New beginnings in COVID-19 times
Few things are as exciting—and at the same time daunting—as starting a new job. A further level of excitement is added, if said job is in a different country and involves speaking a new language. With that in mind, you can imagine my joy when, in August this year, I took up the position as Assistant Professor in Historical Linguistics at the University of Lausanne in the francophone part of Switzerland. After 13 years of studying, working, and teaching at Oxford—four of which as an undergraduate in Classics and Oriental Studies at Univ—I had finally been given an opportunity that many young researchers dream of: a tenure-track position with plenty of time for pursuing my research.
Of course, in the year 2020, my joy was somewhat muffled: the restrictions that COVID-19 has imposed on all of us over these past few months have turned anything beyond our daily routine into a potential hazard, both to ourselves and others. Most of the initial interactions with my future colleagues, including the final interview stage, took place via teleconference, as did most of the social events the faculty had organised for new staff. Most lectures are still conducted online, too. Some lectures are given face-to-face, but social distance requirements entail that most rooms can only host 30% or less of their normal capacity.
A German proverb reminds us that “aller Anfang ist schwer“—all beginnings are difficult. This is ever more true these days. Next to getting used to teaching in French and a new and differently-organised workplace, preparing new material for my first courses takes time. Particularly so, when elementary aspects of teaching like annotations on a whiteboard, quick show-of-hand polls, and classroom discussion have to be conducted digitally. Seeing the keen eyes and eagerly scribbling hands of my students during our first sessions, however, made every minute of preparation and worry worth it. Well aware of the fact that my French is far from perfect, I was ever the more pleased that both the students and I survived the first days and that, on the whole, we understood each other without problems. In the end, then, there is much to be happy about!
After all, in the words of the stoic Marcus Aurelius, “οὐδὲν οὐδενὶ συμβαίνει ὃ οὐχὶ ἐκεῖνο πέφυκε φέρειν” (Meditations V.18), or (very freely translated) “Nothing happens to you that you’re not capable of working through”. If studying at Univ has taught me anything, it’s that almost anything is possible with hard work, enthusiasm, and resilience; the show must go on, as it were.
Having spent the last few years working on languages in contact in the periphery of late antique and early medieval Persia and teaching Latin and Greek language at Oxford, the prospect of broadening my research focus beyond this particular geographic area and collaborating actively with new colleagues interested in similar phenomena elsewhere is mitigates all current adversities considerably. I will miss teaching intensive language classes, of course—Classics will always remain my “first academic love”—but all going well I shall get to work on the history of Latin syntax in the foreseeable future, too. I can but hope that work, rather than COVID-19, will make the next few months an interesting challenge!
Robin Meyer (2007, Classics and Oriental Studies)
Assistant Professor in Historical Linguistics (Professeur assistant en linguistique diachronique)
Université de Lausanne
Published: 23 September 2020