In a humdrum


Turning oak

Today is one of those Mother Hubbard days: I want to write, but the cupboard is bare. Yesterday I conferenced with my students at Babson College, graded some papers, then came home, exhausted. I took a nap, read, and felt infinitely better for both.

Today I’m teaching at Framingham State, where I have a long break between my morning and afternoon classes. After teaching my morning class, I held office hours, prepped my afternoon classes, checked discussion forums, and graded (and am grading) yet more papers. At this point of the semester, my paper-piles are endless.

My office here at Framingham State overlooks the main street through campus, and I have my window ajar to let in fresh air. Along with the air wafts the incessant sound of leaf blowers. At this point of the season, the work of leaf-clearing is endless.

Fallen

It’s been a weird autumn. Right before Halloween, we had a storm that dumped five inches of snow, and this week, we’ve had a string of 70-degree days. The Japanese maple in our front yard went straight from reddish to brown: we won’t have a red-letter day this year when one corner of our yard ignites in fiery red glory. And today, the trees in our backyard cast off their leaves en masse: just like that, there is a crunchy, ankle-deep blanket of oak, cherry, and Norway maple leaves underfoot, many of the latter still partly green.

Concord River from North Bridge

Warm November Sundays are especially sweet when you know the dark days of winter aren’t far behind.

Resting in peace

After another whirlwind week, it’s a relief to reach the respite that is Friday. I teach in-person (and thus wake up early) on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so on Fridays I sleep in and look forward to simple domestic pleasures: the morning dog-walk, a cup of tea at my desk, a half hour spent reading before I turn on my laptop to face another day of email, virtual meetings, and the mundane juggling act that is my work-from-home life.

November parking garage

One of the (many) strange things about teaching a hybrid class during a pandemic is the ghost-town vibe on campus, with few students and even fewer professors, closed meeting rooms and shuttered offices, and plenty of parking.

Yesterday's news

I’ve been tethered to my laptop for most of the day, commenting on a fat pile of student essay drafts in advance of tomorrow’s in-person classes. Reading student papers is an excellent way to ignore the news: paper-grading requires concentration, and concentration is the antithesis of the obsessive checking of the news and social media I did four years ago on Election Day.

Earlier when I stepped away from my paper piles to pick up our usual Tuesday night Thai takeout, my smartwatch began vibrating at urgent intervals, each buzz an admonition to Check My Phone for the latest predictions, punditry, and speculations. J and I will watch the news later tonight, but for now, I swipe away each urgent buzz and turn back toward that fat paper pile.

Leaf litter

The day after a snowy Halloween, the ground is carpeted with sodden leaves and an occasional candy wrapper.

Windblown

This morning I wrote my monthly letter to myself, a habit I started in January 2019 when I turned 50. Sometime around the beginning of each month, I write a letter to my Next Year’s Self: twelve paper time capsules that give me an excuse to use pretty stationery and stickers for a person I know will appreciate them. In the past I’ve relied upon my blog and photo archive to remind myself how things were going this time last year, but a letter is more intimate: a handwritten thing for an audience of one.

This time last year, J and I went to Wachusett Reservoir for Dam Day. It was a brisk and beautiful day to be outside, and after walking across the dam, we had lunch at the Clinton Bar & Grille, a restaurant we’d gone to two other times: once after we’d gone to the Museum of Russian Icons, and once after going to Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

That day a year ago feels like a lifetime away: a day from a bygone era. Everything from the Before Times has his kind of hazy veneer: remember when we went to events with crowds of people and ate inside restaurants alongside other diners? But that year-ago October day also seems dim and distant because it wasn’t long after my Dad’s death, and everything from that whole season–Autumn, 2019–is muffled and distorted, like memories from a span of time when I lived underwater.

Last year, I called Fall 2019 the “Semester from Hell” given all I was juggling: teaching six classes, struggling to keep ahead with a course I had newly designed while learning a new-to-me learning management system, and trying to navigate the alien world of grief. Now in retrospect, I know the Semester from Hell was gently preparing me for 2020, when we keep trying to find our sea-legs in an uncertain world where we continually have to walk (and work) on water.

In the early days of the pandemic, we fixed our sights on the end, imagining a return to normal as being clearly on the horizon. Now we know we will be here at sea for the foreseeable future, adrift in a place where we can’t see the continent we left nor the one we are sailing toward. Here at sea, where all we know is the rock and swell of the present moment, I write letters to a Future Self whose situation I won’t even pretend to predict.

Codman frogs

It’s the start of the third week of the semester at Framingham State and the fourth week of the semester at Babson College. I’m teaching hybrid classes at both colleges, so instead of commuting four days a week, I teach at Babson on Wednesdays, Framingham State on Thursdays, and online the other days.

For much of the summer, I alternated between anxieties: on the one hand, I worried about the health risks of teaching in-person; on the other, I worried about keeping my job. Now that the semester is officially underway, I’m calmer and less anxious than I have been at any time during the pandemic. Instead of fixating on the many things outside my control, I am busy paying attention to the things within my power.

These days I spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with the classroom technology that allows me to teach students in the room and students who are logged in from home. When the technology works, it is awesome and amazing; when it doesn’t (which is often), I wonder whether I’m effectively reaching anyone, anywhere.

Despite the glitches, though, I find myself wondering whether I’ll go back to conventional teaching ever again. Teaching half-time in-person forces me to prioritize what we do in class, with me in the room, versus what we can do more effectively online, at each student’s own speed. In retrospect, the amount of time I used to spend giving real-time lectures on writing–a skill that must be practiced to be perfected–seems unnecessary and counter-productive. I would have been better served meeting with students individually or in small groups.

This much I know: I will never have a conventional attendance policy again. I no longer have any desire to force sick students to come to class when there are perfectly viable ways they can participate remotely. One of the things I’m curious to see this term is whether we all stay healthier than usual. Will having morning classes one day a week rather than two mean my students this semester will be less sleep-deprived? Will there be less sickness–fewer cases of colds and flu–now that we’re washing our hands, wearing masks, and staying six feet apart?

I’ve always said that teaching in a college classroom is like working in a germ-infested Petri dish: by the fifth week of a normal semester, everyone is sick with an infectious malaise that gets passed around and around ‘til Thanksgiving, when students go home, rest up, then return to campus with a fresh set of germs to share.

But this is not a normal semester–and most people say that as if it were a bad thing. Yes, it’s sad that the virus-spreading activities of the “normal college experience” have been cancelled or curtailed this semester. But what if this particular cloud of contagion has an unexpectedly salubrious side-effect?

I would happily say goodbye to the infectious practices of past semesters. There used to be a badge of honor bestowed upon students who came to class sick–what dedication!–or who boasted about multiple all-nighters–what diligence! But why should growing your brain be a danger to your physical health? What if one side-effect of the COVID crisis were a paradigm shift where caring for one’s own (and one’s neighbors’) physical health were as important as making the grade?

Quiet classroom

This week, after more than 150 days of assiduously avoiding stores, restaurants, and other Indoor Spaces, I went to both Framingham State and Babson College for demonstrations of new classroom technology that will allow me to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously in the Fall. One thing that has died in the Age of Corona is a strict attendance policy. This semester, instead of punishing students who are absent, I will all but beg them to STAY HOME and PARTICIPATE REMOTELY if they are sick or exhibiting even the mildest of symptoms.

As I prepare to teach in-person in a few weeks, I’ve decided that teaching during a pandemic is like riding a bike in heavy traffic. When I am in the safety of my car, I am terrified to see cyclists zipping around traffic on busy roads. From the relative safety of my car, cyclists seem terrifyingly vulnerable with their bare, unprotected flesh.

But when I lived in Boston in graduate school and regularly rode a bike down Mass Ave and other busy roads, I wasn’t paralyzed by fear: to the contrary, I remember being hyper-aware of both my bike and body as they existed in time and space. Recognizing that I couldn’t control or even predict the movements of the cars around me, I meticulously managed the narrow pocket of space immediately surrounding my person.

When you ride a bike on heavily trafficked roads, you quickly learn how small a space you can squeeze through, and you learn the limits of your own maneuverability. You become intimately honed to your inner sense of how close is too close, as if your entire body bristled with antennae attuned to your surroundings. Cars and trucks and random pedestrians can zip and collide around you, but you move with an implicitly surety that you’ll stay safe as long as you are moving within your own Protective Pocket, defensive bike-riding subsuming all of your concentration.

Yes, cyclists get hit and die on busy roads, but when you are actually biking, you aren’t thinking of the risk. Instead, worry is something that drivers like me do whenever I see cyclists riding down streets that I regularly rode down when I was younger.

So after months of staying home and worrying from a distance about my eventual return to the classroom, I was surprised at how natural it felt to be back on campus this week: like riding a bike, teaching is a skill you don’t easily forget. While moving through two different college campuses this week, I was ever-mindful of my personal precautions–my mask, my bottle of hand sanitizer, my perennial sense of how close or far away the people around me were. Just as I couldn’t control the cars around me when I was a grad student riding a bike in Boston, I can’t control a global pandemic. What I focus on instead is staying safe in my own personal bubble.

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