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The University of Oklahoma, where I teach, is in a state that has barred requiring vaccinations or masks of students. This fact alone would make the university’s back-to-normal gambit dangerous. We are also in an “extremely high risk” area for Covid, where the Delta variant is finding plenty of unvaccinated hosts. In refusing to require masks, the university claims that it is abiding by the law and cannot do otherwise. But some school districts in the state have defied the ban on requiring masks, and our own law school-faculty say the law does not unambiguously forbid such a requirement (so long as we don’t single out the unvaccinated). In short, the university could defy or challenge the law. It has not.
When I arrived at my building to teach my first class, I was struck by the fact that there are no signs — not on the doors, not in the hallways, nowhere — encouraging the use of masks. I don’t feel great confidence that signs would generate more masking from students, yet I can’t help but shiver at an institution unwilling to make even this cheap gesture toward public health. Meanwhile, the university holds public events where unmasked administrators lead hundreds of unmasked freshmen in yelling out the school’s spirit chants.
Social distancing has also been eliminated in the classroom. This move, the administration claims, is a response to the CDC’s having lifted its recommendation for social distancing (never mind that the university is ignoring a raft of other CDC recommendations). The university also eliminated free Covid testing on campus. (If the university is conducting any surveillance testing of students, the faculty has not been told.) Assuming that a student seeks out testing and tests positive, that student is not required to notify their professors. The decision is left up to the student — it is something they can share or not, just as they can mask or not, vaccinate or not. As a result, we are living with opacity where case counts and exposure are concerned.
Where shame sits on the fence, you can nudge it toward the good if the group is small, the leader personally connected to the group, the group’s identity coherent and bonded.
On the subject of masking, however, the administration is downright voluble. The week before our semester began, we received a flood of email explaining what we may and may not do with respect to classrooms and masking. We are instructed to “avoid” incentivizing students to wear masks by offering participation credit or bonus points — bribery is out. We are enjoined to “provide an inclusive learning environment,” which, we are told, means not negatively “impacting the learning” of the unmasked by requiring them to sit distant from the masked. By this same logic, we are “discouraged” from structuring in-class group work around masked and unmasked groups, lest doing so negatively impact learning, though how the learning of the masked might be inhibited by sitting with the unmasked is not addressed.
We are discouraged from “sharing Covid data that is not related to the course.” Presumably, nattering on about the state’s overburdened hospitals, worn-down physicians, and increasing death counts might constitute “pressure,” and faculty “should not pressure students to get vaccinated or wear a mask.” The most we can do is “encourage.” In practice, these guidelines have left faculty proffering details of their personal lives to crowds of unmasked students. We have become beggars and supplicants, hoping for mercy.
What I see instead are academia’s familiar power dynamics. Senior faculty members tend to have both more perceived authority and, crucially, smaller class sizes. Most of the “success stories” I have seen are simply reflections of this hierarchy: a tiny class of majors will mask when entreated and handed masks by a professor they know and trust. This is entirely predictable. Where shame sits on the fence, you can nudge it toward the good if the group is small, the leader personally connected to the group, the group’s identity coherent and bonded.
Large gen-ed sections assigned to the not-yet-tenured, the adjunct, or the graduate student allow unmasked students a “lost in the crowd” protection from shame. One is but a single face among many, one’s rejection of the offered mask one among the many — indeed, if enough decline, peer pressure alone may quash any budding finer impulse to mask up. If you have the misfortune of teaching a larger class, you’ll bear the misfortune of fewer masks, no matter your story.
Everyone living through a pandemic is in the hands of fortune to some degree; where contagion is concerned, we must all hope for luck. 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.