Life lessons


It’s almost 5:00 pm and still light out, but I’m nevertheless feeling the sundowning fatigue that has become so familiar this pandemic year. In the morning, I’m energized and optimistic, looking forward to a productive day; by evening, though, I’m tapped and tired, and my to-do list still looms.

Before the pandemic, I would have soldiered through, milking as much work as possible out of every waking minute, then staying up late (or getting up early) to tackle the rest. But I can no longer do this: I’m too old to pull all-nighters, and worse yet, I’m no longer foolish enough to try. I’ve learned from long experience–52 years inhabiting this body, and nearly 30 years teaching college–that the shortcut of long hours leads to little progress in the long run.

When I deprive myself of sleep, I get sick–and when I get sick, I stay sick for weeks, even a simple cold triggering an avalanche of asthmatic complications. During this COVID year, I can’t afford to get sick. From the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve realized my top priority isn’t my job or my students or my to-do list; it’s my health. In the pit of my stomach, I know that if I get COVID, it won’t end well, so I must avoid infection at all costs.

Since late-afternoon-into-evening is when my energy, productivity, and morale lag, I’ve learned this past year how important it is to stop working when my body says “no more.” Because hybrid teaching forces me to spend more time than usual at my computer as I prep classes, check discussion forums, and Zoom with students, I’ve come to cherish the time I spend unplugged, reading print books, writing snail-mail letters, or writing by hand in my journal.

My laptop and Internet connection have been my tether to the outside world this past year, but my books, notebooks, stationery, and stamps have been my lifeline.

Miniature snowperson

Several weeks ago, while waiting to check-in on campus for my weekly COVID-19 test, I saw a teaching colleague leaving after taking her own test. I called her name, we exchanged pleasantries from a safe distance, and she left: the kind of passing interaction we used to have frequently in the Before Times. Only afterward did I realize it was the first time I’d seen a teaching colleague in person in nearly a year.

When colleges across the country went virtual last March (and again when colleges re-opened in various hybrid formats this past Fall), parents and pundits alike wondered how the pandemic would impact the social lives of students. Would 18- to 21-year-olds be deprived of the Typical College Experience in an era where masks, social distancing, and frequent COVID tests are the norm? Nowhere in this conversation did anyone ask what it would be like for college instructors teaching in the Age of Coronavirus. How exactly would college professors cultivate collegiality in the absence of in-person colleagues?

At both of the colleges where I teach, department chairs and other administrators have tried to maintain a semblance of bureaucratic normalcy with department meetings, committee work, and conversational coffee hours happening online. But gone are the days of running into your colleagues in the copy room, chatting around the department water cooler, or mingling in the hallways.

At both of the colleges where I teach, students are finding ways to interact and socialize: I see scattered groups of masked students walking across campus or gathering at a safe distance in classrooms and common areas, where the furniture is marked to indicate where students can and cannot sit. What I don’t see while walking to and from class, however, are other professors. Many of my colleagues are teaching remotely this semester, and my colleagues who teach hybrid classes behave as I do, zipping in to teach their classes and then immediately heading home to minimize the exposure risk of being on-campus.

This means I’ve gone almost an entire year without seeing my professional peers in person. When I’m on campus, the only folks I regularly see are my undergraduate students; apart from the maintenance staff who come into my classroom to sanitize the desks between classes or the nurses who staff the COVID testing center, I rarely see people my own age on campus. Both of my department chairs are working remotely, both of my department administrative assistants are working remotely, and the instructors who occupy the offices around mine are (like me) seldom around.

Now that I’ve noted this phenomenon, I am realizing how odd and disorienting it is. Walking to and from class, I feel like a relic: a Significantly Older Person whose experience of campus is distinctly different from the young folks around me. While my students are looking to make friends and socialize despite the virus, I’m mindful that as a middle-aged asthmatic, I’m far less likely to bounce back from infection than my youthful students are. For my students, COVID is an inconvenient social interruption: for me, COVID is something that could seriously incapacitate or kill me.

So while my on-campus students are surrounded by people their own age, the pandemic has done something that none of my professional accomplishments has ever been able to achieve: it’s made me peerless, a person who is literally without peer.

Babson Globe in winter

This week is the first week of the semester at Babson College, and last night I dreamt I had to teach my classes from a hotel room.

In the alternate universe that is dreamtime, there was no pandemic, no masks, and no need for social distancing, but for some reason the college announced I couldn’t teach on-campus or from home. Instead, my “remote” classes were booked in a hotel room where J and I stayed overnight. Because the room had been booked at the last minute, neither one of us had any luggage, and I didn’t have a laptop, so I had to keep checking my phone for emails from students asking where we were supposed to meet.

Although the class was billed as “remote,” it was actually a face-to-face session, so at the scheduled time my students and a guest speaker (writer Walter Mosley, who wrote an essay I assigned last semester) somehow piled into my hotel room, which by then had morphed into a suite containing an odd assortment of furniture, none of which was conducive to an actual class session. Fortunately, Mosley had a laptop and was able to show slides during his talk, and I was reduced to “teaching” from bed, first in a babydoll nightgown, and later in a pair of flannel pajamas.

Maintain proper distance

I submitted the last of my Fall semester grades yesterday afternoon, then I immediately took a nap, overwhelmed by the cumulative exhaustion of the past four months.

This has been a remarkable semester, for sure, and only now in retrospect can I appreciate how utterly exhausting it’s been. Teaching in-person college classes during a pandemic means you’re always on alert, running down a mental checklist of COVID protocols, and that’s not even counting the teaching tasks of a normal semester, when “all” you have to do is prepare classes, give lectures, lead discussions, answer questions, respond to emails, participate in meetings, and grade papers.

During this crazy COVID semester, I regularly monitored my health, taught in multiple modalities (often simultaneously), and prepared myself to switch pedagogical approaches suddenly if conditions changed (as of course they did). I learned how tiring it is to lecture in a mask, asking myself at the end of every on-campus teaching day “Is my throat sore because I have COVID or because I spent the day shouting?” When you teach in-person classes during a pandemic, part of your attention is always attuned to your surroundings: are your in-person students wearing their masks and keeping proper distance? Are any windows that can be opened actually open? Are your hands clean, and what have you recently touched that might not be clean?

Teaching in-person during a pandemic is nerve-wracking enough, but teaching a hybrid class offers additional challenges. Can my online students hear me, and can I hear them? Did I remember to start, pause, and re-start the class recording at all the proper times so absent students can watch the class later? Has anyone posted a question in the chat, or raised a virtual hand, or waved their actual hand in front of the camera (assuming it is on) to get my attention? If I put my remote students into breakout rooms while working with my in-person students, can I simultaneously attend to conversations in the room and the clock counting down to my remote students’ return?

Now that the semester is over, I realize the weight of worry I’ve been carrying the past four months. Are my students okay? How are they doing emotionally, physically, and (yes) academically? Are they safe, healthy, and physically able to come to class in-person or online? Can they find the classroom, the Zoom link, the weekly online module, the relevant discussion forum? Can they find and figure out how to submit this week’s assignment?

At the end of this COVID semester, I wonder whether I answered students’ questions, calmed their fears, or even taught them anything about the subject of the class. Did all the carefully crafted assignments, checklists, modules, and videos actually work, or were they a monumental waste of both time and bandwidth? However this semester went, the crazy fact remains: after a few days off to clear my head, I’ll begin preparing for January, when we’ll do it all over again.

Kicked to the curb

This morning I’ve already done a ragtag assortment of small tasks. While holding virtual office hours, I checked discussion boards, made a to-do list of teaching tasks, folded laundry, filled out my vote-by-mail ballot, emptied wastebaskets, answered email, and finished one batch of Postcards to Voters before starting another.

Still undone are the committee work and paper-grading I’m currently procrastinating, because the best way to get lots of tiny tasks done is to have several big tasks you’re avoiding.

One of this morning’s emails was from a student who wants to meet with me to devise a strategy for keeping up with his college workload. College is a big jump from high school: most of the work is self-directed with relatively little time spent in class, so many students struggle to manage So Much Free Time without Mom and Dad close by to supervise. The situation is even worse during a pandemic, when hybrid classes mean you spend even less time in class and even more time online, doing (or not doing) work with a more flexible deadline.

One of the most valuable things any student can learn in college–either during a pandemic or not–is how to manage oneself and one’s time. How motivated and self-disciplined are you in accomplishing tasks when there is no one watching except your own Inner Taskmaster?

I am probably a bad person to advise on the matter, given how much I myself procrastinate. And yet, I somehow manage to keep more balls (mostly) in the air than many folks I know, teaching at two colleges while tending a houseful of pets and maintaining some semblance of a civic and creative life.

The question isn’t how I do it but how my student already does. For I’m convinced that even a student who struggles to post to a required online discussion board three times a week has other things in his life that he does without fail at least as regularly. So how did my student establish those habits: how does he remember to show up to his workouts, Facetime sessions with friends, or favorite video games and TV shows?

Truth be told, I wouldn’t get much (if anything) done if it weren’t for Google Calendar reminders buzzing on my wrist, daily Google Keep checklists I update at the start of each week, and countless to-do lists written on memo pads and sticky notes. Even when it comes to enjoyable things that I want to do, they don’t get done if they aren’t On My List.

But that’s what works for me, and even my lists and calendar reminders and best intentions sometimes fail in the face of procrastination, inertia, and seemingly endless supply of Things That Need Doing. Sometimes a ball or two will drop, and you have to clean up the consequences. This too is a valuable lesson to learn in college or beyond.

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?

Lightning makes no sound until it strikes. #mlk

This weekend, J and I watched CNN coverage of the protests in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and elsewhere over the death of George Floyd. It was a mistake to watch: cable news is an addictive drug that does more to fuel rage than to illuminate or change minds. But we watched the same story we’ve seen play out before, with angry protestors facing off against officers in riot gear until someone blinked, blood was shed, and everybody lost.

After every senseless killing of unarmed black men, there is the same hand-wringing. White folks like me insist we aren’t racist while wondering how racism nevertheless endures. Can’t we all just get along, we ask, then we insist that some of our best friends are black. I always go out of my way to be nice to everyone, we insist, arguing that we don’t even see color.

But if white folks like me don’t see color, how can we see racism? “Not seeing color” is an excuse well-meaning but complacent white folks use to avoid the difficult and messy work of dismantling a system we didn’t design but that shields us in a protective cocoon. If I’m not racist, then racism is someone else’s problem, and I have no responsibility to fix it.

But racism is an ideology, not “just” an individual worldview, and ideologies are inherited. It isn’t your fault if you were born with a genetic predisposition toward addiction, heart disease, or cancer, but if you are aware of your congenital risk, you can make conscious choices to mitigate those circumstances. Just because you didn’t cause a problem doesn’t mean you have no responsibility for responding to it.

If you were born and raised in America, you inherited the problem of white supremacy. You didn’t cause or create it, but you were born into the consequences. Picture yourself being born atop someone else’s shitheap, and you’ve grown up your whole life breathing in that stench.

Proclaiming that this isn’t your shitheap–you didn’t build it, you don’t add to it, and you neither approve of or condone it–doesn’t make the pile and its smell disappear, and neither does trying to hide, cover, or distract from it. The only way to get rid of a massive, centuries-old pile of shit is to grab a shovel and start digging.

This is what anti-racists mean when they talk about doing the work. Yes, you can march; yes, you can wave a sign, post on social media, and vow to be a nicer, kinder, and more equitable person. But the shitpile of racism is higher and deeper than that. It’s a problem that’s bigger than a few shitty cops; it’s an entire social system that rests on the flawed, deeply rooted, and often unconscious assumption that there is something wrong, innately criminal, or just plain deficient about nonwhite folks.

American history rests on this premise. It’s how generations of slaveholders justified keeping humans as property, and it’s how generations of settlers justified taking land from Native people. It’s how countless capitalists up to and including the present day have justified policies such as redlining, segregation, and mass incarceration. The opportunity gap between white and black isn’t accidental; it’s intentionally designed.

The ideology of white supremacy explains why jogging while black is an executable offence and why a white dog-walker felt justified in calling the cops on a black birdwatcher who dared ask her to leash her dog. These individual actions are heinous, but they are not anomalous. People do shitty things to people of color not in isolation but within the context of a system that stands on a shitty foundation.

So what should we do? White people like me ask this question again and again after each upsetting incident, then we quickly return to our comfortable complacency, noseblind to the shitheap we’ve inherited.

White folks like me need to do the work of dismantling white supremacy, and that work varies from person to person: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Wherever you are, what row do you have to hoe? We each have implicit biases to understand, acknowledge, and uproot, and we each are stakeholders in social systems we can work to change from within.

If you are a teacher, how can you teach for justice? If you are a parent, how can you raise children who are more aware and self-aware? If you are a business owner, banker, or insurance adjuster, how can you do your job more justly and intentionally, with an eye toward greater equity, and how can you urge your colleagues and organizations to do the same?

The scenes from this past week prove that white folks like me are not doing enough: whatever our current comfort zone is, we each need to inch further outside of it. March if you can, but make that marching your first step, not your last. Individual action and collective change work together like two hands. Do your part, insist that your elected officials do theirs, and hold both yourself and your leaders accountable.

Since I am a reader, I start with books: if you’re white like me, educating yourself is essential. Some books I wish were required reading include Carol Anderson’s White Rage, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Crystal Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.

If you’re white like me, these books will challenge you; they aren’t comfortable reading, and that discomfort is the first step toward change. Cleaning up a shitheap is difficult, messy, and unpleasant work, but ignoring that shitheap is even worse.

Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday J and I walked to Newton Cemetery to pay our respects at the military graves there, as we often do on Memorial Day. In many ways, this year’s cemetery visit was like any other year. J and I walked around reading the inscriptions on flag-decorated graves, noting how young or old each person was, or the commendations they had received, or other indications of the lives behind the stones.

In other ways, however, yesterday’s visit wasn’t like any other year. J and I wore masks on the way to and from the cemetery, and many other visitors were masked as well. There were more people visiting the cemetery than I remember in past years: with Memorial Day parades and other festivities cancelled, visiting graves was one of the few “normal” ways to mark the holiday.

J and I have been sticking close to home these days, so yesterday’s walk to the cemetery and back was the first time in months we walked past restaurants we used to go to weekly. It was strange to walk the same familiar route, but in odd and unsettling circumstances. Now unlike then, we notice who is or isn’t wearing a mask, and with each approaching pedestrian, we and they did a delicate dance of deciding which of us should step into the street to allow the other a safe distance on the sidewalk.

In some ways, it’s remarkable to see how quickly we’ve all adapted to this strange new world of masks and social distancing. It makes me wonder how we as a society will look back on this time next year or the year after that.

Bloodroot in bloom

Today was sunny and cold, with winds rattling the windows. During these days of self-isolation, I’ve come to think of our house as a storm-tossed ship: all our energy is focused on keeping the elements out and the creatures inside safe, well-provisioned, and sheltered.

This morning as I wrote my journal pages, a chickadee or titmouse called right outside my window: not a song, but an alarm note. Chickadees and titmice have distinctly different songs, but their call notes are similar. Since the two birds often feed together, they share the same language of alarm: hey, watch out!

Earlier today I watched Congressman Joe Kennedy’s daily Facebook Live update, which he posted from his home. He talked about the surge of COVID-19 cases in Chelsea, MA: an outbreak fueled by the high percentage of essential workers living in densely packed neighborhoods there. It’s difficult to practice social distancing if you live in multigenerational households packed to the brim due to a shortage of affordable housing.

Kennedy gave his update in English and then in Spanish: many of the working class residents of Chelsea are immigrants. In English or Spanish, the message is the same. All bodies are vulnerable to infection, but some lives have been deemed by society to be disposable. If a job is essential, why isn’t the worker who does that job essential as well?

Viruses are natural, but inequality is human-made. Sickness preys on the most vulnerable: the poor, the medically compromised, the immigrants who are too scared to venture into an emergency room. We all wait anxiously for a vaccine against the Coronavirus, but when or how will we inoculate society against a plague of injustice?


I’m writing these lines during today’s virtual office hours. Although all of the required components in my suddenly-online classes are asynchronous, I hold real-time office hours in case my students have quick questions. So as I write these words, I’m sitting in front of my laptop, webcam on and headset donned, just in case anyone drops by to say hello. It’s a strange new ritual in this age of remote learning, a kind of vigil I keep just in case any of my students wants to talk.

This is, of course, comparable to what I used to do during my face-to-face office hours: I’d sit in my office and wait for students to show up. During that time, I’d try to be productive, grading papers, prepping classes or answering emails, just as right now I’m writing these lines.

But online office hours feel different because of their virtual nature. When someone comes to my office on campus, they enter a space we subsequently share, but during virtual office hours, there is no shared physical space. Instead, I sit in front of my laptop in my home office with Roxy napping on the bed behind me, and my students sit in front of their laptop webcams in their own spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, couches.

It’s oddly intimate while being (literally) remote. Occasionally a grandmother wanders in with a plate of food or a kid sister pops into view, eager to show off a painting she made. There is a brief screen-sized glimpse into another person’s world as if through a window: here a student I knew only in the neutral space of an academic classroom or administrative office exists on their home turf, or at least wherever they find themselves right now, for now.

I feel the same kind of intimacy when I hear or see radio and TV reporters calling in from home these days, or experts and interviewees appearing as tiny video squares from their attic offices, basement dens, or spare bedrooms. Suddenly we are sharing spaces even while we are apart, our connection mediated through screens both large and small.

These days, the word “screen” is oddly evocative, for originally screens were a veil pulled opaquely to provide privacy between two contiguous worlds: you on one side, me on the other. Neighbors can hear one another through screens; priests can hear confessions from anonymous penitents, and absolutions can be offered.

A screen is also where we project ourselves or our hopes, dreams, and fantasies. Something that is a keeper-apart of faces and spaces is at the same time an open place–a proverbial blank canvas–where we can show and perform.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is an act of hope, even if (especially if) no one shows up. It’s the waiting that makes it sacred: a kind of virtual vigil where presence itself is its own sacrament. Here I am, holding a space open for you, wherever you are.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is like showing up at the page or taking three sips of tea before giving a Zen interview: you don’t know what will flow from your pen or who will walk through the door.

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