Two Weeks In and…

We’ve now finished the first two weeks of the fall semester at Bethel University, where there’s no football opener tomorrow, only a handful of people could be in the Great Hall for a chapel service saying farewell to our president emeritus, and I still forget my face mask half the time I head to work. (I’ve got backups in the car.) But students are on campus, classes are underway, and… it’s going okay.

Better than I expected, at least.

And most of the credit goes to three groups who rarely get enough credit: administrators who made tough calls on countless large and small decisions I’d rather not confront… staff members who rearranged desks, installed filters and cameras, and keep everything clean… and most importantly, our students.

Our first-year Western Civ course is meeting in a multi-purpose space – half on Monday and half on Friday, with recorded videos for students who can’t be there

On campuses that have seen outbreaks of COVID, it’s been convenient to shame students for acting recklessly. Perhaps that judgment is sometimes fair, though it’s hard to blame 18-year olds for acting like teenagers.

All I know is that our numbers — of COVID cases and those in quarantine — haven’t been that high, and the students I encounter are wearing masks, maintaining social distances, cleaning desks, and showing up to class — on Zoom if they can’t be there in person. I’m proud of them, and honored that they’d want a Bethel education badly enough to put up with all these inconveniences and limitations.

I still wonder what kind of an education they’re receiving. But if it’s falling short, it’s not for lack of effort and creativity.

For my part, I can report that the plans I made for teaching everything from a first-year gen ed seminar on war in general to an upper-level class on the Cold War in particular are going as intended. In the latter course, my office Ethernet connection cut out yesterday in the middle of our first all-Zoom discussion, but students hung with me for the minute it took to realize that I could just switch over to wifi.

Amid it all, I’m grateful again to have work that is truly meaningful. There’s nothing like a crisis to make clear the value of using the tools of history, literature, philosophy, theology, art, and the sciences to ask profound questions and making meaning out of complexity. Teaching Plato’s Allegory of the Cave yesterday inspired one student to ask me about the responsibility of the learner to their community and another to ask if a philosophy minor would go well with a biology and psychology double-major.

I’ve never before been so grateful to have a vocation that feels at once timeless and timely.

But also, timed — God be thanked.

I feel silly complaining about exhaustion, but… I’m exhausted.

On top of the usual intellectual and emotional fatigue that my introverted self usually feels, there are just endless details to attend to — and many fewer of the spontaneous personal interactions with colleagues and students that so often energize me. And in bigger lecture classes, I still struggle to gauge student responses behind masks that conceal expressions and, it seems, stifle speech. One of the joys of lecturing is getting to model passion and curiosity for young scholars, but that’s a lot of energy to generate on your own when every response is concealed, muted, and dispersed in six-foot increments.

This will sound like nothing to preK-12 educators going back to work under much more trying circumstances, but I got home last night after three classes, an hour-long meeting, a webisode recording, and two hours of prep for today’s classes, cooked supper and played a Harry Potter game with my kids, then fell asleep before 10pm.

But I came back to campus ten hours later, talked about war as a metaphor with one group of freshmen and ancient Judaism with another, and in between those classes came back to our office suite to find a colleague going through family artifacts and documents with a new history major eager to study genealogy.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll get to experience such mornings on our campus this fall, but I’m grateful for them — and for all the people in our community working together to make this time possible. As my students and I discussed this morning, there are definite problems with talking about a “war on coronavirus,” but that language does evoke the spirit of personal sacrifice and collective purpose that I’ve sensed in the best moments of the past two weeks.