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Credit: Emily Xu

In 2020, we are forced to rethink the spaces that we use: a global health crisis has pushed everyone into the relative safety of their homes; a national anti-racism movement then brought many Americans back out into public space in highly visible ways. As a university community, the question of private and public is heightened for us at Penn – campus is both home and workplace for many of us: it’s where we engage with peers and professors, spend leisurely hours on the grass and in cafés, and work in libraries, labs, and classrooms. Doing the work remotely has significantly changed our experience of being part of the Penn community, and has limited access to some of the best and most important aspects of being at Penn. Our taken-for-granted collectivity came to a crashing halt, which is especially hard for those who have graduated before campus life was possible again. 

We rely on campus as a site of work, and the more work spills into our lives at home during quarantine, the harder it is to keep the university and private, work and leisure, on and off-the-clock time separate. However, maybe too strict of a separation between scholarship and life, or the intellectual and the emotional, is actually not what we need. 

At Penn, scholars have been thinking about questions of how we use the spaces that we live, work, and even raise children in long before this crisis. One of them is Elisheva Levy, a graduate student entering her third year in the Weitzman School of Design’s Architecture department. An international student from Israel, Elisheva is the mother of three children who are 7, 5, and 3 years old. She researches how architecture shapes today’s families, arguing that the physical setup of houses in Western countries enables a capitalist ideology that privatizes all reproductive labor. 

This means that instead of the state or companies offering flatrate solutions for childcare, cafeterias, or cleaning/laundry resources, each family fends for themselves in their own living spaces that they have exclusive access to.  A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to speak with her about how the COVID-19 crisis affects her life as well as her research. We met in Clark Park in West Philadelphia, sitting in the grass (with a safe distance between us), and talked about academia, quarantine, and the importance of women demanding change rather than being blinded by a myth about ‘leaning in’ that really only is available to the 1%.

When discussing Stay-at-Home orders and the switch to remote learning, Elisheva says that Penn has privatized this crisis and pushed most responsibility on the individual bodies of students, teachers, and staff. The shift of additional labor on those already stretched thinnest, often moms and other caretakers, has been advocated against by Penn’s GSWS program as well

Elisheva says, “The University sent people home but what is home? It’s an empty shell.” She says an ant farm is better organized than a human apartment building and its ideologies of independence and separation. Instead of doubling down in this mindset of separation, Elisheva suggests that we become aware of the artificiality of something that was never true: academics who have children should think about them in the context of their work. All of us should be able to include our experiences in life into our academic selves. We cannot just privatize all of our problems and reproductive work away. 

Making the care of children, of ourselves, and of everyone’s well-being the exclusive responsibility of individuals overburdens women and the less wealthy in particular. And it doesn’t lead to happy lives for anybody. By letting our lives at home be the material of our work, we might be able to achieve better scholarship. Accepting home life as legitimate food for thought also helps create a stronger position to advocate for Penn and other institutions to be more supportive of their people as full human beings, rather than just zapping their ideas and energy as an absurdly separated "work" that somehow is supposed to be the opposite of life. 

When I ask Elisheva if Penn as our university is doing enough to support her as a graduate student who is also a mother, Elisheva rejects the premise of the question because she does not think that motherhood and academia should be solved with individual solutions. Extra money or later deadlines for individual students would not address the actual problems, only their symptoms, i.e. overworked grad students, especially when they are mothers during a global health crisis. Instead, Elisheva urges for a more generous collective approach: people are not supposed to live on their own, and quarantine is putting on steroids how the “reproductive work of the human race” has been privatized. 

She urges academics, especially women and mothers and other caretakers, to rethink sustenance. Instead of trying to find time in the day to take care of children, a home, and do scholarly work, she suggests finding connections both in our minds and emotions and in the world around us. Elisheva advocates for rethinking what homes are, what spaces we have available to us elsewhere, and why childcare – from home-schooling during COVID-19 to breastfeeding during interviews when she first traveled around the US to find a good graduate program for herself – is not allowed to be material for what we think about and what we work on as scholars. If not before, then the COVID-19 crisis certainly shows us that we have to rethink paths to success, at Penn and elsewhere. 

Penn is our home, even when we live off-campus. Its massive stock of buildings and outdoor areas is an important resource for work, and also socializing and relaxation. Many of us rely on campus and its facilities, in addition to the apartments and houses that we also call our homes. As we move towards a decision for a scenario for the fall, it will be important to learn lessons from the past few months: our campus is an intersection of productive labor and studying, the reproductive work of eating, taking care of needs like healthcare or even laundry, and relaxation. 

With all of us rethinking what campus will be like in the fall, let’s use this moment to consider how to integrate our private lives into our academic selves at Penn. This will look different for everyone, and will pose questions specific to those with children, those living on or off campus, and so on. But each of us can find ways to make a collective endeavor that not only speaks to our intellectual, professional, and social selves, but also makes space for each of us to exist as full human beings within the Penn community.  

ANGELINA EIMANNSBERGER is a Ph.D. student entering her third year in the Program of Comparative Literature. Her research focuses on Contemporary US women writers, Socialist Feminism, femininity, and women’s book clubs. Her email address is aeim@sas.upenn.edu.  

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