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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirteen


Howie in Love




We must make decisions based on our best assumptions in an atmosphere of considerable uncertainty.

from a letter to the NYU community from Andrew Hamilton, President; Katherine Fleming, Provost; and Martin Dorph, Executive Vice President 4/20/2020


For this morning's expedition, a rainwalk on the SUNY campus. To whit, as I am reading "The Hidden Life of Trees," by a German forester with the medieval-sounding name of Peter Wohlleben, I began a more serious study of trees. Immediately, I note tree families, though these are not old forest trees; they have obviously been planted by an environmentally conscious landscape gardener.

Like humans, trees thrive in stands, or families. And as we are discussing physical distancing whilst we remain spiritually and emotionally connected, indeed we are discussing this daily, the stand of trees is an appropriate emblem of togetherness and mutual care.

A skinny skinny crane senses my approach and flies off. It has a huge wing span. Where is her mate? Where has she landed? Don't cranes fly around in pairs? Now there is thunder in the distance so I'd best get back to the car—weather can change abruptly here and there is a forecast of flash floods. But first, I snap some more pics. A rock has newly painted graffiti: Howie is in love. Goodness, how wonderful is that in the midst of so much uncertainty and anxiety. It is an apt reminder of life and love efflorescing.

Back home, it's time for more tea, emails, and the grade roster. This is a reality check: it's been a challenging term @ NYU. The last time we were in the classroom together was on March 4th. By the following week, we were working remotely. "It seems like a hundred years ago," one of my students said as we were saying our goodbyes, echoing how we were all feeling: sad, rueful, perplexed, worried. I had kept in touch with all of them between classes by phone and email, and watched sadly as several students drifted away, leaving apartments and jobs and the excitement and opportunity of city life behind to return to family in other towns, cities and rural villages. I hoped they wouldn't lose heart, I told them, and that I'd see them again F2F another term. "We'll begin again," I assured them. But no refund, as yet, is forthcoming from the university for the five or so weeks that were left in the term after the schools shut down and the shelter in place began; with the economy tanking, many will not be able to return to school or retake a course they'd already paid for. And the university's priorities also are complex. What would they do if everyone asked for a refund? What should they do? I know the answer to that rhetorical question, but it's personal, and only from my POV.

My students had not signed up for an online class, nor had I contracted for an online course, so we were all trying to adapt. Physical proximity, body language, non-verbal gesture are either absent or severely blunted in the Zoom gallery. I had resisted online teaching for many years for all these reasons. Now I had no choice, we had no choice, my students and I. I had to learn how to teach as a dis-embodied presence and to connect in new ways, quickly and without the requisite training. I can't say that after just a few weeks, I have succeeded. Is there something I'm missing? Probably. Best pay attention to the various webinars offered by the IT folks at NYU and get on with it, I say to myself, as we are still in the midst of what will surely be a long haul.

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