Reflections at the end of a pandemic academic year

My friend and colleague Emily Gravett asked me to contribute to this semester's final edition of the CFI Teaching Toolbox, a series of short email articles that she edits (and many of which she writes). Her prompt consisted of the following questions:

  • How am I doing?
  • What have I/we learned from the pandemic?
  • How will we transition back, thinking about summer and fall?
  • What challenges and opportunities can I identify in this transition?
  • What do I/we need to move forward?
  • What lessons do I want to carry with me?

The point was not to answer all of these questions, though I think I touched in some way on most of them. To see the responses of my colleagues, check the toolbox link above at some point on Thursday if you are not subscribed to the toolbox email newsletter.

Since you're asking how I am doing, I'll respond as I usually do these days—I'm doing OK. I have a well-paid job; I live in a spacious house; I can get out to forests and parks; I can work from home (saving on my commute made me more productive) and protect myself pretty well from COVID. But underneath all of this is a sense that things are falling apart, that society is tearing at its seams. I am worried about the colleagues, friends, and family who are sick. A good portion of the population is unwilling, for ideological and ego reasons, to bear even minor costs that would protect others. Some of the most prominent politicians and media personalities fuel such destructive, selfish behavior. And through all of this, we get constant news of all kinds of police shootings, all kinds of racist attacks, mass shootings. Our society seems broken. And then I remember that maybe it just appears to me, a white, well-to-do, educated middle class guy, that society used to be overall whole, things were good. For Black people, for example, America has been broken from the beginning (N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth metaphor is quite fitting).

Where do we go from here? I look forward to interacting with people “in the flesh” again, though I think we will be keeping more distance for a while. (Small groups suit me better than large crowds, personally.) We've added tools to our teaching that we'll keep using. But I hope we will learn more deeply from our long pandemic year: That education can't just be about knowledge but requires ethical formation. That teaching includes leaving a society to the next generation that is more just, caring, and sustainable. That the individualist, competitive model that we've followed for centuries has met a point of failure that requires foundational rethinking of what we are doing, and how. That innovation is not the result of more gizmos but consists of strategies to build a better society and become better humans.

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