An author’s insights from writing a book about COVID on his campus (opinion)
I retired this fall after almost 40 years as an editor Duke Magazine, the university‘s alumni magazine. That’s a long time on a campus—a lot of time to gather institutional and college knowledge. I figured that after all this time there weren’t many campus features that I hadn’t figured out. I had a big project, early retirement, and that was writing a book about the university pandemic period – how COVID impacted not only the campus as a physical space, but also as a place for discovery, personal growth, individual and collective well-being -His and much more. In such an immersive endeavor, I learned a lot about how a campus manages a health crisis. I also learned some other things.
First, much of a campus’ good work happens behind the scenes. During the pandemic, Duke put me in touch with workers who too often are perceived as just supporters of the company, but who actually make the company possible. Essential workers, indeed. One of many people I met was Valerie Williams, who oversees Duke’s main freshman dining room. Your arrival at Duke predates my own by four decades. Her grandmother had been in a similar role at university; She still has the severance of one of her grandmother’s paychecks. Her grandmother advised her to work diligently and look for opportunities to advance. That’s exactly what she did. She became chef, assistant manager, and finally manager. She was thinking hard when I asked what had propelled her through the depths of the pandemic. “Seeing people happy,” she said.
Another key worker: an on-campus bus system driver, Michael Eubanks, aka Big Mike. He is a self-described person and if I observed him on one of his routes I would confirm this self-description. He was in awe of his students and the “amazing things” they did as students and beyond. He was particularly proud of her social justice work, from protesting sweatshop labor to campaigning for a living wage at Duke.
But he often steered conversations with riding students to life advice. In a campus journal, one student called him “the pseudo-parent we all need at times — never afraid to tell us what we’re doing wrong (like putting our feet on the seats), but always there to remind us of the.” Things to remember we’re doing right.”
Second, while we often hear affectionate references to the “campus community,” the various sub-communities can be vital. These sub-communities provide an important support structure and opportunity for growth. For the book, I took a few tastes of extracurricular life, constrained as it was when the pandemic had shut down so much of campus. A student spoke to me about how he felt accepted by Jewish life at the university. Not that the circumstances of the pandemic made it easy for her to deepen her religious identity: “Much of Judaism is community-focused, being physically together, praying together, and sharing a meal around Shabbat services. It was so sad for me that we would lose the ability to sing together.” But the subcongregation still played an important role in supporting and supporting her – after all, she even had her belated bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony, through Jewish Life.
The subcommunity of student journalists never missed a beat in producing issues of The chronicle, the student newspaper. The editor when the pandemic hit was Matthew Griffin. In his farewell column, he acknowledged the challenges of an ever-changing pandemic scene: “I often felt overwhelmed. Some days I wondered if I had the strength not to fall apart, let alone run a newspaper.” At the same time, he celebrated the social bonds that motivated his employees, even if the usual bonding events – such as a dodgeball game against the student council – were taboo.
Third, faculties naturally take care of their students—even at large institutions. At a research university like Duke, the faculty compensation system depends much less on being clearly student-centric than on academic achievement. For me, however, it was enlightening to see new evidence of concern from the whole student – the student as a learner, to be sure, but also the student trying to manage the stress of the pandemic.
During the fall 2020 online semester, some professors adjusted their tasks or incorporated unofficial breaks into the academic calendar. Seemingly small professorial gestures were even more meaningful. For example, I heard about Lisa Merschel, a senior lecturer in Romance languages. Earlier this semester, Merschel held virtual discovery sessions with students in small groups right after class. She later facilitated personal “office hours” on campus; Students would sign up for a time slot and meet with Merschel, socially distancing, wearing face masks and with an open agenda. “The most meaningful part of Professor Merschel’s teaching was the sign-off at the end of our meetings,” one of these students told me. Usually it was like that and abrazo-a hug. Sometimes it was “I see you” or “I’m here with you”. Such goodbyes, brief as they were, “never failed in my spirits, even during the busiest weeks of the semester.”
Then there was Tom Ferraro, a longtime English professor who worked hard even in his Zoom box to forge a true learning community. As he told his students, “I know how tired we all are. It’s tough for us.” But during this online experiment, Ferraro endeavored to replicate the conventions of the traditional seminary as much as possible. Close reading, the basis of his seminar, offers, as he puts it, “the tools for life”. Through his assigned texts and relentless questioning, he sought to inspire his students to stretch intellectually—and also to immerse themselves in the works and worlds created by generations of American novelists, poets, and essayists in a time of psychological upheaval.
Fourth, one of the things the campus does best is encouraging shared rituals. When all was secluded, Duke offered his traditional holiday season production The Messiah on-line. Duke Chapel was magnificently adorned on the computer screen and the singers were powerfully displayed. But you really need a real space, not a virtual space, to deal with all that fuss; Viewed from a distance, it was less than a fellowship gathering.
When things finally opened up, I soaked up the authentic campus experience more than ever. The elaborately organized group photo – with the booming voice of the soccer coach setting the direction – of the latest class. The student music theater troupe hanging up The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with preprogrammed insults hurled at the cast. As it is, of course, about Duke, the characteristically gruff tone and, in general, the glorious victory of a home basketball game.
Then there was the celebration of a professor’s book on the sacredness of the natural world; Pandemic protocols called for Posttalk reception to offer individual meal portions in clamshell containers. The final day of classes marked by free t-shirts, quad bike games and poems made to order courtesy of a costumed Poetry Fox. An in-person graduation where speaker John Legend told the assembled students that during the pandemic they were “forced to pause – to see each other not in competition but in community with one another”.
Fifth, higher education can be flexible – which was not always an obvious point. I think of the sentiment expressed by former Harvard President Derek Bok 15 years ago in his provocatively titled book Our underperforming universities. Professors, as he pointed out in his conclusion, may be inclined to experiment with their own teaching methods and techniques to stimulate learning. Still, “a majority of faculty are content with the status quo.”
It is significant that students entering Duke this fall will still need to be guided by Curriculum 2000. A faculty effort at curriculum reform failed a few years ago, apparently a victim of competing interests and competing visions; another is just beginning. But the pandemic has challenged status quo thinking, particularly in terms of how classes might be run. One of my sources for the book was Matthew Rascoff, then Associate Vice Provost for Digital Education and Innovation at Duke (now at Stanford University). “A lot of faculty thought they knew how to teach,” he told me. “No one thought they had mastered how to teach online. So, can we challenge some of our assumptions and take a more curious, exploratory approach to what we do? It’s scary to do that when you’re the expert in front of your students.”
A linchpin for what he described as “emergency teaching”—virtual breakout rooms, real-time classroom polls, video conferencing with guest speakers, and everything else—helped define the moment of crisis. “Everyone has realized that they have to be a learner.”
A campus is an interestingly chaotic place. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that even after the many decades of campus life I had not mastered all the intricacies or fully reckoned with all the qualities of this one place – that I still had something to learn. Most importantly, what the process of writing the book underscored is that learning—including learning about the campus itself—is an endless and infinitely rewarding pursuit.