These are some of the stories collected here, dispatches from a period already receding — with luck, for good. Whatever normalcy emerges this fall will be a “new” normal, chipped and splintered by the experiences of the last year and a half. But, too, the memory of that time and the efficacy of the vaccine might make the fall semester a giddy one, a Roaring Twenties of academic life.
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A student takes a class on astronomy while living in a van, balancing her Zoom-based coursework with her job on a goat farm. A recently minted literature Ph.D., unable to find work, becomes a nurse instead — and reflects on his new career as the hospitals are bracing for Covid. A professor cries onscreen, mourning the suicide of a student.
These are some of the stories collected here, dispatches from a period already receding — with luck, for good. Whatever normalcy emerges this fall will be a “new” normal, chipped and splintered by the experiences of the last year and a half. But, too, the memory of that time and the efficacy of the vaccine might make the fall semester a giddy one, a Roaring Twenties of academic life. As Becca Rothfeld puts it in the opening essay here, “I want to be screaming about Kant, about Marx, about anything, sloshing beer over the lip of a glass.” You can’t drink beer with a mask on.
Becca Rothfeld | Meagan Rittmanic and Caitrin Lynch | David Yaffe | Colin Gillis
Starved for Argument
But despite my best efforts, speech was forever encroaching. Disagreements bubbled up in seminars or erupted in the hallways that led from office to bathroom; fights about interpreting Hegel broke out in front of the communal refrigerator where I stored my lunch. In parks, I ran into acquaintances who asked me what I thought of the books I was annotating so vengefully. At parties, when I was drunk and defenseless, I allowed myself, against my better judgment, to be dragged into disputes, and I would resurface from a foggy fugue state to find myself ranting about novels I hated as if stricken with glossolalia.
During the pandemic, I finally had a chance to shut up. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship that exempted me from teaching and therefore from strenuous talking. In fact, I had only biweekly occasions to submit to academic talk at all: workshops where those in my program and I presented work in progress. Otherwise, I was free to bask in silence. There I sat, liberated from the humiliations of speaking, staring at the reproachfully blank page without anyone to accost me. Much to my surprise, I was disconsolate. Now that I was not speaking, I had absolutely nothing to write.
In his early 19th-century feuilleton, “On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts During Speech,” the German romantic Heinrich von Kleist urges, “If there is something you want to know and cannot discover by meditation, then, my dear, ingenious friend, I advise you to discuss it with the first acquaintance whom you happen to meet.” By Kleist’s lights, conversation is salutary not because it unearths positions already embedded in the cerebral sediment but because it creates thought. “I can see you opening your eyes wide at this and replying that in former years you were advised never to talk about anything that you do not already understand,” Kleist writes. “In those days, however, you probably spoke with the pretentious purpose of enlightening others — I want you to speak with the reasonable purpose of enlightening yourself.”
For Kleist, speech generates ideas by dint of its sheer mechanics: He speculates that when Mirabeau gave addresses, the statesman was like a body receiving an electrical charge. “In this way it is possible that in the end it was the twitching of an upper lip or the ambiguous flicking of a cuff that caused the collapse of the whole social order in France,” he concludes.
In quarantine, I have come to believe Kleist is right. Speech is not the best vehicle for delivering verdicts, and I would still rather read or write a lecture than hear or recite one. But before a lecture’s contents have been fixed or formulated, its author is in desperate need of the choreography of conversation. There is no life of the mind without sparring. I am starved for argument: I want to be screaming about Kant, about Marx, about anything, sloshing beer over the lip of a glass, sweating, swearing, spitting, drawing frantic diagrams on napkins with the nearest available writing implement. And when I am fully vaccinated, I intend to shout at anyone I can persuade to shout back.
Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard University and a contributing editor at The Point. She is writing an essay collection for Metropolitan Books.
Two Stories of Life and Loss
And things have been a little tough. One of our classmates at Olin died by suicide this semester. I didn’t know him well, but when I logged into class the day we learned of his death, everything was different. Everyone looked sad and tired, or their videos were off, like they weren’t even there. We may have been carrying on, in a way, but we couldn’t push ourselves to work or even talk much. We needed to be together, hugging and crying and staying up late into the night, but we could only see one another through computer screens. Our moments together ended abruptly, boxes quickly disappearing when Zoom class was over. No chatting during class or debriefing afterward, no walking back to our dorms together.
The next day, I went running and got back 20 minutes before “AstroStats” to find Declan still asleep. “Hey, Dec,” I said, nudging her. “C’mon, time to get up.” I messed with her, repeating myself playfully, until she sharply said, “I’m trying.” I held her, knowing that she was grieving, not only for our classmate, but for a close friend who had also died by suicide while she was in high school.
Halfway through class, I looked over at Declan to ask a question about the dataset we were working with. She was sitting just a few inches to my right, head down, motionlessly looking at her computer. She answered, quickly, not acknowledging the silent tears streaming down her face. I turned off our shared camera and muted our mic, wrapping her in my arms despite her protests that I didn’t need to miss class. I had to head to work right after class, and I couldn’t believe I had to leave her like this. Even as she swore up and down that she was OK, tears gathered in her eyes.
It’s weird to think about any of this happening in a classroom. Declan would have gotten up and left. Or, maybe, she would have held it all in. Declan’s better at that than I am.
I went to work worried, heavy, sad. I felt it most when I was outside, in the buck shelter, mucking pitchfork after pitchfork of manure. I stayed composed and worked hard — no one noticed a thing. But my poise, my stoicism, was crumbling.
There are only a couple people who see me as both a student and a farm worker, only a couple people who really know what I’m feeling. There’s Declan, who holds me tightly when my emotions begin to pull me apart. And, in a different way, there’s Caitrin, the professor whom I meet with once a week to talk about an independent study I’m doing, writing about my experiences this past year. Caitrin sees it all.
There are days when I need to be completely seen, when feelings from one part of life creep into everything. My brain turns in cramped, worried loops, remembering other days of worry, projecting them onto today, as if everything bad will happen all at once.
On those days, I’m thankful for Declan and Caitrin.
It’s not easy to go to school in a van, inches from my girlfriend. It’s not easy to split my life in half between school and the farm, feeling like I’m not doing either one well enough. But, in this van, I’m learning to lean into my emotions. I’m letting them guide me. I’m going to do less this coming fall semester, spend more time with folks I’ve missed, and take a break when I need one.
Meagan Rittmanic is a student at Olin College of Engineering.
When I logged in for my first Monday-morning class of 87 students, I cried. Not huge, function-inhibiting tears — those would come later. These were the warm kind that burn in the cheekbones and make it hard to see clearly, but you can still carry on. Not one student was absent. They had been flung across the country and the world; regardless of time zone, internet capacity, and housing situation, they had all managed to sign on for class. I felt both sadness and love. I was worried about my students, and also wanted to help them, to assure them, not knowing what emotions they might be feeling. In my own house, we were afraid. I found myself trying to balance my fear with the expectations that come with being a professor. So much was unknown, yet they were all signed on, ready to keep learning, and I needed to be there to teach.
Back then, I knew little about where my students had landed or how they were feeling. I know more of this now, including the distress some felt moving back home after finally growing up and moving out. Others felt the pull of adventure, and used this time to do something that hadn’t been in their plans.
I couldn’t have imagined back then how a lemon-yellow van on a farm in Washington state would enter my life. This van, parked across the continent from where I live, houses two women working on their engineering degrees at my suburban Boston institution. Meagan is doing an independent study with me, writing about her pandemic life. She’s in school full time while working 30 hours a week on a goat farm. Declan is in my “Design for Aging” class, working with a team of students who are all in the Boston area, designing a cooking kit with and for a man who is blind and deaf.
When I meet with Meagan at 5 o’clock in the morning her time, every Wednesday morning, she whispers so as to not wake Declan, who’s next to her in bed. While we talk about Meagan’s writing, I can see the van ceiling lined with wallpaper that looks like wood, and posters of constellations, held on by peeling blue painter’s tape that I mailed to Declan earlier in the semester in a prototyping supply box. Sometimes I hear Declan, and Meagan tenderly tells her to go back to sleep. Two young women, laptops and engineering notebooks packed into a van, getting Wi-Fi on a 4G hot spot.
I’ve seen Meagan in bed, and she’s seen me teaching from my basement, which looks like a storage closet. I’ve read about Meagan rubbing clean the muck from a just-born baby goat: how the brand-new life in her arms made her consider her own body, how she sought meaning behind the wonderment she felt, how she thought about God. As for Meagan, she’s seen me cry big heavy tears. Twice.
Once was when I felt like I was about to lose something that I didn’t want to lose. It was in December, at the end of a semester of reading and writing short stories with a tiny group of committed students on the other side of the day in Asia. Meagan was the teaching assistant, logging in from the goat barn before sunrise. This class had felt like a gift amid a nightmare: the chance to focus on fiction to understand ourselves and our world. I didn’t want to cry; I didn’t mean to cry. But when I was conveying my “end-of-semester wrap-up comments” (what it said on my lesson plan), the tears came. I could see myself, an awkward self-awareness induced by seeing the Zoom box that was me, tears flowing down my big Zoom face, eyes red and narrowed as they tried to push it all back.
The other time was when I had lost something, someone, whom I didn’t want to lose. A student of mine, a classmate of Meagan’s and Declan’s, had died by suicide, and I couldn’t not talk about it with Meagan. We talked about how he had died, how we felt, what this meant to us. We talked about loneliness and pain. We talked about Covid and isolation. We talked about depression. I hadn’t realized I would want to talk about any of this, and there are very few people with whom I’m willing to talk about my feelings. I wouldn’t have thought to count Meagan among them. But she was there, looking right at me, no hiding for either of us. We were both moved by the same experience, and somehow the Zoom box made me feel so close to Meagan that it seemed wrong to pretend the context for our work was unchanged.
I loved the young man we lost for his curiosity, his smile, his ethical conviction, and his commitment to others. My own life is modest, the accomplishments relatively small, so I dream through my students, who, in their early 20s, can do so much. Occasionally, I pack a lot of my dreams into a particular student — not intentionally, it just happens. He was one of them. Twenty-one years old, ready to make a difference. Wanting to do it carefully. I loved to laugh and think with him, to pose seemingly unanswerable questions, to let him play with them and work them out. I didn’t know we were finished with our conversations. I didn’t know my class with him two days before he died was our last. The final thing I said to him was at the end of a session about bias and machine learning. I told him we can and must use engineering for justice and well-being. I didn’t tell him about the optimism, hope, and energy he had helped instill in me.
I struggle now, regretting that omission and wondering if he’d still be alive now if I had spoken more, but also wondering if he’d still be with us if a virus had not forced us all away from each other. I know there are no easy answers, and that my appreciation and regard would have landed as a tiny ripple in the complex sea of emotions experienced by this young man. I replay the very end of that class session in my head again and again. I knew he was suffering, but I had no idea how deeply. After he died, I could have tried to close my emotions up, but I didn’t. Talking to Meagan helped me come out the other side with gratitude for having known him.
There is a tension inside me between being open and preserving a professional image. I don’t want to cry in front of my students again. And it’s hard for me to know how deeply I should understand my students’ lives. Nevertheless, there’s a piece of this experience that I’d like to retain. Through this crisis, through the fear and the unknown we’ve allowed into our little Zoom-boxed classrooms, I’ve learned something about what teaching means to me.
Caitrin Lynch is a professor of anthropology at Olin College of Engineering.
Music in the Air
And March 15, 2020, was a time to beware like none other. Hurry up please it’s time, wrote T.S. Eliot, in the shadow of Spanish flu and the First World War. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. David Byrne wrote that in 1979. Byrne was bunkered with the rest of us, thinking about social isolation. Was it all over?
Wherever we were last March, we suddenly had to stay there. Our relationships, our solitude, our plans. Everything was on hold. If you were completely alone, the wait for the next hug could last a long time. The aisles at many grocery stores were empty. The banality of shopping had become an act of desperation.
I got some groceries, some peanut butter,
To last a couple of days
But I ain’t got no speakers, ain’t got no headphones,
Ain’t got no records to play
Was this the way the world ended?
After Shakespeare wrote about the Ides of March, he wrote a play about a man more sinned against than sinning: Nothing will come of nothing. Writers were told repeatedly that Shakespeare wrote King Lear under quarantine. True, but he probably didn’t do it right away.
Twenty-twenty crept its petty pace. Fiona Apple and Bob Dylan gave us survival kits. New albums from Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello appeared. I talked to both of them. When the world stops, it is remarkable how people have time. Twenty-twenty was the year we were living in the future. We talked to our computers for work and wore masks to go outside. And, with the cost of a modest subscription, we had easy access to almost everything that had ever been recorded. Everything was closed, but recorded music is ubiquitous, to some, a banality. “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds,” wrote Nabokov in his inimitably mellifluous prose. I would say that about bad music. And maybe if you’re feeling bad, it could all sound that way. And I would say that I can’t tell you how to feel, but that wouldn’t be true. If you have read this far, you will know that telling you how to feel is what I do. I learned it in my room when I was first becoming a self, when I was discovering the world by sheltering away from it.
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room
Twenty-twenty does not seem like last year. Usually, as one ages, time goes by faster. Not this time. And yet, here I am. I just signed a lease for an apartment in Brooklyn, alone. The seasons, they go round and round. The Ides of March and Cruellest April went by, but life would not come back to whatever normal was for a very long time. At least it felt that way. Keep searching. Press play. A new life could be approaching. It’s not over yet.
David Yaffe is an assistant professor of the humanities at Syracuse University and the author of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).
A Healthy Career
A bizarre form of déjà vu took hold of me. It had been almost four years since I left my career as an English professor and started working as a bedside nurse in a Midwestern teaching hospital. This was the first time when the life I created for myself in this new, radically different profession aligned in any way with the one I had envisioned when I first started toying with the idea of a career in medicine. While it is not uncommon for aspiring humanities professors to explore alternative lines of work when their tenure-track dreams collide with the harsh reality of the academic job market, few consider nursing. This unconventional option presented itself to me through my research. HIV/AIDS literature had been one of my longstanding interests. In the record left by the novels, memoirs, plays, and poems written during the dismal early days of that pandemic, the nurses who bravely cared for the sick and dying, when the virus was still poorly understood and extremely stigmatized, appear as some of the few heroic figures. Maybe I could do that, I had thought during my final two years of graduate school. Now, here I was, risking my safety to care for the sick on the front lines of another pandemic.
Working on a Covid unit was more or less exactly the kind of work I had dreamed about doing when I embarked on the circuitous path that would take me to nursing. I love almost every aspect of the work — it’s just comically different than what I had pictured as a young, idealistic scholar. Reading AIDS memoirs like Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, I imagined myself massaging the aching feet of beautiful, if gaunt, young men and explaining the dying process to their brilliant poet-lovers in pellucid language they would find both helpful and moving. Seeing my name in the acknowledgements to the autobiography would bring a bittersweet smile to my face.
Well, perhaps I wasn’t that idealistic. I knew it would be a messy job. My grad-student friends laughed (or rolled their eyes) when I announced that I didn’t see much difference between wiping butts and grading undergraduate essays, but I was right that my relative indifference to the sight and smell of bodily fluids would serve me well as a health-care professional. In almost every other respect, my work as a nurse is completely different than what I imagined as a graduate student.
The unquestionable realness of nursing was part of its appeal. Explaining to one of my mentors my decision to leave the academy, I proclaimed, “I want to change the world. I’m sick of studying representations of it.” This distorted version of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach became my guiding principle for the next decade. I took introductory biology and sociology courses at a local community college while finishing my dissertation and teaching my own classes. After I graduated with my Ph.D., my wife got a job at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and I followed her there to adjunct. The labor uprising that rocked the state Capitol in 2011 inspired me to drop (almost) everything to devote myself to activism, and I spent the next three years trying (and failing) to save the local radical bookstore. When the bookstore closed, I took up the idea of becoming a nurse again.
My first year as a full-time nurse was a carnival of humiliation. It upended any expectation that my graduate training in the humanities would translate neatly to health care. Nursing rewards critical thinking and verbal dexterity, to be sure, but these capabilities are worthless unless grounded in a basic competence in the skills that nurses need to keep patients alive. Operating an inpatient unit is kind of like running a busy restaurant in a city that is actively under siege. For each patient there is a list of specific tasks that must be accomplished quickly and at a specific time: medications, dressing changes, procedures, repositioning in bed to prevent bedsores, physical assessments, and so on.
On top of this daunting list of tasks, the nurse must also manage the needs and wants that patients cannot or will not satisfy on their own: meals, snacks, fresh ice-water, bathroom trips, finding the football game on television. While all of this is happening, fate lobs emergencies into the swirl of activity like hand grenades. One minute you’re rushing to the kitchen for a small cup of ice chips to appease a grumpy old man, the next you’re desperately trying to awaken a patient who has suddenly and unexpectedly become unresponsive. Nurses refer to the suite of physical and psychological abilities that enable us to contend with this unending barrage of demands as “time management.” This was something for which the academy did not prepare me. In fact, scholarly habits were an obstacle to my success as a nurse — something my preceptor (an experienced nurse assigned to help train me) noticed right away. A brilliant and intimidatingly proficient nurse more than 10 years younger than me, she did not hesitate to chastise me for spending too much time on aspects of the work that allowed me to focus on researching new terms and illnesses. During one of our first shifts together, she snapped at me. “I’m not worried about what you’re doing here,” she said, gesturing toward the computers in the charting room. “I’m worried about how you’re doing out there,” pointing to the hallway lined with patient rooms. “It’s just not clicking for you yet, and I don’t know why.”
She was right. In my first few weeks on the floor, my days would go smoothly until I confronted something new to me. The only way I knew how to solve problems was to deploy the careful and deliberative style of thinking that I had honed (and been rewarded for) in graduate seminars. One time my entire day was thrown off course by a patient who had a heparin drip. When my shift started, the drip was in the room, but the patient wasn’t — he had been taken to another part of the hospital for a CT scan. I knew that it was my job to titrate this drip, recalibrating the chemistry that determined how quickly his blood would clot. Under normal circumstances, this process is straightforward. But what was I supposed to do when the drip had been stopped for an hour unexpectedly? I printed out a set of lengthy instructions and began scouring the pages. I highlighted relevant passages and analyzed their meaning. Meanwhile, my list of chores to complete during my shift got longer and longer.
Sympathetic co-workers could see I was struggling and jumped in to help, but even that couldn’t conceal that my slowness was a burden on the unit. My difficulties spiraled. Knowing that others saw me as a problem made me hesitate to ask for help or advice when I needed it, a misguided effort at independence that slowed me down even more. Six months into my second career, I was regularly being called into the manager’s tiny office for meetings about my lack of progress. I was certain I was about to fail. My anxiety became debilitating. At work, I did what I knew how to do: analyze and write. Without being asked by anyone, I wrote a weekly journal accounting for each shift and describing what I was doing to improve, producing pages and pages of exacting reflection on my inadequacy. Outside of work, I started to see a therapist again. I drank whiskey to fall asleep on my nights off.
The process that made me the nurse I have become was one of the most transformative educational experiences of my life. Success in nursing necessitated unlearning habits of mind for which I was rewarded in the academy and that I thought would add value to my work in the hospital. That was wrong. My tendency to subject every problem to exhaustive inquiry was met with confusion and growing concern from my new, practically minded colleagues. The insight did not fully take shape until months later. During a program designed to help nurses survive their first year on the job, an instructor was leading a class on how to talk to patients about death. As a catalyst for discussion, she showed us a brief excerpt from a film of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit. This was a play I knew well. In fact, I had taught it myself several years before in a class on literature and medicine.
In the scene we watched, a nurse named Susie develops a friendship with her patient, Vivian Bearing, a Donne scholar who is undergoing an unusually painful treatment for advanced ovarian cancer. Susie uses a shared popsicle to set up a conversation about Vivian’s code status. She gently pushes her to accept that death is inevitable and persuades her to choose DNR.
When I taught this scene, I had students read it aloud before asking them to consider what the patient learns through this conversation. In my class, the point was that, sometimes, the best healer is the one who helps her patient come to terms with the fact that she will never get better. In the class for new nurses, my instructor neatly inverted this lesson plan. After we watched the scene, she asked us what we could learn from the nurse. One of my fellow new nurses spoke up, mirroring my own thoughts: How did a nurse make the time to have the conversation at all, let alone to share a leisurely popsicle with her patient?
My literature class had approached mortality as an existential problem. For me and my fellow first-year nurses, the problem was logistical: How could we create the time and space for this kind of conversation? “Could I hand my pager off to another nurse to do this?” I wondered.
Almost four years into my second career, I am no longer a newbie. I now have a fundamentally different relationship with my co-workers — one that privileges collaboration and mutual responsibility. I also make decisions much more quickly and confidently. My humanities education furnished me with infinite curiosity and attention to nuance, but I no longer bring those qualities to bear on every problem I encounter. Instead, my professor brain now happily cohabitates with a new, nurse brain. Confronted with a patient who has become unable to breathe on his own, I act quickly and decisively. Only later, when the emergency has subsided, will I replay the episode in my mind and consider its deeper significance.
In a sense, I do use my Ph.D. in English every day. Watching a career collapse around me has shown me what it’s like to see your world fall apart. I learned from the care shown to me at the end of my graduate training — the professors and fellow students who listened patiently as I grieved for the end of my academic career. I remember the adviser who carved time out of her busy schedule to discuss what I could do with my life if my academic job search failed. After we reviewed the pros and cons of several alternative careers, she told me to go home and watch a movie. “It’s going to be OK,” she said, “Take tonight off.” She recognized that I was suffering, showed compassion, and suggested what I could do to feel a little bit better. In a way, that moment was the beginning of my education as a nurse.
Colin Gillis is a registered nurse in Wisconsin.