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When my college, like so many others, abruptly switched to online classes last spring, I scrambled but did my best to adjust. Although I had a steep learning curve, I settled into working from home, thinking I could endure that for a month or two. But now this temporary hiatus has a more lengthy and indefinite duration, with a future that’s hard to discern.

As the pandemic continues into the fall, I'm re-entering a world that’s different from the one I left. It’s one in which social expectations are rising all around, creating a new normal that will of necessity be asking more of me. A still threatening pandemic, racial injustice and civic unrest, an economy in recession. All this amid reports about our diminishing trust in our institutions and each other. I'm living in a more uncertain, fragile and interdependent world.

But more than the world has changed. Seeing it with new eyes, I have, too.

At first, I must confess, much of what I learned about myself was frivolous. I know I can wear the same shirt two days in a row and am not above the occasional day spent in my pajamas. I know I can be months overdue for a haircut and still have a wife who likes my evolving bohemian look. With my family safe and my job secure in the spring, I was initially given a temporary pass on the upheaval affecting so many others.

Unsettling for me personally was the way uncertainty became an everyday affair. A planner by nature, I am not immune from compulsiveness in this regard. A sabbatical upended. A conference postponed. As such things occurred, I struggled with my unhealthy tendency to suspect that more untoward events would certainly follow.

Much more fundamentally, though, I began to see my world as fragile in more ways than I had suspected. Of all the things I had worried about, a concern about a worldwide pandemic never made it to the unspoken list that I, like many of us, carry around in my head.

I also came to see anew how this very fragility of my world is intertwined with its interdependence. As someone known for academic work in an interdisciplinary area, this was at some level no surprise, but I discovered there was an aspect to my awareness that was more conceptual than existential. When a virus first discovered in Wuhan, China, can upend my life in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, its abstract character abruptly disappears.

And that’s the rub for me now with so many things: how, more than I care to admit, the world beyond my family, work and friends was something more thought about than lived.

But in our currently uncertain environment, simply scanning the daily news regularly disrupts my course materials. Take, for instance, a video I’ve shown previously in my class. It shows young people using their legal knowledge to successfully challenge an illegitimate stop by authorities. In the video, they are successful and allowed to go their way. I’ve always liked the way it revealed how students can use what they learn in my class to speak truth to power. But after George Floyd, I can’t look at the video in the same way anymore. I have less faith in its value. The defenses of constitutional law are all too precarious on our heated streets at the moment.

In other ways, too, the fragility of the world now seems closer to home. When barbershops in my town finally open, I go to a new barber up the street. As he cuts my hair, I learn he went for three months without any income, lost his employees and now wonders if his business will ever fully recover. The large tip I’ve always regarded as generous now suddenly seems inadequate.

And that may be the core of the larger fear I have professionally. That no matter what I do in the classroom, it’s inadequate to the present moment.

I’ve never been much good at fixing my car. Changing the oil is about as far as I’ve gone on my own. My father-in-law, an ace at car repairs, regularly observes my mechanical ineptitude with a generous eye. He says, “Jeff, you can’t be good at everything.”

With a worldwide pandemic ineluctably laying bare our interwoven lives, I recall his comment and now recognize a necessary consequence that had escaped me before: “And that’s why we need each other.” With our lives more intimately wedded together, the interdependence of the world that brought the virus to my doorstep must also be the starting point for going forward. For it inescapably reveals, we need to do this together.

I’m not a scientist working on a vaccine or police officer taking someone into custody or an economist advising the Fed.

But I am a teacher, and I try to do it well. Rising to the present moment for me means reorienting my teaching beyond a simple focus on my discipline. I find myself seeing a new relevancy to a Nel Noddings-inspired quote I’ve long had in the back of my mind: “We teach students before we teach subjects.”

With each class, I look out at 25 or so students -- each of them different, each with their own histories and struggles, each with their evolving hopes for the future. These differences in race, gender, class and beyond among my students mirror those of the wider world. With the interdependence of the world ever more evident, differences such as these are at once our most significant challenges and most promising opportunities. So much of our future depends on our ability to make them work for us. So every time I enable the diverse group of students before me to respect each other and work together, I count it as a step forward, hoping it’s not such a small step after all.

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