Faculty voice:

Shelia Cotten: My new normal

March 23, 2020

Shelia Cotten is an MSU Foundation professor in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. She is also an associate chair for research.

I feel very fortunate. I am not teaching this semester. I see the stress my colleagues are experiencing as they have struggled to put their classes online. They are rising to this challenge, as they do to challenges every day. I am grateful for the hard work they are doing to keep some sense of normalcy for MSU students. 

However, I miss seeing my colleagues. I am someone who works in my office almost every day of the week, and sometimes on weekends. While I am an introvert, I enjoy the intellectual and social discourse that occurs in hallways and face-to-face meetings as colleagues and students run into each other during the day. 

Doing virtual meetings through Zoom is OK, but isn’t the same for me at least. It is the casual interaction — stopping by a colleague’s office to see if he wants to grab lunch, having another colleague offer you a wonderful treat her mother made, chatting about our kids’ latest activities, or talking about a new research idea — these are harder to do informally when you’re social distancing. 

I’ve deliberately made efforts to reach out to various colleagues and students over the past week to see how they are doing, usually by texting or emailing them. 

My department, media and information, had a voluntary Zoom session last Friday — to have an opportunity to gather together virtually to talk about how we’re all doing. I think we all appreciated having this opportunity to talk to each other but to also see each other. We will continue to do this on a weekly basis. 

I have seen various friends post on Facebook about virtual happy hours. Maybe I will try this soon. I need to see my people, even if we can’t be in the same physical space.

The last couple of weeks have also impacted my research. A lot of my research is with older adults — one of the most vulnerable groups for COVID-19. A student and I were supposed to interview older adults the week MSU decided to move classes online. 

Even before MSU put a moratorium on in-person, non-therapeutic research with humans, my colleague and I decided to halt data collection at that point. We didn’t want to put older adults at risk. 

Other colleagues and I have a large project where we will be conducting focus groups around the state of Michigan, with individuals in taxi, ride hailing and trucking industries. 

While I would love to talk to individuals in these organizations at this point in time — about the stress they are experiencing and how their jobs have changed — this isn’t the time to add to their stress. The focus groups have been put on hold for now, until the risk level declines and some sense of a ‘new normal’ develops.

Though we’re all experiencing challenges at this point in time, I try to focus on the positives. Social distancing has allowed me more time to interact with my family, cook at home and get my house decluttered. 

I’ve had other colleagues and friends say that their concentration levels have deteriorated during the pandemic. I am right there with them. 

One weekend, all I wanted to do was watch the news and read the latest reports about COVID-19. I realized I had to stop watching the news and social media constantly. 

Even with decreased concentration levels, I can still organize my house, play games with my daughter, work on other research that doesn’t require as much concentration and enjoy the beautiful sunshine.

Here’s hoping we all continue to do our part to flatten the curve. Even with social distancing, please continue to maintain contact with your social ties, ask students how they are doing, check on older adults who may not have family or friends who are able to check on them and offer assistance to those who may be struggling. 

By working together, we are stronger and will continue to thrive during this time of challenge.