• 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

Strains

A lot of uncertainty at one time.

August 4, 2021
 
 

Someone asked me today what my greatest concern is about the September return.

I said something like, “So many people who are already stretched dealing with so much uncertainty at the same time.” I stand by it.

I’ve mentioned before that often when folks say that they want transparency, what they really want is certainty. When they get transparency about an uncertain situation, they don’t like it. Uncertainty can be stressful.

In this case, the sources of uncertainty are obvious. On Monday, The Girl asked me if I thought her school would go remote again next month. I don’t think it will, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it mandated masks. But I was struck that she asked. She’s usually quite composed; for her to show concern like that, it must be pretty bad. She’s picking up on something.

Next month we’ll have students, staff and faculty return who have been remote for a year and a half. I suspect -- I hope to be wrong on this -- that some of the strains people have felt have been largely hidden by virtue of being home. When they come to campus, even if only for part of the week, some of those hidden struggles may become visible. And when some folks aren’t at their best, they can set off unhelpful responses among others whose fuses are uncharacteristically short after so much isolation and under so much stress.

The strains come from many sources, most of which we can’t address directly. There’s the obvious concern about the Delta variant. Some people have lost family members or friends. Others are dealing with, or have significant others who are dealing with, long-haul symptoms. Social connectedness has taken a beating, which is particularly tough on young people who are wired to seek each other’s company. Job situations are often in flux. We have reports that substance abuse and anxiety spiked during the pandemic; in some cases, the former is partly an attempt to manage the latter. Students with special needs may have been particularly affected, as the services on which they rely may have been attenuated.

Then, of course, there are strains of the virus itself. There’s no guarantee that Delta, however it plays out, will be the last variant. As I understand it -- and I happily defer to folks whose knowledge of viruses is greater than mine -- the longer a virus circulates, and the more people it infects, the more chances there are for new mutations to develop and replicate. That makes planning with confidence much more difficult: even if our current protocols are good enough now, something may happen in a month or a few months that renders them ineffective. Yes, we know better how to shift to remote operation than we did a year and a half ago, but the effect on morale a second time around could be brutal.

That’s a lot of uncertainty at one time.

In the absence of certainty about circumstance, we’re probably best off relying on what we do know. We know that decency in how we treat each other can go a long way. We know that nobody is superhuman, and we all sometimes need to take a moment. We know that many, many people are bearing scars, most of which we can’t see. And we know that we can choose to make those scars worse, or to help them heal.

Healing is a choice we have to make over and over again, even when we don’t feel like it. I hope we have the strength to keep making that choice.

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