The Virginia Tech Massacre happened between when I finished grad school and when I started my first post-graduation teaching position. When I went to orientation for that position in August, the massacre seemed to be on many instructors’ minds, and for good reason. There was some programming in the orientation about what to do in order to defuse bad situations on campus, but there didn’t seem to be any talk about trying to move classes online in the wake of concern about campus shootings. Even when the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College happened years later, my students definitely wanted to talk about the rise of shootings on academic campuses, but no one talked about wanting to take classes online in order to avoid being caught in a campus shooting. By that point, these shootings had become so regular that it felt like many of my students were, for lack of a better word, blasé about them. Thinking about that makes me as sad now as it did back then.
There are a lot of other factors here to talk about, of course, such as some concerned parents deciding to homeschool their children instead of sending them out of the house to learn, and some students feeling less prone to violence at school than they feel at home. For my part, these are things that I’ve always thought about to some extent as I’ve progressed in my teaching career, not just for my own well-being but, more importantly, that of my students. Denying the rise of violence on academic campuses across America would be foolish; at the same time, though, I never gave serious thought to making any kind of push to teach online for safety’s sake; not only is my teaching approach much more conducive to in-person classes than online delivery, but I figured that the relative risk to me and my students was low enough that I was better served to just keep teaching in classrooms as much as I could.
COVID-19 has changed things completely, of course, and as I’ve written here for the past few weeks, the decision about whether to teach online or in-person this coming autumn has been eating at me for months, even before our parent campus announced that they’d reopen in time for the start of fall semester. Trying to figure out what is best for my students, especially when all of us are facing literal life-or-death situations whenever we go someplace (far more so than when we were only worried about shootings, natural disasters and the like), may have been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my fifteen years of teaching. Last week, shortly after I posted my last blog on the topic, one of my bosses emailed me to say that we instructors needed to make up our minds about how we wanted to teach next semester, so plans could be made for allocating classrooms and such.
After discussing the matter with some of my colleagues, and meditating a lot on the gravity of this choice, I eventually decided that I’ll be teaching all of my fall classes online, with the exception of an orientation class that is currently being mandated to be taught in-person (for now). This was not an easy decision, especially given the complications this adds to my attempts to be an effective instructor for all my students, but as heavily as I weighed those benefits, the potential for my students to become deathly ill was just too much for me to argue against. As much extra work as this means for me over the summer, it still feels like a much better choice than the alternative.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading this summer break as I research my next book, and one of the themes that keeps coming up in how we’ve all gotten to this horrible situation is how imposing isolation on others is often an effective way to break them down, by making them feel like they’re alone and that no one (or at least no one important) is on their side. I’ve always been a big believer in the social function of schooling, and that function may be more important now than it’s ever been in my lifetime. I hate to do anything that will lessen that function — even if my classes are held synchronously by videoconference, they still won’t provide the same socialization opportunities that can be had when we all meet in the same physical space — but I honestly don’t feel that I have any kind of responsible choice in the matter.
As horrific and mind-shattering as the first half of this year has been, the second half is almost guaranteed to be much, much worse in every aspect. Regardless of how bad things become, though, I still have deep responsibilities to everyone who depends on me — my students, my co-workers, my friends and my chosen family — to do everything I reasonably can to take care of them, and to help them through these troubled times. I’ve made my choices about the best way to live up those responsibilities, and now I need to go all-out to make the best of the horrible situations we’re all going to be in for a long, long time to come. Those situations will probably keep getting worse for a long time to come, and the only way they’re going to start getting better in the foreseeable future is for us to do everything we can to make them better.