AT this time on a Sunday, you’d normally find me preparing for my Monday classes.

I’d be ditching up my lecture slides, digging out court cases, decoding statutes, and dreaming up weak jokes to inflict on the lawyers of tomorrow.

Today, I’m probably sitting in my pants staring out of the window. With luck, I may have a crumpet and a coffee in hand. Hopefully, the sky will be blue. Maybe there will be an intermittent beam or two of late March sunshine.

I will almost certainly have the mien and presence of mind of a mildly concussed monkfish. Like many folk across the world right now, I’m feeling a bit discombobulated, synapses just a little frayed, soul just a little fidgety.

Physically, I’m well. My chest is clear, my temperature normal, but like many of you, for the wellbeing of everyone else in our society, I’m learning to reacquaint myself with the four walls of my flat. I expect to be doing so for some time.

In my profession at least, the demands of social extroversion have been all but suspended.

In universities across Scotland the lecture halls and seminar rooms have fallen strangely quiet. With roughly a month of classes still to go, we’re all the Open University now, doing our best to catch up with the demands of digital teaching, trying to find our voices.

My institution effectively shuttered on Monday, with colleagues making last pilgrimages into their offices like doomsday looters, emptying the dregs out of old coffee cups and making off with the books and technology we’ll need to keep reaching our students from afar.

I’d need Assassin’s Creed stealth skills to access campus now, and some kind of grappling hook to safely rappel out of the building undetected. A balaclava would, at least, discourage face-pawing. For the foreseeable future, I’m a home bird, twittering away in my front room, reimagined as a semi-professional podcaster about the law of Scotland.

This enforced distance makes you think about what we’re trying to achieve in more ordinary times. Walking down the empty corridors this week, it struck me that universities are still places which value human encounters, which put knowledge in a human context, which communicate on a human scale.

We lose something significant by losing that.

While many institutions have moved towards routinely recording lectures, the impact has been extremely mixed. While allowing undergraduates to snooze through their 9am alarms and watch the presentation from their scratchers may seem to suit students’ balance of convenience, the idea university education is about the disembodied transmission of knowledge from skull A to skulls B, C and D leaves out the human factor which can transform a clear explainer into something more significant.

Wherever it takes place – at home, or in schools, universities or colleges – good teaching is about the encounter. It feeds off the energy in the room, the often unarticulated interaction between talker and talked-to, the dynamic between the listener and person being listened to.

A podcast can effectively communicate the salient features of this or that department of law, this philosopher, that history – but it just isn’t the same.

I also worry about how my more naturally gregarious colleagues, students and friends are going to bear up through these strange days. This week, I came across a cracker of a quotation from the 17th-century French writer and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. He suggests “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.

Pascal thought we fritter away our days like magpies. We distract ourselves by pecking at shiny things, grow addicted to pleasant distractions. Why? Mostly to spare us from the angst of confronting ourselves, the universe, and our precarious position within it.

Pascal’s message was an austere Christian one: he thought we let the things of the spirit atrophy, because we can’t bear to be alone. But there’s a longing quality in Pascal’s words too.

It is human to reach out. A life lived alone is for jackals and mad gods. As this week has communicated – more acutely than at any other point during my lifetime – human contact brings its joys and its jeopardies. In rightly dodging the jeopardy, we can lose the joy too.

Life in the shadow of coronavirus has this ambivalence in spades. We’re at once suspicious of touch, but find ourselves wanting to embrace. We’re anxious about contact, but also anxious to make it. We don’t want it, and we feel the want of it.

I am not one of life’s natural extroverts, though most of the time I probably pass as one. I suppose there must be some folk in world who bounce off stage, suffused with the energy of their audience, having gained more from the encounter than they have expended.

All I know is I’m not one of those bodies.

STUDENTS expect you to educate, inform and entertain them. It is an immense privilege to demand the attention of hundreds of people for an hour or more.

If you’re going to give it at all, give it some gusto – that’s my motto. But there’s a cost to it, just as there’s a cost to cloistering yourself away. When I was crashing around like a spriggan in the attic during my doctorate, full of the mania of being much too much on my own, I learned you can have too much of a good thing.

One of the things I find challenging about academic life is its tendency towards extremes, which the coronavirus crisis has only amplified. Some months, you find yourself talking for what seems like hours on end – from big halls to small groups – spinning out your own substance, sometimes spreading yourself too thin.

But when the marking is done and the classes are through, others phases of your life are characterised by almost complete professional solitude. From flood to famine, we lurch from extremes with no comfortable middle-ground.

This crisis demands the same of all of us. Getting the balance right will be hard for all of us.

According to the Scottish Government, there are some 2.48 million households in Scotland, readjusting to the new domestic rhythms demanded by isolation and social distance. It strikes me that this strange time will be experienced quite differently in different homesteads.

Official figures confirm single-occupancy homes are now the most common type of household in Scotland. An estimated 885,000 of us live alone. The number of men doing so has more than trebled since 1981, while the number of women doing so is more than one and a half times higher than 40 years ago. For that, I suppose, we can thank the work of our divorce courts and a healthier population which is living longer – touch wood.

But for people whose families find themselves crowded together, schools closed, universities and colleges closed, bars shuttered, gyms silent, that brings a whole different set of challenges.

To quote another Frenchman, hell can become “other people.” Even – or perhaps especially – those we love.

In the days and weeks to come, some of us will be struggling with too much company, and others, far too little. Sociable souls who live for the common currency of social interaction may find all this particularly hard to thole, while introverts trapped with their families will experience a quite different set of trials.

I wish you all the courage and fortitude in the world to meet whatever challenges you and your family are facing, wherever you face them.

Take care.