Friday, June 26, 2020

The Neglected Student and the Academic's Cozy Pandemic

I would think some of us –– those secure in a bubble of privilege ––  would remember what was essential in our own academic journey.  Are some senior faculty in American universities blind to the impact the closed campus has on students threatened by the absence of direct connection to mentors and peers? Is our unexamined comfort a source of collusion? What is our mission? Have we not failed if we do not produce passion for our subject matters, lifelong connections, or future academics? 

The virtual is not good enough. Students need in-the-flesh community to enact the rite of passage the traditional university is designed to provide.  This is especially crucial for graduate students as they enter and when they leave the university. Their life plans hinge on finding friends and mentors when they begin a new stage of life and to cement those relationships when they exit. It is unrealistic to believe this can be achieved online. The person to person connection and commitment is not the same. I write from experience. During the first months of the pandemic I taught entirely online “Case Studies in the Lives of Persons” at Harvard Extension School.  The face to face Zoom interaction often felt intimate and satisfying. But here’s the rub. I am fairly certain that if I was walking on campus and passed any of these students, I would not recognize them beyond some uncanny feeling they seem familiar. 

Most of my academic load is teaching and supervising doctoral level clinical psychologists. I am also a practicing psychoanalyst. In the past, before I would consider initiating or terminating a therapeutic relationship, I wanted to be physically present. Nonetheless, since the pandemic began, I have begun working online with a few individuals and couples who simply could not wait until we felt safe to meet in person. Online therapy has a different cadence and perspective. The face to face immediacy is both challenge and asset. And, as with my online only students, I fear I would not recognize any of my new patients if we sat at nearby tables in the outdoor cafes now open in Boston.

Here is what I am observing: Some of my peers, people at least for now reassured about their means, the ones not struggling with child care, those not worried about student evaluations for promotion and tenure, are sleeping better, feel less hurried, and find comfort in their extended, sheltered-in-place lives. We are enjoying our enforced staycation. 

Suddenly freed from showing up, freed from the demands of students, we are quietly invested in remaining at home, on Zoom, reading what we want, getting caught up on TV, tending our gardens, having our food delivered. We are thriving. Thriving, that is, at the expense of an obligation to our students and those less sheltered. This staycation is a relief for people secure in their social lives, family, and career. For people who are not secure or established, the profound isolation of shutdowns and the extreme uncertainty of what they face, if and when the pandemic passes, provokes responses from ordinary anxiety to scarring trauma. I witness both patterns daily.

For those the pandemic has not created desperation, has it offered a hard to admit but welcome break? Is whatever guilt we notice dampened by our virtuous acceptance of a social distance we don’t really resent?  

We are complicit in intergenerational injustice if we relish the cozy place we have in our retreats. I would not have thought this weeks ago, but I am discovering conflict with the comfort I have achieved. I say I want this over, but I am reluctant to have it end. When the lockdowns started in March, I would have thought I would want them ended as soon as it was clear our hospital systems were no longer in danger of collapse. Months later, I cannot claim my comfort with the closed campus is an ethical concern for the greater good of students; instead, it’s mainly about my comfort.

We all face a pandemic. A terrible disease for some elders and for those whose social conditions of race, ethnicity, and economic class place them in harm’s way; and for the medical responder inadequately protected and overwhelmed by a viral load. Nonetheless, ordinarily, the virus is a manageable sickness for most students and the young. There are horrible exceptions, many exceptions that require many cautions. 

We need proper planning to protect those who need protection and we need to be prepared for expected and unexpected tragedy. But this pandemic could last for years. The hope of a vaccine by the winter that actually works may be good for the markets but does not reflect medical or logistical reality. Anticipate this. Sequester vulnerable seniors in well lighted, well ventilated rooms with bright monitors and good headsets. Give us sufficient bandwidth; but let students and willing faculty gather with realistic caution of contagion. At this point some of our contentment is obvious, but what should be obvious is that this contentment is complicit with the degradation of a generation of future academics.

The pandemic is a prequel of global stress to come. We need a thousand solutions. Those enjoying their comfort should be aware they are part of the problem.  

6/30/20 edited 8/17/20

The current Rate of Transmission (RT) in my community is now hovering around .83. Very soon, Northeastern and Boston University will bring large numbers of students into my neighborhood. I expect the RT to rise. But is keeping them home a better public health practice than sending them back to school? On campus, masked and unmasked, will they maintain social distance? Of course not. They'll hop from classroom to bar; they'll party and generally mess around with each other. They will spread infection. No doubt. But what do we expect they'll do at home? Stay in the house? At home, who are the targets of infection? Friends, parents, siblings, grandparents, and others under the same roof, in the same rooms. A household vulnerable to sickness and death, some more than those on campus. We need a reasonable risk/benefit analysis that compares home risk to the problems of on-campus learning. Perhaps it's been done. If so, it would be useful to see.

A version of this posting appeared as an Op Ed in the August 17, 2020 Harvard Crimson: