“Back to Normal”

https://pixabay.com/photos/bletchley-park-turin-bombe-cypher-3518213/
Image by jonmdyson from Pixabay

It’s a terrible phrase, I think.  “Back to normal.” It assumes that normal is a thing.  It assumes that people who go through trauma and disasters can just “go back” to what was before.  It is a phrase invoked by some in the middle of a crisis, thinking of getting on the other side of it, “when we get back to normal.”

I have been thinking about the visit I got to do, at Bletchley Park last year.  I knew some of the story of the code-breaking, and in particular the role that women played during World War II not just in Nazi code-breaking but in doing all manner of work that simply had to be done by women because men were at war.  In the US, Rosie the Riveter represented not just the spirit of US support for the war effort, but the women who were working in factories and all the other places where men worked before the war. As I walked through Bletchley Park, seeing the artifacts representing the women who worked there–I was especially touched by the cardigans draped over the desk chairs–I was struck by how not-transformative, in terms of gender roles and work, World War II was.  When the war was over, people wanted to go “back to normal”–for white middle class families, and some white working class families, women working out of the home was a wartime thing, a crisis thing, a thing not to be celebrated or to be thought about in terms of what else might be possible, but something to put aside now that things were “back to normal” (as if post-war anything could be normal). 

I mean, I deeply understand and sympathize with wanting for things to be back to normal.  I wish I knew what normal even was anymore, but it seems like what people say when they mean they were comfortable.

So already, in the middle of all of this we are experiencing now, a pandemic, people struggling to protect each other, educators turning to (or forced to turn to) digital tools and places and processes to try to finish off a term completely disrupted (in the traditional sense, not the edtech sense) by current events–

In the middle of all this I am hearing and seeing some people wondering aloud if the changes that people are going to have to engage in, the ways that people need to use digital in particular, might permanently change some people’s practices.  Maybe people will embed new ways of digital working in their teaching practices. I keep reading the phrase “online pivot.” There’s a solidity to that that I am skeptical of.

And maybe some will.  But I can’t help thinking, that digital turned to in a time of crisis is potentially indelibly associated with crisis.  It feels like emergency measures, not everyday practice.

When we get on the other side of this, when we are between crises, when people want to “go back to normal” what happens to the new things they engaged with?  And framing this in terms of choices is wrong, of course. Institutions will take note of what they can and can’t take advantage of. There has and continues to be a (willful?) misunderstanding of what digital means in terms of labor and time (it isn’t less of anything, if you want the work to be done well).  I don’t know (none of us do) what lessons we get to learn from going through all of this.

I am just thinking, that for some people, digitally focused practice is not “normal.”  And some will be happy to get “back to normal,” further away from digital and also further away from the feeling of emergency, and crisis–not because they didn’t learn anything, but because they want to be comfortable.