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.

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