“I’ve learned that I’m adaptable.”
Professor Robbie Richardson began working in the Princeton English Department in July 2020, though he is currently based in London. He is a member of Pabineau First Nation (Mi’kmaw) in New Brunswick, Canada.
Interview conducted on April 11, 2021 by Sydney Eck
Why do you wear a mask?
Not really any interesting reason other than just public safety and concern for others and oneself.
What has the adjustment to new classes and a whole new school culture been like online?
It’s difficult, it’s definitely difficult. Teaching is particularly hard, because so much of teaching is about the connection that you have with your students. There are just small things you don’t even think about, like eye contact around the room, or the general vibe. Normally I’d be telling jokes and things like that, but it is harder to do online. But, the University has been pretty supportive and, of course, my colleagues in English have been great about reaching out. Once I get [to campus] I will be able to go on walks with them, which is good. I work directly a lot with Sarah Rivett in English through Indigenous initiatives, along with Sophie Gee. They are the people that I knew a little bit before I even started at Princeton, and they have been great.
Have you learned anything about yourself in the past year? Have you redefined any of your values?
Well, I’ve learned that my attention span is a lot shorter than it used to be because of all the screen time. I’ve definitely learned that I spend a lot of time on my devices, more than I wanted to, but with that I’ve learned to appreciate time outside. And I’d say I’ve learned that I’m adaptable, in the sense of being able to do all this stuff online. I’ve learned things through absence as well, like how deeply social I am. I miss seeing people and being around friends and family. So it’s all been a bit of a lesson in the social being.
If you could give your pre-COVID-19 self one piece of advice, what would it be?
To develop a really interesting and time-consuming hobby. I lack the attention span to do it now. I mean, I have bought a lot of books. Obviously I am a literature professor, but I bought so many books, so I have lots to get through. But, I haven’t really found the will to get through all of them (or any of them really, besides the ones I teach).
What is your favorite book that you have read recently?
This is gonna sound like it was for work, but it wasn’t. It’s an 800-page book about 18th century London. Even though I am an 18th century-ist, honestly it was just pure interest, and it was so compelling to see all the different textures and layers of history. It’s called a “Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the 18th Century.” I am also reading a book of poetry by Maria Rilke called “Duino Elegies.”
What do you find to be the most socially uncomfortable or socially awkward part about wearing a mask?
I get the impression that things are a little different here [in London] than in some parts of America. Most people here will only wear masks when they go into stores, so there is always that awkward moment if someone in a coffee shop or something isn’t wearing one, which is a strange kind of interaction. But when you see friends, you can take [the masks] off as long as you are socially distanced outside, so you can see their faces. But with the masks, a lot of people find it hard to understand me specifically.
When you think about this past year, what or who has kept you grounded?
My partner. We are both here working from home, so having that routine where both of us have to work is kind of a challenge because neither of us have an office obviously. Having her around has helped. If I was completely on my own, I think I would have probably gone stir-crazy. Also, living in London is nice, even though nothing is open. It is a city with an infinite variety, and I like walking or cycling into Central London and just looking at the layers of history. So being in a big city like this keeps me grounded.
What do you hate most about Zoom? What is your favorite Zoom feature?
It’s good for some things. For example, I am “at” a conference this weekend, and a lot of people probably wouldn’t be able to be there in-person during a normal year, but they can join via Zoom. For academic purposes, you can bring in speakers from all over the world who wouldn’t usually be able to come. But initially, it was the vibe of real conversation with a group of students that was lost. You just can’t reproduce that. And the Internet isn’t very good with inequality of access, so I don’t like that very much at all. Also, my computer processor is such that I can’t have a virtual background, and I am very jealous of people that do. But, I’ve lived away from my family for a really long time, so in the past we have primarily done phone calls, but now that Zoom is so normalized, we will have these massive family zooms, which brings its own challenges, but is good.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would just like to say that I am really looking forward to some kind of a return to normalcy. It may not be totally normal at the beginning, but I hope with time it will be. One of the things I am engaging with at Princeton is the Indigenous Studies Program, and I am really looking forward to building on that with students and faculty. Everyone there has been really welcoming and very enthusiastic to do a lot of work, especially students. I have been really impressed with students that I’ve met that have seemed to be handling things so well, at least on the surface, in terms of showing up, doing things, having conversations. It’s impressive.