Shelter in place = a new pace
Canceling most face-to-face engagements and moving the remainder online does change the pace of things. Suddenly, we find ourselves taking more walks as a family, playing more games (right now, Yahtzee is our favorite, and it’s actually quite raucous), and reading aloud. We’re reading The Hobbit together. We did that once before, a long time ago, reading The Hobbit and the entire Fellowship of the Ring, when Rose was just old enough to cry that the books were over but none of the kids were old enough for their music and sports schedules to overtake family reading time. If we ever manage this for a third time, we may need a new copy.
For a number of reasons stretching back to last spring and summer, I am late, or at least I feel late, with writing projects. I was set back by unexpected travel, time spent considering unanticipated opportunities, program launches and changes in our center and department, and a deferral of a sabbatical in order to fill an instructional need and take on a few special projects. I’ve missed a deadline or two, and I feel even further behind in correspondence about and submission of book proposals that have been under discussion with editors for some time. I’ve been late before, but I haven’t felt this late before. (Nota bene: By including this confession, I am in part fulfilling a promise to a friend who just asked that I not fill this newsletter with productivity tips.)
The good news is that I’ve made progress in the past week, and have started to knock out some of these projects. Here are a couple things getting my attention right now:
I’m finishing a review of Daniel Vaca’s Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America. (If you’re the editor to whom this piece is a little bit late, know that it’s coming soon.)
Notice anything? At least two things stand out about these three books, published by Yale, Princeton, and Harvard university presses within fifteen months of each other. (1) They’re all titled “City on a Hill” (or, in Rodgers’ case, “As a City on a Hill,” if you want to get picky). (2) Krieger’s book, which I assigned this semester in a course called Urban Planning and its Discontents, is about cities; the other two are about John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” a history of the sermon’s reception and influence, the mythology surrounding the sermon, and American exceptionalism. I think there’s a review essay waiting to be written that explores some of the connections between these seemingly disparate things published at almost exactly the same time with almost exactly the same titles (though I’ve already had to study up a bit on Rome’s founding myths – with the help of Mary Beard’s SPQR and a classicist friend with expertise in the area – just to tighten some connections). We’ll see if I’m right.
Once I get these finished, I’ll get to work on a couple other short pieces and will also begin sorting out what comes next in the way of book projects. I gave in today and bought a real desk for use at home, because while it feels like I should be able to get my work done sitting on the couch, I’ve convinced myself that I’ll get it done better and faster with a desk, and that my body (namely, my back and neck) will thank me for it.
“Online” teaching and learning
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the country has transitioned away from in-person education to online teaching and learning or “technology-mediated instruction.” We have three children (grades 5, 7, and 10) and two professors (one in Spanish and the other in Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations) at home – and I happen not only to be teaching two classes right now, but to be taking one (Greek 102) – so we have a lot of this going on. Here are just a few observations:
There’s something true about this, but something off about it, too. This meme suggests that teachers, who are like master artists, eventually end up with the stick-figure version of their instruction. There’s something right about that, in the sense that our current transition often reduces instruction to something far less impressive than it would have been or in the sense that something important is given up along the way.
But this meme also misses something important. Any artist who can draw the back quarter of that horse can also draw the middle, the head, and that final stick-figure front leg. The artist who can draw the back of that horse has all the talent, time, and tools necessary to draw the front. That isn’t true of our current situation. The master teacher doesn’t necessarily have the talent, time, or tools necessary to make the initial transition well or to be prepared should illness, uneven student engagement, or technological disruptions require further pivots.
I’d propose that our current transition is a bit more like going on some expedition, and many are preparing their teachers and students for something like “glamping:”
The glamping version of this transition tries to take along whatever makes everyone feel most “at home.” Many institutions have done the equivalent of telling everyone not to worry, “the campground has electricity for your devices, and even a wine refrigerator, so bring your hair dryers, your iPads, and your favorite bottle of wine.” That is not to say that no one has had to leave anything at home, but that predominant impulse seems to be to take everything with us that we can, whether for class or other aspects of institutional life.
That will work nicely, unless things get more austere, like this:
(Yes, I resisted adding a photo or GIF of Hugh Glass spending the night inside a dead horse just to keep warm, just to have the horse meme and the horse meme go head to head, but I did think about it.)
In any case, I think we should, for the most part, plan for and equip ourselves for the worst case scenarios and work up from there. Our plans should be the sort that would still work if things got worse – if students were more scattered or family needs kept them from full engagement, if technological disruptions were to impact courses negatively, if key personnel were to become ill. We should be ready for the wilderness trek, carrying just what’s on our backs, taking a flexible and durable approach that will work either in the campground or off the trail. If we stumble into a fancy campground, great. If not, we’re ready to pull off something more challenging.
Brief observations about observations about the pandemic
Family circumstances, and not just life disruptions, make COVID-19 feel very close for us. We have a family member being treated for pneumonia (in all likelihood caused by COVID-19), a family member waiting for test results, and a family member in charge of opening a quarantine facility in an emerging hotspot. Despite all this, I feel like I have very little to say about the situation, and I’m genuinely surprised by the number of people who are weighing in about it. Here are a few observations about the observations being made.