When recounting events in my life to friends I keep saying “a few days ago” regardless of whether it was yesterday or a week ago, because that’s what it feels like.
Katelyn Currie (C '23) says that she doesn’t feel like she is “necessarily busier than [she is] on campus” but “things just feel like they take longer.” She is attending Penn from Los Angeles, and experiences the “weird feeling” that she is “not totally living on LA time” but “also not totally living on East Coast time.”
She says, “Nothing feels totally real, almost like a weird liminal space thing going on, like the only way I keep track of what day it is is based on my class schedule and when things are due.” She says that back on campus, “even just walking through the halls or walking down Locust, you would interact with friends,” and so while it would feel like time “moved really quickly,” “it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming as the slow movement of time that I think I’ve been experiencing during the pandemic.”
Jamie Alexander (C '24) says that her days are filled with “a lot of Zoom calls and then a lot of looking at the screens to do online work” and so “the days go by quickly” and then “I feel like by the end of the day I’m worn out.” “I still feel like I’m in high school sometimes,” she says. Instead of experiencing a “big life transition,” she is “still in the same town, in [her] childhood bedroom, with family,” but with different classes.
Phuong Ngo (C '24) says she has been spending a lot more time “teaching [herself] course content” and “studying more independently” than she had anticipated, even with the expectation of “less time in the classroom” this semester, and has been too busy with schoolwork to take advantage of the opportunities her college house offers to “hop on a Zoom and meet some new people.” “I feel like I miss out on those activities because I have to go to office hours and I have to study for my calc quiz tomorrow.” While she also acknowledges that she has more work than in the usual semester, she says, “It’s terrible but like I feel like I’m truly like experiencing the struggle that people are talking about when they say they’re in college, because now I have so much work on my hands with so little time.”
Alexa Sherr (N '24) has also had “a lot of independent work” to keep up with during the remote semester, and has found it difficult to stay “engaged in student activities” while prioritizing academics. “It’s hard to make time for everything, ‘cause there’s always another zoom call for you to go to, there’s always another lecture for you to listen to.” She has found it important to “just do something fun” and spend time away from screens each day. She says, “I’ve just been trying to do something like catch up with my friends at least once a week, go out and do the little things, just take a walk, get some fresh air.” Alexa says that while she appreciates how “people are doing their best to make it as normal as possible,” the first–year students are looking forward to whenever “we can get back to normal life” because “we have no idea what college is really like and even online we still have no idea.”
English professor Paul Saint–Amour says that while usually people begin the school year “rejuvenated,” “this year for the first time in [his] life,” he saw his colleagues, students, and children “starting the school year in a state of exhaustion.” He says that while he can “[lose] track of time” in a good way when engaged in his seminar discussions, there’s also “a bad version of that feeling,” of having “spent the entire day on Zoom” and ending up exhausted. He says that in some cases, people try to “create a facsimile of our usual lives on our computers” which can “end up kind of overtaxing each other and ourselves.”
Saint–Amour is teaching a first–year seminar on climate fiction, and he contrasts the geological timescales highlighted in his course with “the shorter temporalities” of the anticipation of events like the election, a vaccine, and returning to campus. He says that while “this pandemic is totally entangled in the longer timeframes” of human disruption of ecosystems, “it’s been kind of a challenge on the one hand to keep talking about long time frames in my class with students who are just trying to get through the day,” as well as “a relief” to think about longer timescales when “it feels like the near future is so opaque in a way that makes us all, I think, pretty anxious.”
And so we keep trying to hang on until the end of the day, until the end of the week, until the end of the semester filled with work and Zoom calls, but also until the end of the pandemic, which unlike the semester calendars that help us mark time even when our usual patterns of life—and therefore our sense of time— have been disrupted, it doesn’t have a clear end.