Hello from the study, the room I am pretty much consistently occupying,
As I finally get back to this blog, it has taken me a month-plus. The new semester has me buried, but still plugging along diligently. So here was where I was a month ago and the thoughts at that time. – – – – – – As we move into a new semester, I wonder exactly what my students are imagining and feeling about being a college student. There is little doubt that our world is a significantly different place than it was a year ago. Last spring, I was walking into classrooms, welcoming students to my office, holding office hours at times in the library location of Starbucks, and both my students and I was merrily going about our lives doing what we do. Fast forward (and the year has been anything but fast), as I consider the past year, the changes are profound. My exchange student left the country (and that too was a process that had many twists and turns) sooner than planned. I found myself sitting in my house hours and days upon end, wondering what was coming next, how we were going to cope with the new found changes, including buying toilet paper, and hoping somehow I would not be exposed to this virus that sounded much more frightening than many of the things I had already faced in terms of health complications. Somehow, catching COVID seemed much more traumatizing. Indeed, only a few days beyond our first national fatality, and the difficulty that occurred in a nursing home in Washington State, we currently have over 440,000 fatalities, 26.5 million cases, and a country that is still struggling to overcome the logistical mountain of getting shots into the arms of 80% of the country’s population. As I write this, I have received my first vaccination in the past week and I am scheduled for the second before the end of February. And yet, in spite of our difficulties, the EU is in a much greater struggle to vaccinate its population, the entire continent of Africa is in a terrible predicament, and much of the world has little idea how they will ramp up to vaccinate their own populations. Much of the world, like most of what the virus has revealed, is controlled by the economics of haves and have nots. That is the reality of our planet. We are not equitable nor are we just. I am fortunate beyond words to have already received a vaccination. I understand that on a number of levels, from just that I fall into a category that has priority to the fact that our government or my health insurance is covering the vaccination. All of those things are gifts.
As I begin yet another semester of teaching, the continual effect of the pandemic requires a very different level of commitment from all, and that goes beyond students and faculty. It includes technology services, library staff and also the administration, as well as health services, counseling services, landlords and others. It is a complex puzzle, and like most things, one size does not fit all. I have spent significant time on the phone with students within the first week, trying to assure them they can manage the expectations of the semester. As seems to be the case, I probably have a dozen students who have me for two separate classes at the same time. This makes their lives busy, but mine confusing. This is particular the case when there are times they will ask a question, but they do not specify to which class they are referring. That specificity is important because I can easily forget they might be in both classes, particularly in the first couple weeks. – – – – –
Back to this and trying to make sense of our yet jumbled world. At this point, the reality of what is expected has hit all involved like the proverbial ton-of-bricks. What makes it so difficult, at least I think this is what it is, is the simple reality that most students do not know how to critically think and analyze. This is not the fault of the average 20 year old, it is that too often they have not been required to do so. The recipe card life of high school does little to prepare them for what is coming. The fact they must reach out and ask for assistance if they do not actually comprehend the nuances of their assignments, their process, or how it all fits together is complicated when they are not in a classroom. Too often they turn to Telegram, GroupMe, or some other group app to ask their questions of each other. In spite of that fact, I have created a Coffee Shop in our CMS specifically to ask these questions, they are often embarrassed or uncomfortable in asking in that forum because they somehow believe asking questions makes them look under-prepared, perhaps, not smart enough, perhaps, or . . . when precisely the opposite is true. Asking for assistance and communicating your concerns is precisely what should happen as a student. I have thought about this a great deal. What is it that makes us so fearful of admitting what we do not know? If you actually knew all of the answers to the various questions, there would be no need to be in the class from the outset. I am just looking it it logically (sorry, Melissa; I guess I am still the same). Currently, I am asking students from one of my classes to call me about their initial work on an assignment. At this point, some 36 hours later only a handful have actually done that. Of course, one called me three times at 11:30 at night, somehow believing I would still be up. My goodness!! Two have called, but did not leave messages, and I do not keep their phone numbers in my phone. Again, we are back to basic communication skills. As I try to figure out how all of this occurred (the this being an incredible loss of basic interpersonal skills), I do not think it can all be blamed on social media. I do not think it is that no parent has tried to teach their offspring basic manners. So what is it? I think perhaps it is a combination of a multitude of things that has created the “perfect storm” resulting in a profound lack of interpersonal decorum.
I believe the isolation of the last year has caused an overpowering need for us to want something with no sense of how that request or demand might affect the person on the receiving end of our missive (be it text, voice message, email, even a video chat or app). I have long argued the main deleterious effect of social media is not that we are in contact more readily or easily, but rather we have so blurred the public and private that things like decorum, civility, and appropriateness are too often forgotten. Isolation causes fear; it often causes antisocial behavior that can be significantly damaging to mental and emotional health, as well as one’s physical health (Novotney, May 2019). In the article just cited, the author noted that latest census data shows that 1/4 of the population in the United States lives alone (and that was before the pandemic) (Novotney, May, 2019). The consequence of reactive loneliness versus chronic loneliness is an important consideration, and I think this is something many of our students are struggling to manage.Reactive loneliness, to be clear, is when there is something that changes in our lives so that our social group has a profound change and we feel a degree of loneliness because of it. A death of an important friend, a spouse, a child, or such is a good example. Reactive loneliness is painful for anyone, but if that loneliness continues to occur or there is nothing there to address it, then it becomes chronic. Chronic loneliness often seems to occur when there is no visible possibility of change. This sort of loneliness can become harrowing, excruciating, even torturous.
To escape this struggle, particularly when there is some overarching circumstance that seems to predicate it, many will turn to less than proper options. Fortunately, I am not a smoker, but studies show that binge smoking, binge eating, binge watching, binge drinking are all too often the escape. I am fortunate enough to be able to stay away from those things, but there is going to the grocery store to buy more food I do not need, or fortunately it is not warm enough (yet) that the plants are out. Those of you who know me, know this can be a problem. So . . . are there positives in this isolation? For me, there have been. It has caused me to actually reach out to some I had lost contact with. That has been something unexpected, but it has helped me manage the day-in and day-out on the Acre. Additionally, it has required me to be more intentional and thoughtful about things if I am going to manage the work I need to do. That is particularly the case with an extra prep and extra section, and 26 credits of internships. All in all things are getting done. The other thing it has prompted is a really careful prioritization of what needs to happen and what can be let go. All of these things have helped me stave off that sense of isolation because things are getting accomplished.
That is another irony of all of this. Some students have more time than ever to work on their classwork, but they seem less likely to manage their requirements. I have had more students miss deadlines than ever before. I have struggled to keep students on-board, thoughtfully engaged, and ready to do their work than ever before. However, let me also say there have been some incredibly ambitious and disciplined students too. They are my saving grace at this point. There are students who have stepped up and realized this need to adapt to the world we are in is simply the way it is. I believe the ultimate consequence of this move to remote teaching is the push it has created to make all of us more accountable to each other in the educative process. The amount of work needed to manage an asynchronous remote course is exponentially more. I am not complaining because I believe it has required a great deal more intentionality on my part. I have to think about what I am asking students to do more thoughtfully. I need to be more process driven in what I do. However, it requires a great deal more intentionality from students too. This is a different world than the world of sitting in a lecture (either large or small). It is so much more evident precisely what a student does or does not do. That is also frightening, but it can be liberating if the student will claim their education. It is theirs. They are accountable to themselves first and foremost. We all know when we do something well; conversely, we know when we half ass something. I believe that is even more apparent in this remote world, which is ironic beyond anything imaginable. Everything we do is in the open. Likewise, everything we do not do is in the open. That is where the accountability piece really kicks in. It is hard to say, or even imagine, where all of this will shake out. What will happen to this generation of students? How will they take this experience and adapt to the world beyond their backpacks? It is most definitely something we will have to wait and see as far as the ramifications. In the meantime, my computer and I are best friends. Seldom can I leave the screen and the desk believing I am caught up. There is no such thing. It is simply trying to stay afloat. For my students, if you read this and comment about your thoughts, you will get extra credit.
Thanks for reading as always.