When local authorities announced the beginning of the ‘shelter in place’ order for the Bay Area in early March, I selfishly thought: this actually does not change much of my daily life. As a PhD student finishing my dissertation in the Architecture Department, I am used to working from home. My daily routine is comprised of mornings of writing, editing and reading, followed by afternoons of checking emails, preparing classes, and reading students’ work –all from home. Besides my excursions to teach, to the gym, to the café, and to Cheese Board (one of the great marvels of Berkeley), my life has not really changed, or so I thought. The establishment of routines, any writer would say, is key to a successful academic life. However, what I have learned during the past two months in quarantine, is that the daily disruptions of my routine were essential to maintain my humanity. While the sense of continuity allowed me to be productive, the breaks in my routine –which occurred in various spaces across Wurster Hall– allowed me to think with others, to create, and be creative.
Getting a PhD can be a lonely process. However, successful PhD programs, and I include ours amongst them, counter the solitude of research and writing with collective activities: meetings, lectures, workshops, courses, writing groups, happy hours, office hours etc. Many of these activities are organized by us, the students. The Architecture Round Table series is a great example. It brought us together every other Friday evening, in the highest place in Wurster Hall, room 1000, to talk about new books, research, fieldwork and life outside academia. What I miss most are not only these activities, but the chance encounters that happen after and before these events. Running into your advisor at lunch, seeing an old friend, talking to a colleague after a meeting, discussing the merits of a public presentation in a hallway, walking back home together. There is a place in Wurster Hall with a specially high concentration of these chance encounters, that is room 470. An open plan office space, where each PhD student claims a desk, a locker, and –if they are lucky– a sturdy chair. This is the place where we break down our solitude, where we learn about each other’s’ work, where we write applications and share funding opportunities, where we discuss the politics of the department, where we gather to demand an adjustment of our cost of living, where we ruminate about what distinguishes our academic training from others, where we read and edit each other’s work, where we seek for advice, cry and console each other. During the past 6 years in the PhD program, room 470 has been my primary escape from academic isolation. Knowing that no matter the day of the week, or the time of the day, there would always be a friendly face in room 470, was a great source of comfort. We have recently lost room 470 to the coronavirus pandemic, even worse, we lost our primary community space: the classroom. PhD programs like ours, and in particular their students, add value to their departments: they provide a steady influx of new ideas, methods, conversations and provide a vast source of passionate teachers. As universities adjust to the economic and pedagogic consequences of this pandemic, I encourage administrators and decision-makers to create physical and social places for future PhD students to build a community.
I am forever grateful for ours.