“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.

Suffering in the midst of abundance

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.

I’m really grateful for Rich Nathan’s consistency in ministry to that church, and this isn’t the first time that I’ve checked in on a Vineyard Columbus sermon series to see where my old church is at. And as I check in on them in this season, I’m excited to see where the new leadership at Vineyard Columbus is taking the church.

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?


Here’s the flip side:

It’s a pandemic. It’s a pandemic where a virus with a unique capability of remaining dormant and passing from person to person almost undetected is being spread. The magnitude of anxiety that simple reality brings forth in the world is doing damage that we’re not even close to understanding.

We’re living through a reality that isn’t a respecter of individual people, their resources, or even necessarily their privilege. This virus has disproportionately impacted people of color and people of low socioeconomic standing, but it doesn’t leave any population immune. All of us are dealing with the uncertainty and anxiety that results from this.

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.


So we go back to 1 Peter, and I start with chapter 1, verse 13:

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.

Quite possibly the single most frustrating thing about the consistent pressure to resume our economic duties in this most capitalist of societies is this reality. Our lives are stuck in the rut that Tony Campolo has spent a lifetime preaching about, the pursuit of more stuff that we don’t need to sustain our political system.

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.

Cover photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash.

Mourning

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.

There are important reasons to neglect the pandemic, mind, and demonstrations that are increasingly hopeful are necessary responses to the injustice of the time, even (and especially) given the risks that come with this moment. But those aren’t the reasons to ignore the pandemic that I tend to see in East Tennessee.

Those reasons range from selfishness to apathy to even active disbelief. At the very top of our leadership, the anti-intellectual streak in how we respond to even suggestions of best practice to avoid sickness has been obvious. “In many states and cities, you have the leadership actually giving the right guideline instruction. But somehow, people for one reason or another, don’t believe it or not fazed by it. And they go ahead and do things that are either against the guidelines that their own leadership is saying.

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.

Where is the mourning?


When the decision of whether to wear a mask or not wear a mask is cast as a political debate that predicts your agreement with the current president, the actual lives impacted by a rapidly spreading disease are lost in the rhetorical tempest.

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.

The data from the graph are taken from the COVID Tracking Project‘s daily updates. The treatment of the data to yield seven-day moving averages for smoothing is my own, generated through Google Sheets.

Why you shouldn’t call me an ally

I’m a white dude. Start there.

I’m a white dude who was raised in the rural South, steeped in the prejudices and the casual hatred of the place. Sure, I had Black friends. They were always at arms’ length, though; when I got told that they weren’t the people I was supposed to be hanging out with, I didn’t argue.

I was taught the use of slurs, and I was taught how to make them acceptable by explaining what they actually meant. You didn’t use the N-bomb against just anybody, you see. You only used it against Black people who thought the world owed them something because they were black. You’re not against all Black people; you’re just against that kind.

I got out of the rural South into the Midwest, to a college that was exclusively male and overwhelmingly white, with the odd Asian thrown in for flavor. I was educated in the most secure bubble you could possibly imagine. Even when I went to graduate school, and discovered the joys of diversity, of studying with people from literally around the world, one shade of skin was elusive, and nobody really understood why.

So when you look for people to talk to you about how Black Lives Matter, I’m the last person you should be talking to. Precious little in my raising put me face-to-face with racial issues [1]; nothing in my education prepared me to live in this time.

I’m nearly two decades into an academic career. I’ve had multiple advisees come through my supervision, and I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to serve a great diversity. The same color has been elusive; the same color has started working with me only to disappear and not remain, despite my enthusiasm and interest.

The major I’ve been most responsible for where real change could be affected is chemistry, particularly physical chemistry and biochemistry, where the diversity of graduates is especially low. If I was an ally, I could point you to the ways that I’ve made a difference in that diversity, the ways that I’ve helped bring more Black students along in their study.

Folks, I’ve got nothing. No evidence. No change. The same white faces make it to the other side. No new faces who come through general chemistry and start to believe that there is a place in the discipline for them.

I can’t point to Black work done in my field. I can’t point to books by Black authors in my discipline that I’d recommend. I have precious few names of Black scholars that I’d have students emulate, and I can’t claim that there are any substantial relationships that are authentic and real that would advance a potential young Black chemist.

But, again, like I’ve seen a young Black chemist willingly talk to me. About anything, really.

It’s still clear to me, rapidly approaching a half-century on this planet, that not only do I have work to do, I haven’t even started the real work.

So nobody should call me an ally. I might want the title. I sure don’t deserve it.



The last time I took the times I was living through even close to seriously enough, I did what I thought was preparatory work. I still even remember the exact title of the writing I did at the time – “clearing Ferguson out of my brain”. In retrospect that title’s offensive on its face, as if racial injustice is something I just needed to face one time, be direct about, and then put past me so I could move forward with the real work.

I didn’t take seriously enough the reality that facing racial injustice is the real work, and there are a lot of times to be doing that, and the most important times to be doing that are the times when the world isn’t melting down all around you.

But here I am writing while the world is melting down all around me.

And let me be even more pointed about my privilege – the world might be melting down all around, but it’s not melting down where I’m at. I live in a pocket of peace, isolated by being a white dude surrounded by Trumpists, caring about a place that at once shelters and neuters me.

Another reason I’m not comfortable being called an ally: I know where I live. Racial justice coming to this place would simply mean knowing my Black neighbors and being able to identify with them – if those Black neighbors are anywhere to be found at all. 

Six years ago, when I wrote, I said I just wanted to be someone who helped. The evidence that I’ve helped doesn’t exist. The evidence that I’ve isolated myself away from being in position to help does. I could protest about my intentions all I want, but these matters are results-based, and intentions don’t matter. 



This is a moment where a lot more self-examination should be taking place, and a lot fewer claims of allyship should be taking place. I hope this doesn’t come across as self-flagellation; that isn’t my intent. It’s staring down cold, stark reality. I don’t get to claim  wins for half-hearted attempts to be kind, and if I ever was in the business of trying to claim such wins, that’s my own time wasted. 

This came across my feed this morning:

That’s directed towards employers and institutions, I know. But I think it also is appropriate to ask of individuals working within those institutions as well. There are a lot of us who come up against results and outcomes and find ourselves wanting, and more specifically, find the specific actions we’ve taken to support those outcomes nonexistent.

If we’re really interested in talking about the importance of Black lives? Well, Black lives need jobs. Black lives need representation. Black lives need a place in the practice of our day-to-day work, especially in the academic world, where diversity of thinking improves the quality of outcomes. 

It is completely appropriate and fair to hold my own actions to support Black lives in my workplace to account. I don’t care where I live, I don’t care where I work, I don’t care about the systemic obstacles in the discipline I work in. 

We can talk about my role as an ally when I can point to specific actions I’ve taken and specific results I’ve achieved in supporting Black lives – and Latinx lives, and Native American lives, and lives of underrepresented people across the spectrum. 

I’m hopeful that I have outcomes to share in my next two decades that are more substantial than the outcomes of my past two.

Cover photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

 

[1] My mother would tell you different; she would say that it was an invitation to a black classmate that wound up integrating a roller rink in South Georgia for a birthday party in my youth. And my mother stood up for my invitation list in ways that I didn’t understand at the time.
But that’s just it; I was blind to the whole business, and I didn’t understand what my invitation list caused, and my mother thought it more important that a scene not be caused than explaining why this was a big deal. I’m not arguing with Mama. But I’m not claiming any wins, either.

Feeling the undue pressure

This is the news item that sent me over the edge.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said Sunday he fully expects his party to hold an in-person nominating convention this summer.

“We’re not going to put our public health head in the sand, but I’m optimistic that we can do so because we’ve put it off for five weeks,” Perez told ABC’s “This Week,” mentioning the convention’s delay until mid-August. “We’re working with all of the public health experts, state, federal, local, and I’m excited about Milwaukee.”

Why do you have to? If you can possibly find another way to get the necessary business done, why gather people from all over the country in one place? And how are you talking as if you’re being serious about public health if you’re trying to force that type of national meeting in the midst of a pandemic?

We still don’t have a full testing regime for the nation, we still have only plateaued nationally on cases diagnosed and new outbreaks are happening across the South on the regular to minimal coverage – and we’re just going to start to pretend like everything is normal and we can just start gallavanting around the countryside again?


 

I want to get up on my high horse so badly right now, but let me stay local for a moment and let me reflect on my life.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate. My wife and I both have been able to work from home for the past month and a half. I’ve got a planned summer off of teaching so I don’t have to be venturing out anytime soon. Central Appalachia has not been seriously impacted by the pandemic at all; local counties at this point are whittling down to active cases in the teens, even the single digits. If there’s going to be a place where you don’t have to worry as much when you go out, it’s around here.

It’s understandable why somebody might get impatient around here under those circumstances. We don’t have the kind of death toll that comes with an urban area like New York City, or a rural area like Albany, Georgia. The toll that comes with this pandemic is out of sight, and out of mind.

And yet the moral of Albany, Georgia is that it only takes one event and one bit of transmission unawares to start a cascade of events that leads to a major outbreak.

No one suspected COVID-19 when a man from the Atlanta area arrived at Phoebe Putney’s emergency room Feb. 29 complaining of shortness of breath.

The man, who was 67 years old, had chronic lung disease and had not traveled to China or the West Coast.

He had come to Albany to attend a funeral for Andrew Jerome Mitchell, a retired janitor. After more than 100 people gathered at Albany’s Martin Luther King Memorial Chapel for the service, many then crammed into Mitchell’s small three-bedroom home for a potluck meal of fried chicken, greens and cornbread.

“We hugged, we talked, we cried together,” said Alice Wise Bell, the daughter of Mitchell’s longtime partner, Emell Murray. “We didn’t think anything of it.”

Before she went to bed, Murray started feeling chills. The next day, Bell rushed her mother, who is diabetic and has high blood pressure, to the hospital with a fever of 103. Staff told her they suspected a urinary tract infection.

Before long, a cascade of sick people — including Bell’s aunt and cousin — came in to the emergency room.

It was not until March 10, after the Atlanta-area man was transferred to a hospital in Marietta, Ga., that Phoebe Putney staff found out he had tested positive for COVID-19. He died two days later.

By the time hospital and local officials realized the deadly virus was in the community, it had already spread from the funeral home to churches, the county courthouse and the hospital.

As long as everybody is being sensible, as long as travel is shut down and we remain in place, there’s no need to be concerned about the spread of a virus.

But we’re bored with being sensible, and stories like those of Mitchell and Murray’s family don’t have any resonance with us. We’re feeling restless and we’re ready to get back to work. And we’re ready for others to get back to work with us.

Work-from-home allowances are starting to expire, and workers are being recalled to their workplaces. Some governors are being very loud and demonstrative about “reopening the economy”; others are just letting “safer at home” orders expire.

The wearing of masks has never been normalized, and the messages to protect self and others are not taken to heart.

We’re not ready to be normal. But we’re going to try anyway.


 

The pressure is coming subtly from every corner of our lives. I’m starting to feel that pressure in my vocation, as more and more college and university campuses announce their intent to resume face-to-face education in the fall. I don’t know what that pressure looks like for you, but I’m certain it’s real.

I desperately want to be around students again. I would like for nothing more than to ignore this pandemic around us and just resume normal life.

But part of normal life is not thinking every moment about when the thing that is killing people other places is going to show up for you.

My place doesn’t just recruit students from the Central Appalachians. I can’t tell the story about what it means to be a student at my place without acknowledging the people who come to these mountains from other places in the country – Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, and that’s just the students at the top of my head. And not just other places in the United States, but other places in the world – this semester New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and Spain have been represented in my classrooms.

I’m struggling mightily with how we can return these students here and know that they’ll be safe, and we’ll be safe with them.

Blessedly, my place hasn’t made the kind of announcements that other places have. We have leaders still taking very slow, deliberate steps, and there’s no reason to expect they won’t make the very best decisions for the future of our institution when the time comes.

The problem is, they’re having to make those decisions in the midst of this persistent, unrelenting pressure – political pressure, economic pressure, the pressure that comes from people who are not willing to be patient because the threat they’ve heard so much about hasn’t come for this place.

I don’t envy any college president right now.


 

This is not a dialogue with answers. The type of conversation that needs to happen in order to stop all of this pressure and give the people who are feeling squeezed to reopen and resume life as “normal” is far, far beyond any voice I can lend. Between the public that feels untouched and laments the time wasted and the politician that only sees value in economic output, I don’t know what I can say that persuades that the work of the past two months has been some of the most important work American society can do, this process of self-sacrifice in the name of suppressing the spread of the most dangerous disease we’ve known in generations, perhaps in a century.

It’s demanded patience. We are a society that is not good at patience. More than anything, we want to do, and we want others to do for us.

We can’t imagine that it would be better for everyone to just stay home.

And everyone means everyone – from the students to the bigwigs of the Democratic National Committee.

 

Cover image by Tim Gouw on Unsplash.

Struggling for words to explain work

I have words for everything.

I run my mouth for a living, after all – explaining things as simple as pushes on boxes and as complex as the quantum mechanics of electrons around an atom to all kinds of students. If that kind of running of my mouth isn’t enough, I made great sport for much of my recent life of throwing myself into a car and driving all over the central Appalachians to read quiz games of all sorts to mostly high school students who find that type of challenge to be a good time.

From time to time, I’ve put words on the internet about the words I say to people, whether in a game or in a classroom or in the hallways of a high school or college campus in the interest of being encouraging or supportive.

I’m fighting for those words now, words to do my job, words to explain what that work looks like, and I’m struggling for them now harder than I ever have before.

This is a hard part of the world to care about school. A lot of people dismiss book-smarts in favor of work-smarts. This isn’t 100% unfair. The graft that made communities out of these mountains is something to be appreciated and honored. A lot of manual labor went into making the opportunities that the students I encounter have. We shouldn’t forget that.

But it makes the opportunities that come with exercising the brain diminish in importance. The work of the mind doesn’t look like work to the person who mines for the coal or labors in the factory. It’s too leisurely, it’s too sedentary. There’s so much of the work that I do in bringing about words to share that I can do from my couch. If I’m sitting stretched out while I’m working, is it really work at all?

Is it work if I’m stuck in my house for five solid weeks, discouraged-to-forbidden from being in my workplace to do the job I’ve done for nearly twenty years, trying to do the job from a laptop computer instead of in the kind of lab space where science education has been centered for my entire life?

So many of us know the answer. But as many of us don’t see it. “Stretched out on my couch” – or even “sitting at a desk” – trumps everything else I could explain about the challenges of what I do, day in and day out. The people who sit at the desk, after all, are the bean counters, making decisions and dictating pronouncements without any appreciation of what those decisions and pronouncements mean to the people who do the real work, in the real world.

Especially when the labor you’ve performed for your entire life is around other people, real people in the real world, you’re not going to respond positively when somebody who sits behind a desk comes out with the pronouncement that the disease that is spreading around the country isn’t like other diseases. You’ll respond even more nastily when that bean-counter says it doesn’t just go away with a pill or a shot or even necessarily with time, and how you conduct yourself around other people has to change. And frankly, it might not be a good idea to be around other people at all.

I don’t think enough of us have taken seriously enough how traumatic that is to a group of people who thought modern life was going to be salvation from a thing like a plague. We’ve never dealt with something like this before, not in any generation who didn’t know life in the Spanish Flu era of the late 1910’s. And it’s all the smart people who are saying that this coronavirus is as bad, if not worse, than that old epidemic.

You can call the resistance to that expertise anti-intellectualism if you must. But I heard those values throughout my own rural youth. I heard things about my book-smarts that, if they were complimentary at all, were complimentary in a back-handed sort of way. That’s all well and good, what you’re studying, but you just remember where you came from. You remember the work that gave you the opportunities you have.

Do you hear the message? I had opportunities. Those opportunities came from other people’s work. There’s a moral pecking order that’s constructed, and my opportunities aren’t at the top of that order.

I was incredibly fortunate. I had parents who helped me translate that message, who genuinely valued the opportunities I received, and who knew that the education I would experience would be something that required more labor of a different sort than anything any of us had experienced before. But just because the message didn’t come from the family home didn’t mean I wasn’t hurt from how it came from the community that was my home. I had a thing I could contribute to the world. It would never look like work to that community. And so it was diminished.

So I’m in the midst of this pandemic sitting in a strange seat. The people who come from where I came from are like my friends and neighbors in this place now. They want nothing more and nothing less than to return to the work that they know – real work, work around people, work that made this country what it was. The stifling of the economy isn’t something they understand in any greater or lesser way than friends and neighbors out of work, and perhaps themselves out of work too.

The overwhelming majority of those people aren’t going out to demonstrate and shout angry slogans about it, either out of fear of the disease or fear of association or even fear of impropriety. (I think back to the sportswriter who talked about the offense over a coaching failure for the local team being nothing more and nothing less than being unable to abide a tantrum, a scene being made. I think most of my friends and neighbors have no interest in making a scene for others to gawk at.) But they are increasingly understanding of why there are those who do demonstrate, why there are those who do shout angry slogans. And the first opportunity to get to do anything that resembles a normal life, they’re going to take it. Because they want their normal work back, and they want the rewards that go with normal work.

Never mind that work like that has been increasingly going away, and going away for quite some time, and what we’re living through right now may take a lot of that work and kill it off for good.

I wanted to start this off by talking about my struggle for words in this moment of life. I’m finding a lot of words, though. I have words to talk about not only what I do for a living, but how genuinely strange much of what I do for a living is in the place where I live and in the place where I was raised. Fields like science, like medicine, like public health are very foreign to those who work with their hands. There aren’t enough people in those fields who make a serious enough effort to bridge that gap of understanding.

And it’s in building that bridge of understanding where I run out of words. It’s making the people who I come from understand the severity of the adversary that faces them in this moment that I genuinely don’t know how to do.

What I long for right now in this moment is imagination for developing a new picture of work. Not merely for gaining acceptance for the very real intellectual, mental and emotional labor that I’ve been expending from this couch for the past five weeks, but the persuasion that there are creative ways of making a living in this way, promoting the willingness of people to pay money for labor of this sort.

The fear of change is very real – but change in this season of life is going to be necessary. We’ve been able to maintain a very comfortable status quo because of the security we’ve constructed over time against a variety of foes – to the point where we came to feel like that security was guaranteed, that we could live free of disease and in a universe of full employment with creature comforts that would make kings of old die with envy.

The fact that security has so suddenly been taken from us, and at the time it was taken from us it was taken with so little immediate evidence in our day-to-day lives that its revocation was necessary – and for many of us, without that evidence ever showing up tangibly on our doorstep – is going to unsettle those who have always believed that they could work their way out of any threat.

How do we settle those people that the world that takes its place can actually be better, more productive, more capable of serving the needs of all?


 

Halfway through the writing of this I came to realize that part of what I was writing about was other writers who have suddenly fallen to this insecurity, whose work isn’t fully appreciated.

As a long-time college football nerd, I’m a pretty faithful reader of Banner Society (especially their newsletter, the Read Option) and an even more faithful listener of Banner Society podcasts. Vox Media, who owns Banner Society, SB Nation, and a host of other web-media brands, furloughed 9% of their workforce as of May 1 yesterday – and among those that will be laid off are the creative, connective, and reporting heart of Banner Society.

Somebody with a lot more imagination than most of us ought to hire those people post-haste, because there’s no words for their talent, and even sometimes that talent impacts college football!

But much of what those people have done for a living is write. They’re in a very similar place to the one I find myself in, where what they have to contribute to the rest of the world doesn’t look like work in the universe I’ve come to know and have lived in and through.

More than anything else right now, I’m mourning. I could be genuinely angry at the ignorance of a host of people who have envisioned this country one way and can’t imagine any other existence, and the public and private actions they’re taking to advance that ignorance instead of advancing solutions. But anger won’t solve anything, and anger isn’t anything I feel anyway.

I’m powerfully sad that there are people who can only accept a way of living that puts themselves and others at risk, and even more sad that there are a fleet of rich people who can only imagine getting richer on the backs of those who lack the imagination to break away.

We need something better for a host of people. We need a society that isn’t dependent on putting people in a place where they risk themselves to keep it running; we need a society that rewards work that is reimagined and fulfilling without being physically exhausting.

I don’t know how you bring that about and bring society the unity of purpose in reinventing that work for everyone. At a certain point, I really am out of words.

Cover photo by Andrew Leu on Unsplash.

Thoughts from within the pandemic

But preparation has to happen on all levels, doesn’t it? Two weeks ago somebody might have deemed a practical guide to life in a pandemic hysterical, if not unthinkable. You still might feel that way. But we’re here, right on the brink, and we need to look at that guide anew and start thinking about the steps we take to make the prospect of a radical shift to our day-to-day lives as even-keeled and as kind-hearted as possible.

Now, here’s hoping I’m wrong about everything and we can keep living life as normal!

I wasn’t wrong.

I wish I was.

I made sure I had all of my stuff off campus yesterday so I don’t have to go there after the college starts conserving power to the academic buildings and shutting down computers. It’s an obvious move; none of us faculty are going to be working there at this point, we’re all at home doing education literally around the world. I have students in New Zealand and Spain, in Florida and Wisconsin and Colorado and Greeneville, Tennessee. This isn’t the type of student population I ever bargained on when I got interested in online education.

I’m social distancing in a part of the world where stubbornly continuing life as usual (or at least the illusion of life as usual) is the order of the day. I’m taking a pandemic seriously where my friends and neighbors are alternately cavalier and convinced the whole thing is overblown and furious and fuming that students who returned to our campus after Spring Break brought the virus with them.

I’m watching the collapse of my religious heritage accelerate between the continued evangelical support of this president as he self-evidently is increasingly clueless about how to lead, the willful and foolish reopening of the supposed evangelical flagship over the objections of its city leaders, and the editor of a leading evangelical journal actually write “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives'”, which is one way to put a stake through the heart of the entire pro-life movement.

The preparations to do this “remote learning” we’re going through right now is the one thing I feel like I can still control, and where I still feel a measure of comfort working. The shelter-in-place necessity is in all honesty the easy part; the work of making online learning happen is pretty straightforward. It’s all the other garbage that is wearying.

I’ve never been shy about loving rural America, or about embracing the challenge that comes with being a scholar within rural America. But it’s work that comes with a measure of isolation and solitude; there are precious few other people who comprehend the tension that comes with the work. Right now I feel as isolated as I’ve ever felt in my life, and while I miss being in the midst of the classroom and the lab with my students, the social distancing has comparatively little to do with that. I’m personally closer to the scholars who don’t understand why I’ve stayed here. The people who live around me reject the expertise that I represent.

I hear all kinds of people in my sphere of influence being wistful about a time in the future where things return to normal. But by living here, I know things haven’t been that kind of “normal” for a very long time. The fact that we have this president, and that so many of my neighbors embrace him and support him even now, in the midst of such spectacular failure, is evidence of that.

I’m supposed to be hopeful. I got complimented yesterday on how calm I’ve been and how affirming I’ve been in the midst of all of this. There are a lot of people who I’m around whose lives have been thrown into an upheaval that they didn’t deserve, and that is doing damage far beyond the inconveniences of a closed school or a workplace remanded to the home. I owe it to them to be kind and to be positive.

But none of that changes how utterly alone I feel, and how persuaded I am that the current crisis is going to get far, far worse for everyone before it gets better – how very real the prospect is that decades of neglect and selfishness have created not merely a world I will be fortunate to survive unscathed, but a world I will be fortunate to survive at all.

And meanwhile I continue to work from this couch like I’m a normal college instructor whose course load was simply coincidentally shifted suddenly from all in-person to all online.

At least my own personal normal was destroyed a long time ago. Everything else is just gravy.

 

Thoughts from the edge of a pandemic

I’m taking a moment between the latest round of news about another college transitioning to online instruction and preparing my own courses for the event of online instruction to breathe.

Breathing is going to be very important in the coming weeks, I’m afraid. I don’t have official word of my institution’s plans in my inbox but there is a loudly implied “yet” somewhere in there. As I’m watching announcements of the transitions march in from the north and the west, I’ve reached a moment of acceptance that it’s just a matter of time before the announcement shows up on my doorstep.

In the meantime, I’m really taking benefit from having done a lot of authoring in Moodle for courses that I teach. Most notably, our general chemistry labs are authored in Moodle as “quizzes” for students to complete during the lab time. Answering questions and getting feedback during the lab period is – in theory, at least – a half-decent way to keep the lab experience from becoming an overwhelming cookbook.

I’m adjusting that exact work to online simulators and spreadsheet programming as I start to plan an online adjustment. We’re especially fortunate in the physical sciences to have a set of tools that mimic physical reality spectacularly well in the PhET simulators, and through sheer serendipity many of the topics that PhET does best – electric circuits, oscillations and waves, concentration and spectroscopy – just so happen to be the topics that I’m facing in my freshman- and sophomore-level courses right now.

A lot of my coping in the event of an online transition, in other words, is going to be shifting work online in ways that I’m comfortable with and that I know. That seems like it should be a guideline for all of us. This is going to be awkward especially for students and for coursework that isn’t traditionally presented in an online format, and there shouldn’t be too many steps you take that take you too far outside of your comfort zone if you do have to teach online.

I’m speaking from a place of preparation, though. I’ve been thinking about what science education looks like digitally for a very long time. That may not be your place. All I can say in response to that is: most of us who do college instruction are scholars of one sort or another. We all have advanced degrees that are evidences of our capacity to think and act creatively. This is the time for that.

If anything is true about this moment, it’s that we’re preparing to step into one of the biggest educational laboratories we’ve ever known. Not all experiments are successful. This won’t be perfect. Embrace that and forgive yourself for that ahead of time. And then try things to see if they work, and see what your students can do. Be prepared for your students to surprise you.

The only other piece of advice I have as we step into this measure of the unknown is to remember the humanity of the person on the other side of the instructor/student divide. An online learning experience may trigger all kinds of fresh stressors and anxieties that you’ve never had to deal with before. The overwhelming majority of my students are traditional biology and chemistry majors; an online learning experience isn’t something that they signed on for when they started their college education. If I don’t practice kindness in this moment as much as any other, I’ve missed the point of why I got into this industry in the first place.

Beyond that I just have a brain that’s corrupted by thoughts of all kinds. Even as I’m supposed to be on spring break, I’ve been amazed at how much the events of the past week have brought fresh anxieties and frustrations to the front of my mind. As I’m writing this, the first confirmed case in the region has been announced – in Sullivan County, Tennessee, right in the neighborhood of my beloved Bristol. I know there isn’t a thing I can do to help events along by checking Twitter endlessly. I check Twitter endlessly anyway. It’s not helping me rest the way a spring-breaking faculty member should rest.

But I know I’m not alone in those anxieties right now. Life at the edge of a pandemic is uncharted for most of us. This is a fascinating bug – if you haven’t read some of the explanations of how the symptoms of the virus express themselves, it’s worth your time. Some people never express symptoms at all; others express symptoms that make pneumonia sound like a picnic. I know how many of you are tired hearing about this thing, but it’s possible it’s actually underhyped in terms of the amount of havoc it can cause – and the amount of uncertainty that could underlie its spread. Healthy fear, in this case, may involve the type of shutdown that even a week ago might have seemed absolutely unthinkable.

I don’t have a neat bow for this post, either. As it should be, I suppose – it was an effort to get words out of my head so I could go back to the preparatory work that is necessary in this moment.

But preparation has to happen on all levels, doesn’t it? Two weeks ago somebody might have deemed a practical guide to life in a pandemic hysterical, if not unthinkable. You still might feel that way. But we’re here, right on the brink, and we need to look at that guide anew and start thinking about the steps we take to make the prospect of a radical shift to our day-to-day lives as even-keeled and as kind-hearted as possible. 

Now, here’s hoping I’m wrong about everything and we can keep living life as normal!

Cover photo for post by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.

Running from depression: a postscript

I had an essay published in the online magazine Disability Acts last week, on my history with depression and how unlikely it is that the depression is going to go away.

Most of the composition of the original essay happened in August, when I gave the essay over for editing and publication. It’s obviously not August anymore.

In the midst of the fits and starts of our lives, that essay went through heavier editing than anything I’ve ever written in my life. I’m not a professional writer, and I’m bad to compose what I publish on the fly and just give it out to the world – sort of what I’m making myself do now with this blogpost, so I can get this done and get to working on other things that need to be written and graded. But I had a very strong sense from the onset that this story of my depression – both the past and the present of the story – needed to be told much more deliberately. I constructed a deliberate pitch for the essay before I wrote the draft, and I allowed myself to take time with the initial round of edits rather than just brushing the lot of them off and saying “this is my voice, take it or leave it.”

Part of the real benefit of this process was the editing of my words by Kelly Baker, who – along with Katie Rose Guest Pryal – has created this space online for a host of us to talk about our experience with all kinds of disability, and contribute narratives that don’t fit the expectation that popular media seems to want about disease and recovery and ongoing success in the face of adversity. I don’t have that kind of story to share, and it’s more than a bit of relief to find that there are a lot of folk who don’t have that kind of story to share either. Mental illness is a day-in, day-out lived experience, one that is very difficult for those who live “normal” to understand.

Kelly edited this thing with the greatest respect for my words but with questions that were pointed challenges. I leaned into the metaphor of running hard – after all, when I was younger, I literally ran from the problem. Kelly didn’t just let me toss the metaphor out there and leave it unanswered, though. What was I running from? Where did the compulsion to run come from, and what concrete fears was I dealing with as I grew to the point where I am now? They were questions I needed, not just in the moment, but to sit with and to answer as definitively as I could – not just for an essay, but for myself.

Going through the process of producing my essay with someone who understands the territory well and recognized the impulses I was feeling, even as she was provoking me to define them more carefully and more specifically, was a blessing that it’s hard to put into words. I’m grateful for all she gave into my work, and for the space that Kelly and Katie have created to receive it.

But time has passed between August and February, and I’ve had more time to sit with the proposed diagnosis of persistent depressive disorder and the medication I’m on to counter it.


 

The simple fact that I’m typing out these words on the same day I’ve worked on letters of recommendation and when I still have to plan for an upcoming conference is evidence that the medication is doing one of the most important things I need for it to, and that’s provide the focus to produce concrete results. One of the most frustrating symptoms of my depression was the inability to take initiative to perform a task and have the persistence to see that task through; I’d start a lot of different things, but my focus would badly fade. The antipsychotic medication I’m taking has provided a lot of defense against that.

It is a mild antipsychotic, however, and one of the side effects that comes with the antipsychotic is restlessness. I’ve learned a new word in this new time of medication – akathisia, the innate inability to sit still. Akathisia is a core side-effect of antipsychotic medication, and in its extreme expressions, it’s the effect that leads to the aggression or suicidal ideation that has been associated with antipsychotics.

I figured out very quickly that I couldn’t take even the smallest dose of the antipsychotic every day; the restlessness that resulted was simply overwhelming. I had to take it only on days when I needed the effect and I was going to be doing persistently anyway. When you’re teaching a lab, the restlessness and the instinct to move around quickly isn’t a side effect, it’s a positive feature. I settled into my own pattern of taking the medication, and the PA I was seeing supported it.

Even with both a traditional antidepressant and the augmenting antipsychotic, there are still days when the depression breaks through the gaps. My mood is extremely well-regulated, and emotional highs and lows are genuinely something in my past and not in my present – the antidepressant I take manages that spectacularly, also on the lowest possible dose. But just because the mood is managed doesn’t mean that the physical crashes associated with depression don’t appear – the fatigue, the loss of focus. That, I’m starting to believe, are features of the “double depression” that is a characteristic of persistent depressive disorder – and my suspicion, albeit one that I’m not going to be able to prove, is that the treatment arrests some features of a major depressive episode but not others.

When that happens, I have to forgive myself. It’s okay to take an extra couple of hours of sleep. It’s okay to take an evening off from work or commitments and recover. I do a lot, and I don’t acknowledge that I do a lot enough – or that other people find that lot of what what I do worthwhile.

Early in my professional life I only cared about what I did in the academic environment, and lived in that constant fear that I wasn’t doing enough. That’s the fear that tenure-track faculty are supposed to have, after all, and if you have to ask if you’re doing enough you’re obviously not. I’m much more satisfied now that having that sort of outlook on your professional life is toxic, and it leads you to miss the human element of life – family, friendship, kindness to strangers. I’m hopeful that I’m better at all of that now.

There’s one other element that’s been surprising in this process. I’ve been assuming the need for therapy with new medication or new life circumstance ever since I first allowed myself to admit depression was a reality. Through a comedy of errors and circumstance, I haven’t been able to see a single therapist since my arrival in Greeneville, and all the providers I have seen have told me that I don’t need therapy right now. It’s been very different going through the process of the strongest and most persistent bout I’ve had with depression without a mental health professional to dialogue with, but the trust I have in the medication is pretty strong and I’ve drawn on past dialogues and past experience to make the present moment work for me – and, as I mentioned in the essay, having a physician’s assistant who was willing to listen and respond patiently has been everything I genuinely needed.

That PA is leaving the region, however, and I’m going to need a new primary care provider within the next year. There will be a decision-making process ahead, and the story that the essay left unfinished has turns ahead.

But that’s the importance of the essay – that this story doesn’t get tied up in a neat bow. There are new realizations and new obstacles as life moves forward.


 

Two other things. One, I had believing friends express their appreciation for my honesty in the aftermath of the essay’s publication, which I appreciate a great deal – there’s a lot in spiritual experience that teaches incorrectly that dependence on God is more important than dependence on medicine, that assumes that mental illness isn’t actual mental illness at all. I didn’t really give that reality time in the essay, because I intended it for a much wider audience than us Jesus-freaks. But if you live in a spiritual existence while experiencing any mental dysfunction at all, Brant Hansen’s essay “Is Jesus Enough?” is an essential read – it’s over twelve years old at this point, but it still gets at the basic conflict I experience over being someone who believes that the Divine is all-powerful and entirely sufficient and yet here I am, on these mind-altering drugs.

The second thing applies to everyone, and it’s the standard exhortation – the reminder that, if you’re struggling with any kind of mental dysfunction, you are truly not alone, and there is somebody out there who shares your experience. I got told I was brave a whole lot for sharing all of this in that essay. I have a very hard time seeing this as bravery anymore; what’s become my therapy is the freedom to talk about my mental health in the reality of how I experience it. I’m happy to have this conversation anymore, as difficult as the conversation can be.

If you’re struggling, let the willingness to have the conversation about what you’re struggling with be your freedom too. There’s an old Margaret Becker song with the central lyric “God’s not afraid of your honesty/He can heal your heart if you speak honestly.” Again, I’m not interested in overspiritualizing this process; the outcome isn’t neat. But even in the messy imperfection of my own progress through mental illness, I hope the healing of my heart is evident in how freely I talk about the process of my treatment and in the welcome I extend to others.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

So here’s a bench. Stop running. Rest a while.

And here’s to building other things.