Knowing Better

I’m struggling to process my own discomfort at the thought of either cancelling a fall semester or doing it only online with the primary intention of protecting the health of faculty and staff.

Assuming that the still-fragmentary data about the pandemic holds somewhat true, students who are 18-22 year olds would be right to think that the risk to their own health from gathering together on a residential campus this fall is relatively small. They’re not invulnerable, of course–there are people in that age range who are immuno-compromised, there are people in that age range who have gotten very sick or died from covid-19 without apparent vulnerabilities, and there is the possibility that even asymptomatic or lightly symptomatic cases of coronavirus may pose unknown long-term health threats given how little we really know about the disease. On the other hand, one thing we do know is that it’s very contagious. I do not think it’s likely that colleges and universities can have a testing regimen sufficient to ensuring that everyone who comes to campus is not an infectious carrier. By fall, I expect that a much wider number of people will be exposed to it, whether or not campuses reopen. If they reopen, it’s almost certain that covid-19 will be a constant threat during the semester.

The major threat would be to older faculty and to staff who have regular contact with students. We could continue to hold most of our meetings remotely and stay away from each other, but if students are here, the people who teach them, serve them food, clean the buildings, attend to their mental and physical health, counsel them on academic and community matters, discuss their financial aid, etc., will inevitably be at some risk of exposure to a large community pool of potential carriers, even with some form of PPE (a non-trivial thing to secure in sufficient quantities in and of itself).

I’m a fat guy with high blood pressure in his mid-50s, so this is a meaningful threat to my survival. I should be, rationally, all for anything that will allow me to continue in relative isolation while still getting paid and doing as much of my job as I can in ways that are as creative and professional as I can manage as long as possible. And rationally, I am.

My discomfort is in the contrast between that future for me and my wider society. Many people have proposed that this is a national and global challenge that compares in its intensity and exigency and unpredictability to wartime. A few of the people using that structure of metaphor should probably think again about it–our utterly failed national leadership are just amplifying their failure when they talk in these terms. But mostly it’s meant sincerely and mostly I take it to heart. It’s because I take it to heart that I’m uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable because I think closing major institutions and workplaces (academic and otherwise) through the fall and possibly even longer while finding ways for professionals and white-collar employees to continue to productively work remotely while likely at the same time furloughing or terminating the employment of people who can’t work remotely doesn’t feel wartime to me. It doesn’t feel like wartime that I should be solicitiously protected from a risk to my health and a risk to my livelihood at once while some people are fired and other essential employees are compelled to take risks, often for little to no economic reward and with little national support beyond the same empty gladhanding we have given men and women sent to die in misbegotten wars since 2001–grocery clerks, delivery people, health care professionals, farm workers, meatpackers, police and fire, and so on. Wartime means shared sacrifice, shared danger, shared risk.

If we can’t all stay home and work on laptops–and plainly we can’t–there is part of me that think we all should be on the same frontlines, in the same foxholes, enduring the same bombardments. Not without precautions–masks, distancing, hand-washing, the whole thing. Not without the equivalent of 4F–the immuno-compromised, the highly vulnerable, in all industries and jobs given leave to stay home and be paid securely for the duration. But the rest of us–even me, obese and high blood pressure and all–out there like everyone else. Not for the sake of “the economy”, which needs a total transformation. Not for the 1%, not for anyone’s political prospects. But just as there has been solidarity in being apart to stretch out the curve, if by September some of us are in the soup of contagion with no choice (or in the abyss of unemployment in an especially cruel and unequal national economy), I feel as if there should be solidarity in the inescapability of threat. And I believe enough in the mission of my work to think that my students deserve to continue their studies, and to continue them in a format better than online–to think that there is a value in facing this risk. At least as much value as delivering packages, stocking shelves, collecting garbage, producing food and other services we have deemed so essential (if poorly compensated) that we feel they must continue regardless. I’m in no rush to say that a college education is inessential or can be delayed without cost, and not merely because that’s my meal ticket. I honestly believe it, more than ever with my own child in college.

I know there’s a lot wrong with these feelings, and that many of you feel very differently. Give me a moment and I will feel the same: that we should continue to shelter as long as possible, that no job is worth dying for, that we should not for a moment sanction the degree to which our systems have failed us all in the face of a deeply forseeable, inevitable crisis by numbly accepting a hollow rhetoric about shared sacrifice and duty. Indeed, if you follow the wartime metaphor, this has always been the problem for dissenters and social critics in wartime–to seem to deny or dismiss the heroic willingness of soldiers to die and the homefront to endure shared hardship by refusing the call to unity. And yet the metaphor has a pull, and all the more because this crisis at least does not involve the contingent failure of the powerful to make peace with an enemy they did not have to fight. We could have been so much better prepared but this crisis will come to humanity now and again no matter what we do, all the more so in the Anthropocene, as life (including pathogens and parasites) evolves to human bodies and systems as its primary ecosystem. This is one of the few existential crises that should put us in radical solidarity with one another.

So I grapple. I don’t want any of the short-term futures that September may bring. I can see the reasonableness of the ones I would guess to be most likely. I feel the pull of an unreasonable desire for something else.

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9 Responses to Knowing Better

  1. Doug says:

    How much of this is a false choice, though?

    In very rough terms, Swarthmore’s endowment is enough to run the university for about a decade with no income whatsoever. Why is an institution that strong even thinking about layoffs and furloughs? This is the rainy day for which there is a fund.

    What your students need/want/deserve is an important question, but it can and should be considered separately from whether or not Swarthmore’s employees are worried about their jobs. Leadership should have been thinking along these lines since at least late March.

    I’m glad that I don’t have to make the big calls about safety, and I am sorry that local institutional leaders have to make those decisions against a backdrop of abject national failure (in contrast to peer countries), but Swarthmore and its peers are wealthy and solid enough to be showing some leadership for its stakeholders.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m not sure we are thinking about layoffs or furloughs–here I am thinking about what many other institutions are thinking or planning. Certainly some wealthy institutions have furloughed employees (or allowed subcontractors to do so).

  3. I don’t see this as at all particularly relevant to the question of layoffs or furloughs. Rather, I think this is primarily laying out the deep (and often and easily and perhaps even usually appropriately) ignored vocational aspect of education, and the way in which this crisis is calling forth from those who feel that vocation a sense of almost republican/communitarian solidarity, a solidarity that, given all that we do not know about this coronavirus, and given all the ways in which the structure of education in the modern West is often contrary to such feelings, is very difficult to understand and act upon.

  4. Bret says:

    There is an argument that, while not throwing caution to the wind — continuing to wear masks and so on — we need to get on with the life and not have the fortunate hole themselves up comfortably at home while the grocery clerks endure the bombardment. There’s a certain emotional pull to this argument. Yet “shared sacrifice” has always been something of an illusion. A professor teaching an in-person class of 20 Swarthmore students would face much less risk than a State-U adjunct teaching 3 classes of 200. And the example you would be setting by returning to in-person teaching during the pandemic wouldn’t just be an example for your fellow well-situated professors. You would also be sending a signal that other, less well situated people should return to the workplace as well. And not all those who can work remotely are what we would call “fortunate.” Adjuncts, high school teachers, cube-farm workers, call-center workers, and quite a few people with non-glorious jobs can nonetheless work remotely, at least to some extent. Sending a signal that we should all return to work in the midst of a pandemic could end up sending a lot of people who could work at home back to workplaces that are a lot more dangerous than Swarthmore.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    This is an important observation–and a real reason for further hesitation. At a deeper level, though, this is where covid-19 is only a kind of diagnostic tracing fluid showing how deeply diseased our underlying political economy has become, and how much what we do individually or collectively to manage the pandemic is inadequate to addressing this more foundational problem.

  6. Kit says:

    An additional factor: more people working is not sharing risk, it’s increasing it. The risk is not just that one gets sick; the risk is also whether, if one gets sick, there is health infrastructure to help one through. The more people exposing themselves, the worse the downside is for each person, because the risk of overwhelming local health infrastructure with an outbreak increases. And so, even in the fall, the act of solidarity is first, to reduce everyone’s risk by doing what you can to reduce contact, and second, to change, end-run, or subvert systems that allow that choice to only be available to some.

  7. sibyledu says:

    “Wartime means shared sacrifice, shared danger, shared risk.”

    To the extent that this is true, that doesn’t mean that “we all should be on the same frontlines, in the same foxholes, enduring the same bombardments.” In a war environment, different people are called to endure different sacrifices, dangers, and risks. During World War II in the United States, while able-bodied white men were expected to volunteer for the foxhole part, everyone else was expected to make different sacrifices. They would give up rubber and gasoline and nylon, collect scrap metal, buy “war bonds,” limit certain foodstuffs, divert their work to war-related purposes, volunteer to support the military through the USO and similar organizations, conduct blackout drills, accept constrained housing arrangements, and the like.

    Some of us are called to fight this war on the front lines, while others are called to fight by staying off the front lines: by staying home, accepting constraints on our preferences in order to limit the victims that The Enemy can claim, donating to food banks, overtipping delivery personnel. (Addressing the structural problems with the economy that have been exposed by this crisis is a separate conversation.)

    I will gladly agree that the notion of genuine shared sacrifice has disappeared — nay, been aggressively erased — from our national rhetoric. None of the “wars” in my lifetime — in Vietnam, on poverty, on drugs, on terrorism — have called for shared sacrifice. Indeed, the opposite has been true. The first Iraq War was the exception that demonstrated the so-called rule: it took several months to amass overwhelming military and diplomatic might, and then the actual war was won in about 15 minutes, with little disruption to life on the home front. In effect, we have consistently been promised that all wars will look like that: while there are inevitably some people who bear more risks than others, the overarching argument has been that we can win each of these wars with little pain to the rest of us.

    And so now that the “war” on Covid-19 is stretching into its — gasp — third month, our elected officials lack the interest or ability to call for genuine shared sacrifice, and our own habits of shared obligation to each other have been eroded to the point that many of us see stay-at-home measures as just another example of The Man Holding Us Down.

    The fact that you and I have the privilege of working from home doesn’t mean that we should give it up. It means that we should use that privilege to help the people who don’t have it.

  8. jerry hamrick says:

    I think you are right to mention the relative value of certain jobs and fields of study. For example,I majored in math and minored in German more than 50 years ago and there was very little value in going to class in those subjects, and E. O. Wilson in his book, Consilence, finds little value in the social sciences. In Chapter 9 he says:

    ” People expect from the social sciences—anthropology, sociology, economics, and political science—the knowledge to understand their lives and control their future. They want the power to predict, not the preordained unfolding of events, which does not exist, but what will happen if society selects one course of action over another. Political life and the economy are already pivoted upon the presumed existence of such a predictive capacity. The social sciences are striving to achieve it, and to do so largely without linkage to the natural sciences. How well are they doing on their own? Not very well, considering their track record in comparison with the resources placed at their command.”

    So there may be many subjects that can be taught outside the face-to-face classroom environment.

  9. Brutus says:

    I definitely get the allure of “being on a war footing” as a metaphor for our current social environment. But it’s a flawed application, as all the competing analysis shows. Simply put, it doesn’t suggest a clear path forward, nor any guarantee of success, nor a metric to declare “victory” and end the destruction. All those attributes are true, too, of various “wars” on poverty, drugs, terrorism, stupidity, etc. Deploying this rhetoric blocks other analyses that fit better. If this is primarily about the academy, maybe focus ought to be on educational mission and whether classes can be effective or are worth the price under sustained distancing requirements. I’d say the answer is no.

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