Like college teachers across the country, I have begun doing my classes online. For me, it is reassuring that my Sarah Lawrence students are back safe in their homes and don’t have to choose between their education and their well-being.
In New York City, where I live, we are shaped by a class divide that lets so many of us minimize our contact with the outside world. My day-to-day safety and that of my middle-class neighbors is in no small measure a product of grocery-store cashiers and delivery drivers who go to work every day at low wages.
Nonetheless, I’m grateful that my students are as protected as possible. One reported a spring snow falling outside her home. Another was happy to again be a short walk from the ocean. There is no way to know if my students will get through this crisis without at least a few of them coming down with the coronavirus, but age is on their side, even if caution is not. The grim tweet that the coronavirus is a “boomer remover” applies to my age group, not theirs.
At my college, the order for students to evacuate their dorms came so suddenly that a number could not take all their clothes and books with them. Still, most of them left campus with what was essential. Their parents were terrific in coming to their rescue. One mother drove all the way from Chicago by herself, then slept the night in her daughter’s room, before the two of them took to the road the following day.
The financial toll the coronavirus has taken on colleges and universities, especially those with modest endowments, has yet to be calculated, but certainly they, like vulnerable corporations, are going to need help from the government to get on solid footing again. A friend said to me, “Now your students will see they don’t need to be in actual classes at all.” I think just the opposite is the case. The joy of coming to class—seeing the expressions on faces up close, reading body language, watching someone puzzle over an issue—isn’t possible online. The technology of remote teaching imposes barriers that never fully go away.
The paradox is that in the midst of all this social distancing, my classes have become increasingly important for me and my students. The classes are, to be sure, an escape from being too focused on oneself, but most of all the classes are a reminder of how much ideas and art count in our lives.
I have always over-prepared as a teacher. I reread every book I assign. I look at old notes but rely on my new notes. I write out the questions I want to ask, and I try to anticipate the best way to end a class. Only after I have taken these steps, do I think it is possible to let a class go in unexpected directions that defy planning. Now I do all my preparation with more intensity than ever.
I am lucky when it comes to dealing with my students individually. One-on-one, half-hour conferences that meet every other week are built into my college’s seminar curriculum. I talk with my students regularly, and so it does not feel forced to go from asking them about a paper they are writing to asking them about how they are coping with the coronavirus.
I am teaching courses that focus on 19th and 20th century literature, and I have encouraged students who feel like it to write on how the books they are reading affect their own lives. This subjective focus does not, I have found, take away from the serious analysis my students are doing. Instead, it makes what they have to say about an author or a text more meaningful. If anything, my students are putting more, rather than less, time into their courses than they ordinarily do, and the mandatory pass/fail grade system that the college has instituted for this term has instituted for this term makes it easier for them to take chances with their papers.
I have been reading the letters university presidents, especially from the universities I have gone to or taught at, have sent out to students and alumni. They are good letters, heartfelt and designed to emphasize how the communities that colleges create are not limited by geography. But the best letters I have read are those from students. They have a concreteness to them in which a favorite desk on which a senior thesis was written or a last meal with friends at a burger joint defines the undergraduate experience in a way no college president can. In these lugubrious times it is students who have grasped the rightness of using Skype and Zoom for Meets and Greets with the family cat and dog.
I am sure that over the next few years there are going to be courses on the Literature of Contagion springing up at colleges across the country. They are bound to be very popular. But the material I plan to add to the first-year writing course I am scheduled to teach this fall will be more particular. It will include the essays of students now in college. The writing I have seen from them suggests a future lit by insights uniquely theirs. They are not going to be a lost generation.