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.

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