We routinely start our Zoom calls and classes by asking, “How are you?” and reflexively answer back, “I’m OK, how are you?”
But, we’re not really OK, are we? We’re tired and often frustrated, and our emotions are closer to the surface than ever.
After more than seven months, the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic have worn us out. All these stresses and strains have been further complicated for many of us by the challenges of balancing a new set of expectations as we try to balance work and home. Looming over all of this is a divisive election, angst about voting and vote-counting, the weight of centuries of racism and oppression, and the ever-growing list of people of color whose deaths demonstrate the reality of systematic racism and white supremacy in America today.
And, for Spartans, the pandemic arrived on the heels of three very painful years as the scope and scale of Nassar’s crimes became apparent. We were already hurting as a community, and we enjoyed only a few hopeful months under new leadership before the pandemic hit.
For many of us, learning that spring break 2021 will be cancelled was a bit of a gut punch. A long spring semester without the usual weeklong break seems daunting. The cancelling of spring break also reminded us that, even though we are nearly eight months into the pandemic, we are not close enough to its end yet. Nor are we close to resolving the social, economic, and racist challenges our nation has long faced.
Much of our sadness and frustration emerges from unmet expectations, and I have found that naming expectations and talking about them has provided me some relief. So, I want to share two of them that seem to me to be especially common. The first relates to “back to normal,” a phrase I have heard a lot lately. We crave a return to work routines that are more familiar to us and more predictable. But we will not go back to normal – back on campus, mask-less together – with the same sudden flip of a switch that had sent us remote back in March.
Instead, the door will creak open slowly, like it has been slowly opening over the last six months. Last summer, we restarted our research labs. This fall, we increased the number of students living on campus to 2,000 and taught a small number of in-person classes. Last week we played the season’s first football game. In the spring semester we are adding another 2,300 students to the residence halls and teaching hundreds of in-person courses to thousands of students.
Provost Woodruff has replaced the notion of “reopening campus” with “progressive planning” to describe the stepwise and thoughtful planning that has gone into spring semester. Even with the setbacks that the occasional spikes in infections represent, we have continued to progressively emerge from the pandemic. Together with the work of the DEI strategic planning committee, the campus-wide strategic planning committee, and dozens of initiatives in the colleges, RHS, Student Affairs, and the Provost’s Office, we are preparing to be a much better institution when the pandemic finally ends.
The second unmet expectation that I believe is vexing us revolves around students’ and faculty members’ notions about the college experience. Students’ college experiences are much more than just what gets recorded on their academic transcripts. The social and cultural activities around campus, sports and tailgating, co-curricular events, living away from your family, and making decisions for yourself are central to the modern college experience.
College isn’t usually just about taking classes. But it is now.
Nearly the entire weight of students’ expectation for their college experience – especially for first year students – rests on the shoulders of the faculty teaching online courses. When the entire college experience is concentrated into online courses, students and faculty both find the experience wanting. This is why it is so important that we continue to slowly increase the number of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities on campus and why things like college sports and cultural events are important to the campus community. We are a residential university, and the physical togetherness of our faculty, students, and staff enables a richer and more fulfilling experience for all of us. We all want that back.
As we turn the calendar’s page and look forward to the end of a very long semester, I hope that all of you will find ways to take time to relax, recharge, and refocus. And, until we are all together again on campus, I’m going to stop answering the how-are-you question with, “I’m OK.”
Instead, accepting the work at hand knowing how committed we are to leaving the world better than we found it, I’ll say, “I’ll be OK.”