• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

A Different Kind of Return

A dispatch from the first few days of classes.

September 13, 2021
 
 

Wednesday was the first day of fall semester classes. We have a lot of once-a-week classes, so there will still be some newbies through Tuesday of this week.

That said, though, the first few days were mostly encouraging.

I was struck immediately by the increased liveliness of the campus. I’ve been back steadily for a few weeks and intermittently for the last year; during those times, the place was too quiet. Having lots of students wandering around felt right. It was literally what the place was built for, other than the original barns.

Still, it was less crowded than past first days of fall. We’re running around 60 percent of our classes in person, as opposed to the usual 80-plus, and the difference is noticeable. Even at peak times, parking wasn’t terrible. Hallways were active during class changes, but less so than in the past. That was by design. But even a relatively muted return was much livelier than the last year and a half.

I usually clear most of my meetings for the first couple of days, and did so again this year. The idea is to spend as much time as I can either dealing with last-minute emergencies -- there’s always something in the first week -- or helping students find their way to their classrooms. As with many campuses, our room numbering is somewhat idiosyncratic, and our signage could be described as subtle; I can’t blame them for getting turned around. I did a fair bit of escorting students from the wrong building to the right one.

(Tip for students who show me their phones to decipher their schedule: crank up the brightness. Fifty-something eyes don’t do well with 5 percent brightness. Embarrassing, but true.)

This year added the variable of the mask mandate. I carried a bunch of masks as I walked the hallways. When I spotted someone unmasked, I walked up to them, said something like, “Sorry, but masks are required,” and handed them one. Most complied immediately, some apologizing. A few rolled their eyes before complying, but I’ve been a parent of teenagers long enough to let eye rolls slide. If it means preventing an outbreak, I can brave a few eye rolls.

Happily, I didn’t have to confront very many. Compliance has been quite good over all. I suspect that reflects three variables. The first is awareness of the Delta variant. The second is a widespread feeling of Zoom fatigue; after more than a year of all screens, all the time, many people are so excited to be back in person that mask wearing is a small price to pay. The third is the availability of online and remote classes; if you really object to wearing a mask, you’re welcome to explore our online and remote options. I think of that option as a sort of cultural safety valve; if you really don’t want to wear a mask but still want to take classes, there you go.

In my ideal(ish) scenario, we use this semester to figure out which affordances from going remote are worth keeping. We stick to our protocols and keep people safe. And we stop from time to time to reflect on just how refreshing it is to see students hanging out between classes again. We all needed that. I know I did.

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