Students Return to Campus mid-Pandemic: A Horror Movie Unfolds

Is there anything more perverse than being attracted to bad horror movies? My friends and I loved classics like “Friday the 13th” and “Chopping Mall” because they were terrible. We’d sit near the back eating junior mints, groaning each time the hapless protagonist did the opposite of what any halfway intelligent, sort of awake, person would do. There’s a crazed axe murderer in the woods? Let’s go foraging for mushrooms! Shark-infested waters? Why not go for a romantic skinny dip with your hunky boyfriend? It’s only entertaining, of course, because we know it’s a dystopian dreamscape that will end. The lights come up, we brush the popcorn dust off our laps, and go merrily on our way. It’s a controlled and contained form of horror and terror, precisely the opposite of the mayhem we are watching unfold on campuses right now in the midst of the pandemic.

There can be little doubt that many universities are in a terrible spot. In a nation that has long turned its back on higher education as a public good, administrators have been scrambling to keep their ships afloat long enough to weather this who-knows-how-long disaster. The promise of a face-to-face Fall semester emerged from this cauldron of desperation and not, one presumes, from indifference or greed. And months ago, before the current surge in infections and deaths began, it was still possible to suspend disbelief about the disaster that an on campus Fall would represent. Sure, the epidemiological experts predicted the increase in morbidity and death, given the nature of the virus and the national government’s apparent determination to make the situation ever worse, but a few months ago one could, perhaps, still plausibly imagine inviting students to return to a relatively safe campus.

At some point, such pie-in-the sky hopes transformed into something like delusion. And now we watch as our college-town streets fill with students’ cars — usually an exhilarating time for us university folks — and are filled with sick dread. The image of fresh-faced youngsters streaming in from around the region are indelibly juxtaposed with the news from Alabama, UNC, and Michigan State. We read our university presidents’ pre-blaming stern messages about student responsibility as we clean up the plastic beer cups from our front yards and recall our own carpe diem college attitudes. We professors and staff have been turned away from our own campus offices — not safe! — even as students haul dorm fridges and box fans into the residence halls next to our buildings. It’s not just that it’s unlikely that this experiment can be pulled off safely, but that, given the obvious realities of communal life, how could anyone even believe it would be possible?

In its innocent and productive mode, the sheer optimism of wishful thinking can be energizing. That plucky little train made it up the hill because it thought it could despite evidence to the contrary and defeatist naysayers. It is precisely the whiff of unreason in wishful thinking that makes it so irresistible in dark times, whether one is facing a terminal disease or expecting a good grade on an exam for which one is utterly unprepared. That it is, in fact, true that we can’t, strictly speaking, KNOW what the future will bring can also sometimes provide a level of deniability that mitigates our moral responsibility when our decisions bring others to harm. In short, the line between productive hope and willful ignorance can sometimes be thin.

What’s happening on many university campuses right now, though, pushes wishful thinking to an exaggerated level that would be comical if it were not so tragic. And we campus citizens aren’t merely watching the horror movie, we are also living it, at once the hapless teenagers bumbling their way through the dark woods and the omniscient viewers. We see, not an unknown future, but a script that has already played itself out at institutions around the world.

Some are even placing bets: In how many days will students be sent back home again? How long before campus leaders and marketers stop pretending that they truly believe what they’re saying? And how long before the rest of us withdraw our conspiratorial silence as university logo face masks are distributed along with dad-like lectures about student responsibility? It’s a situation made even worse by the fact that it occurs at the same time we are urged by unscrupulous national leaders to deny the evidence of our own eyes. Ignore trusted experts and common sense, they tell us, and place your faith in our optimism and authority instead.

Covid 19 and the university: Professors are not Dorothy and the administration is not our Oz

Though the university is frequently characterized as a liberal hotbed, professors have always had to fight, sometimes even within our own ranks, for our right to speak up. This is especially so during times of national or global crisis when, predictably, efforts to silence supposed disgrunts may reach a fever pitch. Even at universities, and even within the professoriate, our habitual pleas for academic freedom and the need to be robust critical thinkers may fade. What’s more, it’s not unusual for those asking difficult questions to be scolded, smoothing the way for administrative overreach and excess.

Critics should expect to encounter efforts to silence them — both subtle and gross — culminating in accusations of disloyalty, to the institution, to the nation, even to humanity itself. These may begin as a gentle form of ostracism where the critic is simply ignored, even by those who suspect, or know, that the warning is more than just someone crying wolf. This passive strategy of shunning may escalate into more overt shaming, with squeaky wheels being called out for betrayal of the common good. Perhaps because I am a gender studies professor, I can never hear such admonishments outside the framework of the silencing politics of sexual violence. Keep it to yourself, the victim may be urged, or the police will come and take daddy away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Processed with Snapseed.

Even basic questions of leadership competence and accountability may be automatically turned back on the critic, dismissed as potentially treasonous. When commanded to jump by a president, provost, or dean — some of whom until very recently were mere mortals, just professors like ourselves — otherwise staunch faculty advocates may now reflexive reply, “How high?” Obviously, this creates the perfect conditions for the most egregious forms of administrative overreach, especially when rumors are unleashed that employees will be lucky to have jobs come Fall. In the blink of an eye, proudly empowered members of the professoriate may be reduced to begging for scraps, perhaps volunteering to give back their salaries with no idea of what the financial exigencies actually are.

Too often, as a distraction during crisis times, difficult nuts and bolts conversations are bypassed, and, instead, we are urged by leaders “take deep breaths,” and “be grateful for what we’ve got.” In the service of compassion, privileged, tenure-line faculty who have relative job security, especially, may be urged to make “sacrifices.” Such humanistic values are, of course, well and good, but quickly turn sour when used to paint those who persist in demanding institutional accountability, or even rudimentary shared governance, as crass or unspiritual.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not incidentally, vague calls for sacrifice and compassion from the professoriate distract from the obvious and egregious economic disparities that we have long known exist between elite administrators and almost everyone else. Against this backdrop, the critically outspoken professor may still be painted as too privileged, naive, or narcissistic to appreciate the gravity of the situation. It is as if the horror of the fact that people are dying around the world — and that we all have a moral imperative to respond — somehow erases, rather than intensifies, our ongoing duty to think for ourselves and insist that our institution to live up to its basic commitments, including to campus employees far more vulnerable than most professors.

Professors’ special responsibility to be critical thinkers and outspoken members of our campus communities — including on behalf of our staff employee colleagues — surely doesn’t end because we are in the midst of crisis, regardless of what paternalistic higher ups or even terrorized colleagues may imply. If anything, the need for brave, questioning professorial voices is more urgent than ever and we must resist the temptation to glorify the authority or magical abilities of administrative colleagues as if we had suddenly been transformed into Dorothy and Toto, wandering haplessly in an unknown world.

As usual, there is a practical benefit to our continuing to behave as the flexible intellectuals, incisive social critics, and responsible, skeptical adults that we are. If we permit our fear to overtake us, and start behaving like dazed, frightened children, then we are inviting our presidents and provosts to function as decisive authoritarians, no matter how much (as is evidently the case) they may be flailing. Only with a collegial relationship based on mutual respect and fierce accountability can we both meet this crisis and also make it more likely that, together — faculty, students, staff, and administration — we will thrive in the aftermath.

Is online teaching a path to enlightenment?

My greatest challenge with online teaching has had little do with the obvious difficulty of adapting to the technology. Sure, the first couple of times I bushwhacked my way through, wrestling with features like the maddening grade book set up, drop box restrictions, and feedback release conditions. There are, to be sure, a million and one logistical curve balls to be negotiated, complicated workflows that must be etched into one’s brain because they will never make intuitive sense. But, by far, online teaching’s greatest challenge and opportunity for me has been as a venue for self-scrutiny and reinvention. Perhaps this is just a long way of reiterating that I’m fascinated enough by the link between mindfulness and online teaching to write a blog about it.

So, while my posts are rooted in my practical experience as an online instructor, they are not primarily about online teaching as such. As I explained to a reader recently: “My interests come down mainly to three things: self-reflection, intentionality, and conscious transformation.” Far from being a grueling slog, then, I find online teaching to be tinged with pleasurably narcissistic introspection, like the indulgence of taking a personality quiz in Psych 101. And I’ve learned I must cultivate this kind of curiosity about teaching work if I am to continue to be good at it year after year. Studying my experience of teaching through the lens — microscope, telescope, and kaleidoscope — of mindful self reflection keeps it alive, authentic and interesting to me. This apparently practical business of teaching online, then, is, is, for me, a wormhole into a realm that is satisfyingly and sometimes unnervingly psychological and spiritual.

IMG_4169.JPG

I’m Buddhist (and existentialist) enough to see that the bare facts of impermanence and death both sculpt and contort our lives. I accept that, in large measure, we carefully construct our ultimately rickety professional and personal identities to serve as bulwarks against angst and despair. No wonder, then, that the seismic changes in higher education have often felt like assaults against the professor’s very sense of self. Whatever the societal devastation being wreaked by the ongoing devaluation of higher education — and it is catastrophic — it has also deeply rattled those of us who have formed our identities within its walls. It took me ages to develop the expertise and poise of a compelling, effective classroom professor. What an insult to have this stripped from me in the name of progress! Teaching online, then, isn’t just a tech heavy, but otherwise benign, modality shift. For many of us — teachers and students — it can radically displace our basic sense of competence, worth, and purpose.

It’s an open secret, of course, that losing the plush or dreary comfort of one’s identity can become a doorway to richly transformative, previously unimaginable futures. I write these posts, then, not primarily as an online teacher offering practical pedagogical advice, but as a professor leveraging the changes in my profession to nurture personal growth. Online teaching is, after all, merely one potential vehicle to where most of us really want to go, a place of service, sure, but one that also satisfies a deeper hunger. If there are a thousand ways to kiss the earth, then here in this futuristic, sometimes dystopic, present, teaching online is surely one of them. If we overlook this invitation, though, then we are like the guests at a great banquet who, having eaten their fill of appetizers in the foyer, never make it to the feast at all.