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Guest Post: The Complexities of Certainty

Catherine J. Denial asks us to consider the complexities of the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in.

April 26, 2020
 
 

When I think of my classroom, I think not of the physical space, but of the infinite variability of the life experiences that converge there. The students with whom I collaborate are, by many markers, the archetype of 100 think pieces -- 18- to 22-year-olds at a small, residential liberal arts campus, drawn from a generation that David Brooks recently described as “coddled.” Yet their experiences belie that generalization. They are parents; they care for their elders; they are often a key means of financial support for their families at large. They wrestle with food insecurity, and they are the guardians of their physical and mental health. They are out, and coming out, and have transitioned, and are transitioning, and they are navigating all the relationships that have changed for good or for ill as a result. Misogyny and racism and classism surround them, and they are organizers and activists on campus and off.

There are no two students alike, just as there are no two educators alike. Every struggle our students face we face ourselves, especially -- although not solely -- among those of us who are precariously employed. We are perhaps better placed to meet those struggles than some of our students, but the bite of poverty does not matter less because of our years in academe. The destabilizing effect of mental or physical illness, the caregiving responsibilities we shoulder, the oppressive forces at work on our bodies and hearts and minds -- these form real and meaningful differences between us, even as we commit ourselves to an educational common cause. Privileges abound in academia, but so do experiences of loss, instability and fear.

And into this situation we were called to respond to a pandemic.

It is tempting to reach for certainties when everything around us is in chaos, and for a vast swath of higher ed instructors, the rapid shift from face-to-face teaching to emergency distance learning has been chaos. Small wonder, then, that people have offered -- and clung to -- advice that seeks to bring order to disorder. Many people have advised instructors to prioritize professionalism, ditching the sweatpants and putting away the visible clutter in our homes before making a Zoom call, upholding concepts like "rigor" so that our standards do not slip. To some, these appeals to universal principles are right-minded and heartening, a bulwark against confusion and disarray. But to others they have felt oppressive, even dangerously out of touch with the world in which we and our students live.

For certainties can be dangerous; their very power is based upon reifying well-worn inequities dressed up as tradition. There is no such thing as an objective professionalism, for example, that exists outside academia’s history of privileging the presence of upper-class white men above that of all others. As educators differ from that ideal, they are penalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, gender and myriad other variables, asked to show proof of their belonging in dress, speech patterns, hairstyle and demeanor. Likewise, there is no objective standard of success that we reach when we insist on rigor, which is too often deployed in defense of practices that are ableist and unkind. Rigor, for example, rarely accommodates all students from the get-go but waits for a directive from disability services and does not question why the course, as designed, works only for the able-bodied and neurotypical.

Professionalism and rigor are just two tropes out of many. They distort the way academia worked before the pandemic, waving away the injustices felt by too many instructors, from graduate students to the most veteran educators. And they distort the reality of living in a pandemic. We are not just teachers, or scholars, or professionals. We are individuals thrown back in varying degrees on our own resources, worried about ourselves and our families and friends as we navigate the effects of COVID-19. Many of us are deeply anxious and afraid. Our pre-existing frailties have been magnified; we feel vulnerable, distracted and at sea. Our loved ones are sick, even dying. This is trauma. Few of us have faced such world-changing circumstances before, and as our minds absorb the impact of that reality, our brains cannot perform as capably as they usually would.

Professionalism as usual will not save us. The most professional people I know right now are those who show up, day after day, to teach under extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps they do it with their laundry waiting to be folded, while their children interrupt, thinking constantly of their loved ones, weathering loneliness, wearing sweatpants and potentially in need of a haircut. But I know they do it while acknowledging this is not the world in which we taught two months before, and that every student is facing disruption, uncertainty and distraction. They do it creatively, making room for the unexpected, challenging their students, with the world a participant in the conversation.

They do it with compassion, acknowledging, always, the infinite variability of the experiences in the room.

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Catherine J. Denial is the Bright Distinguished Professor of American History, chair of the history department and director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

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