I am re-reading my post for 7 September 2020 in which I express my fears about returning to face-to-face teaching and I marvel at how little things have changed. I wrote then that I was in the grip of “Fear that the return to class next week means being infected with Covid-19, with who knows what consequences, and fear that I might infect those who live with me and endanger lives I love even more than mine”. I also wrote that I hoped those fears would soon be over and the return to normality a matter of six months. We are now eighteen months into the pandemic and although it seems that with 70% of the Spanish population already vaccinated matters have improved very much that is only part of the story.

We now know that doubly-vaccinated persons may still suffer from Covid-19, either in its mildest or in its most lethal form, and we are getting from the scientists worrying information about the serious waning of the vaccine protection only after four months. If this is true, we will go back to square one in December, two years–two years!–after the onset of the pandemic in Wuhan. There are rumours that British PM Boris Johnson has privately declared he is willing to accept a situation in which 50000 persons die of Covid-16 yearly in the UK. This sounded monstrous to me until I realized that we are already there and above, with more than 150 daily deaths in Spain’s fifth wave, close to 200 on some days. If a terrorist group massacred 150/200 Spaniards every day we would be angrily filling the streets. However, in this summer’s cruel normality, the streets have only been filled with people anxious to party as hard as possible. Many of them are young people soon to be in our classrooms.

University classrooms have not really been a focus of contagion even though many have been full beyond the 50% norm and very few teachers were already vaccinated when presential teaching partially re-started last Spring. The Spanish Government considered primary and secondary school teachers a priority, but told us to our face that since we were mostly teaching online vaccination was not urgent for us. I would agree in my own case, as I have indeed remained home teaching, but I must protest that the lives of many of my colleagues were unnecessarily endangered and that if the damage has remained low this has been just a case of sheer good luck. Most, if not all of us, were vaccinated between April and July, but please recall that vaccines are only 90-95% effective and that not all our students will have been vaccinated next week (nor some anti-vaxxer teachers). Besides, local news outlet Betevé explained last week that street parties are growing, since newly vaccinated young people who had refrained from attending them so far, do so now believing that they are safe. No one is safe because, please let’s remember this, the vaccines do not stop contagion, they only diminish the chances of Covid-19 being lethal.

All in all, then, I am bracing myself for a semester that will be, to say the least, complicated. Last year we taught in the flesh for about four weeks before being sent home. We were so optimistic back then that we even started teaching without masks (for the teachers, students had to wear them at all times). We teachers were soon masked, with all the discomfort this entails when you need to project your voice, but at least we were spared the cold winter of open windows that primary and secondary schools have heroically gone through. Not this time. My university regulations require that lectures are shortened by fifteen minutes so that classrooms can be ventilated, but (like last year) the authorities fail to explain where students will be in the meantime, making our crowded corridors again a risk. Classrooms will be filled to 70% capacity, which means that in classrooms for 100 students you will get 70 students, who will be unable to keep the minimum social distance (three feet or two meters, depending on the system you use). We all know from our experience last year that interaction with masked students seating at a considerable distance from teachers to maximize social distancing is a nightmare. At least, I simply could not understand my students’ muffled words. Then there is the matter of streaming if your university cannot find a classroom big enough for your group (in my university groups can be as big as 140 students). This year my university has decided that streaming classes for students who cannot physically be in the classroom is a free choice for teachers. Some may have been happy with the bimodal arrangement, but most teachers and students have concluded that one cannot teach well addressing both those in the classroom and those elsewhere.

Yes, what I am saying is that we are hurrying back to crowded buildings quite recklessly. This push back to classroom rather than online teaching is part of the same trigger-happy dynamic by which many companies are forcing employees back to the office, disregarding the danger and the discomfort. We seem to be operating internationally under the illusion that the pandemic is over, when in fact our hurry to put it in the past tense is prolonging it. No lessons have been learned at all, and we are just travelling, socializing and working as if things were normal. I am not saying that we need to be permanently trapped by the virus, and react hysterically to any bout; what I am saying is that I am appalled that the whole world is pretending that this is 2019, when it is 2021 and the virus is still on the rampage. We are taking for granted not only the death toll (under the wrong impression that only the very old are dying) but also the whole health system, whose workers must be hating every single one of us who ends up in hospital out of imprudence.

The impatience to go back to the classroom or the office has nothing to do, then, with the desirability of traditional models of teaching and working but with a general inability to have benefitted from the new ways brought in by the pandemic. I was truly convinced that the advantages of online learning and working would be appreciated and maintained beyond the end of the pandemic, but this has not happened. Parents of young children who had found a solution to the problem of how to conciliate family needs and working schedules are being deprived of that solution for reasons that are not clearly explained; surely, the cost for companies of keeping offices open is always higher than subsidizing the expenses of at home employees. As regards teaching, even though little is gained right now by gathering masses of students in classrooms to listen to lectures in which they need not participate, this is preferred to online teaching regulated by one’s own weekly schedule. Clearly, everyone hates online teaching and learning and this is an important factor but I will insist again and again that a major problem is that what we have been doing during the pandemic is not online teaching but using online resources to continue traditional teaching.

What is worrying me is that a situation in which teachers and students are afraid of returning to the classroom (I am very much afraid!) is not normal. I would not go to class if I had a gunman pointing at me every day, but I am asked to take health risks that are still pretty serious, vaccine or no vaccine. One need not be top virologist Margarita del Val to understand that by mid-October at the latest, we will have a sixth wave of contagions, now when we are still going through the tail-end of the fifth one. I do not understand the logic of this, particularly because the situation is not accompanied at all by clear legislation from the national Government and a better sense of responsibility from each citizen. When I read that people skip vaccine appointments and that many of the 30% still not vaccinated are anti-vaxxers, negationists, and plain covidiots I simply hate the human species.

In my own teaching practice I am going to keep going what I did online last year with my in-person teaching, that is to say, I will open online forums for discussion beyond the classroom, I will have students who do class presentations upload narrated PowerPoints to our virtual classroom for further discussion, and I will try to use my tutorial time for open online sessions, book-club style. I very much want face-to-face teaching to be less fundamental to my courses, so that students see that learning is not something that happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 to 10:00 but a continuous process that weaves in and out of our online and live meetings. I will, of course, try to make my presence in the classroom as productive as possible but, unlike what I have recently doing, I will stop checking attendance and will allow students more freedom to learn as they wish, as long as they follow the course. I intend, in short, classroom interaction to be a resource with the same importance as others online and not the very core of teaching. We’ll see if anything really changes.

Let me finish by sharing something else that worries me. I have not stepped into a classroom in the last 330 days, more or less, and I keep having these nightmares in which I see myself going back to teaching but being rejected by students. They don’t listen to me, or leave the classroom in the middle of my lectures… On the day I return to class I will have been a university teacher for thirty years, but that I have these nightmares says all I need to say about how vulnerable Covid-19 makes me feel. Should make us all feel.

Hopefully, by September next year this pandemic will have died out… only by then Barcelona might be gone, flooded by the effect of climate change as some apocalyptic media have warned. The future is, definitely, not what it used to be.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from Visit my website


I’ve been teaching from home for the last three and a half weeks after teaching face-to-face for about four and a half weeks and this seems a good moment to send a second dispatch from the front lines. We have been told to stay home until the end of November, three more weeks then, and with the current very high figures for contagions and deaths by Covid-19 in Catalonia it seems unlikely that we may return to face-to-face teaching this semester. Particularly if, as it seems, a total lockdown might happen next week and because there is a general assumption that we all need to make some sacrifices if Christmas is to be enjoyed with family and friends. Of course, implicit in this is the risk that if we manage to reach Christmas within more or less acceptable levels of contagion, the celebrations may bring yet another new wave. It’s a roller-coaster.

So, how are things working? I believe this is a matter of the half-empty, half-full glass or bottle. If you consider that all educational activity could have been stopped at all levels, then we’re not doing so poorly, since all universities in Spain are open and working mostly online. If you compare the current situation to how we used to work before the onset of the Covid-19 plague, then there is a general impression of tiredness and a more or less open acknowledgement that online teaching is not replacing adequately face-to-face teaching. This past week, for instance, our degree Coordinator had to send a reminder to our undergraduate students, indicating that their cameras should be on during lectures. Many, it turns out, simply don’t connect to their Teams classroom or keep their cameras off, which means a distressing lack of feedback for teachers. I don’t know what students have replied to this message but I hope their engagement improves.

I do agree that face-to-face teaching must occupy an important place in higher education but it is my impression that now, when we cannot meet together in the classroom, we are generating a false impression of what actually happens in that situation. To begin with, attendance is not regular. I usually ask students to sign up because I award a grade for class participation and I need to keep track of who is actually there. Students misunderstand my reasons and assume that attendance is compulsory (it is not) and, so, some come to my lectures simply to sign up. The result last year was that a had a small group who spent each whole session discussing whatever they saw in their laptops screens, which had nothing to do with what I was teaching. I have, therefore, stopped checking attendance for I certainly do not need that kind of distraction in class. Better stay away than be in the classroom but mentally elsewhere.

The other matter is participation. As we all know, some students will interact with the teachers every single session while others are perfectly capable of not expressing a single opinion or idea in the whole semester. This is why most of us regularly implement some kind of compulsory classroom activity, otherwise we would have no grades for class participation. What I must say of the students who would never participate in class without this type of grade is that some are shy but have thoughts to share while some simply are there to obtain the credits, particularly in the compulsory courses, doing as little as they can manage. Let’s be honest, for once. This is the equivalent of keeping the camera off, then: not attending classes or being there with no intention to participate. It is simply not true that in face-to-face teaching we have totally participative students constantly providing feedback and interacting with us. There is, therefore, little sense in expecting 100% interest in the far more boring (excuse me) online teaching.

A major problem of synchronous online teaching, that is to say, in streaming sessions, whether they are lectures or seminars, is that technology does not allow teachers to look at students in the eye. In order to produce that illusion we teachers need to look at the camera but, logically, if you look at the camera you cannot simultaneously see the eyes of the person you’re addressing. I find this unnerving. In face-to-face teaching you engage students’ attention by looking into their eyes (fortunately even facemasks allow us to do that) and, depending on what you see there, you see that you’re doing well, or boring people to death. In online teaching, you don’t have that kind of contact, not even with the camera on. It is quite possible that this is the reason why so many students switch off their cameras, apart from their preference for being in their pyjamas or the need to conceal untidy rooms. There should be, logically, an etiquette and everyone should be online as formally dressed and positioned as we are in the classroom. But I insist that the lack of direct eye contact is a key factor in how tired we all are of online teaching. I don’t doubt that some colleagues know very well how to use streaming to their advantage but there is an evident discomfort in the practice, necessary as it may be now.

On the whole, however, the rush to move from face-to-face teaching to online teaching practically from one day to the next is preventing us from discussing what we do in the classroom and why it should have an equivalent as close as possible online. There are major questions that haven’t been asked for a long time, such as what is the purpose of interacting with students, why it is adequate to do that a particular number of hours a week, and what is the place of teacher-centred activities in higher education. The last time these questions were asked was during the process to sign the Dublin agreements that resulted in the new degrees launched around 2008-9, but I believe that the answers obtained were erratic to say the least and ineffective. We were told that we should teach skills rather than content and that assessment should be continuous rather than based on final exams. However, many university teachers still teach by offering lectures without students’ intervention and assess by means of final exams, disguised as part of continuous assessment. There is, in my view, an exaggerated reliance on the exam as an adequate tool of assessment, particularly now when, as we are learning, exams are open to all kinds of cheating in an online environment.

The point I’m trying to make, in short, is that teaching remains mostly static despite the changes introduced by the new degrees and will remain mostly static despite the Covid-19 crisis. We are not reinventing teaching but using digital classrooms to do what we did face-to-face, which was mostly what has been done since the Middle Ages: transmit information and then use exams to check that students have acquired it. I know that I am exaggerating but I hope you can see my point.

Proof of this inertia is that the online universities specializing in distance learning are not now the authorities they should be. Each face-to-face university has chosen the software better suited to its needs but none has asked these other universities what they do. I assume that this is because everyone believes that the situation is temporary and sooner or later we will all return to the classrooms. Yet, if you think about it, with only 50 hours out of 150 hours in each 6ECTS course happening there, this means that two thirds of all university teaching are already distance teaching, that is to say, activities happening elsewhere. One place where they happen is the Virtual Campus (whatever this is called in your universities), which I suspect is mostly used as a noticeboard and not used at all by the older staff (as many desperate Deans are now discovering). If we had been making a better use of the asynchronous possibilities of Virtual Campus, then the transition to online teaching would not have been so uncomfortable. Actually, part of the discomfort also has to do with the fact that, at least as happens in my university, we use two different platforms: Teams for online synchronous teaching and Moodle for asynchronous Virtual Campus interaction. I don’t know whether this is because Moodle lacks the feature to offer streaming or because Teams is integrated in Outlook, which we use for webmail, but having two platforms does not help at all.

What happens in distance learning and we are failing to understand, is that asynchronous teaching has much more weight. In my own experience of sixteen years at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya all teaching was asynchronous, which means that students used the resources as they wanted, not within a rigid schedule. During my time at UOC I was never asked to produce narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or video and, as far as I’m concerned, I never missed them there. My students learned mainly by reading the materials and the books, and by interacting with me through their exercises, which included forums. I know that some might believe that their learning must have been limited but that was not the case. I asked a friend at UNED how things work there and he told me that tutors, that is to say, the teachers that solve doubts, provide feedback and occasional lectures, work both synchronously and asynchronously. The teachers’ working hours are not counted on the base of the time spent in direct contact with students but on the basis of how many are enrolled in class and other factors which are not connected with synchronous teaching. This is, of course, very different from traditional universities in which (at least at UAB) our workload is counted on the basis of classroom teaching and the number of students in the group.

I would, in short, recommend using other strategies than just streaming sessions to interact with students. I find forums a great tool for they can remain open beyond the time limits of the classroom and engage all students, including the shy ones, in conversation. Thus, for instance, my MA students (13 in total) were doing between two and four 10-minute oral presentations in each session followed by debate and complemented by my own introductions (20’-30’). In practice this meant that their presentations were rushed, students lacked the time to react and prepare questions, and my own interaction with them was limited. What we do now is use the same schedule to watch their presentations (narrated PowerPoints) and start interacting in the corresponding forum. The forum remains open for one week and in this way they have more time to send contributions, see my PowerPoint notes, etc. In practice they spend (and I spend) more than our three hours a week interacting but, well, the conversation is far richer. I think that if we go back to the classroom we’ll adapt poorly to the time constrains and I’ll use anyway the forums.

It’s not a matter of always doing the same, then, but of alternating diverse activities. Teach online using streaming if you want, but don’t forget forum activities that can be done together, or narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or whatever imagination dictates. I wish we were exploring right now new ways of working in virtual environments instead of using the same old way of teaching but online, so that when the Covid-19 pandemic is over our return to the classroom offers richer possibilities than ever.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from Visit my website


My good friend Brian Baker (@SciFiBaker) tweeted yesterday: “Hands up who’s tried, through classroom technology failures and ‘dual mode delivery’, to teach online students down your phone at the same time as trying to organise discussion with other students in the classroom? Next time I’ll take a unicycle with me as well”. And do handstands… Fortunately for me, my school is too poor to have installed cameras in the classrooms and I have been spared the pleasures of ‘dual mode delivery’. I know, however, of colleagues here and in other universities who are using their personal laptops or cell phones and have equipped themselves with mikes to teach in this way. Without technology to stream my classes, which I do not want anyway, I have chosen to improvise what to do online with the fifty percent of my class that cannot attend face-to-face teaching on alternate Thursdays. So far I have used narrated PowerPoints and asked them to read my own academic articles; I am now about to record a series of podcasts and go on thinking of other resources.

Complaining about the new teaching conditions caused by the Covid-19 crisis may sound unprofessional but I think it would be simply counterproductive to pretend that teaching goes on as usual with no glitches. That is not the case at all. From what I see in my own school one important matter is that, as I have already commented on here, there is a poor understanding of what online teaching means in one particular regard: the obsession with synchronous teaching. One of my colleagues has permission to teach online for justified health reasons and what he did was to record a couple of lectures for the first week of his course which he uploaded onto his Virtual Campus classroom. The school authorities upbraided him because, according to them, he needs to respect the schedule whether he teaches face-to-face or online. Since the school has not booked a classroom for his students, and most of them are in the building attending lectures, this means that they must follow his synchronous online teaching wherever they can. With all classrooms now fully occupied since the arrival of our new 1150 first-year students and no alternative spaces available anywhere (except for just a handful of students) this means that whole classes taught online synchronously are having a very hard time trying to follow lectures. Some, we have been told by the students’ delegates, are doing so in their cars. I may see the need for synchronous online teaching when student participation is essential but when it is not this is an added difficulty that helps no one.

Another matter is how actual classroom teaching is being implemented. I don’t really know where to begin… Right, I’ll begin with the windows. We have been asked to ventilate the classroom ten minutes between sessions, which is not working well at all because students have no place to wait in the meantime. The main hall is spacious but soon crowded, and so are the corridors (I haven’t been to the cafeteria yet…). The result? Students get in the classrooms as soon as the previous group vacates them. I don’t know what the other teachers are doing but I’m not very good myself at waiting. With one thing and the other I’m wasting a lot of precious time. Also, I’m so nervous about the whole situation that I think I have only signed up for attendance twice out of eight teaching days. We have been asked to keep the windows open for the duration of the lectures, which can still be done since this is a mild October month (and this is Spain, not Sweden…) but this has already caused students in early morning classes to complain that they are cold. In one of my classrooms the draught caused by keeping windows and door open is so strong that my notes started flying off the table. I am closing the door now but with some misgivings as the space is rather small.

Students, by the way, do not appreciate at all being taught in large groups of 50 or 100 with just one metre distance between them, they simply do not feel safe. I have already mentioned the crowded corridors, which our students are indignantly reporting on a daily basis on their social media. Add to this that some spaces occupied to accommodate teaching are not really suitable to be used regularly. My bigger classroom is, as happens, the ‘Sala de Grados’, that is to say the formally furnished classroom where doctoral students present their dissertations and teachers are examined for tenure (this brings some memories…). This means that this room has very comfy seats but no tables for students to take notes. I won’t even mention the ugly artwork that distracts me so much, above all the ghostly image of man possibly supposed to be an alien staring at me from the back wall. Ugh!

Then there’s the problem of the facemasks. We, UAB teachers, were allowed for the first three weeks to teach with no masks on but this period of leniency is over and now we all have to wear them. This is a decision which makes perfect sense on health grounds but that is disastrous for teaching. Our colleagues in the Speech Therapy section of the School of Psychology had sent us a cheerful report in early September ( basically arguing that the facemasks are no hindrance for good teaching, as they are no obstacle to project our voices and be adequately heard. They reminded us of the need to keep our vocal chords hydrated and not to strain them by trying to speak in a louder voice. This is the reason, let me tell you, why primary and secondary school teachers who need to speak to their classes for many hours every day have in many cases temporarily lost their voices. So, sorry but the facemasks do have an obvious negative effect: not only are they a nuisance, it does really feel as if you cannot be heard well, regardless what the scientific evidence proves about oxygen intake and sound projection. The physical effects, on the other hand, are not imaginary at all: mouth dryness increases palpably and the discomfort is noticeable (and the smell, right?); the masks were made for protection in medical environments not to cover the mouths of people speaking to large audiences, much less in big spaces for, say, three or four hours.

The facemasks have a far worse poisonous effect on teaching: they prevent teacher-student communication. My cheerful colleagues in Speech Therapy note that facemasks “diminish non-verbal communication and, therefore, bidirectionally, certain feedback from students. This needs to be considered and adapt teacher’s attention to communicative aspects such as the reception of the habitual and necessary feedback”. In my own teaching practice these four weeks, what this means is that I can speak (with some difficulties) with my 13 masters’ degree students in our smallish classroom (about 40m2) but there is no way I can communicate with my 45 students in my bigger classroom (roughly 120m2). I have tried but their words come out absolutely muffled (most of them use cloth facemasks, not surgical ones) and I simply don’t understand them. The students in the MA class are physically closer to me and I can more or less follow them, but I have also noticed that the cloth masks need to be held with the fingers, otherwise they tend to slip off. Needless to say, students wear washable cloth masks because they are cheaper than surgical masks that must be replaced every four hours. All this means that those who claim that facemasks are no obstacle to teaching are thinking of lectures in which only the teacher speaks and the students make notes in silence. With the facemasks on any kind of interaction is next to impossible, except in smaller spaces where seminar-style teaching may happen. In a couple of weeks I need my students in the bigger group to do class presentations and I really don’t see how this is going to work. And, please, do not misunderstand me: I’m not arguing here that we should take our masks off at all, I’m saying that they are a major obstacle in a higher education face-to-face context.

The other toxic effect of facemasks is the anonymity they bring to teaching. With my facemask on, I feel like a robot. I try to give my voice all the expression I usually communicate facially (I teach Literature, remember?) but this is very limited. My students cannot see me smile (a piece in The Conversation actually claimed that we are smiling less because it is no use…) or in any way make the many funny faces I use when reading from the literary texts we analyse, and just as part of my teaching style… I miss that very much! Besides, what I see in front of me is a totally anonymous audience of persons I might never recognize without their masks on. In the case of my MA class I have already taken a look at their photos with no masks on for even though I have already learned their names I don’t know what they look like. In the case of my Victorian Literature class, I’m waiting to receive the first exercises to do the same and start connecting names to… eyes, which is the part of their faces I must focus on. I must say that these students are very kind to me, showing as expressively as they can with their eyes that they are following my teaching, for which I thank them.

I’ll grant, then, that my teaching this semester could be certainly improved but my feeling is that I have lost control over my habitual teaching strategies. I hate lecturing with no dialogue and I feel that this is what I am forced to accept doing. Since we have ‘survived’ four weeks in this way and it seems that we might continue face-to-face the rest of the semester the question that arises is whether this is not, after all, what the Government has called the ‘new normality’. Aren’t we generally doing well and carrying on business as usual? I think that it is business as usual for the traditional lecturer used to transmitting information without expecting students’ feedback. For those of us in the Literature classroom that understand teaching as working with the students on textual analysis in constant interaction this is working very poorly. I have insisted and I insist that I would be far more comfortable and effective working asynchronously (and occasionally synchronously) online and properly interacting with my students via forums, etc.

A colleague told me today that, most likely, the university authorities all over the world that decreed the implementation of hybrid teaching did not expect this situation to last. By now, we should be all working from home again. It is fortunate, of course, that we are healthy enough to move about and be at our universities at all but a) we are certainly assuming a risk by travelling to our centres and staying there in crowded spaces; b) the current practices are going to diminish the quality of our teaching in most if not all cases. I am well aware that I am in the minority and that most teachers prefer face-to-face teaching but I still demand my own right to go online (and I mean in a flexible asynchronous way). I do want to guarantee the quality of my teaching and I cannot do that in my current working conditions. I simply fail to understand what the compulsory face-to-face teaching is proving, considering that we are in the middle of a dangerous pandemic, and why all the issues I have raised have so little weight. In any case, I will certainly try to do my best, be as professional as I usually am.

PS Guess what? Face-to-face teaching has been suspended by the regional health authorities for two weeks…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from Visit my website


I should be celebrating in today’s post, the first one in the academic year 2020-2021, that this blog is now ten years old. Instead of happiness, however, the feeling that necessarily affects my writing now and that makes my nights so restless is fear. Fear that the return to class next week means being infected with Covid-19, with who knows what consequences, and fear that I might infect those who live with me and endanger lives I love even more than mine. This is not at all the spirit in which a teacher should start a new year and I’m writing today to leave a record of that fear, hoping that by next semester I can read this post and laugh at my concerns. Right now I feel no joy. I do look forward to teaching Literature again but not at the cost of my health, which is very much at risk, and my peace of mind, which I have lost.

Like all my colleagues in Spain, I have been working from home since 14 March. I taught about four weeks in the classroom before lockdown forced me to go online, with no major problem as I already knew this crisis was coming (the news in The Guardian about the plague in China had been scaring me already for at least one month). My experience of teaching online using an asynchronous model, combining forums and weekly activities, and without using streaming, worked very well to the point that I awarded the highest marks since the implementation of the new BA degrees ten years ago. I even published a very handsome e-book on American in documentary film with my students (see ). In view of this, I have been defending, to no avail, each teacher’s right to choose whether to continue online or return to class. Like the rest of us who prefer staying online I find myself, however, forced to return to the classroom against my better judgement and forced to assume a serious risk to my health. Ironically, many teachers in my Department who could have plead their age (past 60) or their poor health and stay home have chosen to teach in person, which totally baffles me.

I have been imagining what the first day will be like and I see myself first on a very crowded train, which no minimal social distance at all. I work at a campus university and it takes me about 30 minutes to get there. It is just impossible to run more trains and thus make more room for passengers; in fact, the railway management had already acknowledged last year that trains are running at more than 100% their capacity and this is not going to change because of Covid-19. Next, I see myself reaching the also overcrowded building of my school, which will not really be emptier despite the measures taken by the Dean’s office.

In my own case, I have been given a larger classroom to accommodate my 45 students in Victorian Literature on Tuesdays, but with no guarantee of the necessary 1’5m social distancing required. I have been asked to split my class in two groups, in rigorous alphabetical order to keep track of eventual contagions, and see them on alternate Thursdays, ideally streaming my lessons for those who cannot be in the classroom (but who will possibly be in the school corridors waiting to attend another course taught in similar ways). I am totally against the idea of streaming my lessons and having people I cannot see watch me teach and, so, I have decided to have my students share each other’s class notes and my own notes. This morning I have been working on a calendar to guarantee that everyone will get sufficient hours for the needs of the course and, basically, I need to teach more compact lessons, with less time for student participation. That might work if I focus more intensely on the assessment requirements and cut any extras that might enrich the students’ learning about the Victorian Age.

In my visions of Tuesday next week, I enter next my classroom wearing a facemask and I see 45 equally masked students. I see no point in checking their names for I will never be able to recognize them. I must carry, or will be provided with (that is not clear), disinfectant to clean the table and be able to leave my notes on it, and the computer to use my USB. The windows need to be open for fifteen minutes between sessions but I intend to keep them open all the time. I don’t know yet whether I am supposed to shorten my lessons by fifteen minutes at the beginning, I don’t know who to ask. It’s now September and still beautifully warm (the air conditioning might even be on for the virus to circulate…) and I don’t know what will happen on colder days in November but the windows will stay open. I will buy and carry my own blackboard eraser and chalk, as we’ve been told that they cannot be shared. I don’t trust that the eraser will be properly disinfected, as we have been told it will be.

We have been told that we can teach without the facemask on provided we are two metres away from the students and even though facemasks are now compulsory in all private and public spaces. I have been using so far surgical masks of the basic type but my pharmacist tells me I should wear KN-95 respirators on the train, which possibly means I should also wear them in class. There is no way, however, I can properly breath and project my voice with a facemask of any type on and this has me very, very worried. The masks were never designed to be worn for so many hours and much less to teach in big classrooms, so I have no idea right now about what I should do. I don’t know either how one communicates with masked students whose expressions I cannot read at all.

So, supposing I manage to teach for seventy-five minutes without suffocating and feeling cut off from the masked persons before me next comes the nightmarish time to leave the classroom and join the hundreds of persons abandoning the other classrooms in the same corridor. The authorities have limited gatherings to ten persons but all the universities will have gatherings in many classrooms of fifty and more. There is, besides, absolutely no way the occupation of the corridors, the bathrooms, or the cafeteria can be limited to safe numbers (no problem in the library, though, the least crowded space always). I have been given the choice to be available for tutorials either online or in person, by the way. I chose to be available online any day of the week at my students’ convenience but I was told that, according to the Dean’s office, I must be in my office for online tutorials. Luckily for me, I have a big office and I have chosen to meet my students there at a safe two metres distance, with open windows and disinfecting the chairs they may use. I hope this relative proximity gives a human touch to any possible meeting, though I’ll try to solve problems by e-mail if possible.

No doubt staying home all this time and carefully managing my meeting friends and family may have turned me into a bit of a misanthrope. Perhaps that’s not the right word but I don’t know if the Covid-19 crisis has already given us a word for the fear of personal contact. I have never liked crowds but that is very different from feeling that my 45 students are a danger to me, and I to them. To be honest, I fear that they are a much bigger danger to me than I am to them because they are part of the demographic now responsible for the largest number of contagions. I’m sorry to say that the young have been breaking the safety rules implemented by the authorities more than other age groups and, with no previous testing, we teachers simply cannot know how to assess the danger in our classrooms. One of my colleagues also made the point that by forcing students to attend lessons we are committing a sort of moral fault, for they are indeed also risking their health. Covid-19 has killed many more older people but the young have also been affected, sometimes cruelly. Nobody is safe as we all know by now, so why insist on making classes presential?

After introducing myself on the first day, I will write on the blackboard the word ‘candid’ and will invite my students to have a candid conversation about why we need to risk our life by meeting in a classroom in the middle of a truly scary plague. I know that, right now, this means assuming a totally unnecessary risk but I want to hear from them what they expect from me and why, all of a sudden, attending classes has become such a big issue. Every year students cut classes, and nobody checks on them, or miss them because they are ill and nobody tells the teachers that we have to make up for these absences by teaching online. Absurdity and self-denial rule our return to class. Some of my colleagues are telling me that we’ll start next week and will close down the week after for there is no way Covid-19 can be controlled in a university environment. That might be a correct assessment of the situation but even just one day of teaching is a risk we cannot assume. I find that primary and secondary schools are a different matter, for kids stay in the same classroom and don’t move about all over the place. In universities, masses of teachers and students circulate from classroom to classroom, which will also increase the circulation of the virus. I think of the cafeteria and I shiver…

I am not saying, then, that universities should abandon presential teaching for online teaching for good but I am saying that we live in exceptional times and that there is absolutely no need to return to the classrooms. We have been receiving these days cheerful messages from the Rector’s and the Dean’s office and though I know they have been sent with the best intention they have done nothing to appease my fears, quite the opposite. I have kept so far my concentration and carried on with my academic work at home but I tried to prepare my first session for next week today and I simply couldn’t focus. I have serious difficulties to believe that what I teach is so relevant to myself and my students as to want to risk my health, much more so when I could perfectly fulfil my teaching duties online. I know that some might think I am a coward, or exaggerating the risks, but there are two kinds of negationists right now: those who claim that Covid-19 does not even exist and those who claim that the return to class is safe. It is not.

Good luck to all of you, keep safe. If you can.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from Visit my website


Like most of my colleagues in Spain, I will not finish teaching until mid-July, when the marks for the MA dissertations will be introduced. Yet, now that I’m done ‘teaching’, that is to say, interacting with my undergrad students before assessment, might be a good moment to stop and consider how Covid-19 has changed some pedagogical matters but will most likely fail to change others. I have spelled ‘teaching’ between quotation marks because since 12 March, when I taught my last two presential sessions, I have been teaching online—again, like the rest of my colleagues in Spain. This does not mean that we have all being approaching online teaching from the same angle, though I lack sufficient information to know what my colleagues have been doing so far. From what I hear, my impression is that, given the lack of general guidelines, they have improvised and have mostly tried to transfer their habitual activities onto our Moodle classrooms. A common complaint by students is that they have been overloaded with extra work to compensate for the missing lectures; this has been gradually corrected but it is for me a sign that the approach taken might not be the best one.

I was an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, a pioneering online university, between 1998 and 2014. I used to teach there an elective subject called ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for the BA in the Humanities. I was part of the team that had written the handbook and I myself set the course in motion under the supervision of Pauline Ernest. I combined, then, online and presential teaching for sixteen years and I only gave up because in the last semester at UOC I had 70 students in my hands. Multiply this by six exercises each and you will see that I just couldn’t cope with UOC and UAB at the same time. The current teacher tells me that the subject is going to be discontinued after twenty-two years, which is a pity.

I joined UOC when I was an untenured teacher, seeking to enhance my possibilities of getting tenure. The money was also an enticement, of course. When I became tenured, in 2002, I found out to my surprise that my new contract was compatible with UOC, so I continued teaching online. My motivation was at this point pedagogical: the UOC students were mostly very well read, highly autonomous mature students and interacting with them was a pleasure. In all my sixteen years, I only failed one student; the rest who did not pass the subject just quit, though most passed the second time around.

I learned plenty at UOC in terms of planning tasks for continuous assessment, giving constructive feedback, encouraging students who were less autonomous. I never used exams—only a variety of written exercises, including forums—and I never missed them. I don’t know how other UOC teachers managed, though. And, although this might sound surprising, I never used video. My students were not taking a degree in English Studies but in the Humanities and although their command of written English was good (in some cases much above that of my UAB students), none of my three UOC supervisors (or coordinators) thought that video was a necessary part of the subject. I agreed.

I had been reading worrying news about Wuhan in the British press for weeks before quarantine started in Spain, so I was ready to go online at any moment with my two BA courses: ‘English Romantic Literature’ (second year, 58 students) and ‘Cultural Studies’ (third-fourth year, 42 students). For this, I have mostly followed the UOC model. In fact I have been following that model for years, in the sense that I avoid exams and I think of my courses as a chance to teach a set of skills though a set of tasks, and not just to teach content. So, what we were doing in class in February is not in the end very different from what we ended up doing after 14 March: I transferred what was supposed to be presential to our Moodle classroom mainly through the use of forums—I use plenty of students’ oral presentations in class, so that was not really a problem. In the case of ‘Cultural Studies’ the students have interacted online infinitely far more than they were interacting in our physical classroom. In the case of ‘English Romanticism’ their interactions have been available for much longer than they would have been in the classroom.

I have not, however, used my teaching time in the same way I was using it in February. To begin with, I believe that online teaching needn’t be synchronous. That is to say: I see no need to keep the rigid schedule of classroom teaching, much less to reproduce online the same twice-weekly ninety-minute sessions we were teaching. With 58 students in one class and 42 in the other, I have seen, besides, little use in online Teams meetings; to the matter of numbers I need to add that for me teaching works by looking at people in the eyes, which cannot be done online. The few Teams meetings I’ve had with colleagues have been quite awkward in terms of visual quality and the personal awareness needed to interact well. For that, the classroom is much, much better.

I know that some of my colleagues have used Teams regularly or have recorded themselves and uploaded podcasts and video, which is fine. I am just saying that I have used other strategies. For instance, in ‘English Romanticism’ I have been teaching students to write papers, and so, for one of our books (Frankenstein) I wrote a paper for them instead of lecturing. The same applies to ‘Cultural Studies’: in this subject I have provided sample written exercises and guidance about how to do presentations. Students have in fact taught each other much, and I have used my teaching time to give detailed, personal feedback. I have certainly missed classroom interaction and I do look forward to meeting face-to-face again. But, let me be completely honest, I have not missed at all the students who were projecting onto me a relentless sense of boredom in my English Romanticism lectures, possibly because that is a compulsory course. That is one of the great advantages of teaching online: students’ eating and drinking in class, using cellphones, chatting need not bother me.

Our schedule for next year is ready but, even though the end of quarantine approaches (21 June), it seems likely that the preventive measures against Covid-19 will be enforced for a much longer time, at least until December. I am personally scandalised by the imprudence that Spaniards are displaying now, after a death toll of possibly near 40,000 persons (not the official 28,000 count) and in the absence of a vaccine. This summer we’ll see the actual danger that the virus poses once foreign visitors return and general national mobility goes back to normal (or pseudo-normal). It might well be that Covid-19, in the best case scenario, is under control by early September and that we can resume teaching as we have done so far. Even so, it would still be a great moment to consider how we teach.

I am logically speaking as a Literature teacher, and I understand that matters can be very different in other disciplines, beginning with the Language section of my Department. A six ECTS course, allow me to remind you, amounts to 150 hours of work, of which 30%-40% (45 to 60) should be of classroom interaction, leaving only 100 for reading, and assessment activities. In my school we used to teach 45 hours in 15 weeks (so, 3 hours a week), but this has gone up to 50 hours in 17 weeks. Here is for me, a first problem: Literature students have too little time to read, and too much is taken by listening to us, teachers, discuss books they haven’t had the time to read. Add to this that to reach UAB, or many other campus universities, students and teachers often have to employ at least 2 hours every day (and think of the carbon footprint this means—you just need to see the parking lot any day). Our buildings are woefully overcrowded with students who spend on average fifteen to twenty hours a week in classrooms, mostly passively listening (if they listen at all!). The furniture in our classrooms consists mostly of benches facing towards the teacher’s platform, which are not only very uncomfortable but also impossible to move and guarantee a better use of the classroom space for group work (and now that Covid-19 is making personal distance necessary). To sum up: the way we teach takes too much reading/studying time, the classrooms are obsolete as teaching spaces, and we contaminate too much.

Next, what do we do in our biweekly ninety-minute lectures? We are supposed not to use ‘lecciones magistrales’ (lectures) but I should think that this is still a very typical model. The question we are not asking is whether this is the best possible model. Ninety minutes is an amount of time that goes totally against all studies in the attention span of average human beings. In conferences we offer twenty-minute papers and each ninety-minute session has three papers followed by discussion. Why do we assume, then, that our students benefit from ninety-minute sessions? And do they? Shouldn’t we start thinking of alternatives? Perhaps forty-five minute sessions? Perhaps one presential and one online session a week? Of course, the problem with this is that our task as teachers is measured by how long we spend lecturing. Try to explain to the authorities that monitor us that teaching is not only face-to-face interaction but mainly guidance. It used to be about passing on information but this is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages, and information is accessible in many other ways than it used to be. The rule should be simple: the classroom should only be used for what cannot be done elsewhere.

Sixty per cent of students’ work already happens elsewhere, in the library or at home. It is ‘virtual’, in the sense that it does not happen in the classroom. The thirty per cent that does happen in the classroom is now a problem because of how Covid-19 has attacked our capacity to be together in the same indoors space in big groups and for a long time. I believe, though, that with or without Covid-19, we still need to think why we need to crowd so many people in classrooms and what for. In primary schools they have 25 children in each classroom, though in really advanced countries like Finland this is down to 15. In universities, however, we think that it makes sense to have 100 students sitting huddled together—it doesn’t make sense now, but it has never made sense at all. Past 25 students classroom interaction simply does not happen, you just see a mass of faces looking at you, as you desperately try to remember their names. In big groups, it really makes no difference whether you’re there in the flesh or on YouTube.

Our target, then, should be making new sense of university teaching in a world that, as Covid-19 is forcing us to see, already needed a profound reform.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


‘Lest We Forget’ is a phrase from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” (1897) habitually quoted in war remembrance events. May 8 2020 was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi rendition but World War II is not the war I have in mind today. Contradicting my own injunctions to only read positive, ideally utopian books, I have spent many hours this past two weeks reading one of the most impressive American non-fiction works: Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On (1987). This is a terrific account of the early phase of the AIDS plague, covering from the first cases until the public announcement in 1985 that star actor Rock Hudson was a victim of the disease. Shilts, an investigative journalist employed by the San Francisco Chronicle and a variety of Californian TV networks, wrote the book with passion and anger. A gay man himself, he waited to take the HIV test until the massive volume was published, and died of AIDS-related complications in 1994.

Shilts was the author of The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), the biography of Harvey Milk which was one of the sources for Oscar-award winner documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk (2008) was based on Epstein’s documentary. A while ago I wrote a book chapter comparing documentary and film, and explaining the connections between homophobia and patriarchal masculinity (the Spanish version is available online here The point I made was that Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (or town council), did not murder him and Mayor George Moscone simply because he was a homophobe but because he felt disempowered by Milk’s election. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay officer ever elected in the USA and when White, a classic patriarchal man, lost his position as supervisor because of his own ineptitude, he blamed both Milk and Moscone for his disempowerment. Moscone’s death was basically read as collateral damage, though, by an angry gay community that has since then honoured Milk as a martyr. His death in 1978 was the catalyst for the beginning of a time of enormously increased visibility for the San Francisco gay community, which knew how to channel their anger into positive activism.

Shilts’s And the Band Played On reads as a second act in the tragedy that Milk’s death was. As he narrates, the new happier period in the life of gay men lasted for just very few years until AIDS emerged. Shilts’s volume, based on hundreds of interviews that he himself carried out, has an immense cast of (real-life) characters, among which several are members of the Harvey Milk Club, a referent for gay activism in the Castro neighbourhood. What Shilts narrates is the story of how the gay community resisted in a suicidal way any measure that might curb down their newly found sexual freedom. Homophobia was much more intense in the 1980s than it is now and many gays feared being ostracized as lepers by the health safety measures dictated by mostly homophobic public officers. The disease, in short, spread far more than it should have if only many gay men had listened to doctors’ advice and refrained from engaging in dangerous sexual practices. Of course, as Shilts notes with bitterness, the advice came too late, when the virus had been probably circulating for years undetected (he dates the first case back to 1976).

I knew, more or less, of the efforts made by the gay communities of San Francisco and New York, mainly, to organize themselves and work on promoting not only safe sex but also the use of innovative treatment. The book is very critical of how irresponsible personal behaviour contributed to spreading HIV (though Shilts is very unfair to Gaetan Dugas, the Québécois Canadian flight attendant that was never really Patient One). This is an important lesson to apply to our Covid-19 crisis: disobeying health measures is lethal, and personal freedom should always be second to safety. Of course, the main difference between AIDS and Covid-19 is that the former was initially associated to gay men, which caused homophobia to increase even further, whereas Covid-19 is not associated to any specific human group. The lesson, anyway, is still valid. It must be noted that Shilts mentions several times how AIDS was never seen as a gay disease in France, where researchers at the Pasteur Institute first isolated HIV. They saw the disease as a sexually transmitted infection which affected both gays and heterosexuals, and which could also be transmitted through other contacts involving blood (transfusions, sharing needles for IV drug use, drawing nourishment through a placenta from an infected mother in the case of foetuses).

As a researcher, though in the Humanities, I worry very much about how scientists do research in critical situations like the onset of AIDS or of Covid-19. Shilts has two main arguments to develop about this. On the one hand, he demonstrates how President Reagan’s administration (1980-1988) did all it could to hinder research for its own homophobic reasons and because Reagan did not want to lose his most conservative voters in the 1984 re-election. Funding only started to materialise when it became evident that AIDS was never a gay-exclusive disease. On the other hand, Shilts exposes how academic squabbling wasted precious years. Academic authorities withdrew funding and shunned researchers working on AIDS for purely homophobic reasons. Yet what seems to me most intolerable is how the peer reviewing system slowed down progress and how certain scientific stars placed their personal careers before the care of AIDS sufferers. Shilts always defends the idea that Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi were the discoverers of HIV, siding with those who accused Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health of somehow having used the LAV French samples sent to him as the basis for his discovery of the HLVT-III virus (both LAV and HLVT-III were actually the same virus, later called HIV). Gallo was left out of the 2008 Nobel Prize award, which went to the French virologists.

There is a passage in And the Band Played On which, as a researcher, I found very scary. The French team isolated the virus in 1983, one year before Gallo. They did try to publish their research in the USA but, Shilts writes, “they were inexperienced at writing papers for American scientific journals. They did not present their data as well as American scientists. The Pasteur’s primary spokesman, Dr. Luc Montagnier, lacked the charisma and forcefulness of Gallo”. Peer reviewing, Shilts notes, was also used to prevent the French team from publishing, with prestige journals using reviewers connected with Gallo’s employer institution or others with a known animosity against Montagnier. That this kind of corruption could happen made me even more indignant than the shenanigans of the Reagan Government, for these were no surprise. Call me naïve but I should have thought that national or personal arrogance should play no role in science at times of crisis. Reading Shilts is not at all reassuring in that sense. I would expect personal irresponsibility and political interests to be the cause of many deaths, as we are seeing in the case of Covid-19, but the details of how some scientists misbehaved in the early 1980s in relation to AIDS are simply revolting.

Just this morning I received the Catalan bulletin for research, this time a monographic issue on Covid-19. As you may imagine, and I assume this is the same all over the world, the bulletin is pretty bombastic about the magnificent work of local researchers. I am sure that they are doing their best but what irks me is the nationalist angle at a time when this is the last thing we need. There are, at least, two news items about international matters publicizing the existence of the Covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition and the Coronavirus Research and Innovation Portal of the EU. More importantly, the bulletin includes a short piece defending the need for international open research, which highlights the Global Research on Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) portal run by WHO, and other initiatives mainly referring to open access repositories, among them Elsevier’s Novel Coronavirus Information Center. I cannot say, though, whether publications available there, like The Lancet or Cell Press, have made their peer reviewing processes more agile. Shilts describes the overwhelming frustration of early AIDS researchers forced by indispensable journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine to wait a minimum of three months before publication (remember these were pre-internet times) and not to leak any information to the media under penalty of article withdrawal. The media, I must complain, should be giving us information about all this: how science is being run right now, and not just the endless lists of figures which in the end mean very little.

And the Band Plays On narrates in the last segment the process by which the first antibody tests were put on the market. This will ring familiar: the tests were not made available to all who needed them, they were not 100% reliable, and did not necessarily result in the isolation of infected patients. Like Covid-19, HIV can be carried asymptomatically (the virus, it was determined, may take years to attack the immune system) which is why testing is so important. In case anyone thinks that HIV is under control, think twice: 700000 persons died last year of this disease all over the world. The number of new infections has gone down in most countries (South Africa remains a hot spot) and the rate of survival is much higher, with HIV carriers keeping the disease in check for decades. It must be noted, though, that only two persons have been cured thanks to stem cell transplants “from donors with a genetic mutation present in less than one percent of Europeans that prevents HIV from taking hold” ( The second patient was pronounced healthy just last March. Note that here is no vaccine yet, after 35 years of quite dynamic research. 35 million people have died of AIDS since 1981. This week a series of clinical trials have started in different labs of different nations, which sounds promising; there is talk of a functional anti-Covid-19 vaccine for 2021. Apart from questions of funding (remember covidiot President Trump withdrew US funding from WHO?), researchers are now facing ethical dilemmas such as whether it is legitimate to infect healthy persons for the experiments (logically, you could not do that with HIV), because there is always a risk of death. One hundred vaccines are currently being developed (see Now, try not to think of the still missing vaccines for AIDS.

Shilts explains that US citizens were shocked into the realization that AIDS was there to stay when they saw images of Rock Hudson’s ravaged physique in his last public appearance (on a TV show with former co-star in many films, Doris Day). Hudson still denied he was suffering from AIDS but his death in October 1985 was used to instil into the nation a widespread fear of the new plague, for good and for bad reasons. We have not gone yet through a Rock Hudson moment, that is to say, we still lack an image so potent that we finally understand what Covid-19 is about. We are being fed images of happy survivors and of hard-working doctors and nurses, but I don’t think we really understand that this coronavirus is potentially lethal for all, hence the daily acts of disobedience.

The US media, Shilts complains, were guilty of misinforming his fellow citizens about the urgency and gravity of the AIDS crisis but he is himself an outstanding example of the best investigative journalism. Read his book, pay him homage, and hope that current journalists are also doing their best.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


This is my forty-third day at home, which means that technically I have passed quarantine, a period which used to mean forty days, and not as it does now a variable period of time extended by Government decrees. Today, Sunday, children have been allowed to take a one-hour walk for the first time in weeks, and this feels as a turning point of sorts, even though there is no way we can predict what lies ahead of us. Minister for Universities Manuel Castells announced this week that the new university year should be started in September with caution, taking into account the high probability of a second bout of infection. He spoke of classrooms that should be occupied only partially to guarantee social distancing (why is this not called personal distancing?) and that would be disinfected between sessions. This is so impractical and preposterous that I think Castells meant that in practice we’ll stay online for at least one more semester. I personally prefer that to taking overcrowded trains to travel to UAB, or speaking to colleagues and students from a distance of six feet, and wearing a facemask.

For those of us fortunate enough to continue working at home, this is a ghostly crisis. Life maintains a certain level of normality until the ‘other’ world appears. This consists of the persons working to guarantee our everyday routine: supermarket cashiers, bakers, food market sellers, sanitation workers, workers at factories and fields, employees of tech companies that guarantee we can work online, those who make sure we can still get water, power, gas, petrol… etc. For them, the changes caused by Covid-19 must be very different from what they are for persons like myself, but, then, where are they supposed to discuss them? Twitter, I guess. And, then, there’s the really scary ‘other’ world, the one we see grossly misrepresented in the media and, if we are less fortunate, in person in the hospitals. It’s hard to imagine the level of terror that doctors and nurses, patients and relatives, have been putting up with while the rest of us discuss the boredom caused by lockdown or the limitations of the Netflix algorithm. That, I think, is a key problem: the experience we have of Covid-19 is communal as no other experience can be except a war but, as it also happens in wars, personal experience is very different. Some self-isolate in total comfort and will suffer no significant trouble, for others the virus is the end of life as they knew it before, or the end of life full stop.

Raül Magí, who writes the blog Les Rades Grises: Una Mirada a la Literatura Fantástica, asked me recently to write a few words about the future of dystopia after Covid-19. You can find my contribution and many others by persons I admire very much in the Catalan SF/fantasy circuit here: I believe that making predictions of any kind makes very little sense. Nobody making predictions about 2020 back in December 2019 would have imagined the catastrophe we are now going through (even though Wuhan was already in deep trouble). On the other hand, it takes time for traumatic experience to be fully understood and even though we now rush to discuss new events as soon as they begin to happen (Netflix already has a documentary series about Covid-19), what this crisis really means will only be grasped perhaps in the 2030s, supposing it is over by then. The best fiction and autobiography about WWI started appearing in 1929; the Holocaust only became the topic of countless publications from the 1960s onward. I told Raül this and then I added that I hope to see many utopian fantasies of reconstruction (Slavoj Žižek has already written a book proposing a new form of communism, though I’m not sure I would support that) and also an end to dystopia because, I wrote, “this is a genre we can only enjoy as long as we enjoy a safe, comfortable lifestyle, which is what we have lost now”.

I am very much aware that this lifestyle has been so far enjoyed by a privileged minority in the world, to which I belong as an academic but also as a citizen of the Western world (though I’m not forgetting the millions of fellow-citizens who have lost all safety nets). The crisis caused by Covid-19 has so many angles that covering all of them is practically impossible but try to imagine what it is like to be a refugee, a person in a war zone, homeless or poor and then have the virus threaten your life on top of that. What is at stake right now for us, the privileged, is, leaving aside the brutal economic impact for all, a sort of spiritual numbness. Spain has been very hard hit not only because the early signs of the pandemic were disregarded (that has happened in many other countries anyway) but also because our lifestyle involves plenty of personal contact. We touch each other a lot in comparison to other cultures, tend to be gregarious, and think of our lives as extended networks beyond home. Now we are asked to obey personal distance and that is a main ingredient of what I am calling spiritual numbness. Online contact has many advantages but it is not the same as face-to-face contact. What the virus has brought is a total suspicion of proximity which must be already having a devastating impact on intimacy at all levels. If the Government decreed tomorrow that we can go back to normal in about one month, I fear that my own personal sense of abnormality will persist and it will take me time to get close to people again. On the other hand, I think of the Germans demanding that the Government of the Balearic Islands opens up the territory to tourism again this summer and I realize that their selfishness is also part of this spiritual numbness I am describing. Who are they to say that our lockdown measures are unnecessary, I wonder? How can they be so unfeeling?

The other reason why I dislike dystopia, apart from its inherent hypocrisy about privilege, is its destructiveness. What we’re going through is a mild form of dystopia in comparison to what a far more aggressive virus could have caused; a scientist recently claimed that Covid-19 is but a poor apprentice in comparison to HIV, though, of course what makes the new coronavirus so effective is its very simple strategy of contagion. Anyway, in dystopian fiction when a society is devastated and needs to focus on pure survival, it soon becomes apparent that all the skills developed since prehistory are useless. Only hunters, farmers and, if the post-apocalyptic society is lucky, low-level technicians are necessary (I mean smiths, weavers, and so on). In dystopia doctors become gradually useless because they require high-tech machinery; you only need to think of how the lack of basic protective gear has resulted in the death of many doctors and nurses, and how many patients have been lost for lack of respirators. Dystopia is a most potent generator, in short, of spiritual numbness for it makes you feel that if worse comes to worse, we’re done for. It also makes you feel your own intrinsic worthlessness. Why should I survive? Who needs academics in dystopia? What can culture contribute? One thing I regret about this crisis, though, is that it is not having the impact I expected in questioning celebrity. Musicians, for instance, are proving very convincingly that they do have a place even in current dystopia, but not even Covid-19 is helping us to get rid of all the superfluous celebrities that still persist in sharing their parasitical lives. Of course, they might think the same about me and my academic peers.

Utopian narrative of the kind I hope authors feel motivated to write, has the opposite effect: instead of making you feel useless, it asks how you might contribute to building a new society and it provides ideas about how to do it. This is why we hardly have any utopian narrative. Writing dystopia is very easy because it consists of imagining how a privileged world can be dismantled layer by layer: the aliens invade, the climate changes, a plague goes rampant, the economy collapses and one by one the comforts that we know vanish, from voting in democratic elections to eating every day. Dystopia consists of thinking how things could be worse, but for that things have to be good enough, otherwise the loss is not felt, the suspension of disbelief does not work. Many are reading or watching dystopia now for the sake of comparison (was the Spanish flu of 1918 worse than Covid-19?) but this is, I insist, numbing. All energies should go now to taking advantage of this horror and imagine a new way of doing things. Many others are asking for utopia now but I think that the impulse could be best consolidated by potent new utopian fiction. Otherwise, we’ll go back to that false sense of security that made us doubt climate change or the use of vaccines. That recent but already lost time when we felt that we could afford the luxury of enjoying dystopia because it would not happen in our lifetime. Well: here it is, now see how you like it.

Covid-19, I insist, is killing many persons and will kill many more but, above all, it might kill our ability to act in humane ways, which is a result of all-pervasive dystopia. My pharmacist told me that considering the world’s population (7.5 billion) and the average mortality rate, we should expect at least 3,000,000 deaths. The 1918 flu, caused by a virus of avian origins, is estimated to have caused 50 million victims; WWI caused about 40. Those 90 million are the breeding ground for what came next: spiritual numbness so deep that fascism grew out of it and then WWII. 3 million, even 10 million, might seem a relatively low figure but it is gigantic if we think of how unnecessary this crisis is. By this I mean that this is the 21st century and we should be moving towards a utopia with no biological warfare (supposing the virus came from that), minimal animal farming and no wet markets (if eating a wild animal was the cause), and little interfering with nature (third hypothesis). We humans are naturally vulnerable to infection and viruses appear to be far cleverer than we had assumed, but we have increased our vulnerability a hundred fold by following spiritually numb, selfish ideas in our relationship with our so-called civilization. Now we’re paying the price of having abandoned utopia because, guess what?, it is supposed to be boring… It is supposed to be participative, and that is the real reason why it has been abandoned both in narrative and as a political project (with the main exception, I think of feminism).

I hope that by next year, I can reread this and laugh at my fears and anxieties because Covid-19 will have disappeared, or be at least under control. I also hope that by then we will already see a change in the perception of dystopia and utopia, with the latter beginning to dominate over the former. That however may be in itself just a utopian hope, in the sense of pure wishful thinking.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web: