March 2020

Dear Colleagues

The promise of a better future through education and agitation is a calling that no pandemic, however serious, could interrupt. We must and will persevere.

Professors often go into higher education because we want to work with students to help create a better world. Our students sign on the dotted line, committing substantial resources, because they believe in this better future, either for themselves or for their communities. This is part of what makes the loss of our campus community so difficult under COVID-19; we believe in a better world yet are forced to acknowledge that we are subject to forces far beyond our control. If the point of the world is to change it, there can be little worse than being forced to cease much of that work to “shelter in place.” 

Fortunately, there are things we can do.

First, we should acknowledge that we are experiencing an event of mass privation, suffering, and trauma. It is OK if some days it’s too much for you. It’s even OK if this is most days. Take the time that you need away from work and, especially, from stressers like social media and consider supplementing these with some light cardio, pleasure reading, free-drawing, or some other de-stressing activity. Many of us have additional caretaker responsibilities for the foreseeable future as daycares and assisted living arrangements shut down and as friends and family get sick or go into self-quarantine. In short, we have many different people asking a lot of us all at once. While I’m sure that most of us would love to meet all of these demands, we have to accept that we will not be able to do this work as educators if we do not take care of ourselves. That means pacing ourselves, practicing self care, and asking for help when we need it.

Know when to stop working and curl up in a ball next to the heater. Photo by author.

Second, we must work to reassure our students and create a sense of continuity and purpose during this stressful time. Above all, this means treating our students with compassion and communicating our commitment to their success and well-being. This may require that we change some assignments or their parameters. Who, after all, will be able to go to the university writing center? How will they access the required number of sources for the final paper? Though we won’t be able to fix the larger issues they face related to COVID-19, we can and should help them feel at ease within the context of our courses. 

I understand the impulse to reject online teaching as another in a long list of demands universities make of us without input or compensation. I worry, however, that a boycott or something of that nature will be ignored by administrators dealing with public health or funding concerns while causing harm to our students. Whether we use a pass/fail system, institute a COVID curve, or scrap grades entirely, we still provide important continuity and community for the students we serve. We should, I believe, continue to do that work while understanding that it will be imperfect and look dramatically different than our usual classes. The promise of a better future through education and agitation is a calling that no pandemic, however serious, could interrupt. We must and will persevere.

Just as the WPA created infrastructure still used by subsequent generations, we have an opportunity to lay the intellectual groundwork that allows the next generation to thrive. Stanley Thomas Clough, “Let Them Grow” (Ohio: Federal Arts Project, W.P.A., 1938), Library of Congress.

Third, we should be asking questions about our campus community. Although it often doesn’t feel like it, we are at the center of what makes our universities function and our voices matter. As such, we have an opportunity to guarantee some continuity for staff facing longterm cuts and potential lay-offs as well as for contingent faculty who face substantial insecurity. We can demand more of our institutions and require that they serve the needs of all of their members. This will look different based on our own positions within the university. Tenure-track and continuing faculty, for example, might feel they have to be more diplomatic than tenured faculty whose roles at the university are more secure. Whatever the case, we make up the backbone of the university and we can work together to support our colleagues and friends.

Fourth, insofar as it is possible, we should step up and speak out as leaders in our local communities. Each of us is highly educated, competent, and driven. We have a great deal we can contribute to the collective effort to keep our neighbors safe and ensure that their needs are met.

Finally, we must care for one another. This may look like getting in touch with colleagues, setting up a regular Zoom lunch or other social time, or offering teaching resources and assistance. We can be here for each other, even if we’re stuck in our homes.

Our campus community can emerge from this stronger than before. We can help make that happen and make a difference in the lives of our students and colleagues in the process.

2 comments on “Dear Colleagues

  1. I love this. So much of it is also applicable to those of us teaching high school history. Thank you so much for sharing your insight.


    • William Horne

      Thank you for reading and for your kind note! This is a hard time for all of us in education, but we can do this. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to support.


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