Celebrating an Award

Today I had the honor of receiving a Presidential Teaching Award from the De La Salle Institute for Teaching and Learning (DLSI). This recognition is given annually to one part-time and one full-time faculty member at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Part-time faculty members are eligible to receive the award after teaching at the university for at least five semesters. Other criteria include a record of “enthusiastic engagement with students,” “incorporation of key elements of Lasallian pedagogy,” or innovation in “pedagogical methods that are intellectually rigorous, creative, engaging, and accessible.” The final decision of whom to honor is made by the university president, guided by the recommendation of a faculty advisory panel from across the university.


I was invited to offer brief remarks at the faculty awards event. So I delivered some thoughts that I hope went something like this:

Jonathan W. Wilson, speaking from a lectern at an event at La Salle University. Photograph courtesy of La Salle University Office of Marketing and Communication.
Photograph by Dan Nguyen, La Salle University

In 2022, a lot of us—educators at all levels—have the sense that we’re working in a time of general professional crisis. It’s a time of anxiety for us, and it’s certainly a time of anxiety for our students. The pandemic is only one part of it. Many of us now wonder whether our work is sustainable at all.

Three hundred forty years ago, it was in another time of general upheaval that Jean-Baptiste de La Salle established the Brothers of the Christian Schools. During that crisis, poor and working-class children in France needed better access to basic education, but teaching them was a badly regarded—and poorly compensated—line of work. La Salle’s solution, ironically, was to embrace poverty and humility.

That’s what the Lasallian watchwords “together and by association” meant in the seventeenth century. The teachers of La Salle’s order were supposed to live in solidary with each other and with their students. La Salle himself gave up both a personal fortune and excellent prospects of advancement through the ranks of the Catholic clergy. The trade was for a sense of meaning: deprivation now, but the confidence, shared with others, that your work had a higher, long-term value.

Today, one of the things that sustains me as a teacher, despite the insecurity of our time, is getting to participate in the long Lasallian tradition. I draw strength from its unusually vehement insistence that, in spite of everything, we don’t work alone, and our work has a long-term purpose. That’s why this particular form of recognition means so much to me.

Here Goes Nothing Again

Classes start next week. I visited my new classroom today to check the equipment.

This semester, I’ll teach just two classes. Though that means I’m being paid less, it still comes as a relief after teaching five classes (in four preps) at three universities this autumn. It also probably means my students will have a better experience this time.

As for safety, we still have indoor mask mandates and vaccine mandates. One of my employers is requiring booster shots when eligible, too, and now is explicitly recommending—but is not, as far as I know, providing—high-filtration respirators (N95s, KN95s, KF94s, or FFP2s) rather than cloth masks. I plan to distribute several respirators to each of my students in the first week of class, partly through the generosity of my friend Dan Buller, a fellow educator.

In early December, when the feelings were still raw, I wrote privately about the experiences of Fall 2021. Here’s some what I wrote last month:

This semester has been about classroom survival, not excellence. Every teacher I’ve spoken with, at every kind of school, has said the same thing. Everyone is burnt out, and everyone is trying to figure out how to be back to “normal” in a semester when a global pandemic is still claiming people we knew. Most weeks this semester, I’ve been disappointed in every lesson I taught.

Much of the time, I have just felt … guilty. Truth be told, I don’t think I’m burnt out. But I am ashamed. I want to end this semester and never have to acknowledge it again. I want to bury it and pretend it never happened. The only thing it taught me about teaching in a pandemic is that teaching in a pandemic is bad.

But I did learn lessons from the fall semester that I’m going to try to apply this spring. I won’t expatiate upon most of those lessons here because they would be different at different institutions, in different courses, or for different instructors.

The most important lesson I learned is that the pandemic is getting harder for college students, not easier.

Religious Hostility in Academia: A View from 2005

A story in the New York Times this weekend sent me back through the archives of World Magazine, looking for a 2005 article that played an important role in my journey into academia.

The Times story—headlined “His Reasons for Opposing Trump Were Biblical. Now a Top Christian Editor Is Out”—describes how Marvin Olasky, a former University of Texas journalism professor who also played a role in shaping the early domestic agenda of George W. Bush, seems to have lost control of an evangelical Christian newsmagazine that he has edited for more than a quarter of a century.

The cover stories of the April 30, 2005, issue were profiles of Pope Benedict XVI and Senator Rick Santorum

For complicated reasons, what this story dredged up for me is a memory of a specific pair of interviews that World ran under a single headline, sixteen years ago.

The headline of that article, published on April 30, 2005, was “Uncongeniality Contest.” The subhead was “Two views of elite academia from Harvard Law School.” I remember it vividly from my days as a subscriber. Going back to re-read it now, I find the article substantially as I remember it.

At the time, I was in my junior year of college at an evangelical university, preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs to study history. I took the article as an attempt to frighten me. (Not me individually, of course, but people like me.) It was one of countless messages I’d seen over the years warning that American secular institutions of higher education were comprehensively hostile to people like me.

But this time, I looked closely at the evidence provided, and what I saw was patently absurd.

Continue reading “Religious Hostility in Academia: A View from 2005”

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.

Election Day Morning

I voted nearly a month ago, dropping my postal ballot into a drop box outside city hall. Since then, I’ve been trying to help demystify the voting process for students in my various courses. That’s a difficult task in ordinary times, given the arcane complexity of the U.S. electoral system and the relatively high number of American adults who are disenfranchised by law or practice, but it has been especially challenging during a pandemic that has upended a lot of voting processes. Making matters more complicated still, students are taking my classes remotely from several different states.

This year, more than most I recall, I have seen evidence that some teachers (like a lot of other Americans) are struggling to keep their anxiety under control. Indeed, many instructors on social media have been urging each other to postpone deadlines, knowing that students and teachers alike will find it impossible to focus on work in the next few days.

At one university I work for, an undergraduate’s parent even recently wrote a public Facebook post denouncing an unnamed humanities professor for (allegedly) breaking down in tears on Zoom and cancelling two weeks of class due to their fear about which presidential candidate would win. I have my doubts about the accuracy of that parent’s rant, but it illustrates several challenges of teaching controversial subjects in late 2020. For my part, I’m keenly aware of the potential delicacy of teaching modern U.S. history this year to around seventy intelligent, engaged adult students who are voting in a variety of ways.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I ended a message to some of my students on Sunday night. I have given the same message, more or less, to other students in live remote classes. It is a message to myself as much as to them.

Finally, as you know, this Tuesday is the last day of voting in the 2020 elections in the United States. You are probably tired of politics. You may be anxious about the results. You may feel disillusioned or distrustful. All these feelings are natural and normal!

If you are feeling bad right now, I encourage you to remember this: More than 100 million people* are taking part in democracy together this year. The process is flawed, bitter, and harmful, and many people who should have a voice have been denied one. But that can be said of every human activity that matters. If democracy is good, then on some level it is good for us to participate in an election like this, however unsatisfying it may be at the time, and however imperfect our democracy is.

And we can hope that one day, through our patient efforts and hard work and even our bitter arguments, our democracy will be better than it is now.

(* That would be well over 100 million people, actually. About that many Americans are already known to have voted early.)

The fact is, although I don’t think many of my friends surpass me in capacity for pessimism, I have always found the morning of Election Day immensely exciting and hopeful.

Even today, when I have not traveled to the polls in person, I feel it. No other collective public act in our time has the same comprehensiveness, representing a comparable investment by millions upon millions of people—wise, foolish, deluded, cynical, corrupt, naïve, selfless, rigidly partisan, rapidly evolving, certain, and confused alike—in the American commonwealth.

I am old enough to have been disappointed by the results of elections as often as I have been pleased. I am, on some level, full of foreboding right now. But my Election Day morning hopefulness is not really about specific outcomes at all. It is about participating in work that happens on the scale of decades, generations, and centuries.

Oh, and one other thing. This year marks the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment. It would be a great shame for cynicism or fear to prevent us from celebrating that anniversary.

_______________

Image: Three suffragists casting votes in New York City, ca. 1917. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Public domain. (Original caption: “Calm about it. At Fifty-sixth and Lexington Avenue, the women voters showed no ignorance or trepidation, but cast their ballots in a businesslike way that bespoke study of suffrage.”)

Quick Update on Credentials

This is a very minor announcement, but it feels more important because it took so long during the pandemic. Some seven months after I applied—which was just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and shut down agency offices—the New Jersey Department of Education has finally issued me a certificate of eligibility in social studies (CE 2300). This is a content-area endorsement for prospective public school teachers that covers not only history but also anthropology, economics, geography, government, political science, and sociology.

This is not a teaching certification, as that term is usually understood; it’s more like an authorization to begin working toward a teaching certification. (By itself, it represents little more than state affirmation of academic credentials I already had.) For now, nothing about my career as a college instructor has changed.

Still, I’m very happy to be able, finally, to add this to the inventory.

_______________

Image: New Jersey State Normal School, Montclair, N.J., 1912. New Jersey State Library, Digital Jerseyana Collection, Montclair Postcards. Public domain.

‘Demics, Two Weeks Later

Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.

First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.

In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.

A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.

My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.

 

Bleak Midwinter

beatabeatrix

Sunday night, the last of my grades went in, ending my autumn semester.

Back in September, I confessed to having a sense of slow-motion failure in these courses. That sense never disappeared. The semester had so many missed opportunities.

It had far worse evils, too. A young undergraduate on the same sports team as several of my students died the day before final exams began. At my other campus, a series of three student deaths by suicide made national news; one student died on the day after Thanksgiving. (As far as I know, my classes were not directly affected, but the news cast a shadow over the last weeks of the term.) One of my friends lost a grad-school friend to suicide.

And on December 12, another friend of mine, a professor only ten years older than I am, who had lived near me in Scranton, died of cancer. The end came just a few months after an apparent remission. It was not, if there is any such thing, an easy death. The news still hasn’t set in properly; I don’t quite understand what happened, and I’m not sure I ever will.

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