Five Weeks On

Caution: This swinging door on campus engages in positive self-talk.

I can’t say this has been my least stressful semester of teaching.

On one campus, my very first class period was interrupted by a tornado warning. Later, I learned that an EF-3 tornado had been leveling a neighborhood five miles away from our classroom. On another campus, major flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida shut down freeways during my morning commute, turning an hourlong trip into a three-hour tour of various neighborhoods. (And then I had to figure out how to get back home that night.)

A few days later, a driver who couldn’t tell where the lanes were—because the state apparently hasn’t been maintaining roads at all during the past two years—hit the side of my car as we tried to exit one of those same freeways. Nobody was hurt, and we were both able to drive home, but I can’t say the accident reduced my anxiety about knowing that American roads, per mile traveled, are 24% deadlier than they were before the pandemic.

Indeed, homicidally reckless behavior is routine on the roads here. On Friday, for only one example, a driver followed me for two miles on the freeway with her headlights switched off, half an hour before dawn. Nighttime stealth driving actually isn’t unusual in this region; a typical week furnishes me with more than one example. Such motorists, as foolish as they are, scare me far less than all the drivers who seem determined to vent their social aggression at high speed in heavy traffic, day after day. There is not a doubt in my mind that their behavior is worse than it was before the pandemic.

So far, meanwhile, I have taught COVID-positive students in at least two classes without getting a symptomatic infection. The first time, this caused considerable anxiety because I developed what I now assume was an unusually bad case of nasal allergies around the same time. (I eventually tested negative for COVID. To get my test, I had to drive past road crews that were cutting down broken trees along the path of the tornado.) The second time I learned about a student’s positive test, I barely thought about it, given everything else going on.

Maintaining any topical continuity in my classes this fall, of course, has been nearly impossible due to high absenteeism, as students are forced to quarantine or deal with all the other things that seem to be breaking in American society right now. And in most weeks, I have had almost no prep time between classes, given my commute. That, too, dramatically degrades the quality of the instruction students are getting.

All in all, this semester feels apocalyptic in a way few ever have before.

That Was Fast (UPDATED)

My Labor Day began with the labor of rearranging a covid test for myself, plus the work of planning how I will teach most of my classes online this week.

That’s because last night, one of my employers announced that the whole campus is switching to remote instruction temporarily—until at least Friday. The reason for this change is a rapid increase in known COVID-19 cases among students, combined with the risks of Labor Day holiday travel.

In the same email, the university announced that about 90% of all the students and workers on campus are at least partially vaccinated. We have had five days of class so far this semester.


UPDATE: I’m pleased to say we’ve been told we will head back into the classroom on Monday.

The university has determined that only two (i.e., about four percent) of the known cases have been traced to possible classroom transmission. Most of the rest come from “large social gatherings in off-campus venues.” (I assume some cases were simply instances in which a student arrived on campus for the semester with an infection contracted elsewhere, but we haven’t been told that.) Symptoms, we’re told, have been generally mild; some of the infected students assumed they were suffering from seasonal allergies.

And on a personal note, I got a negative result on my PCR test this week.

I think it’s important to provide this update because as far as I can tell, this university’s key precautions—required COVID-19 vaccination, an indoor mask mandate, and a dedicated team working on testing and contact tracing—have been successful so far. That’s in spite of the fact that we have full classrooms and are working in the middle of a large city.

As we look ahead toward a near future in which covid is an endemic problem, we seem to be finding ways to make things work.

Cyborg Teaching in the Third Plague Year

I went to campus yesterday to finalize the preparations for my first day of in-person teaching since March 2020. Among other things, this involved testing out the gear I’ll be wearing in the classroom, facing a total of about 90 mostly vaccinated students.

Pictured or implied:

  • A deceptively calm instructor in a self-administered haircut
  • A KN95 respirator on the FDA’s (now-defunct) emergency use authorization list
  • An “ear saver” that maintains a tight seal around the KN95 while relieving strain on the ears during extended use
  • A $30 rechargeable personal PA system worn on a strap, with a wired headset, to allow me to project my voice effectively through the mask (over the whir of the classroom’s air filtration unit) without shouting

I think it should work. It’s going to be weird as heck, but it should work.

“A Teacher in My District Died of Covid Yesterday”

Texas governor Greg Abbott in 2018 (photo by Jay Godwin, public domain)

One of my good friends is a schoolteacher in Texas, my home state. There, the governor, who is running for a third term in 2022, has ordered school districts and public colleges not to enforce basic pandemic precautions, even as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are returning to last winter’s levels.

My friend has written the following update, which I’m reposting here with their permission.


“A teacher in my district died of Covid yesterday. His last day at school was one week ago, the first day of classes. He welcomed groups of 12 year-olds back for a new year, and then today those kids learned that he is no longer alive. And they learned this news at school, because classes are still in session at every campus. I don’t know how many cases we’ve had at any of those campuses because the district isn’t required to report that information, so they aren’t.

“I didn’t know this teacher, and I also don’t know when or how he got Covid. I assume he was with me 11 days before he died, crammed into the high school entryway for breakfast and a vendor fair with all the rest of the district faculty and staff, and later crowding the hallways playing teambuilding games. I don’t know if he was one of the 15% or so of people wearing a mask as we all sat together in the gym and the superintendent told us that he and the school board weren’t willing to end up in a courtroom over trying to impose a mask mandate in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.

“I have worn a mask in the building every day since I returned on August 4th, except when I am alone in my classroom. I am not enjoying it, and I’m not looking for any social bonus points for doing so . . . I just want to survive (and maybe even thrive). Actually, I feel a bit stupid wearing a mask in spaces where 95% of the people around me aren’t. Does it even matter? That ratio has improved over the past few weeks, but I don’t know whether it’s enough. I’d say roughly 1/4-1/3 of my students have masks covering some portion of their face at any given point during class.

“But of course, I’m not wearing a mask to protect myself from them. I’m wearing a mask to protect them from me (and hoping enough of them will do the same to move the needle). Because the other piece of this is that, although I don’t know how many people in this building have been vaccinated (the county is at less than 40%), I know they all at least could be if they chose to. Everyone else in my family is spending all day surrounded by people who definitely aren’t. All of my kids are under 12, and my spouse teaches pre-K. Their school has already had so many staff out sick that they’ve decided to impose a mask mandate effective today. I haven’t heard yet how that’s going. My 4th grader complains that I make her wear a mask even though only 3 other kids in her class do, and her teachers don’t, either. The 2nd grader is in pretty much the same boat. (Their campus has had 6 cases in the first 5 days of school, and 55 in the district as a whole.) And of course my toddler’s daycare is . . . a daycare; just a petri dish with 4 walls and a roof.

“I can’t stop thinking about 5 years ago when the Trump campaign put out an ad that said, ‘If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?’ in reference to desperate Syrian families seeking asylum. You’d be hard pressed to decide whether the analogy was more stupid, more racist, or more lacking in basic humanity (the Trump trifecta), but the basic analogy suddenly feels like it has merit in this whole new context that he and his party have landed us in. There are bowls of Skittles all over Texas with a few poison ones mixed in, and every teacher and student in the state is being told to reach into a bowl and eat a Skittle every single day. I’m being asked to gamble the lives and the health of my family every day, weighing the small but ever-present risk of disease and death against the certainty of losing my livelihood. Some choice.

“Conservatives like to say ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings.’ And it’s certainly a fact that they don’t care about my feelings . . . But they also don’t care about my health, my well-being, my life . . . or facts.”


My friend’s update is explicitly partisan in a way I normally avoid at this blog. But under the circumstances, I think it’s important for me not to censor their thoughts.

I’m hearing similar stories of frustration from a lot of other educators in states whose leaders have rejected their public responsibilities.

‘The Chair’ Is a Campus Novel

It seems as if basically every American professor on social media has been either watching The Chair or putting it off for another time. It’s the creation of the actor-writer Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, a 2017 Harvard Ph.D. recipient. Netflix released the series on Friday—just as the new academic year begins—after plying academics with screeners of the first episodes.

The trailer gives, I think, a reasonably accurate impression of the show. (The show is rated TV-MA, and the trailer features uncensored “adult” language.)

The series has provoked some strong and contradictory reactions. Some academics describe it as a kind of idealized fantasy of elite higher education; others—especially women—find it upsettingly realistic. And people discussing its portrayal of so-called cancel culture have drawn contradictory conclusions about its argument. (Among the surprisingly basic questions people have raised is whether the show counts as a work of satire.)

For my part, I see The Chair as a culturally up-to-date but familiar example of an established literary genre. With just six half-hour episodes and a story that could be considered complete, The Chair is a traditional campus novel in movie form. Versions of this story have been told over and over since at least the time of Mary McCarthy and Kingsley Amis.

The traditional campus novel is satirical, but the target of its satire is broad: It suggests that there is something absurd and enervating about academia itself. Spoofing specific vices isn’t really the point—although vices related to hierarchy and sex are usually abundant.

Structurally, The Chair fits this classic pattern perfectly, however contemporary its various storylines are. Partly for that reason—but also surely because the co-creator Annie Julia Wyman has recent experience in elite universities herself—this is an unusually realistic depiction of higher education for a work of film. It gets closer to the kind of accuracy we expect to see in literary novels than the (abysmal) level of accuracy we’re accustomed to seeing on television.

(The single silliest storyline, in which an IT worker hunts down a student posting cruel Rate My Professors reviews, is implausible for reasons that have nothing to do with academe.)

With that in mind, here is a very incomplete list of some things that I think The Chair gets right about elite university life, which I will not be elaborating upon:

  • The little-known fact that academia is a workplace
  • Over-powerful yet alienated older professors
  • Faculty man-children looking for admiration
  • Political tensions that aren’t about Republicans and Democrats
  • Students trying to find their voice (with mixed results)
  • The many faces of disrespect
  • The battle scars of older women
  • The pious earnestness with which academia betrays people of color
  • The role of double standards in notions of academic excellence
  • Pervasive feelings of insecurity
  • The odd mix of opulence and poverty
  • The “brilliance” bait-and-switch
  • The inconvenient truth that tenure is an instrument of early-career conformity
  • The complicated feelings tenure-track academics have about teaching

I wouldn’t say The Chair is great art. But it’s a very solid example of a respected genre.