Strategies for Another
This past winter, during the long Covid lockdowns, I hosted a series of family Zoom calls with my grandfather as the keynote speaker. My grandfather is 99 years old and a World War 2 vet.
He and several of his friends from our small town joined the Air Force. At one point in their training, they needed to transfer bases, and the train passed through their small town. Homesick, they wanted to stop and see friends and family. They sent a telegram to the base, but didn’t get a reply. They stopped anyways, and got of the train. In the midst of the merriment, the train departed, leaving the service men behind.
They were in big trouble.
My great grandfather, Harold, didn’t have enough ration cards to drive my grandfather and his friends to the base. Neighbors pitched in their own ration cards, and they arrived at the base well after midnight. They spent the night in a military jail, and were released the next day with a reprimand.
As he told us this story, I had two thoughts: first, how unaccustomed we are as a society to being asked to do truly hard things. This was a story of people going off to war, and all that was lost in that war.
But the other thing that struck me was that this was a story of community. It was no small thing to give up gas rations during the war — this was farm country, and it likely meant that people were unable to fill up their own cars for a few weeks because they had to bail out 5 young men who had screwed up.
It made me also realize how in the fragmentation of modern life, we’re often unaccustomed to thinking about what we can do for people in our communities, because we’re all so disconnected.
This past week, many of you have reached out to share with us at Beyond Prof the challenges you’re facing with a return to campus (or not) during this on-going global pandemic.
Some of you have expressed anger and fear at the return to in-person classes, as you worry about being exposed to Covid-19, or bringing the virus back home and exposing unvaccinated children and other vulnerable family members.
Many of you have returned to in-person teaching, only to have to pivot within days to remote as Covid-19 outbreaks in your classrooms have forced a return to Zoom teaching.
Others still are worried about their mental health and the exhaustion of teaching remote. You prefer to be in classrooms with students, finding energy in those interactions. What will it mean for your mental health to be online again?
Many others are worried about their jobs — fearing that another rollercoaster year will mean more cutbacks, more layoffs, more campus closures.
Essentially, a return to campus this year has meant entering a fraught and frayed environment where people are afraid for their health and safety – emotionally and physically. Everyone is frustrated because nobody knows what the right path forward is for a campus. People want to follow the science, but as we know, science isn’t stationary. What felt possible in May now feels less rational in September.
The truth is, we all do better when we know what to plan for. The uncertainty and unknown exacerbates our fears.
And what I’m seeing across social media is an attack on people on university campuses for not sharing our view points of how best to move forward this academic year. There is so much negativity right now that I’ve actually decided to take a break from academic twitter for a few weeks. It’s so much to take in.
I get it. Fear and anger leads to division. It leads to blame. We lash out at people around us. They must be stupid, or only in it for the money, or denying science. But the truth is — they’re probably afraid just like you.
As scholars – especially those of us in the humanities and social sciences – we bring a deep curiosity about the world, how people live and think, and how we interact with our environments. And we often think and engage with populations and people who we share very little with. But we’re curious, so we ask questions in order to learn more about these people.
What I want to ask you to do this academic year is to think more about how you can model care and compassion for people in your community, and bring your curiosity to this challenging and fraught environment.
This doesn’t mean accepting harmful behavior, or conspiracy theories.
What it does mean is asking and listening to people around you, learning more about their fears and what is behind their position or point of view, and then having compassion for that person. You might even be moved to find ways to help or support someone in your office, a peer, or your students, when you learn more about what living through Covid-19 pandemic means for them.
If you’re teaching this year, or part of a lab, I’d encourage you to set aside time to have your students or lab mates share anonymously what they are most worried about, or what they lost last year that they’re worried about losing this year, too. And then ask them to share what they need from others to help them through this difficult time.
Then share these with your class or lab, and ask people to take action. “Several of you said you were so lonely last year, and you’re worried about going back into lockdown, and what that means for your mental health. What can we do as a class to help support our fellow students if we do go into lock down or have to quarantine. How can we support these people.”
For advisors, ask your advisees what they’re worried about and help them strategize. Maybe it’s another lost year of research and not being able to graduate — what can you do as an advisor or department to help students graduate this year? Or if they are fearful that graduation means unemployment because of the terrible academic job market, refer them to Beyond Prof so that they can begin building a Plan B.
And yes, maybe you’ll have someone say that Covid-19 is stupid, or overblown, and they just need to government to stop telling them what to do. Most likely, that person has lost what we all have — a sense of normalcy — and we need to have compassion for that person, too. (It doesn’t mean agreeing with them, but we do have to understand where someone is coming from to be compassionate to them).
At Beyond Prof, we’ve always strived to build a community where people can feel safe, heard, and supported. We want people to feel positive about their futures, while recognizing that, yah, sometimes things are just really, really hard, and not what we had hoped for or imagined for ourselves.
We know that’s why you’ve joined us — subscribed to our newsletter, attended our webinars and conferences, and signed up for Aurora. Because what you want and need is support, encouragement, and empathy.
I’m asking you to take up this challenge — to find ways to support members of your community this year — to really understand the fears and anxieties that are behind the actions of others — and then to find a small way to show them compassion and to help them feel a little less alone.
Because at the end of the day, that’s how we’ll all get through this challenging year. Through the kindness of friends, family, colleagues, and strangers.
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