What are we afraid of?

The realization that starts this off is that I lived just outside of Rome, Georgia for eight years of my life, between 2003 and 2011, and I never visited the Chieftains Museum.

The Chieftains Museum and Major Ridge Home is a site dedicated to the preservation of Cherokee culture. The namesake of the home is a uniquely American character in every sense, a Cherokee who fought alongside American forces in the War of 1812 (and who got the title that became his name, Major Ridge, from Andrew Jackson himself) and who built for himself a relatively secure way of life before the passage of the Indian Removal Act at the behest of President Jackson in 1830. Ridge was a negotiator and signatory of the Treaty of New Echota that laid the groundwork for the infamous Trail of Tears. Ridge took blame for the suffering that followed, and (depending on whose history you read) Ridge was murdered or executed for treason, along with his son and nephew, in 1839.

So I’m aware of that history now. But the point at the onset of this essay remains. I wasn’t aware of any of that history while I lived in Floyd County, Georgia. Why not?

It’s not like I didn’t have reminders. There was Cherokee script at key locations throughout the county, much of it pointing towards the Chieftains Museum, but also on the very seal of the county itself, as you see. I don’t recall anybody speaking negatively about that history, or saying that we should ignore the history.

But I don’t ever remember any compulsion to study the history, either. And I’d showed up in the area to go to the Southern Baptist college and teach physics and chemistry. As my time at that college went on, I got pressure to integrate my teaching of physics and chemistry with my practice of Christian faith, and I was having trouble figuring out how to make that work. I reached a point where I started to feel like doing the cultural work was something that was above my pay grade. I have classes to teach. I have students intimidated enough by the subject matter of those classes. Let me do my work.

That was the context that drove me, not merely away from Native American history, but away from all business of culture, race, and identity, and away from that business before, during, and after my time in Rome.

At the end of the day, the language I cared the most about was mathematics. I wanted students to be able to communicate what they saw in the natural world with the algebraic equation, with measurements with units, with differentials and integrals. English was the language we’d dialogue with, but if it didn’t serve mathematics, I didn’t care much about it. And that gave me grounds to cast all kinds of concerns about culture to the side, because of the common ground that mathematics provided for me.

For us, of course. But for me.

The way I saw it, the other problems I dealt with were important enough that I didn’t need to spare the time to go through a museum to learn about somebody else’s problems.

Overcoming selfishness is a lifetime’s worth of work.


So let’s talk about where I first heard the term “critical race theory” in the current context.

Of all places, it was on the Shutdown Fullcast podcast, the group of chucklebums that I listen to talk about college football and other things. Spencer Hall got to read the key passage from the email that completely passed by my ear at the time (around 14:00 is the point where the email is read and immediately dissected):

It is disgraceful to see the lack of unity and our fiercest competitor Sam Elinger standing nearly alone. It is symbolic of the disarray of this football program which you inherited. The critical race theory garbage that has been embraced by the football program and the university is doing massive irreparable damage to our glorious institution and to the country. It has got to stop.

The email was quoted in a Texas Tribune article about controversy about the school song of the University of Texas, “The Eyes of Texas”. It was such a troubled and tormented email, the writer misspelled the name of the Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.

I like football, and I follow football for a host of reasons. For better or for worse, one of those reasons is represented here: the strain on campus life in microcosm. The email was from a rich donor implicitly threatening his continued contribution to the school if players on the team didn’t stand in front of the band and sing the song that has its roots in minstrel shows, and where historical controversy still swirls around its connection to Robert E. Lee’s post-Civil War insistence that “the eyes of the South are upon you”.

As a purely empathetic matter, it is a bit understandable that Black athletes might not be 100% comfortable singing that song.

But what’s that bit about “critical race theory”? And what specifically is it, and how’s it being used in the argument?

That I even have to be asking the question is evidence that I checked out of the rhetorical back-and-forth in the runup to the 2020 election. The fact-checking site Snopes gives a summary of both the rhetoric and misinformation that led to the previous president launching curbs on diversity training in September 2020, and perspectives on the current controversies from the end of May 2021. I needed them both.

I’m not going to get into the legal theories or the sociological foundations of the thinking that makes the formal structure of critical race theory what it is; I’m not a legal scholar nor am I a sociologist, and I know my limits. But I can make one key point from reviewing the background: to many of us who live and work in disciplines that have a strong tendency to be overwhelmingly white, the challenging thing about critical race theory is the assertion that racism doesn’t have to be an intentional act or a malicious posture. We can work in environments that have racist impact, and we can make corrections to those environments that eliminate the racist impact.

College athletics is the seat of a lot of racist impact. The benefit of college athletics is supposed to be the free access to the college education for the athlete. But that benefit has been handed out unevenly. The most reliable independent measure of graduation success for student-athletes, the Adjusted Graduation Gap, reports in 2020 a 21.5% gap in graduation rates between top-flight conference (Power-5) football athletes who are Black and the general full-time population, compared to a 2.1% gap between white athletes from the same population.

That can’t be satisfying to anybody. We ought to work to make achievement better for everybody who comes through our gates.

Gaps like this persist throughout the whole of higher education. They’re well documented. I’ve always been concerned about the demographics within physics, a discipline that has been dominated by white males from the moment it was recognized as an academic discipline. The American Physical Society collects data on these gaps, and they’re stark. The graph on degrees awarded by race and ethnicity is so broken, the degrees awarded to white students has to be rescaled in order to just make the differences between bachelor’s degrees and PhD’s awarded for other demographic groups legible.
URM Physics Average 2020 graph
(Even then, the bars for Native Americans are miniscule. I don’t even know how I address that in this post.)

We can talk about these issues with the same hand-wringing about low academic achievement among underrepresented groups that we’ve engaged in since the 1960’s, or we can ask serious questions about the environments that these students have to work in. How are these environments welcoming to white students in ways that they aren’t welcoming to Black students? Or to Native American students?

There are all kinds of thinkers taking the question of our environments and their welcome to underrepresented minorities seriously, and I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in conversation with some of them. The idea that there is a specific culture to physics and chemistry that welcomes people who are willing to conform and asks people to leave their identities behind is starting to have real appeal to me. It explains the monoculture I’ve experienced in other scientific environments, and how I’ve felt stifled by that monoculture. I’m asking questions about how I can ensure students can be more fully themselves in my classroom, and advocate for students to be more fully themselves in other venues they find themselves in.

The upshot of all of this is that I’ve started wondering if I’m a critical race theorist.

Of course I’m not somebody who can compose the legal theory or the sociological scholarship to develop ideas that are publisher of my own. But I’m still totally exasperated with the status quo, and I’m not satisfied with answers that fall into the same way we’ve tried to address the clear inequities that exist. What is the harm in asking if the reasons those inequities exist are part of our history? Or part of our tradition?


I still remember reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ groundbreaking Case for Reparations in the Atlantic for the first time in 2014. I was always going to read it; I have always taken a great deal of joy and reward out of a well-documented piece of longform journalism, and The Case for Reparations was every bit of that.

The essay wasn’t something that brought the usual joy, though. It was something that put in front of me a great deal of history, history that my high school education hadn’t put in front of me at any point. Predatory contract mortgages for buyers in “redlined” neighborhoods, white terrorism and the failure of reconstruction, racism embedded in the structure of the New Deal, stolen wealth around every last turn. It awakened me to a new set of stories that built a very different narrative around the American Dream – and who the American Dream was for – than anything I had learned previously.

I also remember who in my universe took The Case for Reparations seriously – nobody.

On the one hand, this is what I’m having trouble understanding. The narratives of our history – the history of all of us, the lived experience of the injustice the dominant population has served to those who originally lived here, or those who were brought to this continent in chains – are available to be read, to be listened to, to be reckoned with, to be understood. It’s a history that doesn’t neatly fit what we were taught in school, but it’s a history that is available and accessible. Why shouldn’t we take that history seriously?

On the other hand, history of exactly that sort was there for me for eight years when I lived in Rome, Georgia, and I simply never availed myself of it. I wasn’t from around there anyway. It wasn’t my ancestors that agitated for native removal, who created the conditions that led to the Trail of Tears. It wasn’t my ancestors who bought and owned slaves and who fought in the Civil War. It wasn’t my problem. I just lived there.

“I just lived there”, of course, is part of the problem when you sit back and listen to the people who the land originally belonged to. There’s privilege in being able to buy land and buy a house and live somewhere, and that privilege might not be fairly obtained.

It begins to occur to me that the seizure of land from natives in the 1830’s and the redlining that was so commonplace in the 1950’s are two sides of the same coin – a white-dominant society demanding control of all it can survey, and using every method in the book – whether illegal, immoral, or otherwise – to ensure that control.

If I didn’t know that we were above such shameful things, I might call it the work of white supremacy.

It also begins to occur to me that I might not be able to persuade you that we’re above such shameful things.

As I’m writing this the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention meeting is starting, and messengers have gathered in Nashville to conduct the business of the convention. In the midst of all kinds of other strain and scandal, this was the meeting that had a group of Black pastors and churches on the brink of leaving the Convention, and the core issue at hand for them is the straw-man version of critical race theory. The six presidents of SBC seminaries – all white – declared in November 2020 (on the heels of the murder of George Floyd, no less) that critical race theory was incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal document that has been used as a bludgeoning tool to drive people who don’t fit within the SBC’s increasingly fundamentalist theology out of the denomination.

Black pastors within the convention cried foul – many of them hadn’t taken any concern with critical race theory at all, and were simply pointing out injustices in policing and law enforcement that were at the heart of our current national moment. It raises the question anew – what is, to these people, critical race theory? Is it simply legal and sociological ideas, reserved for discussion in academic institutions? Or is it any statement of an idea that questions how white people treat minorities?

What are we afraid of? What is going to happen if we hear stories of injustice from 1830 or 1950 or 2020 and acknowledge that white people were genuinely at fault? What collapses if we listen to the realities of our story as a nation and ask if we do need a new explanation for why every conflict has favored the racial majority?

What idols do we worship that need to be torn down?

What selfishness do we hold on to that needs to be given away?


I attended the 2021 meeting of the Open/Technology in Education, Society, and Scholarship Association (or #OTESSA21) as part of the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences as May turned into June. The idea that I’d attend a “congress of humanities and social sciences” would have been laughable to me at one point in my life. But age has done nothing for me beyond giving me the capacity to listen to others’ stories and reckon with them for a while.

And as it happened, the week before OTESSA started, there was a discovery outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where native children had been taken from their families and placed in the care of the Roman Catholic Church as part of a process of assimilation into Canadian society. There had long been documentation of how difficult the environment of the residential school had been, to the point of extremes.

And this led to the discovery of a mass grave of the bodies of 215 children, of all ages – from the brink of adulthood to as young as 3, all apparently from the time when the residential school had been open and active.

For a meeting that already had a focus on efforts to build relations with the Canadian North on the terms of those who live there, this discovery was an earthquake, and what already would have been full of reflection became an immediate reckoning and, for this Yankee, surprisingly painful conversation. It necessitated pausing and listening intently.

The conference started on what’s known in the United States as Memorial Day. My “memorial day” became something quite different, and nowhere near as patriotic as my friends and neighbors might have liked.

I hadn’t believed I was signing on to this meeting for listening to reports of indigenous storytellers delivering their stories over powerful technology to children at isolated schools and libraries, or of indigenous scholars using open pedagogy to engage students in finding their place in a national effort towards truth and reconciliation. The word “colonial” took on an entirely new meaning, and I had to wrestle with it not merely being a historic term referring to the process by which my ancestors came to their presence on this land, but a continuing process by which those of us who are white and European set the terms of academic engagement, increasingly for the entire world, while ignoring other forms of what we call “scholarship” that have been and continue to be practiced by indigenous people who the land belongs to, and who belong to the land.

I will probably look back at OTESSA 2021 not merely as starting a relationship with a new professional association, but reevaluating my entire relationship with the land and with the people the land belongs to. It was as educational as any meeting I’ve ever attended (even if I only attended online), and the education I got was one I did not anticipate.


So, for now:

My name is Douglas Charles Pearson, Jr.

I have spent much of my adult life living as an uninvited settler across the lands of the Cherokee, within the borders of the nation claimed by the United States unlawfully and immorally by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

I’m grateful this land has received me as a guest.

Opening the online homework system

I had a whale of an idea for a roundtable presentation for the first meeting of the Open/Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association (OTESSA) in 2020. It was going to be a conversation informed about how I dug into making my own online homework system throughout the late 2000’s and the 2010’s, and lessons that could be taken from that experience and the benefits of making that content available to share.

The grandiose idea was that I’d get people who worked similarly in disconnected fashions together in the same room – perhaps even with some folk who provide infrastructure for open education – and have a serious conversation break out. I had a collaborator for the conversation lined up and everything. It would have been great.

The conference was scheduled as part of the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in May of 2020.

Hey, guess what the pandemic canceled?

I got a place in the program for the parallel meeting of OTESSA in 2021 but the online nature of the conference (and the correspondingly limited attendance for the online meeting) wasn’t going to facilitate anything that resembled the kind of roundtable discussion that I’d originally planned. So I transformed the context of the conversation into a sort of online poster.

And, because this work is centered on a meeting connecting the open practice of using technology, I shared the poster for all to see and appreciate. It’s hanging at https://homework.aftonopen.com/.

The conversation I’d planned turned into a narrative – of my own experience building my open tools in isolation, connecting with the open education community, and the realities of the past pandemic year making me rethink the benefits of freely sharing and centralizing resources.

I hope you’ll have a look and read my own narrative, If you have any similar narrative to share, let me know; the blog is open and can be contributed to. I’ll toss it into the open again when the fall comes around, too.

Module covering Boyle’s law concepts, programmed on Moodle

The pressure never stopped

Tomorrow, we’ll start classes at Tusculum all over again.

I’m still not entirely sure that I’ve recovered from the last round.


I went into town a couple of nights ago to pick up a nice big dinner for the two of us. I stayed in the car and let the curbside service bring the meal to me.

It really struck me how full the parking lot of the restaurant was. And not just that restaurant, but several other restaurants in the neighborhood. A good night for the local eateries, both the chains and the local mom-and-pop establishments.

It was like nothing had ever happened to make going to restaurants fraught at all.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times reported on a road trip he took from Washington to St. Louis to help is mother get her COVID-19 vaccination. The mere fact that he had to take that road trip is indictment enough of our botched effort at fighting this virus. But the complete failure of seriousness from the population at large doing the bare minimum to fight the virus – social distancing, wearing a mask – was completely dispiriting.

At least, it would be so if you didn’t live among that complete lack of seriousness and deal with people failing to do the bare minimum on a daily basis.

In this part of the world, the dispiriting realizations happened a long time ago. We’re polarized into two groups: people who work in dangerous settings who understand the risks that the virus brings on and take all the necessary precautions, and people who don’t care. And it’s hard to feel anything but the reality that the people who don’t care are winning.


In events that should have surprised absolutely no one, it wasn’t a couple weeks after I offered that everything had been OK that the COVID cases and the contact tracing started to impact my classroom in earnest.

Labs were scrambled and adapted as best as they could be. I shifted class meetings for physics entirely online for a spell, because that’s how everyone was most comfortable. I made similar decisions in biochemistry, even though especially towards the end of the course I kept myself in “hyflex” mode because there were students who wanted to be in the classroom, conventionally.

It is tiring to teach with an earbud and a microphone in your ear, writing your notes on a USB-connected drawing tablet rather than on a whiteboard. I wore out more easily sitting in a seat, attached to a computer setup, than I did when I could wander around the room and take advantage of three whiteboards spread out around the lab. These are things I would have never imagined, especially being the person who grew up around computers and who discovered the wonder of the internet in its infancy.

In my very naïve mind, the internet was a freeing thing – breaking the limitations we had on being gathered together in one place and building relationships as we’re spread out across town, across the state, across the country. Those of us of a certain age remember the future of videophones we were promised, families smiling as they’re gathered around the device that shows the faces of those who are miles and miles away.

I’ve not seen nearly enough smiles as we’ve gotten used to Zoom over this past year. I’m seeing fatigue and wear – when I see faces at all. For most of us, the novelty of seeing people in another place on camera has long since worn off, and most of us would just as soon have that camera turned off.

Zoom isn’t freedom at all; it’s a chain, and a tight and painful chain at that.


And yet the expectations to complete the semester as if everything is normal remain. When Monday arrives, and the semester starts, syllabi will be submitted as they normally are, a learning management system will be loaded with course material as it normally is, the students will have homework early on in the term and will have quizzes and exams they’ll be preparing for as they normally do.

I’ll manage this around sports schedules. If anything was blissfully abnormal in the fall, it was the lack of necessity to release students for athletic events; some practices went forward as usual, but precious little of the competition did. Since November, the competition schedule has started coming back; athletes are traveling to games and meets as they normally do, the results of those games are coming back across my Twitter feed as they normally do, and as classes start, the schedules the athletes keep will play havoc with my lab schedule like they normally do.

I chair the committee that’s responsible for academic standards. We reviewed academic misconduct cases and academic suspension appeals from the previous semester as we normally did. The machinery to withdraw students from their courses due to suspension moved forward as it normally does. The awful realization among students that appeals are exhausted and the consequences are real hit like it normally does.

Everywhere on campus, as the events surrounding a new semester take place, is the earnest and deliberate effort to start a new semester as normal.

But nothing is normal. Nothing has been normal since mid-March 2020.

We’re ten months into this pandemic, and we’re under unrelenting pressure to continue to do this work as if things are normal. That pressure isn’t coming from any one person, or any one group of people, or any monolithic administration that’s insensitive to the needs of the workers and the students.

If anything, the higher up you go in responsibility, the more the pressure is felt; the more you realize that it’s not any one person or any group of people deciding that normal must go on, the more you realize that the entire society has decided that normal must go on, that no one sees the desperate need to slam on the brakes, that the entire public demands that life remain unchanged despite the fact that two thousand, three thousand, four thousand people are dying in this country every day from this disease.

Leonhardt says in his road trip reflection that he feels like the country is losing a winnable fight. I would only agree if I saw any evidence that anyone was fighting.


And yet here we are.

My place went sent students home on November 20. We return on January 25. There was one week in there where we managed final exams and final assignments. It’s still a break that approaches two months, and surely it was enough time to rest and recover.

I still feel like I could sleep for a year, and I still wake up at 2:00 in the morning filled with anxiety.

So much is made of the transition in leadership this country providing a sense of relief, a sense of empathy for the days ahead. But in the day in and day out living, I don’t sense much of a change at all – just the same unrelenting pressure.

The challenge is to stand in the gap and provide as much respite from that pressure as I can.

The imperative of anti-racism

The practice of drawing lines in the sand is a very personal one, I believe.

If you find sand, likely you’re either on a beach or in a desert. On a beach, the tides are going to come in, and the line that you’ve drawn will erode. In a desert, the winds will come and blow the sand to erase it. It’s up to your memory, to your sense of place to remember where exactly that line you drew was.

But just because the practice is personal makes it no less important. There is a place where it’s safe to be. There is a place where there is real danger. It’s worth the work to keep the safe places front and center in our mind.

So I’m working on the practice of placing lines in the sand this week. The events of January 6 demand it; plenty of events leading up to January 6 begged for it.

And it’s worth reiterating what danger looks like.


There are words that center my worldview, that make me remember what I believe about my place in this world and in this country in particular.

Rich Mullins wrote them many years ago. Given that there’s no mention of the United States of America in Scripture, I find myself leaning on them a lot.

Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it and how you’ll never belong here
So I’ll call you my country, but I’ll be lonely for my home
And I’ll wish that I could take you there with me

To make plain the point that song implies: my home is not Greeneville, Tennessee, or Bristol, Virginia, or Columbus, Ohio, or even Hilliard, Florida. All of these are places in this country that I love and that I do not belong in.

And when Rich Mullins is wishing that he could take you there with him, he’s wishing for you to find a home in a place that is literally not of this world.

If you really need texts in the Bible that point to this, spend some time in John 14, and then read Matthew 28:16-20 to have the point driven home.

The word “evangelical” has been terribly, terribly corrupted in the politics of the last couple of decades. But that text of Matthew 28:16-20 is what makes me, literally, an evangelical Christian – I believe the evangelism of the Great Commission is a core commandment of my faith, and is a commission I’m expected to carry out in my day-to-day living.

And that commandment isn’t one that shows preference to any one nation above any other. The commandment is to make disciples of all nations. The practice of the disciples in the days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was to start proclaiming the news of Jesus Christ to the Jewish people they were among, and then to find the direction of God was to expand that proclamation beyond the nation of people they thought were most favored.

We may have fondness or a natural fit among one group of people. We may even love being among them. But Acts 10 and 11 demonstrates very clearly that no matter our level of comfort, God finds ways to show us the need of people who don’t look like or act like us, and to demand that we reach out to them.

When God says to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean,” God is demanding that we open ourselves to the needs of people who we have been told our entire lives are somehow inferior to us.

It took a good bit of my life, and a good bit of saying one thing and doing another, for the analogy to America in the late 20th and early 21st century to take. But when it took, it took hard.


The issue at hand is obviously the violence at the United States Capitol. It is easy and casual to look at armed people attempting to storm the seat of American government and find leaders to (in the most generous edit) badger, berate and intimidate, and to say that such behavior is utterly unacceptable. It is easy and casual to demand that the people in charge of such behavior be held to account.

There’s the obvious danger in letting those people off the hook.

But it strikes me as I step back to look at what I believe, and to look at the foundation in my holy book for that belief, that the message of God turns me so rapidly back to the phrase all nations, and the lessons of Scripture point so clearly to the Jew sharing the news of Jesus Christ with someone he wasn’t supposed to, and God showing up so vividly in the aftermath.

And it strikes me that the day before the events of January 6, the culmination of the American election season saw a movement led by an African-American voting rights activist turn out historic vote for a Jewish journalist and an African-American pastor, leading those two to win seats in the United States Senate in the historically-conservative state of Georgia and complete the transition of the legislative branch to Democratic power – not two months after Georgia defied the rest of the Deep South in giving its presidential electoral votes to the Democrat.

It strikes me that separating a toxic uprising in Washington, D.C. from the success of the non-Protestant, non-white in Georgia is, at the very least, problematic.

If we are seeking a response to the events of January 6 that falls in line with what Scripture teaches us, I have a hard time believing that the response doesn’t require us to seek out voices that aren’t like our own, from faces that don’t look like our own, and let those voices be heard first and loudest.

Many of those voices have been speaking consistently since the first moment that this president descended the escalator and declared his candidacy. Those voices predicted this outcome and other outcomes that are beyond the perception of white folks. They were ignored for far too long, and they were ignored even within the church.

I was never under personal threat from the rise of Trumpism. I live in East Tennessee, in a space that is overwhelmingly white. I have a ridiculous amount of privilege in my racial identity. Even a step in the shoes of an African-American, an Indigenous person, or any other person of color in this part of the world would be too much to bear.

We live in a place and time that is not given over to empathy for that very plight. We live in a place and time where people don’t find it in themselves to sit down and intentionally listen to somebody who has a different experience. That has to change.


The reporting on the January 6 uprising makes it very plain that white supremacist groups from across the country were collaborating to plan their attack on the Capitol.

Polling on the uprising also makes very clear that there is a substantial minority of Americans who approved of this act, and who don’t see the storming of the Capitol as an attack on democracy at all.

It’s these two realities together that shine light on the places of danger.

Anti-racism was always something I was pleased to see in the life and teaching of a church. The willingness of a pastor to call out white supremacy was an extra, a bonus that I couldn’t count upon in the monocultural places where I lived, but a bonus I always welcomed.

That attitude has to end. Active and vocal opposition to white supremacy is a requirement of any body of believers I engage with from now on. Making such statements, at this point of our history, is not only an act in keeping with the scriptures, but in keeping with American patriotism.

The core of our response to January 6 has to be an increase in the spaces available for people of all cultures and races – indeed, of all nations – to speak and to be heard, so that the threats of a hostile takeover of one of our political parties by the acts of racism and insurrection can be heard more clearly and so our responses can be better informed.

What makes the current reality we find ourselves in all the more difficult is the virulent belief that so many in the country hold in conspiracy theories, epitomized by the QAnon phenomenon. Long before the realities of January 6 took hold, churches across the country were struggling with the weight of parishoners who had been captured by what can only be classified as delusions of apocalyptic fantasy. Churches aren’t naturally in the business of information literacy and disinformation awareness. They have to be now. It’s critically important to not allow delusions and lies go forward unchecked.

There are plenty of voices who want to tell people in our midst, both those who claim Christ and those who are seeking, exactly what they want to hear so that they can remain comfortable while surrounded by people exactly like them. Like Peter so many years ago, we weren’t called to remain comfortable. God has taken a whole world around us, a world we’ve been convinced was impure, and rendered it clean – and perhaps, just perhaps, it never really was impure to begin with.

Ultimately, my lines in the sand should mark out a place of safety for all who would come and join me, regardless of creed, culture, or credential. Keeping such a place, I believe, is nothing less than God expects of me.

Cover photo of Doty Chapel United Methodist Church of Afton, TN by the author.

Practicing blogging with my students

Most of my writing energy is going into my coursework these days.

As soon as this is posted, I’m going to dive back into the general chemistry online course that has consumed most of my life this term; the necessity of making a class like General Chemistry work online has required a great deal of energy and a great deal of my creative output, and I’m hoping I’ll have a lot of good things to say about that investment when the semester is done.

And I’ve done some composition work for my other traditional classes, general physics and biochemistry as well.

But I have this honors seminar, and we’re talking about standardized tests in that honors seminar, and I have ten students in that honors seminar who are as savvy and opinionated as any I’ve ever had for any purpose. We’ve been having a great deal of fun.

And I’ve wanted to start to practice a bit of open pedagogy in getting students to write in public, for public consumption.

So much of my work of late is editorial in nature – constructing this new blog site, and getting students to post about standardized testing on that blog site. We’ve just completed our first cycle of introductory posts. We’re going into a second cycle of posts that get a bit deeper into college-boards style standardized testing.

So if you want to read what I’m writing – and more importantly, what my students are writing – then https://tests.aftonopen.com/ is where your browser should be pointed.

If you’re so moved, leave a comment. We’re building this blog to extend our conversation outside of the private classroom. We want you to join in with us.

OK

I’ve had versions of this post in drafts for nearly a month. I’m finally comfortable enough making the post.

Because we’re six weeks into the semester, and I’m six weeks into seeing a class face-to-face nearly every weekday.

And it’s been…OK.

I don’t write that to minimize what other places are dealing with, or to minimize the risks of what we’re dealing with. I’m just dealing with one place’s experience, one set of stressors. And I’m aware enough to realize that everything could go completely haywire tomorrow. But to this point, everything here has been reasonably not-bad.

There have been hiccups. There have been needs for students to quarantine. This past week, there was even the need for the professor to quarantine. But those needs came out of the abundance of caution, the vigilance to take even minor occurrence of symptoms seriously and to take every possible proper step to ensure that spread doesn’t happen. And spread hasn’t happened.

If there’s any secret sauce to what is happening locally, it comes from a cohort of faculty being able to make the decision to take their learning totally online. I made that decision for one of my classes, and what would have been three different sections of socially distanced students in hyflex Group A and Group B complexity (one section of which, y’know, we suddenly didn’t have an adjunct to meet and which was scheduled on top of both chemists’ other teaching responsibilities) became a single group of 55 students being managed online.

Little decisions like that have been made across campus, some decisions for entire faculty teaching loads, other decisions for one major class here or there, and suddenly what was a bustling classroom building on the first day of classes felt like it was on a permanent summer term. The busy-ness of a normal term, inside the classroom buildings, just hasn’t been there.

If we get to the other side of this semester successfully without any major outbreaks of this virus, those little decisions collectively will have played a major role.

I could tell stories about mask compliance, and moments here and there where students haven’t done so well. They’d only be stories here and there. I have stopgap masks in my classroom for students who don’t come in masked up. I haven’t touched them. Classroom compliance has been near 100%. Off campus it’s less, but not unreasonably so. In large measure, I feel like our students are examples for the community that hasn’t taken this virus seriously enough, and where the risk of community spread is ever-present.

The rate of cases in the wider Greene County community has gone down since the Tusculum students returned to campus, not up. We’d reached 100 new cases a week as students returned to campus; with the exception of a couple of days of 30+ cases that caused the data to burst, that rate has gone down to closer to 50-60 per week, which still isn’t good but doesn’t reflect the expected trend. Supermarkets are still stressful places, too many dining rooms are still open in too many restaurants, and there are too many people in the community who complain about a dining room not being open.

Our students, on the whole, have been better citizens of this community than the citizens of this community themselves. If spread of the virus widens across the community, the students shouldn’t be held to account, not when too few people have taken too few steps to arrest the spread ahead of their arrival.

But on campus, things are fine. This is an entirely too mundane report. If you’re expecting drama, move along, there’s none to see. There is no room to be complacent, but things are fine here.

Not great. But not bad. Fine. OK.

Cover photo by Tonik on Unsplash.

Lawn “care” in August

I’m engaging in writing practice. I’m also engaging in lawn mowing.

I am a weakling and I can’t do even a full side of my lawn (which is not even remotely large) without sitting down and taking an extended break. I probably could if I had a riding mower, but this yard also has slopes a-plenty and the push mower is an essential.

I have a chair in the garage and I have a porch swing, both of which I can sit in shade and rest on when I decide that I’ve had enough for the moment. And I make that decision often.

One of my frustrations with my personal writing of late is that I have a ton of ideas but I rarely sit down and get them out of my head. I’m going to be sitting down a lot today. So this will be a random thoughts post, writing a host of things as they come to mind when I’m at rest from mowing my lawn.

This might get frighteningly long.


First off: let’s start with how pointless lawn mowing is.

What you are doing when you mow a lawn is you are taking perfectly good, oxygen-producing plants, and you are cutting them up. Blades that were once useful oxygen-producers are removed from their roots. Mind you, most of these cuts aren’t fatal; the grass blades can grow back. But you’re cutting them up all the same.

It’s a loss of perfectly good plant cells.

And why do we engage in this activity? In the simplest terms possible: peer pressure.

A well-trimmed lawn is associated with neatness and propriety; an unruly lawn with carelessness and rule-breaking. Most of our neighbors have made the life decision that they want to be associated with neatness and propriety, and their neighborly instincts make them keep the lawns well-trimmed.

Those of us who tend to unruly then are looked upon with disdain until we give in to the peer pressure to cut our well-growing plants.

Why have we normalized not allowing plants to grow naturally?


In addition to the work of stunting plant’s growth, the tools with which we engage in the work are highly problematic.

Lawn mowers are driven by gas engines of varying size, most sizes huge. I have a push mower with an attachment I can pull up to get power to my front tires, what I consider a luxury and what makes me look to my neighbors positively poor.

(This is not a joke: I was interrupted in the middle of mowing my lawn a couple of months back by a deeply concerned neighbor. With all alarm on his face and with passion for my condition in his voice, he told me he has an extra lawn tractor because he’d just stepped up, and surely I’d like to use it? It would be no trouble at all. This is what Christian charity looks like in North Greene County, Tennessee.)

(I told him I was a computer nerd and this was how I got my cardio. He suddenly was less concerned, although possibly more confused.)

These gas engines are meant to operate in the midst of flying grass blades, and as such are quite difficult to keep running. They require additional care during the time of the year when grass grows less readily, lest you arrive at the springtime and the thing won’t start and you have to get a new lawn mower.

When you take too long between mowing lawns, the outlet that releases the newly clipped plant matter has too much plant matter to release, and gets clogged. You have to clear it out to continue with stunting your plants’ growth. To clear it out you have to stop the gas engine, lest you come into contact with the severely dangerous metal blade that spins wildly to sever each grass blade.

You may have to tip the lawn mower to the side in order to clear the outlet out. If you do this, the dangerous organic liquid you have to use the fuel the grass cutter might leak out, with all the threats to the local environment that come with that. Or it may stay contained but flood the engine, preventing you from being able to start the engine again.

The tools of the trade conspire against the trade.


Other living things around the grass conspire against the trade, too.

I took four bug bites on the last pass. One of them I saw was in fact a small yellow jacket.

None of the bites were severe, but they smart when I take them. The focus on the task at hand, for the moment, is shot.

This is, after all, about managing a gasoline engine running a massive metal blade. My yard is not level – there are hills hither and yon. (This is central Appalachia, after all.)

So here I go, pushing this gasoline engine and wildly rotating metal blade uphill. A yellow jacket resting on the grass I’m approaching is disturbed and is going to lash out at the first thing it senses that is causing that disturbance.

In this case, that is my groin.

I need to keep pushing this contraption that has all kinds of danger associated with it up this hill while I suddenly feel a very sharp pain directed entirely too close to my…dignity.

I ask you, is this any way for man to live? I think not.


Well, it’s done. I only took five breaks today, one break enforced by the flooding of the engine that kept the thing for starting back up for 30 minutes or so.

A yard of naturally-growing grasses and weeds, over entirely too much effort and not a small amount of angst, transformed into a somewhat managed and groomed lawn, just like the neighbors.

Tamed, you could even say.

*sigh*

Maybe I should mow more often.

A reminder to myself as the semester starts

I’ve been pandemic-blogging since March, however irregularly. I came to the realization in March that I didn’t know what the world was going to look like next week, and I should just take life in a couple of days at a time and not worry too much about long-term planning.

It’s August now, and I still don’t know what the world is going to look like next week. Some weeks I’ve been able to settle into a pattern and deal with next week looking like the one past. Some weeks my life and the world around me has been tossed into upheaval again.

I’m finding it really hard to live this way.

And if it’s hard for me to live this way after having the same job for 20 years of my life now, I can only imagine how hard it’s going to be for a group of students starting college in a time unlike any time that any freshman has ever known, in the history of this country. So much technology, so much opportunity. So much threat, so much fear.

The most wonderful distraction from the work of the past couple of weeks have been the march of general chemistry students, mostly new freshmen, in my inbox and in my text messages. Before the first day of classes, they’re so full of questions, the kinds of thoughtful questions about how the course is going to run that I wish all classes would ask. I’m so glad to be able to answer them, to clear up misconceptions and to offer early guidance, to set their minds at ease.

To set their minds at ease. Because when you think about it, it makes perfect sense why I’m getting more emails from freshmen this year than I have any other year to this point. Sometimes the anxiety is cloaked in organization and clarification. Sometimes the anxiety is transparent and plain, with nothing left to the imagination. But the anxiety about being a student in this very different year is very real.

Even in The Normal Times, one of the thing I heard a lot about was the difficulty of first-generation students in achieving academic literacy – the understanding of the many conventions of being a college student and an independent learner. Our world is just weird to those who aren’t initiated in it. Figuring out who is safe to talk to honestly and who requires formal communication is a challenge. Understanding why one professor is generous with due dates while another is just rigid is a challenge. Even reading and understanding the syllabus is a challenge.

And just because somebody has difficulty being academically literate doesn’t mean they’re any less academically talented. In many cases, it’s the student who has more trouble with the screwball conventions and practices of the academy who also has the creative academic talent to excel and do great things. We’re the ones who are so stubborn and set in our ways (both individually and collectively) that we don’t allow the space for that creative talent to thrive.

If that was true in 2019, how much more true is it in 2020?

Is it an awful thing that my default position when dealing with a student right now is to assume that they’re scared? Why wouldn’t they be scared? On top of all the standard anxiety that comes with starting a new academic year, you’ve got the existential anxiety of a real honest-to-God deadly pandemic all around us. If you’re finding your way through this time without feeling any fresh and unique fear, I’m going to question whether you’re taking the reality of this time seriously enough.

And so I’m having to keep up a discipline of reassurance as I move forward in this term. I’ve got to do things that intentionally remove fear – or, at the very least, give the student practice at minimizing risk.

I’ve got to practice giving clear, unambiguous directions. Oh my word, I’m so bad at those. I wrap my directions around so many thoughts and feelings that I never make the directions clear at all. I’ve got to get the clutter away from my directions.

Students are going to message me and email me in all kinds of ways, formal and informal. Maybe in another time I’d encourage a student to practice more formality and help me out. Right now’s not the time for it. I want that student to message me back or email me back no matter what – maintaining the open communication is going to be essential. I need to be less of a threat, more generous in my replies.

I’ve got to be okay with doing less. It’s going to be so easy to get overwhelmed in this moment – and my instinctive response to my own overwhelm is to work more and to provide more resources. This might not be the semester to outwork my students. Less might truly be more.

And no matter what else I do, I have to work with integrity. If I say I’m going to do a thing, I need to do that thing. I’ve already made a lot of promises this semester, maybe too many. I have to be careful with making too many more. And I need to work so that especially students can trust the words that I say and the commitments that I make.

We’re working under a policy on campus this term that we’re not allowed to have face-to-face office hours – I can meet students outside, face-to-face, in a socially distanced context, but the only person allowed in my office is me. This is the real heartbreaker for me, because I love talking to students and advising students in the office conversation. I’m just going to have to find other ways to have the personal contact with students that comes with that kind of face-to-face conversation. I hate Zoom; I’m just going to have to get over it.

In every context, I have students that need encouragement and positive support. It’s on me to be intentional about giving it, in ways that I’m comfortable and in ways that I’m not.

This semester is going to be unlike any other. The connection I have with my students is going to be challenged. I need to rise to that challenge.

May we all hold on to our students as this semester goes forward. I won’t speak for you. But students are the only reason I ever got into this business to begin with.

“Why is college important NOW?”

Talk given during the Tusculum University Week of Welcome, August 15, 2020. Last year I gave a similar talk in an auditorium. This year it was through Zoom to small collections of students in 20 or so classrooms.

It was an awkward way to give a talk, but hopefully it was well-received.

You can also see the full slides of the talk as I presented them to the students.

This is the second year I’ve had the assignment of this talk at Tusculum, of facing the new freshmen and telling them why this is the time of their lives filled with the most promise, the most transformation and the most fulfillment. The freshman year of college is where I personally see the most change in student’s lives, the entry of one type of person, wide-eyed and excited for the new experiences ahead, the construction of a different type of person, newly aware of the world around them in a much larger way than they could have possibly imagined when they started.

I’ve promised a lot of folks this, in a lot of years gone by, and I’ll promise it to you as well: you will change more this year than you have ever changed in your life, as your immersion into this new world becomes real in ways that you don’t expect. 

But this year is unlike any other year I’ve been at any college or university. This year, the reasons that you will change are also the reasons that I’ll change, and the world you’re being immersed into is the world I’m feeling a sudden immersion into as well.

2019. I miss it. We all do.

Last year, I was in the big auditorium in Annie Hogan Byrd giving this talk to 400 of my newest best friends, in person, complete with a selfie of them at the end of it. It was a very cool, very 2019 thing to do. 

You know and I know that 2020 is not 2019. There’s not been a freshman class that has dealt with anything like what you’re going to deal with, perhaps in a century, perhaps ever. And no faculty has ever entered into their responsibilities to teach, to help make learning happen, with the kind of pressures that those of us on the faculty are facing right now. There’s much less of the face-to-face that I’ve been so privileged to have for most of my life as faculty – and when there will be face-to-face, it will be separated by masks. There will be a lot more of this – screen-to-screen, two dimensions instead of three, frustrating distance between us. 

So much of what your experience is going to be is different than any experience a freshman class has ever had before. 

And yet so much of that experience hasn’t changed. The college experience is supposed to be a time of broadening horizons. You will still be exposed to ideas that you’ve never even considered, let alone thought deeply about, before. You will find your abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, logic taxed more strongly than they ever have been before. 

You’re here to be prepared to make a contribution when you’re done. You’re here to start a path of two or four years that will end with you being equipped to be an expert, to be a professional, to be a leader in your community, your state, your nation, this world. 

I want to spend time today talking about why that preparation is important now, as important as it ever has been, in the time of COVID-19. I want you to understand not merely why college is important to you, but why college is important now – in this time.

I’m in this space, equal parts excited and terrified. 

One of the reasons that you’re unlike any freshman class before you is because you’re going to have the opportunity to learn using resources that students in the last great pandemic could have only dreamed of.

Pandemic learning, circa 1918.

Over 100 years ago, in 1918, when influenza began to rage across the United States, there was no realistic substitute for face-to-face learning – except for locking yourself in the room with books and pencil and paper, if you were so privileged as to have a room of your own. Imagine starting college like that. Here are your books, and here’s what we expect you to understand when this year is done. Have fun!

But in 2020, you can see my face, even through the screen. Not only can you see my face, but you can see a little electronic whiteboard that I can write notes to you on. Not only can you see that, but I have software that can guide you through some of your early homework assignments, offer you feedback on the work you provide, make you feel less alone. 

I’m fond of this representation of online learning. Thanks to our friends at Bluefield College for the image.

The more I can do that reaches out to students and provides them with means to feel less isolated as they go through their studies in a socially isolated place, as many of you will be doing this semester, the more exciting being a professor in this time becomes to me. The power of being a student at a small university like Tusculum is the access you have to so many experts in their fields, all of us just an email away, some of us crazy ones a text message or a social media hit away. (Follow @shorterpearson on Twitter and Instagram.)

There is so much unique power in being a student in this time. 

And yet there is still the reality of being surrounded by this novel coronavirus – still so new that we don’t understand all the implications of becoming sick with it, that we don’t completely understand all the ways that it spreads or how it has no impact on one person infected with it while bringing another person to the brink of death. 

We’re attempting to create normal around us, to make face-to-face learning feel as ordinary as possible while all of us are going to be wearing masks and staying as far apart as possible and while we’ll all go into classrooms checking up on one another’s day-to-day health. But wearing masks and staying as far apart as possible and checking up on our day-to-day health is an absolutely essential discipline for this moment. The risk at hand if we don’t keep these disciplines up could easily become a matter of life and death. Especially while these realities are so new and so unique to our time, the dangers of understating the risks at hand could literally be fatal. 

The simple reality is that we’re returning to our studies while our country is the awe of the world – and not in a good way. The spread of this disease in the United States has dwarfed the spread of this disease in almost every other part of the world. In one of the more stressed countries in Europe, in the United Kingdom, the First Minister of Scotland saw fit to order lockdown policies in the city of Aberdeen two weeks ago. Aberdeen was locked down because of 54 new cases of COVID-19 over the course of a week.

From the Johnson City Press.

Most counties in Northeast Tennessee had more than 54 new cases of COVID-19 last week.

There are very real reasons why we don’t respond to this disease in the same way as our European friends. Americans are, and always have been, highly individualistic – it is a matter of personal liberty to trust your neighbor’s wisdom in their response to this threat, and that personal liberty is a matter of faith for many of those who live here. Telling your neighbor what to do is one of the last great American taboos. It’s just not done.

But it’s also very real that modern Americans are trained not to trust experts. We live in an era of information abundance – where we can simply go to Google and search the answers to all our questions. And the search algorithm refuses to tell the difference between the advice of someone who has spent their career trying to answer exactly that question and the advice of someone who simply spent a few moments ranting in a blog post. 

Human nature dictates it – we find the answer that best fits our biases, no matter, who gives it, and we move along, and what’s actually true or wise be damned.

The rebellion we need right now is a generation of young thinkers who don’t merely resort to knee-jerk answers to very real problems, but who learn enough to become experts in those problems in their own right, with knowledge that doesn’t just mimic the knowledge of their teachers but that actually surpasses it. 

And we don’t just need those thinkers to be experts, but expert communicators as well – people with the equipping to share that knowledge with their peers and their communities, not lording that knowledge over them as if they’re more-educated-than-thou, but providing authentic tools to their communities to lift them up and give them better lives than what they have right now. 

Here’s the good news: the principles of that rebellion are laid down in the mission statement of the institution you’re joining today.

Our mission statement has an entire web page given over to it now. It’s taking a new importance at the center of this institution, and you need to be aware of it. It informs the work you’re going to be doing while you’re studying at this place.

This is the mission statement of Tusculum University:

Let’s take this statement apart, one line at a time.

There are multiple statements given over to our faith heritage. In earlier documents describing Tusculum, you’ll find references to Tusculum’s “Judeo-Christian” environment. We have a distinct faith, but an open and welcoming one – we build on the Presbyterian faith of our founders, but it’s a man of Baptist background who holds the presidency of this place now, and it’s a Methodist who is talking to you now. The specific faith experience isn’t privileged – we all return to the same book, we all acknowledge Abraham as the founder of our faith experience, and we see the same story told throughout Scripture to inform the day-to-day practice of that faith experience with one another.

The nickname of this place is hidden in the mission as well, and it’s not accidental. The history of Tusculum is the story of the founding of higher education in the state of Tennessee and in the central Appalachians. We literally carry with us the inheritance of the pioneers who made life in this part of the world possible for us, and we carry with us the charge to be new pioneers – people who take our learning into our communities and envision new ways of living. 

We provide an active and experiential education. We don’t just want you in your seats, listening (how ironic that that’s what you’re doing right now. Sorry about that). We want your education to be one of doing – learning by participating, doing activities, having experiences.

We provide that education in a caring Christian environment. It’s hopefully not just a place where people say things about Jesus Christ and expect you to follow. To be in a Christian environment means experiencing sacrificial love – people giving up their power and privilege in the name of supporting others.

The slide here shows three nursing graduates from Tusculum who went to New York City in April, when this pandemic was at its most intense in the Northeast, when so much about care for patients in this pandemic was still a mystery. They gave up a part of their life to help people when they needed it the most. That’s the benefit we hope you experience in this caring, Christian environment – and that’s what we hope you learn to give to others.

We believe in career preparation – we want you to have a job, not just to make money in the short term, but to satisfy you for life. We believe in personal development – we care about who you are as a person, and we want you to be the best person you can be.

And if there’s a thing that drew me to Tusculum at the point in my life when I was considering this stage of my career, it is the statement at the core of the mission and that repeats all around the institution – the belief in civic engagement

This is where I most intentionally repeat the message I had for last year’s freshmen.

Tusculum uses the word “civic” every place they can. We care about your citizenship. We care about your place as a member of this society, and we care that you contribute to that society in the most productive, positive way possible.

So many of the things you learn as a student here are to help you be the best citizen possible. You need to see other examples of communication and expression, in speech and English classes, so that you can be the best communicator you can be, so what you care about can be expressed to those around you. You need to be informed as completely as possible, both about what’s happened in the past – your history – and about the knowledge that is building your future – our science. You need the best background on your faith you can get, so you can not merely speak the language of faith to those around you, but you can be encouragement to others to live that faith out better. And you need the arts, to appreciate the creativity of others in this place and express your own creativity on your terms. Encouraging creativity in others and in yourself is part of your best citizenship, too.

All of you need to bring your best selves to this process of education, and to take the education itself as seriously as possible, no matter what place you’re from, no matter what place you’re going. The values that Tusculum believes in are important no matter what time you’re living through.

But in this time, with all the pressure on us to bring our safest selves to our study as we live through this uncertainty, with all the structures in place to provide our education in the most distanced means possible, it’s all the more important to keep reminding ourselves why we’re here and what we need to get out of this time.

I wish I could take a selfie with all of you now, to remind you like I reminded last year’s freshmen that you are the most important people in the history of Tusculum right now. In the very way that you’ll be learning, you are pioneers in your own right: discovering unique paths through the canon of knowledge that generations before you have studied, seeking unique ways to remain connected with one another through our era of social distancing, finding unique ways to fulfill this institutional mission in the face of all kinds of obstacles. 

Those of us who are faculty feel the burden of this moment right along with you. Even if we can’t talk face-to-face the way we once did, we can still talk, or email, or even text. We will do what we can to support you in this moment. 

Collision

I’m slowly starting to get genuinely excited about the fall semester.

It finally clicked for me on Sunday, when I started a fresh outline of the book I’m teaching in honors seminar, Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test. The book is twenty years old now, but I’m still catching fresh depth in it; parts of the center of the book, as the narrative turns from the history of standardized testing to college admissions and civil rights, are reading fresh and new, and I’m building an outline of the narrative that can help me guide students through the story and its implications for the world they live in. It had been brutally difficult for me to get started on any syllabus for the fall term at all, because of all that’s so uncertain; out of the clear blue sky, the honors seminar syllabus fell straight into place.

That got me out of the spiral trap of worrying about what shape the fall term might take In These Uncertain Times and got me in the position of envisioning what is possible, and what might be easiest to do for me while still being most accessible to everyone, regardless of the shape the term takes. A tentative game plan for the general chemistry lab was next; the chemistry lab was what we were most worried about for the fall, with the sheer number of freshmen coming through and the impossibility of distancing full labs. That bit of creativity is turning into a series of two week blocks, with one online lab and one in-person lab per block, half of the class roster showing up for the in-person lab one week, half of the roster showing up the next. A similar hyflex plan for the general chemistry lecture is in progress.

The biochemistry class is small enough on my campus that I can make a plan fall together like a snap. Physics is the only class I’m yet to start, but there are several tools I have in hand to make that plan work.

I’m slowly making peace in my own mind with the students turning up on campus. The standards for the campus reopening are put together very plainly. The expectations for students to maintain the most safe possible environment are quite clear, and I’m kind of impressed that the reopening guide hasn’t left much to chance.

I’m constructing a picture of a reconvened student body on campus, living and working together as a real oasis of safety in a genuinely dangerous time. We can do this. We can make this happen, together.


I’m slowly starting to get genuinely terrified about the fall semester.

Yesterday the county immediately to my west (Hamblen County, hardly the type of place you’d call a “big city”) reported 125 new cases of COVID-19, going from a cumulative count for the duration of the pandemic of 883 to a count of 1,008 in a single day. The pandemic is legitimately starting to spread from the urban centers of the state of Tennessee to the rural communities, and the rural spread into Northeast Tennessee is steady but unrelenting.

A baseball team that tried to get together and live as life was somewhat normal while playing games in front of no fans now has seventeen players associated with it testing positive for COVID-19, in a warning sign to all of us about trying to live life as somewhat normal.

The undue pressure has been with us for some time, and it only gets more and more intense as one population wants to resume normalcy with the circumstances damned and another population is readying themselves to act against the resumption of normalcy.

It’s impossible to envision reopening any place where large number of people gather as one, let alone a college campus.

I just imagine all the different times I’ve lived through illness spreading around campus and the sinking feeling when you know it’s just a matter of time before you get sick too. It’s one thing to have that feeling for a bug that will stick with you for a couple of days and you just move on from. It’s quite another to have that feeling about a novel virus that is known to sometimes lead all the way to death, and even in the likely event that you live through it might have all kinds of long-term effects that we don’t understand. There’s so much we just don’t know, and so many risks we might take on by taking what used to be the very ordinary step of just showing up.

I didn’t get into education to take my life into my hands by just showing up.

And yet the drumbeat to reopen continues to go on, no matter how many people attempt to stand athwart the coming history, yelling “STOP”. [1]


The preparation for a new semester is supposed to be a time of optimism, and in many ways, the creative work of preparing for a new semester doesn’t work without that optimism. That optimism is what causes me to envision what the day-to-day life of a functioning campus might look like, even in this moment that’s so uncertain.

The reality that makes this moment so uncertain isn’t given over to optimism. Fearing the worst isn’t irrational. The real problems that have made the United States such a fertile breeding ground for this pandemic are reasons for real pessimism, for genuine motivation to shut down each and every enterprise that gathers people together until the spread of this virus is actually arrested.

Moving forward with a functional life in 2020 in the United States is a daily collision of optimism and pessimism, of creating a vision for a safe place and knowing that real behaviors of real people make that vision impossible, of moving forward with preparations and plans knowing that events we can’t control might shred those preparations and plans at their first instant of meeting reality.

We can’t live with being paralyzed. But looking reality in the face is paralyzing.

And here I am, four months on from this reality dawning, and then I didn’t know what the world would look like the following week, and now I still don’t know what the world will look like next week.

And all the rage in the world can’t change the reality.


[1] I’m well aware of who I just paraphrased, and the only amusement I take from writing this at all is the knowledge of how many thinking people of all stripes are going to be annoyed by the reference.

Cover photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash.