We are seeing the glimmer of light, at the end of a seemingly endless dark tunnel. We will soon be back to our real offices and our real classrooms and our real labs, rather than having to make do with the confines of a few monitors perched on our table. We will again be surrounded by our colleagues and by our students. I for one cannot wait for the two jabs for me and for others in my university community so we can get back to the wondrous days of yore. Yes you can tell that distance does make the heart grow fonder.
The question that I am pondering is what will this do to our efficiency of work? Will we be generating our better ideas faster? Will we have the physical instantiation of our ideas — the papers and the proposals — coming out in faster torrents? Will our teaching material be easier to digest and more memorable?
A Look Back
Our world was thrown into unexpected tumult about a year back. Classes came to a screeching halt. The buzz of the machines in our laboratories gave way to eerie silence. Our spirited discussions around the research table (imagine there is an instance of such a table we gather around for our most fruitful brainwaves) gave way to quietude. The coffee house discussions with colleagues on all things relevant and irrelevant ran headlong into the cruel dictates of social distancing. It seems that we in our ivory towers are not so immune after all from the forces out in the real world.
Our trips across the world to commune with colleagues from our technical communities also came to a stop. The symposia (a word coined by Greeks to mean the drinking party after a banquet) we love to frequent gave way to their insipid counterparts conducted through an ever increasing mishmash of Discord-s, Slack-s, Zoom-s, and Team-s. So in a way our local and our global community collapsed into the confines of our monitors. Vying for headspace with calls for attention from toddlers or not-so-young-toddlers acting like toddlers, and with the alluring fridge only a few yards away. The electronic distractions became even more distracting — the same monitor could take me to my meetings as well as show my favorite sports game in progress.
So as we are looking at the end of the veritable tunnel, an idle question that pops up is what did this seismic change do to our efficiency? Were we more productive in our research output? Were we more effective in the (virtual) classrooms? Were we more fruitful in creating and sustaining the technical communities we inhabit?
The unsatisfying answer is that even for the narrow slice of society that academia is, I do not have the complete answer. I have not put in the hours and hours that would be needed to answer this question. This article gives slivers of my very subjective take on the matter, seen through the lens of proximate matters.
Look at the talisman of research productivity, our most competitive conferences. And track the number of submissions to them.