In this group post, philosophers reflect on how the pandemic has transformed higher education, our everyday lives and practices, and ourselves. [Friday, 11/26/21: moved to the top from earlier this week.]
Lisa Fuller, assistant professor of philosophy at Merrimack College, offered to share her answer to “How has the pandemic changed us?” and gather answers from several other philosophers for this “Philosophers On” post. Readers are encouraged to take up the question themselves in the comments.
Philosophers On How the Pandemic has Changed Us
Introduction by Lisa Fuller, Guest Editor
In this installment of “Philosophers On” I have encouraged contributors to reflect on how the pandemic has transformed higher education, our everyday lives and practices, and ourselves. I also asked them what they think the collective experience of the pandemic might mean for the future of the country, or specific groups within it. Since the pandemic is ongoing, these pieces can only constitute a snapshot of where we are right now, and in our own thinking. Still, they represent an effort to tell some of the story of what has happened to us, and to try to make sense of it.
The contributions address a diverse set of concerns, and represent the experiences of philosophers situated differently with respect to the academy. Despite the variety of subject matter, these pieces express the common sentiment that the pandemic has left its mark on us. Therefore, calls for a return to “normal” are, at best, misguided attempts to erase the effects of the past 18-20 months of our lives. More cynically, the “let’s-get-back-to normal” narrative might be understood as rejecting the view that institutional, governmental and social responses to the pandemic have caused us to suffer, to reevaluate, and to adapt such that a return to normal would be a clear move in the wrong direction.
The contributors, besides myself, are: Barrett Emerick (St. Mary’s College of Maryland), Johnathan Flowers (American University), Janet Jones (University of Waterloo), Rani Lill Anjum (Norwegian University of Life Sciences), Ian Olasov (CUNY Graduate Center), and Yolonda Wilson (St. Louis University). I am extremely grateful to them all.
Please join the discussion in the comments (see the comments policy) and feel free to share this post. Scroll down to view all the contributions or click on a title in the following list to be taken directly to it:
- “Making the Most of the Time We Have Together” by Barrett Emerick
- “To Become Like Stone” by Johnathan Flowers
- “Bad Luck and the Good Life in a Global Pandemic” by Lisa Fuller
- “The House Clothes Effect: the Pandemic’s Impact on Identity” by Janet Jones
- “The New Normal: How the Pandemic Helped Improve my Course Design” by Rani Lill Anjum
- “The Concept of the Essential Worker” by Ian Olasov
- “A Time for Grief, Not ‘Resilience’” by Yolonda Wilson
Making the Most of the Time We Have Together
by Barrett Emerick
When the pandemic hit there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty about how it would impact higher education. Much of that uncertainty remains: will colleges close due to the pandemic? Will boards of trustees or administrators use the pandemic as a justification to eliminate programs and fire tenured faculty, remaking their institutions along the way? My own school went through program prioritization during the pandemic; half my department was eliminated, and the half that remains feels precarious at best.
In light of that precarity and uncertainty I’ve been thinking a lot about how I teach and what I hope to accomplish with my students. A few years ago, my friend, Quill Kukla, posted on Facebook about their approach to syllabus design. Kukla said that their aim was to build a class that creates the opportunity for students to fall in love with philosophy, and that means assigning readings and topics that they would have fun engaging together. That’s really stayed with me and I now rely on that guidance, not just when designing a course before the semester begins but week to week, as I go. Of course some days are more fun than others and it’s ok if my students don’t love philosophy by the end of the semester. But I do want to remove barriers that might keep them from doing so and to open up space for them to stick with it (either formally or informally) after our semester has concluded.
For me, that’s always meant believing that my students are able to do high level philosophical work – and then treating them that way. It’s meant assuming from the start of each semester that they all have crucial insight to share from which we all might learn – that just living as people in the world has equipped them with expertise and insight that will enrich our collective understanding as a class. And it has meant believing in the value of philosophy itself. I think the texts we read and ideas we engage are important; they matter in the lives of actual people, and if they don’t, then I shouldn’t be teaching them.
Coming in to this academic year I heard from many quarters that our first-year, incoming students would likely need special care and accommodation due to the challenges they faced as they finished high school during the pandemic. Despite that, I’m happy that they seem really eager to be in class. I take it that they’re not only happy to be in the physical classroom and interacting with others in person (rather than over Zoom) but they’re hungry for the chance to do work together that feels meaningful and valuable: to explore big questions about what it means to be a person, what we owe to ourselves and each other, and what justice requires. Normally that wouldn’t be a surprise to me; I’m lucky to teach at a college where my students are almost always game to do that work together. But something does feel different, this time around. That hunger feels more acute; the work (and the chance to do it together) feels more meaningful. The pandemic has caused terrible loss and suffering. It’s led to incredible insecurity and stress alongside tremendous loneliness and boredom. Studying philosophy together feels like a salve (if not a cure) for each of those symptoms.
Though my students surely need additional care and attention this year, so do we all! The pandemic has been hard in innumerable ways, and much harder for some than others. I am still reminding myself each day to try to be extra patient with and understanding of everyone I encounter, in light of COVID-19 and all that it’s brought in its wake. But my students are not broken or stunted in the way I had been warned they would be. Although I’m just under half of the way into the semester and a lot could change, so far I’ve been blown away by my students – they are smart, insightful, and interesting (as they always are).
The pandemic and Zoom teaching has helped to clarify for me (and for my students) the value of the work we set out to do together each semester. Given the rise in college closures, program eliminations, and general reliance on adjunct labor, teaching philosophy feels increasingly precarious. The pandemic has only heightened that precarity. In light of that, back in August when I was putting finishing touches on my syllabi, I found that I was asking myself another set of guiding questions: If this is the last time I get to teach this class, how do I want to spend it? If this is my final semester teaching philosophy, what do I want to end my career studying with my students? How can we make the most of the time that we have together doing work that matters?
To Become Like Stone
by Johnathan Flowers
When asked “how has the pandemic changed us,” I think back to Sara Ahmed’s pivotal text, Living A Feminist Life, wherein she offers the following reading of Audre Lorde, which I take to be informative in response to the question:
“Audre Lorde writes in Zami, “In order to survive the weather we had to become stone” (1984b, 160). Social forms of oppression, racism, the hatred that creates some bodies as strangers, are experienced as weather. They press and pound against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening. Lorde then adds, “We bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest” (160).” – Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life,185
Ahmed is straightforward in her evocative language: the pervasive structures of oppression, experienced as weather, require the oppressed to harden to survive a hostile climate. In hardening to survive the weather, those who are forced to harden damage one another through the ways they are forced to become something harder to survive. It is this metaphor of hardening, of weather, that I want to use to characterize how the pandemic has changed us.
The “us” I am referring to is the academy as a generalized institution. I argue that Ahmed and Lorde’s understanding of hardening takes on a doubled meaning: first, the pandemic as weather reveals exactly how hard, how unwilling to receive an impression in the words of Ahmed, some of our colleagues are. Second, the pandemic as weather has forced some of us to become so hard that we are forced to damage institutions themselves to simply survive.
In the first, Ahmed is further helpful in clarifying my meaning. If the pandemic is weather, and we must harden ourselves against the weather, then the language of “hard budgetary decisions,” of “belt-tightening,” of administrative performative optimism, and “magical thinking” indicates not how hard those responsible for the management of our institutions and departments have become; rather, it demonstrates the existing hardness of our administration.
I say here that it demonstrates the existing hardness of administration because this hardness is not new: it simply was not generalized across the academy, across higher education. The hardness of administration, which many of our colleagues are now experiencing for the first time, is a defining feature of the experiences of those of us who did not “fit” into the idealized structures of the academy. To keep with Lorde’s metaphor, the weather of the pandemic enabled many of us to see, for the first time, the hardness that the most vulnerable among us encounter every day.
This administrative hardness, what Ahmed describes as experiencing the institution as a “brick wall,” that characterizes the processes of institutionalized diversity, institutional complaint processes, and institutional accommodation, is now being concretely felt through COVID-19 accommodations processes. The reluctance of institutions to transition to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic has hardened into a generalized resistance among administrators to offering safe working conditions, especially if doing so would damage the march towards “normal.”
On this view, the pandemic didn’t “harden” administration or institutions: it revealed the depths of their hardness. Depths which disabled faculty, staff, and students have insisted upon for decades. And, because of their hardness, able-bodied faculty, staff, and students are now experiencing this weather for the first time. I can think of no better description of how the hardness of administration has forced us all into this weather than the words of Amy Olberding:
But at my university, we are more battered by fortune than necessary. We offer up our vulnerable loved ones, our bereavements, or our own medical histories like sacrifices before fickle gods — gods who, it turns out, are mostly teenagers vested with powers divine by our administration. We beg teenagers to think of our babies, to feel for our dead, and please not to kill us. Some of them oblige. Some do not — an alarming number do not. The university’s response so far amounts to: Beg better.
Olberding’s language here, of being battered by fortune, parallels Ahmed and Lorde’s treatment of social oppression as weather whose force requires hardening. And this leads me to the second point: the pandemic has forced those of us for whom hardening was a necessity to become even harder. So hard, in fact, that we damage our institutions, our departments, our colleagues in what we must become to survive. Here, I’m speaking of contingent and junior faculty, marginalized and minoritized faculty of all ranks who have been hardest hit by the devastation of the academy in the pandemic. I am speaking of the graduate students and adjuncts who lack the protections of tenure.
In the graduate student context, we might frame the explosion of unionization efforts in response to institutional hardness against providing safe working conditions as a form of hardening. We might also view the unwillingness of undergraduate student workers to subject themselves to unsafe working conditions as yet another form of hardening against the weather enabled and maintained by administration and their collaborators in the faculty. Indeed, Ahmed notes that one way to harden oneself against the structures of oppression is through locking arms, through solidarity with one another such that we become an army.
In the context of contingent faculty, we might frame this hardening as a collective recognition of our disposability. That is, as contingent faculty weather the storm of institutional actions that make abundantly clear that we are not valued or worth saving in the eyes of our administrators; and as contingent faculty come to realize that the solidarity of many of our tenured colleagues is merely performative, we are forced to harden ourselves even further.
Recall, for Ahmed, that hardening to survive the weather of oppression often results in our bruising ourselves against those who are nearest. Here we might see a similar effect: some of us must become so hard that we damage not only those who stand in solidarity with us, but the very concept of solidarity itself. Again, Ahmed is informative as to the meaning of solidarity:
“Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.” – Sara AhmedCultural Politics of Emotion,189
So how has the pandemic changed me? Simple: I’ve had to become hardened against promises of commitment that never materialize into action or the work necessary to ensure my survival; I’ve had to become hardened against the insistence that I, a disabled black contingent faculty, live on common ground with some of my colleagues.
Bad Luck and the Good Life in a Global Pandemic
by Lisa Fuller
Living through the pandemic has left me diminished. This is the effect of many months of almost total isolation from other human beings, the fear and uncertainty surrounding becoming ill, having no support system in the US, and the despair I felt in the face of layoffs, pay cuts and expectations of overwork at my job.
All areas of my life went downhill at the same time: I developed a mysterious rash on my face and painful sciatica that caused a noticeable limp. I suffered multiple systemic infections. I did not look forward to teaching and could grade only two papers in a row before I required a break. I ate when I wasn’t hungry, and binge-watched all the TV shows. I was irritable all the time and experienced suicidal ideation for months without relief. As a person with chronic major depression, I have a few coping mechanisms that normally would have helped, but nothing was open, I was afraid to be outside among strangers, and waiting lists for any type of medical care, but especially mental health care, were months long. Through the whole ordeal I showed up to work on Zoom. I counseled students in distress. I cried and laid on the floor with my headphones on, and then got up and kept going. I still have many of these problems, but they have improved somewhat in the last few months.
All of this got me thinking about Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia, or happiness. During the pandemic I tried to continue the habits and practices that have promoted my ability to be heathy, to enjoy life, and to be a generally good person, but the weight and constraints of the situation have worked powerfully against me. Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia is that a happy life requires us to internalize the virtues and thus become a good person. We also can’t live a happy life without a reasonable share of material goods, since these are needed for basic wellbeing. Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia has helped me to better understand what has happened to me and has helped me stop punishing myself for how I have changed during the pandemic.
In particular, these two passages from the Nichomachean Ethics have often crossed my mind:
Many events … are subject to fortune; some are minor, some major… [If a person] suffers many major misfortunes, they oppress and spoil his blessedness, since they involve pain and impede many activities. … He will be shaken … by many serious misfortunes, and from these a return to happiness will take no short time. At best, it will take a long and complete length of time that includes great and fine successes. (NE, Book I, Ch. 10, §11-14)
It is difficult, however, for someone to be trained correctly for virtue from youth if he is not brought up under correct laws … Presumably, however, it is not enough if they get the correct upbringing and attention when they are young, they must continue the same practices and be habituated to them when they become men. (NE, Book X, Ch. 9, §7-9)
Aristotle’s general point is that even if one reacts to misfortune in virtuous ways, a person cannot be truly happy while undergoing major misfortune. This is especially true if one lives in a state that does not have laws aimed at creating the conditions for citizens to live good lives.
Accordingly, it seems that my general diminishment can be chalked up to the bad luck of being alive during a global pandemic. Further, the pandemic was mismanaged in such a spectacular fashion at least in part because American society does not have laws aimed at either the virtue of citizens or the common good. The multiple waves, the inefficient distribution of vaccines, and the general concern to keep the economy running at the expense of the wellbeing of citizens were all effects of dysfunctional institutions. In addition, the heavy reliance on tuition in US colleges, and the lack of either a proper public health infrastructure or widespread government financial support substantially increased both the risk and the stress of working in higher education for everyone. But these are, from the point of view of an assistant professor, just bad luck. I could not control the effects of these institutions any more than I could control the coronavirus itself.
And as Aristotle predicted, this bad luck has made a good and happy life more difficult for me.
For Aristotle a virtue is the mean between two vices, of excess and deficiency. Temperance, for instance, is the virtue of moderate enjoyment of physical pleasures, such as eating tasty food, and the corresponding vices are overindulgence and “insensitivity” (such as when one “forgets” to eat). For some time now, I have been utterly failing to achieve the golden mean for many virtues. Temperance has gone out the window. I am short tempered, irritable. Things that didn’t use to affect me at all now feel like sandpaper on my skin. For example, rudely worded emails didn’t use to affect me, but now I have to walk away from my laptop when I get one. I like to think I am a generous person, and I have done better here than with other virtues. However, to be generous with time or goods requires that one actually has extra time, energy, and money, and these are noticeably in shorter supply lately. Finally, my ability to feel righteous indignation is now almost absent. This is the virtue of feeling pain when good people encounter bad luck, and pleasure when bad people get what they deserve. Since so many good people have suffered, and so many selfish people are thriving despite the difficulty of our current circumstances, what I most often feel when I hear this sort of news is … nothing. I look inside myself and I am numb.
In short, the pandemic has left me an overall less virtuous person, and I am doing less well in other respects. I am effectively back to the beginning with many virtues—trying to model my behavior after people I admire, and trying to prevent further decline by doing those actions that I used to do, but resentfully and/or without pleasure.
There is however, one area of virtue in which I have improved: courage. The virtue of courage is demonstrated when someone feels fear appropriate to the situation but does the right thing anyway. Its excess is rashness and its deficiency is cowardice. I have been afraid of many things during the pandemic (for instance: losing my job, getting sick and dying alone, getting sick and being permanently debilitated, having one of my students or a member of my immediate family die). I have nevertheless persevered in working, and trying to keep myself (and others, when I can) safe. I have tried to advocate for policies at the college that would benefit vulnerable members of the campus community. In spite of anxiety, I have tried to meet people in order to reduce my isolation. In the face of extreme emotional pain, some days it took all the courage I had to just keep breathing in and out. And I have started being honest with the world about how hard all this has been and continues to be.
Thinking about the pandemic along these lines has helped me understand both where I am, and where I can go from here. Virtues are learned, and they can once again become habits with sufficient practice. I can, potentially, get back to where I once was. I am also heartened by Aristotle’s idea that someone’s happiness, ultimately, must be assessed on the basis of what happens over their whole life. Perhaps at some time far in the future the pandemic will appear only as a temporary downturn in the otherwise happy lives of many. I sincerely hope that what is in store for me, and for all of us, is a long stretch of “great and fine successes.”
The House Clothes Effect: the Pandemic’s Impact on Identity
by Janet Jones
When the pandemic started, I had been teaching part-time at a local college for about a year. I had my “dress-like-a-professor” routine down to a science. But when the pandemic left us all housebound, I was one of many who decided to liberate themselves from their work wardrobe. I traded in my professor wardrobe for “house clothes”.
The term “house clothes” is used endearingly by folks who like to come home and take off their “work clothes” in exchange for comfier ones. For example, someone who works in a suit might like to take off their suit when they come home and put on some athleisure wear.
There are two key components to house clothes. First, they have to feel good to wear. This is different from looking good while wearing them, since clothes that do the latter are better reserved for outings beyond one’s humble abode. Second, they don’t have to look good. Again, this is different from looking bad. House clothes aren’t necessarily unattractive or unfashionable; rather, they’re clothes that you wear when you don’t have to worry about looking good.
The era of house clothes
While a Google search tells me the term isn’t exactly ubiquitous, my experiences during the pandemic indicate that “house clothes” are quite common. Professors, students, friends, family, colleagues – they’ve all made a similar comment during these past 18 months. “Sorry about the t-shirt, it’s my pandemic uniform,” the manager of my department told me during my performance review. That was near the beginning of the pandemic. More recently, a public health expert I interviewed took the video call in his old university hoodie. “I had to go out today, put on real pants,” he told me. I laughed knowingly.
The way we dress, and the way we feel when we’re dressed, has a measurable impact on the way we think, feel, and act. Try it. Try putting on pajamas before you work out. Try putting on tight jeans at midnight, while you sneak some late night ice cream. It just feels wrong.
How I became a runner
Early in the pandemic, I started running. I ran my first 5km a couple of weeks into my new regime, and I was hooked. But completing my first 5km run isn’t what made me feel like I had become a runner. That moment came later, at a running store.
Because the pandemic had limited my wardrobe to (mainly) house clothes, I didn’t feel the need to buy new clothes in 2020. But I did start buying running clothes.
Running clothes are fitted but comfortable, lightweight and moisture wicking, available in pretty colors, and make for good house clothes. A unique feature of running clothes? People apparently know that you’re a runner just by looking at you.
I went shopping for running shoes once, dressed casually in a pair of jeans and sandals. The salesperson I chatted with spent a lot of time explaining the features I had already researched. On a different day, I went in dressed in my running clothes. On that trip, the salesperson and I had a good chat about our Achilles tendons and the discipline it takes to forgo a run in favor of strength training.
Looking back, it strikes me how effortless that second conversation was. No awkward questioning, just two people discussing their hobby and gear. The first conversation, on the other hand, felt tedious. The sales rep questioned how long I’d been running, any running goals I might be harboring, my skill level, etc.
Maybe it was just the result of different personalities, but the difference in my experiences also highlights how the pandemic has transformed some of our identities. No longer tied to a routine, I found myself changing how I dress, taking on a new hobby, and meeting new people. Even if it wasn’t clear to me at the time, a pause on my “professor” wardrobe during the pandemic has allowed me to explore and grow my “runner” wardrobe. In turn, this has changed how people interact with me. Friends and family ask about my running regularly now. I was also invited to join a local run club. People assume I’m knowledgeable about exercise science too, or that I keep up with sporting events. (Which is funny since it’s only recently that I’ve really started watching sports at all.)
It’s unmistakable. During the pandemic, I’ve gone from being a teacher to a runner.
The house clothes effect
Visual cues play a significant role in how we recognize others, but the pandemic complicates this picture. We aren’t frequenting as many places as we used to, aren’t being seen by as many people, and so why dress up?
I have a “professor” wardrobe because I used to like visually signaling to students that my short stature belies my years of education and training. It made me feel confident and powerful. It was a way for me to perform as a professor. But during the pandemic, I didn’t have the same worries about being dismissed as a young (and short) female instructor. (A minor benefit of going virtual.)
However, I was worried about COVID, about mental health, about my family, friends, and students. Donning house clothes, or at least not donning my professor clothes, felt right – it made me feel comfortable and safe. It alleviated some of the cognitive dissonance I felt trying to juggle being an online professor who was supporting her students and an anxious grad student trying to make it through the pandemic.
I can only imagine that my students were going through a similar experience with their identities. Some students will have had to reconcile their student identity with their family identity (e.g. child, parent, caregiver), and I know that can be painful sometimes. Moreover, being primarily bound to one location with a specific set of people can feel stifling, especially if we are forced to reconcile who we are there with who we want to be out in the world.
By appearing in house clothes, I think I comforted some of my students. I visually signaled to them that others were experiencing changes in their identities, that they weren’t alone in what feels like a very isolating experience, that other people were seeking comfort and safety too.
Perhaps the era of house clothes will be the start of an era where we don’t try to identify people based on their clothes. The house clothes boom may even become instrumental in dismantling stereotypes about what educators (or other professionals) look like.
I started wearing house clothes more frequently during the pandemic because they felt comfortable. I’m lucky that my desire for comfort encouraged me to meet new people and think about new ideas; I don’t think that it always does. The most important feature of house clothes is that they feel good, which means, by donning house clothes, I effectively choose to prioritize my own comfort, at least in one area. The pandemic has left me feeling tired, worn out, and afraid. I’ve adhered to public health measures, gotten the vaccine, and helped local organizations support families in need. I need a break. On some level, I need house clothes now, and I am willing to bet other people do too.
The new normal: How the pandemic helped improve my course design
by Rani Lill Anjum
The pandemic demonstrated what happens when our life situation is not normal. For many students, this is the reality they deal with for all or parts of their education. Since I started using Twitter 12 years ago, I have become increasingly aware of how many students struggle to follow university courses, sometimes because of systemic obstacles that could easily have been removed. The more rigid a system is, the easier it is to be left behind. During lockdown, we had to make several changes to accommodate the changes in students’ life situation. Looking back, many of these changes were simply better for all students, irrespectively of the pandemic. I should have known it, of course, since what happens in marginalized groups typically reveals some blind spots and structural injustice. Higher education is no exception.
We were asked not to take class attendance, to allow for the possibility that students fell ill or had to take care of family members. Some students worked part-time in the healthcare system and had to take extra shifts. Others suddenly had kids at home during daytime, so class work had to happen in the evenings. We therefore had to be flexible about when students would do their work, for instance by making the teaching material available for those who missed classes.
Another significant change was the way we do exams. How to check what students have learned if they have access to all teaching material during the exam? How to ensure they don’t cheat? This was a major concern among the university staff. The typical exam format is an individual test designed to assess whether the student can account for central parts of the syllabus. During lockdown, any standard test would give artificially high scores. We were therefore given the opportunity to change our assessment methods and grading practices. For instance, one could give more creative assignments that focused on understanding and applying the material, rather than remembering facts and definitions. One could also give collaborative assignments where it is was an advantage, rather than cheating, to discuss with other students during the exam.
When teaching and meetings went digital, I think we all noticed that our attention span reduces significantly when sitting still, passively listening to others for more than half an hour. Even a short meeting could feel three times longer on screen. Being stuck in a chair with eyes fixed on whoever talks, quickly became uncomfortable: sore eyes, dry throat, aching back, stiff shoulders, headaches, restless legs, or needing a tea or a bathroom break. For students, this is the standard classroom experience, with hours of lectures every day. How would someone cope if they had a chronic condition or for some reason didn’t feel a 100% every day? After months of online meetings, I think we understand better why student-active participation and frequent opportunities to move around are so important.
Mental health issues also became far more evident during lockdown. Students struggled more than before with concentration and motivation, and had more problems orienting themselves within the fully digital university. They didn’t learn as well or engage as much. My students said they felt isolated, lonely, stressed, anxious or tired. It seemed that anyone who could have problems, did, in this period. A student showed us her room, with her desk, bed and kitchenette only a few feet apart. “It’s like being in prison”, she said, “I go crazy being stuck here for hours every day”. All I could do to help was to be understanding, supportive and flexible. When someone “fell off” the class for a while, I’d give them the chance to pick up where they left off. I offered other types of assignments or extended deadlines. As long as the course work was done before the semester ended, the students were all given the opportunity to improve their performance in order to pass the course.
Here are some practical ways in which I designed my courses to offer maximum flexibility:
To reduce screen time during lockdown and give students a chance to move around and go out, I made a podcast alternative to the syllabus with an option between short and long episodes for each class. Students could then prepare for class while doing other things. One student told me she listened to the podcast with her kids in the evenings, another said it was the only way he could take the class and still have a full-time job on the side, and a third would listen to the podcasts while taking care of his young baby. Some weeks they only had time to listen to a short episode of 15 minutes. Other weeks they could do a 60-minute podcast, or both.
I give students a handout with my lecture notes each week, which includes repetition and discussion questions. This means that they can follow the class progress and activities even when they cannot attend. In previous years, some students have taken the whole class remotely when their life situation otherwise would prevent them from studying.
Me and my colleague, Elena Rocca, replaced half of our lectures with individual readings and work on reflection questions. This was included in the course schedule at the end of the day, so students could choose to work in the evening instead. We set aside time in the schedule to organize the reflection notes before meeting in groups, and we scheduled a “Zoom flexibility hour” in the evenings so those who couldn’t attend class during daytime could meet and discuss.
As one assignment, the students could hand in their collected reflection notes in a format of their choice. One student turned their notes into a dinner conversation between famous philosophers. Another made news stories and beautiful posters. Some notes were 60 pages long! Those who couldn’t follow the class work from week to week were given the option to take a short-answer test instead, available for two days in Canvas. Also here, the student works were detailed and included individual reflections and practical examples. Instead of grades, they got their course work approved or not approved, with the possibility to amend any shortcomings before the end of term.
I prefer to give students an opportunity to choose their assignment topic and format, at least once during the course. It’s more fun for them, and far more interesting for me. Rather than marking piles of uninspired essays for weeks after the class ended, we organized a digital student conference where students submitted podcasts, blog posts, posters, or video presentations. Students would review and comment on each other’s work, and that way they all learned more about everything. It was also a positive way to end the semester.
Higher education is stuck in its old ways. One expects students to work hard, compete and prove their worth. In my experience, students work really hard when they can, and they spend more time worrying about their assignments and grades than is healthy for them. If we as educators are given the chance to make our courses more flexible and inclusive, I think students would learn more and feel motivated to continue learning after the class has ended.
The Concept of the Essential Worker
by Ian Olasov
The study of conceptual engineering has taken on new life in recent years, spurred on by suspicions about our social vocabulary, the words we use to talk about the phenomena that most pervasively shape our lives. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the pandemic (nothing if not pervasive) has provided conceptual engineers with an abundance of case studies. For every new pandemic-related entry into the English vernacular – from social and physical distancing to the various technical definitions of aerosol to COVID and coronavirus themselves – there has been lively public discussion of whether, and how, our words fail us.
Some of the conceptual innovations that have struck me as most interesting come from the discourse surrounding work. Most notably, state and federal governments have invented the concept of the essential worker to describe a range of people who have been expected to show up to work in person throughout the pandemic. This now ubiquitous phrase occurs in the Corpus of Contemporary American English from 1990 to 2019 only a handful of times. The policies affecting essential workers, and determining who counts as one for legal purposes, vary from state to state. In Colorado, workers at recreational marijuana dispensaries have been deemed essential; in New York, the category includes workers at gun shops. (You have to ask: essential for what, or for who?) Other states have their own quirks.
Essential workers have borne a disproportionate share of the burdens of the pandemic. They are hospitalized and die from COVID at higher rates than the general population. They are prevented from caring for children and sick family members at home, and are subject to the further moral injury of potentially exposing the people they live with to the virus. They are often subjected to obnoxious and sometimes dangerous customer behavior. And of course, their job descriptions have ballooned to include a range of new workplace safety measures—testing, masking, cleaning, enforcing distancing, and so on. Indeed, the classification of these workers as essential is what is taken to justify these burdens—if they weren’t essential, they wouldn’t have to put up with this.
So we might have expected that the recognition of these workers as essential would come with a corresponding substantial increase in remuneration—wages, paid sick leave, hazard pay, fringe benefits. With some exceptions at the state and municipal level, however, this has not come to pass. Essential workers have instead been offered a wide range of symbolic or ideological rewards. The word “essential” itself functions as a term of praise; at least it has a high positive valence. The use of “heroes” to describe workers had often been restricted in the past, except in extraordinary cases, to cops, fire fighters, and the military. It is now often used to characterize all essential workers. The implication seems to be that essential workers are willingly sacrificing for the common good, rather than forced into a bad situation by the demands of the market. Presumably one of the causes of the much-discussed labor shortage is that lots of people have decided that this sort of work just isn’t worth it.
There are many causes for the low pay and grim working conditions facing essential workers, but I suspect that the concept of the essential worker itself is part of the story. Perhaps it helps give its users the feeling of having discharged our obligation to compensate workers appropriately, without actually having done so. But at the same time, I suspect the concept of the essential worker has the potential to get its users to recognize the value of work that they had previously overlooked. After all, the concept gives us a new (and surprisingly sticky) way of thinking and talking about types of work that have often been invisible at best, or written off as “unskilled” at worst.
Is there a way of “fixing” the concept of essential work, so that it helps us better recognize the value of this work, without rewarding it merely symbolically? I’m not sure, but I’d like to recommend one theoretical tool that I’ve found really helpful here.
The Shapley value is a way of thinking about how to distribute the value created by groups of people working together. Briefly, within Shapley’s framework, it’s natural to take GDP as the value produced by the total coalition of people in an economy, and to take an occupation to consist in “essential workers” if GDP would be zero in any subset of that coalition that didn’t contain that occupation. We can treat an entire “essential occupation,” rather than the individual worker, as a single member of the coalition. The Shapley value of any contributor to the economy is equal to the “surplus value” of all of the coalitions to which it belongs, divided equally among the members of the coalition. Since for any contributor to the economy, and any essential occupation, the set of coalitions with non-zero surplus value to which the contributor belongs is a subset of the set of all coalitions containing the essential occupation, the Shapley value of each contributor is less than or equal to the Shapley value of each essential occupation. If we think of the other contributors to the economy as occupations, this means that the share of GDP that goes to any occupation should be less than or equal to the share of GDP that goes to any essential occupation. But essential occupations tend to be paid rather poorly, as occupations go; the nation’s 658,000 lawyers make as much as its 3.8 million cashiers and childcare workers combined. That essential workers are underpaid might be obvious, by itself, but the Shapley value gives us a way of understanding just how underpaid they are, which isn’t obvious at all.
There are a lot of details I’m ignoring here—for example, about the individuation of occupations, and how to incorporate externalities and non-workers into the Shapley framework. And of course, merely changing how we think about things won’t, by itself, change material reality. But this seems to me like a good start.
A Time for Grief, Not “Resilience”
by Yolonda Wilson
My birthday was September 15th. My mother called to wish me a happy birthday and to tell me that someone else we know is dead. From Covid. With her refined Southern accent, it sounds kind of like, “COr·ViiD.” My friends and I say “the ‘rona.” “So-and-so died from the ‘rona.” Maybe that takes the sting out of being surrounded by stories of death and dying. It’s strange to speak that way. The intimate familiarity with death in this pandemic becomes one of the ways it is clear to me that I occupy two worlds—one overwhelmingly white, well-resourced, and for whom pandemic deaths are largely an abstraction, while the other is decidedly Black and intimately and repeatedly touched by sickness and death.
Some of my fellow academics boast that this pandemic has been one of the most productive periods of their lives. Those of us not so lucky have nevertheless been exhorted to tap into our “resilience.” But at this stage in the pandemic, what is most needed is not resilience but an opportunity to grieve and to process the trauma, disconnection, and burnout that we have collectively experienced.
My friend and sometime research partner, Akilah Jefferson Shah (a brilliant allergy immunologist who trained at NIH under Dr. Fauci himself), wrote an article for the Huffington Post last summer about the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black communities. She writes,
During a recent Zoom conference call with colleagues, I suddenly realized that, while I have had several family members, friends, and acquaintances who have fallen ill with and died of COVID-19, my colleagues have had none. The single obvious difference between my colleagues and me? I am Black, and New Orleans is my hometown.
My hometown, Albany, Georgia, was also a hotspot early in the pandemic—at its worst, it followed only Wuhan, China and Lombardy, Italy in cases per capita. Indeed, at the very moment that New York was dominating the news as the pandemic “epicenter” in the US, my small south Georgia town of 75,000 was a global hotspot, with more cases per capita than New York City. Every day I watched helplessly from Durham, NC (where my fellowship at the National Humanities Center was being interrupted) and later from Washington, DC (where I returned home rather than sit alone in my one bedroom apartment in Durham), and I wondered if that would be the day that I would lose my mother, if I would become an orphan, become unmoored—having lost my father years earlier and my twin sister at birth. I wondered how it would feel the first time I returned to Albany and passed by houses that were now empty, as Covid wiped entire households off the map. How would it feel to attend church with my mother for the first time and see empty spaces where people who shaped me during my formative years once occupied seats in pews?
Members of my family fell ill, and I am grateful that none died. However, I am deeply traumatized. Still. Despite the excitement of a new job in St. Louis, I write and work through molasses. It seems as though every third email I send these days begins, “Thank you for your patience…” or “Please forgive my delayed response…” It feels impossible to explain the depths of this trauma to those who occupy this other world, those for whom 18 straight months of intimate connection to illness, death, and loss is largely an abstraction. At the same time, I’m not sure what would be different if I could explain. I hear so much talk about being “back to normal.” Meanwhile, I struggle to figure out what “normal” is.
There has not been a lot of space to work through grief, either in academia, or in society at large. So many have been devastated by illness, death, loss of employment, loss of time with loved ones, and burnout from increased caregiving responsibilities. Entire communities have borne the disproportionate burden of these losses. Much has been written about the various forms of structural injustice that the pandemic has laid bare from who could socially distance, who could work from home, and even, who has fallen ill and died and why. There is certainly an opportunity to, as a nation, ameliorate this injustice. However, I think this is also a moment to, as a nation, take a different view of trauma, grief and the expectations of productivity.
The culture of work must shift. I am reminded of a viral tweet from April 2020:
If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either:
1.) a new skill
2.) starting what you’ve been putting off[,] like a new business
3.) more knowledge
You didn’t ever lack the time, (sic) you lacked the discipline[.]
This attitude should go the way of the dinosaurs. We should take time to collectively mourn what we have lost, what some are still losing, and what some will never recover. What might it look or feel like for a work culture that places high value on productivity (no matter the circumstances and no matter the cost) to be intentional about creating space for the realities of life and death? The past 18 months have shown that the current trajectory is unsustainable.