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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”. 
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 all the rage in the world can’t change the reality.
 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.
I gave up using my blogspace as an avenue of ministry a long time ago. Since I left the unit of the Georgia Baptist Convention that used to provide my salary, I’d wager that the majority of the people who come across this space aren’t evangelical Christians and don’t engage in the rituals that I stumble through on a semi-regular basis.
But I still do stumble through those rituals, and the onset of this pandemic chased me back to church. And because the church building I have attended most frequently in Greeneville was closed at the start of the pandemic, I used that as an excuse to re-engage with my graduate school church, Vineyard Columbus.
But in the time when the reality and the uncertainty of the pandemic was starting to take hold, I found myself needing that consistency of teaching again. And it was while doing yard work the Sunday after Easter and listening to an Easter message a week late that I started to get what I needed.
That Easter message, and the series which followed it, were expertly prepared and expertly delivered, so I hope my questioning doesn’t make you think that these folk didn’t think of a whole lot of things. But the start of the Easter message was very jarring to me:
Y’know, I normally begin Easter services by saying “Happy Easter”, and I was out walking my dog the other day and I could almost read his thoughts. He looked up at me and he was thinking to himself, “now, I know this coronavirus thing has been really hard on your species, but I gotta tell you, as a dog, this has been like a gift.” I mean, he gets three long walks a day, he doesn’t have to be in his cage, he has companionship all day long. Dogs in America are doing amazingly well.
But for the rest of us, this has been a really hard Easter. Billions of folks around the world are sheltering in place; they are locked down in their homes and apartments. Millions of us in the United States have lost our jobs. We did a funeral here at Vineyard Columbus this past week and we weren’t able to invite the deceased’s friends and family; only a handful of the closest family was there. Weddings have been postponed. School graduations have been postponed; kids who are graduating from high school and from college are missing the last part of their senior years. Things that folks have invested in for a really long time, school plays and orchestra concerts and art exhibits and proms; all of those things have been postponed or eliminated.
And, of course, on top of all of this is fear and anxiety about being sick, about being hospitalized. We’re concerned not only for ourselves, but for loved ones who may be sick or who may be immunocompromised. This has been a really hard year.
Now, this was the start of a message that appealed to the study of 1 Peter for a new generation of Christians. Peter, after all, wrote to people who were undergoing persecution and suffering in the midst of practicing their faith, and that’s a posture that American Christians aren’t used to.
But the presentation of Christians in the midst of suffering that Rich Nathan refers to in his opening remarks is not neat and tidy. The first protagonist, after all, is a dog. And the dog is living really well. Not that I’m unfamiliar with this; our household has four cats, and at one point or another all four cats have either bounded around me gleefully or rested on my legs over the course of this season.
It takes money to take care of these cats. They don’t take care of themselves real well, much as they might want you to believe otherwise.
And this is a large part of the reality of our existence: we have the resources to deal. If we can care for dogs and cats, we can certainly care for our own food and shelter. So many of us who are able to read thoughts like these on the internet, even in the midst of a very stressful time, still know where our next meal is coming from, how the bills are going to get paid next month. Not everybody does, but many of us do.
I honestly wonder if there isn’t a population of us who are simply protesting too much about all the trouble that life in the time of COVID-19 is bringing to our doorstep. We can do simple things and keep the pandemic largely at bay. We can stay home. We can be focused when we leave our house, and wear a mask as we travel around. We can plan our days a little more carefully and reach out to our friends, family and loved ones a little more intentionally.
Are we suffering, or are we inconvenienced? Is it really possible for so many of us to suffer in a time when we have been provided with so many resources?
If that was the only circumstance we were dealing with, that would be one thing and we could focus on managing our anxiety while we hunker down and await recovery. But hiding out is the one thing that our society in particular is completely resistant to. We have to reopen.
The pressure to resume life as it once was, the pressure to have the most robust economy we can while the uncertainty of a pandemic places a very different pressure on our day-to-day lives, is simply too much. It is the very real cost of all of this abundance we find around us in America, the ill-gotten gains of a society that insists on everything being done right now, without a spare moment to rest and recover and deal with the reality that These Times Are Not Normal.
Is it possible to have suffering in the midst of abundance? Absolutely. There are so many of us all around who are feeling the ill effects of the repeated insistence that we can have the same world we once had if we just learn to live with the pandemic, as if the pandemic was a gentle house guest who just took up a small measure of room instead of a killer who chooses his victims cruelly – one here, two there, a small number then, a mammoth number now.
Dealing with the killer in our midst is bad enough. Dealing with voices that insist that the killer is simply part of our reality now, and there is nothing we can do about it, and we simply must resume the busyness that characterized our lives before? That’s damage on top of damage. That’s insult added to injury, with a side of cruelty.
This is the country we inhabit in July 2020, those of us who live in the United States. We have always had so much that we possess, and we still have opulence that puts us to shame. But that opulence lives side-by-side with the ever-encroaching virus, overturning lives one at a time. And both of those live with a culture that insists on selling us the same goods and services as it did in the time before, and insists on us participating in the selling of those goods, as if the pandemic is the mildest of inconveniences.
If you’re overcome with depression or anxiety, you’re not alone. If you don’t think you’ve overcome with depression or anxiety, you really need to ask if you’re lying to yourself.
Therefore, get your minds ready for action by being fully sober, and set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. Like obedient children, do not comply with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance, but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.” And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence. You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed—not by perishable things like silver or gold, but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake. Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
I am really feeling that reference to an “empty way of life inherited from your ancestors” lately. It sounds very similar to this suffering in the midst of abundance that we experience right now.
Like I said at the onset, I’ve given up on this space as a source of ministry. The text itself points in the direction where I’d go if I was using this time to preach – the silver and gold will perish, the blood of Christ provides life forever.
It seems pretty worthwhile to spend some time dwelling in “silver and gold will perish”, though. One of the great themes of Biblical literature is the capacity of humans to pretend like the rewards of worldly life have any capacity to last for an extended period of time, and the humility that comes when we realize that the abundance we live in is destined to end.
There is value to be found elsewhere. You might even argue that all of the teaching against evil urges is pointed towards setting aside the relentless pursuit of economic benefit in the name of something that’s more meaningful, something that will last the entirety of our lives…and even beyond.
The hope for an end to suffering is a false hope, even with all the resources we live among. Those resources unfailingly are sitting in a bank account for those who can least benefit from them and remain elusive for those who could most benefit. But the least we can do in this time is recognize where our hope won’t be fulfilled, and start to seek out what it might mean to build a life for ourselves and our communities where we can show what hope looks like, instead of snuffing hope out.
I attempted to run a distraction from this pandemic this spring and summer.
It’s a bracket game, where the participants vote on one of two songs from the history of Contemporary Christian music. I did something similar last year. It was a good time then. I figured, with a whole host of people cooped up in their houses, it would be a better time now.
Some strange things happened on the way to the execution of this bracket game, though: people started ignoring the pandemic.
And while other nations around the world arrest the spread of this novel coronavirus and citizens of other places cooperate for the good health of their neighbor, the United States of America leads the world in spread of the pandemic and neglect of their own.
I found myself turning on my own effort to distract. I found myself being negative and vindictive towards the very game I was trying to get people to play. I found myself letting a thing I’d put months into preparing atrophy and fall apart.
I’ve stated in the past that I’m given over to depression, and I am progressively getting better at recognizing the patterns of depression that can hit my life – and this response surely fits into that pattern. But as I’ve sat with the realizations of what I’m feeling, to simply call it “depression” really doesn’t satisfy, because the impacts of this spring and summer have been far too wide-ranging.
And the realization that as of Sunday, we can account for 119,429 people who have died from this pandemic in the United States – with no end to the running total in sight – drives the reality home.
There are people dedicated to telling those stories. I came across a PRX broadcast called A Sudden Loss dedicated to eulogies of people whose lives were lost to COVID-19, read over the course of an hour. There are journalistic efforts that are local, national and global.
Those efforts are the exception and not the rule, however. As impossible as it was for me to follow national news before this spring, much of what I hear in the current moment simply doesn’t matter. The familiar battle lines of cable news trivialize the failures that have led us to this moment and the human toll this has exacted.
And those familiar battle lines propagate to the wider population. Where are the flags at half-mast over the lives lost? Where is the outrage over the magnitude of lives lost? Where is our concern for our fellow humans?
The fact that the social media fury is reserved for this viral video of someone refusing to wear a mask or that latest outrage from the current occupant of the White House and not for another day’s death toll in the hundreds or thousands is so telling. Maybe we’re desperate to avoid the humanity; maybe we take comfort from familiar political debate; maybe we simply can’t bear the thought that the death toll that surrounds us in the country could ultimately include us, too.
Humanity is nothing if not shared. Whatever the reason we choose to do so, to simply reduce the death toll from COVID-19 to a mere number and not to human lives lost is to cut that humanity off, to pretend that we don’t share the same human experience.
Statistics matter, however, and we are entering into a new reason to protest, a new reason for outrage.
The radical spike in positive cases across the Sun Belt over the course of the past week is predictive of a new spike in deaths within the next two weeks. The spread of cases that has been allowed to progress unchecked is a death sentence for entirely too many Americans who simply don’t deserve what is going to transpire. Leaders saying “the window is closing for us to take action and get this under control” should be ominous, instead of just another Sunday morning news show quote.
It becomes very evident that not merely is this not over, this is really only beginning.
And the only way I know how to respond at this point is to mourn.
I am out of ways to make people feel better. There is nothing to feel better about. I have spent a whole spring trying to seek out ways to be optimistic in this difficult time. I’m out of optimism. Things are bad. Things are going to get worse.
The very least we can do is recognize that there are 119,429 people whose unique stories have ended in ways that the supposed most advanced country on earth could not stop.
And we need to ask ourselves why our efforts to stop this relentless onslaught of death and dying have been so timid.
Those are questions nothing should distract us from.