A New Academic Year – An Incredibly Strange One

Hello from my home office,

It is the first day of my eleventh year at Bloomsburg. It is the first day of the COVID-dictated return to campus and a time of unprecedented angst. I decided to write for a bit because I am required to update a variety of software on campus to my university issued laptop, and the only way to manage that is to VPN in and then let it run for an hour or so. I had been so engrossed in working to prepare for today, I had not actually turned my laptop off for almost three weeks. I guess that makes sense because it was about three weeks ago I finally got a fall semester schedule. Since that time it has been the sort of nose to the grindstone and I guess I never really simply closed it all up, but kept plugging away and all hours of the day as I am apt to do. Well, my good friend, and tech guru for the campus let me know I had not actually logged off for almost 21 days, which does not allow anything to update, and keeps caches at capacity. I know this, so as so many now say: my bad!

While I know how to manage courses, and I know how to teach online both in terms of technology and pedagogy, the pedagogy continues to change. I know I am going to sound curmudgeonly here, but it seems like we need to make more and more allowances for students lack of preparation at the high school level. Their lack of critical thinking skills and their propensity for being overwhelmed when pushed outside their comfort zone seems to be at an all-time high. And then, my compassionate side kicks in and says, but this is an unprecedented time and I need to make more allowances. Those two sides of me, the one my chair refers to as Sgt. Martin, and the other which would be the more grace side of Luther’s dialectic, also known as the former Pastor Martin seem to be in the epic battle of good and evil. I have had three students reach out this morning with fair questions and through a Facetime call with one, blog issues were remedied. I know the next couple days will be following email closely and trying to respond in as timely a manner as possible. . . . we are now into the second week of school and the time in front of my laptop is beyond what one might imagine. I began this morning at 8:00 after working until about 10:30 last night. I will admit, I did listen to the First Lady’s address tonight, though listening and trying to work at the same time. I will also note that she has grown into her position and her address tonight was impressive. I did not agree with every single point, but I think she spoke in a way that was relatable and thoughtful. It was hard to not see compassion and care in much of what she said. I think some will want to hate just because. I am not one of those people. At this point it is almost 11:50 p.m. and I am still working. I want to get a blog post out as I have asked my students to do the same for tomorrow. School, the university, what we want to do as a university or even what a university education does seems so counterintuitive to what is currently happening. College is a time to leave home and enter a new scholarly community, one where you can speak, listen, interact, socialize, eat together, and enter into a variety of relationships in new circumstances. This pandemic has changed all of that. While I have taught online/remotely all the way back to my time in Wisconsin, doing it all this semester with three freshman writing courses will be a challenge. I have cut some work and one does not know, there might be more, but everything you imagine in your first week of class, sitting in front of a group of new wide-eyed students is gone. The hearing of the streams of students walking stairs and coming into class is gone. When I have been on campus, the quad looks like a ghost town rather than the second week of school. The difference is stunning. Honestly, I cannot adequately explain what it does to me emotionally. I have loved my time teaching in the academy and the first day of school has always been a highlight of my existence (from the time I was in elementary school). When I was on campus for a few moments a week ago this past Monday, my eyes welled up in tears. It depressed me beyond anything I anticipated.

So more importantly, what to do? I am teaching remotely, but so far, in spite of long hours, the great majority of my students are involved and thoughtful. As typical freshmen, some struggle with the basics, but it is because they want to do it correctly. Some of my upper class-level students are still trying to come to grips with the reality of our Covid-ravaged educational process. While we have made some profoundly incredible transformative moves to manage face-to-face, hybrid, or remote options, it is the basics of meeting students and making sure they are given the assurance they have someone in their corner that still matters the most. I have been speaking on the phone with actual calls, texting as students attempt to reach out, or sending and responding to emails literally hours a day to help them feel more secure or hopeful as the semester is now up and running. Trying to manage what it means to live on campus with all the restrictions is difficult, and honestly some are not managing. That too has consequences as some were cited in town for violating state guidelines. Our President, the Provost, and others on campus have worked tirelessly to manage the reopening of campus. Some have not played by the rules to put it kindly. Earlier this evening I listened to a video from our President where he specifically used the words beg and implore to get students to manage their masks, socially distance, and practice appropriate hygiene, both on campus and in town. He was thoughtful, measured, and succinct in the consequence. It is probably our new mantra for the coming days: Mask Up or Pack Up. That puts it out there pretty clearly. Again, I understand this is antithetical to what coming to college is all about, but these are not normal times. There is little that makes this normal. Again, this is not a political statement, but rather an observation. We are in a time of unprecedented health worry; we are in a time where the call for racial justice/social justice is louder than it has been in a half a century and it is more than black or brown people calling out for it; it is a time where climate change, and again, I am blaming no one for the cause, but merely stating I believe it is real, must be dealt with or it will have unparalleled consequences for every aspect of our lives, healthwise, economically, globally, militarily. There is so much about the world that seems upside down and it can be disconcerting and easy to lose one’s bearings. In fact, I have been in conversation with someone tonight I consider a dear friend, but they went ballistic over something that I am still not sure how the one thing got attached to the other. I am still stunned over what happened, as much as how it happened. Ultimately, it makes me sad and hurts . . . perhaps some sleep will help. What is evidenced to me more and more everyday is the vitriol and anger that is on both sides of this political shitstorm (I know that is a tough term) that is a November election. I have never been so disillusioned on one hand and engaged on the other. It is like my body is a mirror image of what is happening in the country.

So . . . to something different . . . and yet it relates to all of this above. I have focused by Foundations class on the topic of identity. What makes us who were are? What helps us to come to terms with whom we are? Leaving home for college the first time is a time of identity seeking. It is a time to see where we fit into a larger family that is not our biological family, but rather our human family. It is time to realize that we are a citizen of a larger world and that world is a bit fragile at the moment. I think it has been fragile for a while, but the fragility is out front and center currently. LIkewise in my technical writing class, they will need to consider what they have to offer through analyzing job ads and creating appropriate documentation to apply, but often that takes the time to do some introspection and figuring out who you are and what you have to offer. That is a frightening thing to do. I often note that first semester freshmen and last semester seniors are not that different. They are all scared s$&^less, but for different reasons. Yet it comes back to understand how four years or more of college have changed you, matured you, readied you for a world that is not all that accepting or forgiving. That is a rather herculean task. So identity is an important concept, but even for me, as I reach a different kind of a milestone.

It is beyond unbelievable to me that I have another birthday just around the corner, but this is a much more rather time-stopping reflecting one. How did I get to this point? Certainly by plugging along, but more surprisingly again some pretty crazy odds. I am humbled that I have made it this far, but I am also grateful. I have a job I simply adore. I have had wonderful people come in and out of my life, but I have been blessed by all of them in someway at different times. Indeed, it is a strange and rather eerie fall semester, but I am still able to interact with incredible young people who always give me a sense of hope. It is certainly not what I planned, but I am fortunate for how it has turned out. I think it is about believing in possibilities and hoping for good.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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