Not just business as usual

Not just business as usual

I’m in week one of remote teaching and learning, after a two-week “break” during which faculty were frenetically retooling classes, and students were trying to figure out what to pack up and where to take it. My campus has been pretty spectacular about offering all kinds of support systems — from a food pantry and emergency grants for students to tenure clock pauses and revised (extremely humane) policies for faculty course evaluations to careful plans executed so as not to leave staff vulnerable to working in unsafe conditions.

Still, we are all (I assume, since I cannot imagine I am alone in this) feeling some combination of exhausted, lost, deeply sad, angry, horrified, stretched too thin, disoriented, weepy, distracted, and so so tired.

There’s been a barrage of email. I cannot read more useful tips about how to move my teaching online. (Full disclosure: I myself sent the first list of those to the entire faculty on my campus, at the provost’s urging, in conjunction with the announcement of workshops to support the transition to remote teaching. It went out on March 13, which was approximately nineteen years ago in covid-coping time.) And if I see one more 32-point list on social media about how to be kind to myself right now, my hair might spontaneously combust.

I am just about capable of reading things the length of a book blurb. Or possibly the ingredients list on a lemon lavender cookie recipe, which I will be baking with my daughter this afternoon. But apart from procrastibaking and dinner table conversations about the interesting things family members have learned on the internet lately (how to raise wagu beef; the Bollywood origins of the addictive riffs in Brittney Spears’s Toxic), I have the attention span of a flea, and the ability to concentrate of…I don’t know…a goldfish?

I did fifty-five minutes of solid reading yesterday — for the first time in days — and felt like some kind of superhero. It then took me about forty minutes of faffing around to be able to muster the concentration power necessary to do the last bit of required reading. These are not ratios of time that anyone would reasonably label “productive.” And yet, 85 minutes of reading, accomplished with only one, 40-minute distraction-break is, in fact, a productivity record for me right now.

I have papers to grade, classes to prep, students to connect with, creative ways to support my department to figure out. I have two teens at home, who have been on a break for three weeks, and aging parents in multiple states. My wifi is as variable as Minnesota’s weather in April, and my house, it turns out, does not clean itself. No one here seems to have the bandwidth to clean.

My life is ruled by my calendar with ruthless precision, as I find myself scheduled into four or five hours of zoom meetings most days. And yet, I cannot remember what day of the week it is, if you ask me.

Most disconcerting, the regular tasks just keep appearing, at their regular times, as if this is a regular spring semester, and I find myself feeling baffled by their very regularness. How on earth do I finalize the fall schedule of courses for the department, while I am currently teaching nineteen small faces in tiny Brady Bunch blocks, scattered across four time zones, and all doing their best just to hold it together? How do I plan an end-of-year celebration for handing out department awards when graduation is cancelled and campus is closed? How do I keep up with the email, or make decisions about cross-listed courses, or show up for the zoom info session for newly admitted students, when I know, of course, that simple statistics say that in any meeting I attend, there is someone with relatives who are vulnerable or diagnosed with this illness, and that if they are not, they will be?

How do I give my students my generous, well-intentioned, creative, thought-provoking best, alleviate their stress as much as I am able, help them feel supported and not isolated and certain that the institution cares about them, when I find it so deeply difficult to concentrate on anything right now? I am afraid I am falling short in every single facet of everything I do, as I scramble to be competent and supportive.

I have thrown out the ideas of working on book revisions or creating anything new. But I find myself walking around in a fog of indecision most of the time, exhausted by the fact that so many quotidian things have now become the subject of endless calculation: How much wiping down do groceries need before putting them away? If I walk for exercise, which streets are less likely to be crowded? If I can only be on one zoom call at a time, does that mean that one of my sisters should set up the family zoom chat room, so that people can use it even while I’m teaching? Is it better to stand in line at the DMV and renew my driver’s license, so it doesn’t expire, or risk the ticket and not risk my own and public health?

At the same time, how do I DARE even to feel slightly unhappy right now? I am, after all, attempting the crisis-triage version of my very secure job from within a comfortable house, with heat and light and a stocked refrigerator. I am not applying for unemployment, not being asked to shelter in place miles from a food supplier and without access to transportation, not trying to homeschool young children while agonizing about how I will make rent. I am not in a threatening domestic situation. I am not being asked to make horrifying decisions about whether and how to offer life-saving care in ceaseless sixteen-hour shifts.

I am sad that I will not see beloved students graduate this spring, a real loss of closure, but not a crisis. I am frustrated that the weather is throwing down sleet, and I don’t want to exercise indoors to the chipper voice of some video guide. That seems petty. I am deeply worried for my kids’ three sets of grandparents, and for the parents of my friends. Real. I am gutted by the cravenness and incompetence of the federal government. Infuriating. And every time I think about what doctors and nurses are going through right now, in hospitals all over the US, but especially in New York and Louisiana, I cry. Debilitating.

I am trying hard to describe all of this because I want to get a handle on my own misfiring brain, at the same time that I am aware that I have so much privilege and do not want to be a tone-deaf complainer. I doubt I am alone in feeling like I make so many decisions in a day now that there is no more space in my head for actual thinking. And I am guessing that many of us are finding it stressful to figure out how to hold friends close emotionally while being so cut off from them physically. I do not mean that the friendships are in danger of fading, but that the natural inclination we have to offer support and kindness and a lifting-up in times of crisis now suddenly requires a set of calculations. And that very fact feels alien. Come over! I normally say. Or can I bring you a meal? And now those spontaneous acts are forbidden. The lack of hugs feels like a gaping hole.

In a single day, I find myself cheered by the great goodness of humanity one moment, and disgusted by the play of politics the next. I am humbled, horrified, hopeful. Mostly, I am overwhelmed by feelings I cannot wholly name, a growing dread of inadequacies — both my own and systemic ones — and worry for the prolonged effects of this crisis on the most vulnerable populations.

I am tired. And in my perpetual cycle of calculation, I find myself asking: is it even okay to be that right now?

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2 thoughts on “Not just business as usual

  1. Thank you for the raw honesty, complexity, and deep humanity in this Not Business as Usual piece, Andrea.

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