Teaching in the Time of Corona

NYU just gave our students 48 hours to clear out of the dorms and head “home” (with a “high bar” for “exceptions”) and I, somehow, decided this was the right time to send out an e-mail laying out my plans for the rest of the semester. Perhaps naively, I told my students that my goal was to give them as much “continuity” in instruction and assessment as possible, while granting any and all requests for accommodation.

I’m writing this as I already doubt whether seeking normalcy is the right approach.* My uncertainty come from seeing the other take I’ve seen on the soc-twitter-verse, which is that we are indeed in exceptional times, and that calls for exceptional measures. Cut the readings. Drop the exam. Make it all pass/fail.

My mind keeps pivoting to a very imperfect comparison, one so distant it predates most of my students. I remember on September 11th, 2001 arriving in school and clustering around a TV in the cafeteria with nearly all of my peers. First period, second period, third period—we sat there as the towers fell, as we heard whispers of 50,000 dead, as someone said it was probably “the Palestinians” that did it, as we got furious and terrified at once.

And then Mrs. Sell said that, in fourth period, we would do trigonometry. I was so mad. I wrote in my notes (which she looked over while we were taking each exam) that “trigonometry seems pretty pointless on a day of terror” and added a sad-face. And, of course, I wouldn’t be recounting this if I didn’t think, with nineteen years of distance, that she was completely right.

Of course, in September 2001, you could talk about education as a way of sticking it to the terrorists, of defending the American way of life, etc, which maps poorly onto a threat that comes from a virus. But in any case, I don’t think that resistance was why Mrs. Sell was so implacable. I certainly don’t imagine she believed that trigonometry was a welcome distraction that would successfully take our minds off what was happening. I just think that she valued what she did as an educator and so she kept doing it.

What we do matters, and in a much more immediate sense than narratives that we are “building critical thinking skills” implies. I want students to have, right now, read enough Durkheim to know that “social distancing” without “social solidarity” means death for some vulnerable people. I’d like them to have learned from comparative social policy that the U.S. actually can’t follow Europe in closing schools and soup kitchens without catastrophe, because we have no real welfare state to pick up the slack. I wish they’d have had enough history pounded into their heads to be very, very scared when they hear an authoritarian president say “emergency powers” or talk about rescheduling an election. Maybe a bit of social constructionism would even help them see why our fears about there being a lack of toilet paper are a self-fulfilling prophecy.**

Perhaps there are less grandiose reasons to keep going. Everyone with a minimum amount of reflection agrees that students who don’t have internet access, who are facing newly exacerbated caregiving responsibilities, who have family members at grave risk, or who are being plunged into economic precarity deserve unconditional support—whether that’s the university dipping into its endowment for a loan or an instructor offering a free “pass.” Depending on where we teach, that might be a lot of our students.

For others, though, the crisis is much less existential. It’s entirely possible that, in a few weeks, we will be Wuhan. There will have been a great deal of suffering, but nothing near what could have been had things not be shut down. And yet we will be stuck at home, waiting out the semester, for some seniors, their last ever. We will replace anxiety with anomie. What many students need is accommodation, and I’m going to grant it. But for others, I’d like to think we can offer something else—purpose. And we can only give that if we insist that what we do is meaningful.

* I should say at the outset that I think there is a low bar for my approach not working. I have a young kid, but he wasn’t in daycare, I can share responsibilities with my partner, and he’s still at that phase where he sleeps 13 hours a day and I can entertain him by making the same funny face on a loop until he falls asleep. So I am really not in the same boat as my colleagues whose kids are home from school and for whom the injunction to just “take it online” or do a “writing retreat” is non-sense.

** Did you know that this phrase was coined by a sociologist, Robert Merton, anyway?

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