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.

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