Fiction: Precquaranty

Eloísa Martín

She opened her eyes and didn’t feel the weather.

It should be like this in the womb, she thought, not quite conscious, not fully awake.

She stretched her arm to the left side of her bed to notice that, again, her partner was not there. He was certainly locked in the home office – the small room, by the kitchen, originally planned as a maid-room (third world delights: middle class apartments still have that kind of rooms, now turned into fancy pantries or home offices). These days it was cluttered with two desks, their respective chairs and computers, bookshelves to the ceiling, and the kids’ backpacks and material for online schooling.

At least it has a window, and internet is not failing, she thought as she knocked on the wooden nightstand three times to ward off bad luck. She didn’t want to think of what would happen if she could not comply with the online teaching for the two private universities she was working with.

She walked into the bathroom and, while peeing, observed her toes. She had removed the polish a few days ago, when the normal growth of the nails and the absence of a proper pedicure care left them half painted in black, the lower half clean. She had thought it would be funny to see how long it would last, by clipping the nails, until the new ones, fresh and untainted, completed the toes. But her daughter pointed at them – “disgusting” – so she removed it all. Now she had some yellow stains, from leaving the polish too long, and her feet looked more disgusting than during her censured punk experiment. Or so she felt.

The water running in the sink brought her back to reality, as she started to wash her hands. She was not counting to twenty or singing anymore: the ritual of washing the hands almost every hour (and sometimes more) had become naturalized: rub, rub, palm, back, fingers, nails, thumb. And then the other hand.

Her steps lead her to the kitchen. She was trying not to make any noise that might wake the children. Walking on her tip toes, she noticed the dust in the floor and made a mental note to clean it later. But, she thought, it was Friday, so perhaps they could clean it tomorrow. Or the next day, who cares.

The light coming from behind the home-maid-room-office’s door made her wonder if her partner would like a coffee, but she didn´t knock. He was a freelance designer and had been working really well before the quarantine, but no new job appeared recently, and the ones he had scheduled cancelled. He looked concerned, most of the time absent, but was kind with her and the children. She didn’t want to interrupt him. She supposed he would probably be trying to find a new job. Or watching porn. Whatever makes him feel better, she thought, and put the kettle on.

She opened her phone and scrolled down social media. For over two months, there was no news, except for the John Hopkins updates and the insane speeches of the man ruling the country. Thank God people are smarter and take care of themselves, she thought, and then caught herself, surprised she’d mention God in her inner dialogue. Normally she would think fortunately or luckily, but now she knows there’s no fortune, or fate, or destiny. And that God is not going to help with the bills.

The bills. She mentally checked them all. They cannot avoid paying the rent, of course. Nor the children’s school: it was not the most expensive of the private institutions, and at least they were doing online teaching, while offering a plan to parcel the instalments. Most parents were furious. Home schooling meant they had to take care of their children’s learning process, so they believed the fees should be reduced or cancelled. She kind of agreed herself, but then considered that the parents of her university students might think likewise, and a chill ran down her spine. Private universities will not lose profit, so they might cut her salary, or fire her. All in all, she recorded dozens of teaching hours, whose rights belong to them, and they could reuse her lessons again and again. She felt a weight in her chest and a deep pain, as if someone kicked her stomach, the same she felt when she heard her best friend’s parents had died, one day apart, just a week ago. They had been hospitalized and, sure, they had previous conditions (who doesn’t?), but they were fine and healthy before all this started. She couldn’t hug her friend when she received the news by text message, and her friend couldn’t attend her own parents´ funeral, because of her pregnancy. She had always been praised for her beautiful writing, but she couldn’t find the words to comfort her best friend during her mourning. Other than I am sorry. She was not talking much to anyone, she realized, and had a long list of friends and relatives she should contact and check up on. But she never found the energy, or the time, to do it. At least they are all healthy and at home, she thought. Even with her parents and sister, she was not really talking. She replied to their daily messages with emojis. No news to tell, no headspace for chitchat. No words.

She turned her attention back to the bills. Internet? It was working slower and failing all the time, but they need it for the kids’ home schooling, for the partner job hunting, and for her own teaching that pays the bills. They were not poor enough to be considered by the special rates of electricity, and their consumption was now higher with everyone at home and with every little activity, from work to leisure and grocery shopping, needing electricity. They could stop paying the building common services – but if all of the tenants did that, she asked herself, who is going to pay the doorman salary? The doorman lived in the building, with her wife who used to clean some apartments, but people had stopped hiring her, so the doorman needed the salary more than ever.

They cannot stop paying the health insurance. Not now. Even she knew the public and private health services were collapsed – and secretly prayed to not to need to see a doctor for any reason until the quarantine was over – they could not take this risk. Perhaps cable TV. Cable TV it would be. But then she remembered that she had asked their children to not use the internet while she was doing her teaching, so the kids entertain themselves by watching cartoons. She wondered if they could they do something else, off-screen. All the good intentions she had a few weeks ago, to make them read, or paint or engage in creative activities vanished over the exhaustion of the days, and now the two kids – and sometimes their parents – just laid on the living room sofa, watching whatever was on TV. We have to go back to healthier lifestyle, we have to move more, we have to eat better, she encouraged herself. She opened the fridge, and the freezer a second later, to check if there were something green she could use later for a healthier lunch. Nothing. Next groceries delivery comes in three days. Buyers need to schedule them two weeks in advance, because, supermarkets say, the delivery system was overloaded.

At the beginning, they started to buy local, joining the solidarity wave of shopping at the small grocery stores nearby, but after three weeks the shops couldn’t cope with the raising prices, or perhaps the owners just decided to stay at home as well, and then they closed. The only option now were the big chains, that were making tons of money, overpricing everything. You had to wait almost two weeks and you were not very sure what would finally come. And you had to sanitize everything, and then disinfect the kitchen, and put the clothes to wash, and take a shower. It takes little more than three hours to sanitize the purchases for a four-person family, every ten days or so. And this was only because they already organized a very efficient Fordist system.

Food routines also had a new rhythm. The family organized them into three phases. They started by eating the fresh food – greens, eggs, fruit and part of the meat. Then they moved into the potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, disguised under tons of mayonnaise, so children would eat it. At the moment, they were in the third phase: pasta, rice, lentils, beans, with some of the vegetables and meat they froze during phase 1. More often pasta with canned tomatoes, if she was honest, she thought to herself. What requires cheese must also be rationed and stretched, otherwise the kids wouldn’t eat the pasta either.

At least we have food.

            When the quarantine started – it seems a decade ago – she posted nice pictures of her stew, of a home-made bread loaf and some oat vegan cookies she baked for the children. Some of her friends did the same. A colleague prepared an interesting chickpea soup, which she had not had the spices to replicate. A social media influencer made a poke bowl. She had never tried one before, but thought it looked like a tidier version of her mum’s bad cooking, with raw salmon on top. Her cousin baked home-made pain au chocolate, and she promised herself to do that same, on a weekend that never came. Now she is focused on putting food on the table three times per day, to make the food as healthy as possible, and to avoid eating on the sofa, watching tv. But she has no strength to fight back if their children insist even twice. Poor kids, she thinks, they are doing their best… even when I lost my shit during their daily evening crazy (are they cats or what?), it has been amazing how they’ve adapted to the confinement.

She took a deep breath and came back to her mental analysis of the family bills and calculated how long the savings, which they were already using to keep the house running, would last. Savings that were tenaciously built and cautiously spared for a rainy day. The rainy day had arrived, with the strength of a hurricane, but they had not had the time to make it grow enough. They won’t last more than a couple of months, she thought. This idea scared her to the bone, because she knew that, once the quarantine was over (does someone know when this would happen?), they would still need to wait until what they called the market would request jobs such as her husband’s. She sighed. 

Opening her email on her phone was always bad omen, she knew. But it was four in the morning, she didn’t want to go to the maid-office and interrupt whatever her partner was doing, but she could not go back to bed either. So here it was, an email from the Research Provost, from the university where she had the larger number of classes. The message informed the social sciences faculty – the tenured, the per-hour, the tenure-trackers, the postdocs: all of them copied in the message – that the university was expecting that they “improve their productivity metrics taking advantage of the free time the quarantine provided, in face of next year evaluation and contract renewals.” She laughed out loud in desperation and immediately covered her mouth, to shush herself. Her partner opened the office door and asked her, from the distance, if she was ok.

“Yes, all good,” she replied.

He closed the door again.

“Free time?” she laughed to herself. “You don’t need a Korean philosopher to explain to an academic female what burn out is!”

She sat on the ladder they have in the kitchen, that doubles as a bench, and read the message again. Sociopaths, she thought. Universities are run by sociopaths. She counted the infinite number of emails she received daily from the administration, requesting immediate response. The tutorials they had to take, hours and hours in a couple of days, in order to move to online teaching. The message from one chair reminding the faculty to “be professional and dress appropriately,” when she was, indeed, planning funny outfits to improve their students’ mood and engagement in class, hoping that at least they would join to check her look of the day. An automated message from a journal reminding her review was one week late. Another one, insisting on receiving the papers for a conference supposedly happening within a couple of months, not cancelled yet. The webinars that she cannot miss, but she could barely attend, to feel she belongs and continue to be part of an ongoing conversation leaded by established academics that hardly know (let alone understand) how their colleagues’ lives were on the other side of the world, or even in the neighbourhood down the street.

She shook her head and sighed aloud. “Academia is full of entitled wankers.”

She remembered those scholars that had been promoting themselves or twitting about how many words they have typed that day, and how timely this unintended sabbatical has been for their writing projects. Indeed, they have been “taking advantage” of the quarantine, even before the Provost request, as XXI-century Newton wannabes. She pictured their faces: most of them, male. All of them in privileged contexts. She wondered who was making their food, who was sanitizing their groceries, who was cleaning their floors on Saturday, where their children were, and if they faced any problem with their Internet connection. She barely had time to answer her emails that mushroomed during the quarantine, and to prepare the online teaching, and the online office hours, and the online mentoring, and the online reviews and evaluations, and the reports and grant applications, and the article that was meant to be finished by the end of January, and all the rest, while keeping the house running – that two and a half bedroom low-ceiling apartment, no balcony, on the 6th floor.

She took a picture of the email and WhatsApped it to a closer colleague, with an emoji of a brain exploding and three capitalized letters. When she noticed it was not even five in the morning, she instantly regretted it, concerned that she would be waking her up. But the colleague replied straightaway with a funny GIF of an astonished panda. She though that the panda was quite appropriate, both because of its reaction and that it would add to her collection of Pand-emic jokes, which she planned to write a blog post about. But now the nauseous sensation of real concern took her body by assault. 

A few days after the quarantine was declared, the government had announced cuts in the grants, that affected in particular “non-priority” areas. Of course, social sciences were there. It was devastating for her, that needed a grant to get into the research-publication track and be able to apply for a fixed position at some point in the near future.            “Non-priority? Yeah, everything would be handled by engineers and economists,” she had said at the time. “And, of course, lawyers!”

She wondered how the government was going to deal with the never-ending quarantine if they didn’t have social scientists on board. Or how they were supposed to orderly move back to whatever normality was going to be, whenever it was coming, with a devastated economy and people already on the edge.

They said it was about budget cuts, and that they would now need the funds to finance hospitals – something that, of course, nobody would think about condemning during a pandemic. But the health sector did not look much better, and nobody knew for real where the money had really gone.

It is really about lack of money, or is it about the political decisions of how money is distributed, she rhetorically asked, waiving her hand in the air, as if she were in a classroom. She immediately remembered that colleague, working abroad in a very rich institution, who a few days ago had told her that, out of the blue, her teaching-focused university had just decided to cancel the BA in sociology, putting all the faculty contracts under evaluation. By the end of the year, they should prove themselves “productive.” Via text message, her colleague vented:

 “They want the publication metrics, but we are teaching 4 courses per semester, with overcrowded classes, and we now moved online, and on top of that they are firing staff and passing on us administrative tasks. So how on earth they expect we do research and then put 2 or 3 articles per year in Scopus Q1, as they asked? Is that even possible for any social scientist elsewhere?”

She remembered, then, an acquaintance that used to work as an administrator at her university, who was dismissed soon after the quarantine started and was now offering baking goods on Instagram. She evaluated her own baking skills and the potential demand of choc-chip cookies among their neighbours, and felt her throat close. She sensed the urgent need to go outside, to run, but the fines were far too high to take the risk, and the social-vigilantes in the windows around would make the entire family an easy target to anonymous denouncing and shame-letters posted in their building door.

There were other colleagues, working in a public university, who she was always jealous of because of their work stability. They had been informed they would have their already-not-so-high salaries cut, and she wondered how they were going to pay their own bills. And then she thought of the senior scholar in the university where she works now, a female professor she really admired, who, after doing a great job as head of department for over five years, requested leave to work on her writing, and was immediately fired. Much before the quarantine, much before the “priority areas.” It was a scandal at that time. It even appeared in the Opinion section in the newspaper, but the university never retracted, and life went on.

Now that life had stopped, she noticed there was nothing new under the sky. Quarantine just exposed how universities have happily embraced the worst practices of capitalism, and proudly entered, bouncing their arms, into their own self destruction. Dragging with them the bodies and spirits of those who believed. But no worries: sooner than later, you will be able to purchase a very expensive book explaining what we should have done.

Coffee is ready.

Exegesis

As a researcher and an academic activist, I have been both pointing out and challenging inequalities within the geopolitics of knowledge. I wrote about imbalance in international publications[1], the position of Brazilian sociology within the processes of “internationalization”[2], and worked to show how difficult it is, despite of the best intentions, to overcome inequity in mainstream academic publications[3]. By creating the Academic Writing Workshops at the International Sociological Association, since 2010 I have been able to observe, understand and try to challenge the giant inequalities involved in the knowledge production in different parts of the world, and the hardships to participate in the global conversation because of language barriers, limited or null funding, absence of basic infrastructure (from libraries to internet connection, or safe buildings). But this also made me aware about how scholars actually conduct their work in their everyday lives. And this is what I wanted to highlight in this piece. Academia has developed international standards to rank the most fitted, but turned a blind eye to the fact that knowledge production and its benchmarks depend on conditions of production that presuppose a wide range of overlapping privileges. The headspace to think, read and write comes with a price tag, that only a few are able to afford without mortgaging their existence as humans – or because someone else is taking care of this existence.

The events narrated in the fiction are nothing but the truth: genuine academic incidents, actual administration emails, different family situations and losses, and the clear vision that the future (whenever it happens) is not going to be better. These events have been mushrooming in different parts of the world, since the Pandemic was declared. Some universities administrations have been unashamedly putting into the COVID19 account decisions that had been taking over the past few years.

The colleagues who told me these stories were mostly women, who also face the double burden, as in any other professions, and the double mandate of self-care and the care of the self. The physical, mental and even intimate space women attain in the public space has been completely lost during the Pandemic. The mental load and the emotional labour women carry regularly have been extrapolated by the confinement and the Pandemic itself, but also by the tangible insecurity of an accelerated process of precarization.

Any ethnographer knows that a crisis during fieldwork is one of the most productive events that they could face: time accelerates, divisions become stronger, lines of tension appear in flying colours. Statements that would be hard to register in interviews or chitchat, are voiced loudly from the different corners. Actually, there´s nothing new happening, but like in a process of distillation, crisis brings to the fore the concealed elements regularly hidden behind the scenes. We can observe the university crisis in the frozen contracts and the salary cuts, in the closing of Sociology programmes and the cancelation of research grants for social sciences. But we should see it as well in the actual conditions of production, that are clearly worse for minorities. Battles are displayed in the frontline, indeed. But they are also won and lost in the trenches – and in the scholars’ kitchens.

Dr. Eloísa Martín is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the United Arab Emirates University and Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She is the Vice-president for Publications of International Sociological Association. As Editor of Current Sociology (2010-17) she created and implemented a program of Academic Writing, that increased the presence of non-hegemonic authors in the journal. She conducted academic writing workshops 30 universities in 25 different countries around the world.

[1] Martín, Eloísa (2012): Making sociology current through international publication: A collective task. Current Sociology 60(6): 832-837; Martín, Eloísa and Göebel, Bárbara (2018): Desigualdades interdependentes e geopolítica do conhecimento: negociações, fluxos, assimetrias. Rio de Janeiro: 7Letras.

[2] Martín, Eloísa (2015): Publicação acadêmica internacional e o lugar do Brasil na sociologia global. In: COSTA PINHEIRO, Cláudio et.al. (Orgs.). Ateliê do Pensamento Social Práticas e Textualidades. Pensando a pesquisa e a publicação em ciências sociais. Rio de Janeiro: FGV: 47-70

[3] Martín, Eloísa (2017): Current Sociology and the challenges of inequality in academia: 65 years forging spaces of intelligibility. Current Sociology 65(3): 327-335

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