A Time for the Ages

This is a bizarre, surreal time that we are living in. Back in January, when my one “traditional” lecture course was canceled due to low enrollment, I was sort of bummed. It was replaced with an additional online class, and life moved on as normal. In hindsight, it was a blessing, as I am now somewhat carrying on “as normal” as I can from home – still, last week, when Jefferson State announced that we would close until April 6th, and then later in the week that we are closing indefinitely – life started to look differently for me.

I had thought about converting my research paper in my composition class to a Coronavirus-related topic, but I get enough of that kind of thing from the media and social platforms. I decided to be a little more personal with my online class, a venue that can easily become impersonal at times. I decided to give them a bonus discussion forum where they could vent about the virus and its effects on their lives. Here’s some of the prompt I used:

“So what are your thoughts on the virus? How has it affected you? Do you work in retail, or the food industry, or the medical field? Did you stockpile toilet paper, and if so, why? Are you afraid?”

I required them to respond to at least one classmate, and be “real” in their responses. (College course discussion boards are notorious for requiring responses, wherein students can be the most agreeable persons on the planet). I also warned them not to be keyboard cowboys here – this was no time for humiliating a classmate on social media for feeling afraid. This was a discussion board for healing.

The results, so far, have been really, really, good. Instead of the typical responses about a piece of literature they are studying, students are grappling with their feelings, fears, and anxiety about the coronavirus and posting about it. Most have written far more than the paragraph or two that I required for the assignment. All of them, like you and me, have someone that falls into the high-risk category. Some of them have been affected financially, as many in the service industry are working their way through school. Now, their futures are uncertain. The assignment was also a time for their instructor to let his feelings be known as well.

Like them, my financial future is a tad uncertain. Yes, I’m a tenured instructor, but summers aren’t guaranteed work. Rather than spreading my nine-months over twelve months, like I did when I taught high school, I get paid nine months for nine months’ work. Summer is a separate contract. If I don’t work in the summer, I don’t get paid. I can teach online from home if we are still in quarantine at that time, but if students don’t register for classes, then classes may get cancelled. I didn’t share that with my students.

I shared what is more important than financial woes. Here’s part of my lead-in to the prompt and discussion:

“This Coronavirus, I believe, is legitimate. I believe when it’s all said and done, we’re all going to know someone who gets it, and probably will all know someone who dies from it. With today’s modern age and connectivity through social media, that’s a sure bet. We’re all affected by this in some way, whether great or small. Though my wife and I are not in the age range for risk, we’re limiting contact with my in-laws and parents, who are all in their early seventies. Beyond their ages, my mother-in-law had breast cancer in the late nineties and consequently now suffers from lymphedema, and has some heart issues as well. I’m not terribly concerned that we’ll get it, or if we do get it, that we’ll die from it. My concern is that someone I love might get it and die from it.”

My college students have many of my concerns as well. If your hours at your job were cut back or if you were furloughed, you may be worried not only about the bills, but now also about how to teach your children as a newbie homeschool parent with no preparation. But don’t forget your children’s concerns. While they may not be college students who are worried about bills, they may still be anxious about the future. They may have questions about why they are home all the time, and why they can’t take their spring break vacation to the beach, etc. It’s okay to give them some answers, and it’s okay to be real with them, as I urged my college students to be real with each other. You may be surprised how much your children understand about the situation.

Here’s how I wrapped up my lead-in before finally giving them their writing prompt:

“I have friends on social media (and IRL, so to speak) who are taking it very seriously, and working from home, limiting contact with others.  I also have friends who think it’s some hoax or some governmental plot to take away our freedoms, and they’re going about their daily lives – neither is true, of course. It’s not much different than the flu of 1918. These things come around every hundred years or so, and they are not fiction.”

“Have any of you read Stephen King’s ‘Night Surf,’ or his novel The Stand? Both are about this sort of thing. I know it won’t get near the level of either of those two scenarios, but there is a good bit of fear out there. With so many event cancellations and quarantining, life will look differently through the lens of 2020 when we look back on it. This is ironic, since ‘2020’ is usually the name for clear vision. I think this pandemic may clear up our vision a bit and show us what is most important in our lives. Perhaps it is life’s way of making us slow down and spend a little more time with the ones we love.”

If there is a positive to take away from all of this, that may be it. Maybe we all slow down and spend some good quality time with our families. Maybe we learn that we not only love those short people that are running around our house, but that we actually like them as well. And maybe, for some of you, you learn that you, too, can homeschool – and that parents are, in many cases, the best teachers for their kids.

I closed out my assignment with this:

“This is a time for us to comfort and come together, not tear each other down.”

I’ll echo that here. With social media, we have connections and access to more people than ever – hopefully, your newsfeed is full of a variety of people, not just folks who all think like you. If you do have some variety there, be kind. Have a healthy respect for their views. You don’t have to agree with them, but it would be nice at a time like this if we could all get through it without too much bickering.  

Be safe – and wash your hands!

~ Brian

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