Writing to remember

Amy Kaler invites us to reflect on pandemic times in her new book.

Amy Kaler

When the pandemic first hit, Amy Kaler, a professor in the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts in the College of Social Sciences + Humanities, embarked on a first: Writing reflections to make sense of a new reality—living in pandemic times. In her latest work, Until Further Notice: A Year in Pandemic Time  for U of A Press, Amy shares her personal observations and thoughts of the first year of the pandemic. The Quad talked with Amy about getting through that first year and how the habit of writing helps her navigate confusing times.

Aside from writing, how did you navigate the first year of the pandemic? 

You find your own sense of self, including knowing what you need to do to protect yourself and others in the community — and you do it. I'm not trained in clinical medicine, but as a sociologist I've worked in the area of the sociology of health. I try to stay on top of the solid research that's coming out and I think the fact that I trust in my own ability to understand and make sense out of very complex information helps. 

Also, it's a complete cliché, but I believe in the power of nature, which just goes on doing its thing. I’ve lived near the Mill Creek Ravine for 20 years and truly started exploring it for the first time during that first year of the pandemic, which started as a more therapeutic thing. It started as a preventive thing that I needed to do, and then it developed into something that I really wanted to do.

In terms of selecting reflections for the book, what was that process like? 

I had to decide whether to make it more like a diary with dates, or to make it more like a series of reflections. I went for that second option. The seasonal division is a way of putting some kind of temporal order on the reflections presented.

Are you able to translate this work and your reflections into the work you do as an academic? 

It's certainly connected. I teach in the areas of gender and family and there is a lot of pandemic-related content that finds its way into the classroom and the research conducted. There’s also a group from the Kule Institute for Advanced Studies who are working on research and public engagement work around the themes of pandemic politics and misinformation. 

How did the process of writing this book differ from the academic writing that you do? 

This book was written more or less in real time as things were happening. Like a lot of people, I try to make sense out of what I experience by representing it in some way. I tend to write [my thoughts] out to help me navigate through and sort out confusing situations, where I'm not really sure what's going on or when there's too much happening all at once. In a way, it was this habitual behaviour that got the book started.

As a sociologist, I do historical work. I know that looking back [on this pandemic] will not capture [the many impacts it has had on myself and others]. I don’t want these moments to be lost, even if it's only my own experience. And, I started to notice that I myself was changing. My sense of time and space was changing [during the height of the pandemic] and I thought I should try to understand what these changes are. So a lot of it was just observing myself and thinking about my ability to perceive, to interpret and to act [while living through this pandemic].

I've written several academic books and I like doing that. But, I've been surprised by how much enjoyment came with the production of this book, where more focus was paid in not so much establishing what I know and making a complex argument but rather addressing readers who may be people from all over the place. This process has been such a good experience. Working with the University of Alberta Press was fantastic. I'll never get away from being a sociologist, having this academic background and knowledge and so forth. But, diffusing my work out to the public in a different voice that is, perhaps, more accessible, in a way, has been invigorating. I encourage anyone and everyone to branch out and try other voices.

I hope that people find the book useful and it helps them to interpret their own experiences. 

Find Until Further Notice: A Year in Pandemic Time  and other available titles through University of Alberta Press.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


About Amy

Amy Kaler is a professor in the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts in the College of Social Sciences + Humanities. She has a PhD in Sociology and Feminist Studies from the University of Minnesota and a postdoctoral fellowship in Population Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has a Master of Arts in Administration and Policy Studies in Education, a Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language, and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, all from McGill University. She teaches courses in the sociology of gender, family studies, population, and international development. Her substantive research focuses on sexual and reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular attention to the cultural, social and institutional dimensions of public health interventions. More broadly, her research interests include the unintended consequences of social change.