The way we were

PHOTO: Adam Harvey, Flickr CC-BY
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

About 13 months ago I packed a bag from my office to teach and work from home. It would prove to be one of the most challenging years of my whole career as a college teacher and writer, but I really didn’t need most of what I put in that bag. A few notebooks, maybe. The bag is sitting over there on the floor. A lanyard dangles out of the tote containing keys to rooms where I can’t go. I see the corners of DVD cases that I’ll probably never open again.

Furthermore, each time I’ve returned to the office to check my mail I realize that I don’t need much of what I left behind, either. Sometimes I pine for the stapler, I suppose. My office is a time capsule from March 2020. An observer might conclude that I fled the country to avoid persecution or perhaps was spirited away by extraterrestrials. Nope. I just went home.

My desk at home has become the active, living space where my work takes place. Here I see today’s mail intermingled with Post-It Notes about deadlines, and the calendar where I track my teaching schedule.

Yet I’m struck by how much my world has been absorbed by the digital cloud. I collaborate with my colleagues on shared documents in shared folders, exchanging e-mails about suggested edits. My students’ papers and speeches are nothing more than binary 1s and 0s. I could splash coffee on them the way I often did before, but I’d only damage my computer. The assignments would exist just as they were.

Unless the network crashes, of course. One good electromagnetic pulse and I’d be nothing more than an overeducated hobo. Perhaps I already am. 

On the other hand I think about how much I’ve learned this year. I’ve eliminated printed paper from my teaching practices and I don’t think I’ll go back. With a little extra work, I’ve found ways to teach classes without forcing students to buy a $150 textbook. I’ve even written most of a 500-page book about Iron Range history using research from a microfilm machine that’s sitting on my wife’s puzzle table. (Sorry, babe, almost done I swear). 

Students have learned a lot, too. Many who said they could never learn how to use video conferencing software or “do technology” have done just that and more. 

Nevertheless, the year has been really hard on us — teachers, students, and everyone else. The lack of connection has eaten away many of the pleasures of being a person. While most people have adapted to change, many still struggle with it. We don’t all have the same resources or support. Some of us feel alone, and that makes us angry and scared. 

Sometimes we hear that we’re almost back to normal. But returning to “normal” after a year of our haphazard battle against COVID-19 will be trickier than I think most of us realize. That’s because there is just no going back. 

Densely packed offices will thin out as many employers recognize work-from-home opportunities. The entire service sector will have to adapt to changing consumer habits and expectations. We don’t even know what we all want yet, if we ever did. 

What we once called “normal” was just a habit we had formed. An old rut, now washed out by a storm. We’re in the mud, now. Make of it what we will. 

I think about that office that I’ll be returning to soon. I wonder how many cartloads of irrelevant paper I’ll be hauling out to the recycle container. What kind of space will it become now that we’re beginning to come back together as a society? Now that we can work from anywhere, how will we use such spaces to connect with each other?

I guess I’ll figure that out after I sweep up the crumbs from ancient lunches strewn about my desk before time. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 18, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Joe musich says

    Do I ask how will you and most of the people who I live around who are not retired be compensated by employers for home office expenses ? And your partner’s table are you going to pay rent for it’s use ? And all those people involved from top to bottom in the textbooks existence what are they to do now ? And essentially you have now created a virtual textbook as a substitute how will you be recompensed ? And will sabbaticals be wiped out of existence because everybody will be essentially having an experience that sort of looks like a sabbatical anyway ? I fear someone is going to be taken advantage of in the continued and greater shakeup. And yet changes you speak about are not necessarily all bad.

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