A lot of what Leonhardt said in ‘Not Good for Learning’ is just wrong

I usually agree with David Leonhardt’s analysis in his New York Times newsletter “The Morning” because I think he does a good job of pointing out how both the left and the right have certain beliefs about issues– Covid in particular for the last couple years, of course– that are sometimes at odds with the evidence. But I have to say that this morning’s newsletter and the section “Not Good For Learning” ticks me off.

While just about every K-12 school went online when Covid first hit in spring 2020, a lot of schools/districts resumed in-person classes in fall 2020, and a lot did not. Leonhardt said:

These differences created a huge experiment, testing how well remote learning worked during the pandemic. Academic researchers have since been studying the subject, and they have come to a consistent conclusion: Remote learning was a failure.

Now, perhaps I’m overreacting to this passage because of my research about teaching online at the college-level, but the key issue here is he’s talking about K-12 schools that had never done anything close to online/remote instruction ever before. He is not talking about post-secondary education at all, which is where the bulk of remote learning has worked just fine for 125+ years. Maybe that’s a distinction that most readers will understand anyway, but I kind of doubt it, and not bringing that up at all is inaccurate and just sloppy.

Obviously, remote learning in the vast majority of K-12 schools went poorly during Covid and in completely predictable ways. Few of these teachers had any experience or training to teach online, and few of these school districts had the kinds of technologies and tools (like Canvas and Blackboard and other LMSes) to support these courses. This has been a challenge at the college level too, but besides the fact that I think a lot more college teachers at various levels and various types of institutions have had at least some prior to Covid experience teaching online and most colleges and university have more tech support, a lot (most?) college teachers were already making use of an LMS tool and using a lot more electronic tools for essays and tests (as opposed to paper) in their classes.

The students are also obviously different. When students in college take classes online, it’s a given that they will have the basic technology of a laptop and easy access to the internet. It’s also fairly clear from the research (and I’ve seen this in my own experiences teaching online) that the students who do best in these formats are more mature and more self-disciplined. Prior to Covid, online courses were primarily for “non-traditional” students who were typically older, out in the workforce, and with responsibilities like caring for children or others, paying a mortgage, and so forth. These students, who are typically juniors/seniors or grad students, have been going to college for a while, they understand the expectations of a college class, and (at least the students who are most successful) have what I guess I’d describe as the “adulting” skills to succeed in the format. I didn’t have a lot of first and second year students in online classes before Covid, but a lot of the ones I did have during the pandemic really struggled with these things. Oh sure, I did have some unusually mature and “together” first year students who did just fine, but a lot of the students we have at EMU at this level started college underprepared for the expectations, and adding on the additional challenge of the online format was too much.

So it is not even a teeny-weeny surprise that a lot of teenagers/secondary students– many of whom were struggling to learn and succeed in traditional classrooms– did not succeed in hastily thrown together and poorly supported online courses, and do not even get me started on the idea of grade school kids being forced to sit through hours of Zoom calls. I mean honestly, I think these students probably would have done better if teachers had just sent home worksheets and workbooks and other materials to the kids and the parents to study on their own.

I think a different (and perhaps more accurate) way to study the effectiveness of remote learning would be to look at what some K-12 schools were doing before Covid. Lots and lots of kids and their parents use synch and asynch technology to supplement home schooling, and programs like the Michigan Online School have been around for a while now. Obviously, home schooling or online schooling is not right for everyone, but these programs are also not “failures.”

Leonhardt goes on to argue that more schools that serve poor students and/or non-white students went remote for longer than schools. Leonhardt claims there were two reasons for this:

Why? Many of these schools are in major cities, which tend to be run by Democratic officials, and Republicans were generally quicker to reopen schools. High-poverty schools are also more likely to have unionized teachers, and some unions lobbied for remote schooling.

Second, low-income students tended to fare even worse when schools went remote. They may not have had reliable internet access, a quiet room in which to work or a parent who could take time off from work to help solve problems.

First off, what Leonhardt seems to forget that Covid was most serious in “the major cities” in this country, and also among populations that were non-white and that were poor. So of course school closings were more frequent in these areas because of Covid.

Second, while it is quite easy to complain about the teacher unions, let us all remember it was not nearly as clear in Fall 2020 as Leonhardt is implying that the risks of Covid in the schools were small. It did turn out that those settings weren’t as risky as we thought, but at the same time, that “not as risky” analysis primarily applies to students. A lot of teachers got sick and a few died. I wrote about some of this back in February here. I get the idea that most people who were demanding their K-12 schools open immediately only had their kids in mind (though a lot of these parents were also the same ones adamant against mask and vaccine mandates), and if I had a kid still in school, I might feel the same way. But most people (and I’d put Leonhardt in this camp in this article) didn’t think for a second about the employees, and at the end of the day, working in a public school setting is not like being in the ministry or some other job where we expect people to make huge personal sacrifices for others. Being a teacher is a white collar job. Teachers love to teach, sure, but we shouldn’t expect them to put their own health and lives at any level of risk–even if it’s small– just because a lot of parents haven’t sorted out their childcare situations.

Third, the idea that low-income students fared worse in remote classes (and I agree, they certainly did) is bad, but that has nothing to do with why they spent more time online in the first place. That just doesn’t make sense.

Leonhardt goes on:

In places where schools reopened that summer and fall, the spread of Covid was not noticeably worse than in places where schools remained closed. Schools also reopened in parts of Europe without seeming to spark outbreaks.

I wrote about back in February: these schools didn’t reopen because they never closed! They tried the best they could and often failed, but as far as I can tell, no K-12 school in this country, public or private, just closed and told folks “we’ll reopen after Covid is over.” Second, most of the places where public schools (and universities as well) that went back to at least some f2f instruction in Fall 2020 were in parts of the country where being outside and/or leaving the windows open to classrooms is a lot easier than in Michigan, and/or most of these schools had the resources to do things like create smaller classes for social distancing, to install ventilation equipment, and so forth.

Third– and I cannot believe Leonhardt doesn’t mention this because I know this is an issue he has written about in the past– the comparison to what went on with schools in Europe is completely bogus. In places like Germany and France, they put a much much higher priority on opening schools– especially as compared to things like restaurants and bars and other places where Covid likes to spread. So they kept those kinds of places closed longer so the chances of a Covid outbreak in the schools was smaller. Plus Europeans are much MUCH smarter about things like mask and vaccine mandates too.

No, the pandemic was not good for learning, but it was not good for anything else, either. It wasn’t good for our work/life balances, our mental health, a lot of our household incomes, on and on and on. We have all suffered mightily for it, and I am certain that as educators of all stripes study and reflect on the last year and a half, we’ll all learn a lot about what worked and what didn’t. But after two years of trying their fucking best to do the right things, there is no reason to through K-12 teachers under the bus now.

My CCCCs 2022

Here’s a follow-up (of sorts) on my CCCCs 2022 experiences– minus the complaining, critiques, and ideas on how it could have been better. Oh, I have some thoughts, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in those thoughts. So I’ll keep that to myself and instead focus on the good things, more or less.

When the CCCCs went online for 2022 and I was put in the “on demand” sessions, my travel plans changed. Instead of going to Chicago on my own to enjoy conferencing, my wife and I decided to rent a house on a place called Seabrook Island in South Carolina near Charleston. We both wanted to get out of Michigan to someplace at least kind of warm, and the timing on the rental and other things was such that we were on the road for all the live sessions, so I missed out on all of that. But I did take advantage of looking at some of the other on demand sessions to see what was there.

Now, I have never been a particularly devout conference attendee. Even at the beginning of my career attending that first CCCCs in 1995 in Washington, DC, when everything was new to me, I was not the kind of person who got up at dawn for the WPA breakfast or even for the 9 am keynote address, the kind of conference goer who would then attend panels until the end of the day. More typical for me is to go to about two or three other panels (besides my own, of course), depending on what’s interesting and, especially at this point of my life, depending on where it is. I usually spend the rest of the time basically hanging out. Had I actually gone to Chicago, I probably would have spent at least half a day doing tourist stuff, for example.

The other thing that has always been true about the CCCCs is even though there are probably over 1000 presentations, the theme of the conference and the chair who puts it together definitely shapes what folks end up presenting about. Sometimes that means there are fewer presentations that connect to my own interests in writing and technology– and as of late, that specifically has been about teaching online. That was the case this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think the theme(s) of identity, race, and gender invoked in the call are completely legitimate and important topics of concern, and I’m interested them both as a scholar and just as a human being. But at the same time, that’s not the “work” I do, if that makes sense.

That said, there’s always a bit of something for everyone. Plus the one (and only, IMO) advantage of the on demand format is the materials are still accessible through the CCCCs conference portal. So while enjoying some so-so weather in a beach house, I spent some time poking around the online program.

First off, for most of the links below to work, you have to be registered for and signed into the CCCCs portal, which is here:

https://app.forj.ai/en?t=/tradeshow/index&page=lobby&id=1639160915376

If you never registered for the conference at all, you won’t be able to access the sessions, though the program of on-demand sessions is available to anyone here. As I understand it, the portal will remain open/accessible for the month of March (though I’m not positive about that). Second, the search feature for the portal is… let’s just say “limited.” There’s no connection between the portal and the conference on-demand program, so you have to look through the program and then do a separate search of the portal opened in a different browser tab. The search engine doesn’t work at all if you include any punctuation, and for the most part, it only returns results when you enter in a few words and not an entire title. My experience has been it seems to work best if you enter in the first three words of the session title. Again, I’m not going to complain….

So obviously, the first thing I found/went to was my own panel:

OD-301 Researching Communication in Practice

There’s not much there. One of the risks of proposing an individual paper for the CCCCs rather than as part of a panel or round table discussion is how you get grouped with other individual submissions. Sometimes, this all ends up working out really well, and sometimes, it doesn’t. This was in the category of “doesn’t.” Plus it looks to me like three out of the other five other people on the program for this session essentially bailed out and didn’t post anything.

Of course, my presentation materials are all available here as Google documents, slides, and a YouTube video.

To find other things I was interested in, I did a search for the key terms “distance” (as in distance education– zero results) and “online,” which had 54 results. A lot of those sessions– a surprising amount to me, actually– involved online writing centers, both in terms of adopting to Covid but also in terms of shifting more work in writing centers to online spaces. Interesting, but not quite what I was looking for.

So these are the sessions I dug into a bit more and I’ll probably be going back to them in the next weeks as I keep working on my “online and the new normal” research:

OD-45 So that just happened…Where does OWI go from here?: Access, Enrollment, and Relevance

Really nice talk that sums up some of the history and talks in broad ways about some of the experiences of teaching online in Covid. Of course, I’m also always partial to presentations that agree with what I’m finding in my own research, and this talk definitely does that.

OD-211 Access and Community in Online Learning– specifically, Ashley Barry, University of New Hampshire, “Inequities in Digital Literacies and Innovations in Writing Pedagogies during COVID-19 Learning.”

Here’s a link to her video in the CCCCs site, and here’s a Google Slides link. At some point, I think I might have to send this PhD student at New Hampshire an email because it seems like Barry’s dissertation research is similar to what I am (kinda/sorta) trying to do with own research about teaching online during Covid. She is working with a team of researchers from across the disciplines on what is likely a more robust albeit local study than mine, but again, with some similar kind of conclusions.

OD-295 Prospects for Online Writing Instruction after the Pandemic Lockdown— specifically, Alexander Evans, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, “Only Out of Necessity: The Future of Online Developmental FirstYear Writing Courses in Post-Pandemic Society.”

Here’s a link to his video and his slides (which I think are accessible outside of the CCCCs portal). What I liked about Evans’ talk is it is coming from someone very new to teaching at the college level in general, new to community college work, and (I think) new to online teaching as well. A lot of this is about what I see as the wonkiness of what happens (as I think is not uncommon at a lot of community colleges for classes like developmental writing) where instructors more or less get handed a fully designed course and are told “teach this.” I would find that incredibly difficult, and part of Evans’ argument here is if his institution is really going to give people access to higher education, then they need to offer this class in an online format– and not just during the pandemic.

So that was pretty much my CCCCs experience for 2022. I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll be back.

 

 

CCCCs 2022 (part 1?)

Here is a link (bit.ly/krause4c22) to my “on demand” presentation materials for this year’s annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. It’s a “talk” called “When ‘You’ Cannot be ‘Here:’ What Shifting Teaching Online Teaches Us About Access, Diversity, Inclusion, and Opportunity.” As I wrote in the abstract/description of my session:

My presentation is about a research project I began during the 2020-21 school year titled “Online Teaching and the ‘New Normal.” After discussing broadly some assumptions about online teaching, I discuss my survey of instructors teaching online during Covid, particularly the choice to teach synchronously versus asynchronously. I end by returning to the question of my subtitle.

I am saying this is “part 1?” because I might or might not write a recap post about the whole experience. On the one hand, I have a lot of thoughts about how this is going so far, how the online experience could have been better. On the other hand (and I’ve already learned this directly and indirectly on social media), the folks at NCTE generally seem pretty stressed out and overwhelmed and everything else, and it kind of feels like any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, will be taken as piling on. I don’t want to do that.

I’m also not sure there will be a part 2 because I’m not sure how much conferencing I’ll actually be able to do. When the conference went all online, my travel plans changed. Now I’m going to be be on the road during most of live or previously recorded sessions, so most of my engagement will have to to be in the on demand space. Though hopefully, there will be some recordings of events available for a while, things like Anita Hill’s keynote speech.

The thing I’ll mention for now is my reasons for sharing my materials in the online/on demand format outside the walled garden of the conference website itself. I found out that I was assigned to present in the “on demand” format of the conference– if I do write a part 2 to this post, I’ll come back to that decision process then. In any event, the instructions the CCCCs provided asked presenters to upload materials– PDFS, PPT slides, videos, etc.– to the server space for the conference. I emailed “ccccevents” and asked if that was a requirement. This was their response:

We do suggest that you load materials directly into the platform through the Speaker Ready Room for content security purposes (once anyone has the link outside of the platform, they could share it with anyone). However, if you really don’t want to do that, you could upload a PDF or a PPT slide that directs attendees to the link with your materials.

The “Speaker Ready Room” is just want they call the portal page for uploading stuff. The phrase I puzzled over was “content security purposes” and trying to prevent the possibility that anyone anywhere could share a link to my presentation materials. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that kind of the point of scholarship? That we present materials (presentations, articles, keynote speeches, whatever) in the hopes that those ideas and thoughts and arguments are made available to (potential) readers who are anyone and anywhere?

I’ve been posting web-based versions of conference talks for a long time now– sometimes as blog posts, as videos, as Google Slides with notes, etc. I do it mainly because it’s easy for me to do, I believe in as much open access to scholarship as possible, and I’m trying to give some kind of life to this work that is beyond 15 minutes of me talking to (typically) less than a dozen people. I wouldn’t say any of my self-published conference materials have made much difference in the scholarly trajectory of the field, but I can tell from some of the tracking stats that these web-based versions of talks get many more times the number of “hits” than the size of the audience at the conference itself. Of course, that does not really mean that the 60 or 100 or so people who clicked on a link to a slide deck are nearly as engaged of an audience as the 10 people (plus other presenters) who were actually sitting in the room when I read my script, followed by a discussion. But it’s better than not making it available at all.

Anyway, we’ll see how this turns out.

Actually, in-person learning is the “gold standard”

As someone who has been teaching online and researching distance education for a while now, I find the current enthusiasm about the format a bit weird. For example, take this piece from Inside Higher Ed on January 6, “Rhetorical War Over Online Versus In-Person Instruction.” Here are the opening two paragraphs:

Kenneth W. Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University, posted a letter on the university website late last month telling students and faculty members that the Boston institution intended to open as planned for the spring semester because “in-person learning remains the gold standard.”

The statement, which was not caveated in any way, struck many in education circles as strikingly unnuanced, especially for a chancellor whose institution offers a robust catalog of online courses. Henderson is not Northeastern’s top administrator, and while at most institutions the chancellor is the top person, in a new structure implemented by Northeastern, Henderson is a cabinet member.

The writer, Suzanne Smalley, goes back and forth between the desirability of the in-person college experience and the efficacy of online classes. She brings up many of the usual examples and quotes many smart experts, though I ultimately think she emphasized the advantages of the online format.

What a difference a global pandemic can make, huh?

By “gold standard,” I think Henderson means that the f2f experience is widely acknowledged as the best and most desirable approach for late teen/early 20-somethings (aka, “traditional” students) for going to college. It is the point of comparison for most people regarding the effectiveness of online courses, as in “online courses are just as effective as f2f ones.” This doesn’t mean folks defending the effectiveness of online instruction are wrong– and I’ll come back to that point in a moment– but I am at a loss who would be “struck” by such an “unnuanced” statement. All of the most prestigious, well-known, and selective universities in the U.S. are residential experiences and they hold the vast majority of their courses f2f. These are the universities that most students want to attend, which is why these kinds of universities are more selective about who they allow to attend. That’s just a fact.

Henderson said in-person learning rather than in-person courses represents the gold standard, and that’s important. I think he’s trying to include everything that happens for students in addition to courses. He’s making the connection between learning and the broader college life experience that includes living on or near campus, parties/the Greek system/other social activities, sports, getting into semi-supervised sex/drugs/rock-n-roll trouble, and so forth. But this doesn’t have a lot to do with the mode of delivery of courses.

This is not to say that everyone who goes to college has access to or even wants this “gold standard.” At EMU, we have traditionally aged/right out of high school students looking for the full college life experience with dorms and off-campus apartments and sports and campus activities and all that. But the majority of our students– including the ones in the dorms– are coming to EMU in part because they couldn’t afford the full-on college life experience at Michigan or MSU, or because they didn’t want to move too far away from home. Plus we have a lot of “non-traditional” students, folks who tend to be past their early twenties and who have grown-up responsibilities (jobs, spouses, kids, mortgages, etc.) that are not compatible to the college life experience. It’s kind of hard to go to all the games and parties if you’re a full-time student working two jobs to help pay the bills for school and your new baby.

It’s clear that online courses/programs can be just as effective as f2f courses/programs under the right circumstances, assuming that “effective” means students demonstrate the same level of learning in both formats. But as Van Davis, who is the “service design and strategy officer for Every Learner Everywhere,” is quoted as saying in this article, “The gold standard isn’t the modality. The gold standard has to do with the level of interaction that students are able to have with each other, and that students are able to have with the content, and that students are able to have with instructors.” I agree, and there are plenty of f2f courses with almost no interaction, unless you count some prof lecturing at a captive audience for 50 minutes at a time as “interaction.”

But I also think online courses/programs are most effective for students who have the maturity and discipline to interact effectively online, and in my experience, that means upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. There’s also the issue of what I’d describe as the aesthetics of the experience. I personally “like” teaching classes online, but lots of my colleagues and my students definitely prefer the f2f experience, and a year and a half of teaching all online has shown me that I would prefer to teach a mix of f2f and online classes. Maybe the real “gold standard” here is the flexibility for both teachers and students to engage in a course in the format that best suits their own needs.

Ultimately, it’s like a lot of things we’ve learned during Covid and and how to make do online. We can have a family game night or small party with friends via Zoom, but it’d sure be nice if we could do that more often in person. We can hold large academic conferences online and we should continue to offer some online participation as an option (and I had a long blog post about this before the CCCCs got cancelled in 2020 that I think is relevant here) more or less for the same reason why we teach courses online: to give access to people who otherwise can’t come to the f2f conference. But it’d be sure nice if the 2022 CCCC’s was still going to happen f2f. We can have department meetings via Zoom, but– well actually, that last one is an example where I prefer the distance.

2021 was, I don’t know, what?

I mean, what just happened? Was it better than 2020? Worse? Absolutely no different to the point where we might as well group 2020 and 2021 into one Covid memory?

Hard to say.

I was feeling hopeful and optimistic around New Year’s and with last year’s wrap up/reflection post because a vaccine was on the way. Biden won and Trump lost. Then there was January 6, which at the time seemed like a dangerous bunch of idiots and confused Qanon supporters, but as the year went on and Congress and the media investigated, the insurrection seems to have been a lot more than that. 100 years from now, will people remember this time for this kind of nonsense and Trump or the plague of Covid? Both? Neither?

In late January/early February, my former EMU colleague and friend Clayton Eshleman died– I blogged about it here. He was 85, had been in ill-health, and I hadn’t been getting together with him for lunch for a while. It was still sad to see him go.

But things started getting better in March. Biden was still popular, Covid numbers were down, vaccines were starting roll out. We took a few days to go down to Hocking Hills in Ohio and hung out at a cool airbnb and hiked around a very icy Old Man’s Cave with our friend Michelle.  And then the light at the end of the tunnel: on March 17, Annette and I both got our first doses of the vaccine (Pfizer, it turned out). It was not easy to do. I searched for appointments for us for about a week and finally found a couple at a pharmacy in Coldwater, which is a little town in the very red south central part of Michigan about 90 miles away. I swear every other person there to get the shot was also from around Ann Arbor. We followed that up with shot number 2 in early April, and back then, Annette and I thought of ourselves as “cured” or at least now able to get back to our lives.

We started going back to the gym again (which is still requiring masks), and after the winter semester wrapped up, we were rarin’ to go. I took a long weekend roadtrip out to Iowa to see my parents who I hadn’t seen in person since Christmas 2019. We went to fucking Las Vegas in May— and saying that now after everything that’s happened with Covid since then seems absolutely crazy, but back then, we thought the vaccine would protect us from everything and we were just getting a bit of a head start on what was going to be a great summer.

Then, summer. I’m not going to go into it and it wasn’t all Covid, but stuff got dark. But it did get better. We returned to the same cottage we had near Glen Arbor in 2020, ate some fancy food, saw some nature, hung around the cottage in lovely weather. Before and after that, there was golf for me and kayaking for Annette, and before too long, another semester at EMU. And then August came and after a family trip to see folks in Iowa, it was time for another school year.

As I wrote about here, my mindset coming into this school year was different (and perhaps not great) because of a lot of the unpleasantness in the previous term and because EMU had a buyout offer which I could have taken. It was the first time in my career where I really thought about retirement– not that seriously because there’s no way I could afford it, but not completely unseriously either. After all, I did have at least one colleague younger than me who took this deal (and good riddance to that person as well), and a friend just a bit younger than me left his job for good too. Maybe it’s all connected to the great resignation, I don’t know.

You’d think after the 2020-21 school year that things would have been better in fall 2021– at least students would be used to the online format of most classes by now. But in a lot of ways, it was quite a bit worse. Some of that is what I’d describe as “the luck of the draw” in terms of the individual students I had, though most of it was just everything that was lingering on, including higher Covid numbers in Michigan than we’d seen before (and we’re climbing again with Omicron too). Everyone was tired and defeated and at least a little (and sometimes a lot) depressed. So it was rough. I certainly didn’t do my best work, and a lot of my students crashed and burned all the way to the end.

And yet at the same time, it also got better. I have been reading about Covid every single day for almost 18 months now, and the reality of the situation as far as I can tell– even now with the Omicron variant and the breakthrough infections it has been causing– is serious illness and death from Covid 19 is almost exclusively limited to the unvaccinated and to people with serious pre-existing conditions. So at some point this past fall, I decided that the worry and anxiety about Covid (not to mention not doing anything in public for fear of the virus) caused by all the preventive measures was worse than the possibility of getting the disease. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to get Covid, I always wear a mask in stores or whatever, and I’m still not fully back to doing everything I did in the before-times. I don’t hang around in coffee shops much anymore, for example. But Annette and I got boosted as soon as we could, and with some reasonable precautions, I think we both felt ready to do more things.

So we had friends over around the fire pit, we went back up north to stay at a fancy bed and breakfast, we had a great Halloween. We had the Krause version of Thanksgiving/Christmas in Kansas City, and then the Wannamaker version of Christmas in Naples. And now here we are, at the end of 2021, whatever that was. I have a lot of friends and colleagues who think that all of those outings and roadtrips and airplanes and airports and getting together with folks is just flat-out dangerous. Wait more until it’s safe. But I don’t think covid is ever going to ever completely end, and we’re going to have to start to learn how to live with it.

Last year, I was feeling optimistic because of Biden, the vaccine, and what people were predicting was the beginning of the end of Covid. This year, I’m not going predict much of anything for 2022. Annette is going to be presenting at the MLA convention in Washington, D.C. next week and I’m going along as a tourist. As of today, the conference is still on, I think mainly because it was too late for the organization to cancel (though I don’t rule out some kind last minute change). I was looking forward to a f2f CCCCs in Chicago in March, but that’s been all moved online. I understand that decision, but based on what I read and hear about Omicron, there’s a very real chance that Covid will be a lot more under control by then. Who knows?

There’s only one thing I know about 2022 right now: Annette and I are both are on research fellowships, which means we’ll get a break from teaching until September so we can focus on our scholarship. I’ll be spending my time away from teaching working on the interview and then writing part of the project I started last year, along with other writing, reading, and other stuff away from the office. Crossing my fingers.

Is it August Again?

It’s another August, which means a shift into thinking about the new school year and shifting back into “working.” After some of the events of this summer, after some of the challenges of the 2020-21 school year, after EMU offered faculty a buyout deal I briefly considered, and after the faculty agreed to terms of a very mediocre contract extension, I think I’m getting close to ready for fall and my research fellowship in winter 2022.

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph.

I haven’t taught in the summer for five years now, mainly because my wife and I have gotten to a point where we can afford it. I used to be quite a bit more defensive about having so much free-time in the summer, but I have gotten to an age and to a point in my career where I feel like I’ve earned the break. So yeah, I’ve done a bit of work this summer, but mostly not. We went to Vegas and up north, we’ve had some fun slowly emerging into a post vaccinated world (restaurants! movies! shopping!), we’ve had some life challenges I’m certainly not going to write about here, and we’ve had a lot of chances to admire our lovely gardens and yard. So sure, it hasn’t been all great and I grow increasingly annoyed about Covid and dumb-assed unvaccinated people, but overall not too bad. Better than last year, that’s for sure.

The 2020-21 school year was obviously a challenge for everyone everywhere (oh yeah, COVID!), but what I’m thinking about here are the local circumstances and departmental politics and how it impacted me. I had a conflict with an asshole of a colleague, and when I tried to find a satisfactory resolution to this dispute by working through my department head, the university’s director of academic human resources, and with the administrator of the faculty union, nothing happened. All of these people said that when it comes to conflicts between individual faculty members, there are no rules. That was pretty much a last straw moment for me. I’m not sure how this is going to play out over the next year or two, but I believe it’s fair to say that I’ve officially entered the “do not give any fucks”/dead wood stage of my career.

So when EMU announced a buyout plan and I was eligible for it, I did some pondering. The deal is two years of salary (paid out over those two years) plus 18 months or health care coverage. Alas, it isn’t right for me. If I was 10 or so years younger and the circumstances were like they are right now, I might have considered it, especially if I had a better sense about what I would want to do for a job/career outside of academia. If I were 10 years older and thus fully eligible for retirement, I would have taken this deal in a heartbeat. But at 55? Too old to start something new, too young to retire.

In a Facebook discussion recently, another faculty member at EMU said he “pitied me” for “having to work at a place I hate,” for not having “the courage to leave with even a generous buyout offer,” and that I had “plenty of career options” and if I hated it here so much, then I should just go get a new job at a better university. I think the person who said these things is clueless. Besides, I don’t hate EMU. The university has disappointed, angered, confused, and frustrated me over the years in many different ways, but so what? All employers– certainly all universities!– disappoint and frustrate employees at some point, and that is even more true for old-timers like me. But I’ve never hated the place.

And who else is going to pay me as much money as I make to only work about 8 months out of the year and mostly while at home? I still like to teach, so given that I have to do something to pay the bills, teaching is a pretty good option. Obviously, I still like to write a lot, and if I could do nothing but write whatever and whenever I want, that’s what I would do– and it’s what I plan to do in retirement, too. So sure, I would retire now if I could afford it, but that doesn’t mean I hate my job.

What puzzles me is the number of colleagues I have who are at retirement age– that is in their mid-60s or in many cases quite a bit older– and who have plenty of money but who are not taking this buyout offer. To each their own of course, but I think a lot of these folks don’t want to retire quite yet because they aren’t sure what they would do with themselves. I have no such worries. Besides not teaching in the summer for a while, I’ve also been lucky over the last seven years or so to have had a sabbatical and a couple of semesters off of teaching (“Faculty Research Fellowship”), and that’s made it possible for me to publish Invasion of the MOOCs, More Than a Moment, and a variety of other things. It’s also given me the chance to essentially have a series of “practice” retirements. So personally, I’m ready for the real thing.

Speaking of which: I’m very much looking forward to having been awarded another FRF for winter 2022, which means that after this fall semester, I’ll be mostly free to do what I want from mid-December 2021 to mid-August 2022.

Oh yeah, two last things to unpack from that first paragraph: once again, the faculty union and administration agreed to kick the contract down the road again for another year, though there are some changes that might (maybe? sort of?) completely undo the equivalency nonsense and restore some order to teaching loads.  But this is only a one year deal, so who knows how this will ultimately work out.

And teaching: I have a selection of “the usual” this fall. My most challenging prep is a class I haven’t taught since 2018, “Writing for the Web,” and my version of the class three years ago was getting a little out of date back then. I’m making some changes to the other two/gen ed writing classes I’m teaching, but these are more ready to go.

I’m also once again going to be teaching entirely online. Way back in January or February of 2021, faculty in my department were asked if we had a preference for the fall 2021 term, to teach on campus or online. I basically said I’ll do either, though I also pointed out that it’d be a whole lot easier to schedule classes for f2f and then convert them to online if necessary than it would be to do the other way around. But given the fact that I’d just as soon stay away from both the assholes and Covid, another semester of all online isn’t such a bad idea….

Las Vegas, (slightly) before and (not quite) after Covid

Annette and I went to Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, the sixth time in the last 20 years. The last time we went was in late February 2020; it was the last normal thing we did before sheltering in place. So it made a certain amount of poetic sense that the first big trip we took after being fully vaccinated was back to Vegas.

That, and we got a really good deal on the flight and hotel.

Most of the people we know are lefty humanities intellectual academic types who think Las Vegas is “gross,” but we like it– at least in three or so night doses every couple of years. We do like to gamble (Annette more than me), but neither of us plays any table games or poker– just the slots– and most of the time, gambling is something we do before or after we do something else. I can’t imagine how anyone goes to Las Vegas and does not gamble at least a little bit, but the main attraction of Las Vegas for me is the spectacle of it all. I like fancy celebrity (okay, overhyped for the tourists) restaurants, and we’ve had good luck in the past seeking out/stumbling into more local kinds of places. I like the goofy faux glamor of the big resorts and even kind of like (in smaller doses) the grit and grime of the “real” Las Vegas downtown. We like the shows– we’ve seen Blue Man Group, Penn and Teller, a few of the Cirque Du Soleil shows, and also lounge acts (when we stumble upon them) and smaller burlesque/cabaret variety shows. And of course the people watching in Las Vegas is the best because there are complete weirdos everywhere: rich people with dubious plastic surgery, homeless people hustling change, fat midwesterners (me!) stopping right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to just gawk, 20-somethings with tattoos they will regret, bros and the female equivalent wandering around in packs and probably imagining themselves in a Las Vegas-set movie.

Las Vegas is everything that is wrong and right with the advanced capitalist state. It is a waste of resources, a city that is totally unnecessary and made what it is now by a history of organized crime and greed. There’s a lot of walking sad stories. I haven’t seen Leaving Las Vegas in a long time, but as I remember it, it’s clearly not that far-fetched of a story. But there is also something for almost everyone and at almost every price point, from villas with butlers for thousands and thousands of dollars a night, to sketchy rooms at an off the strip motel for $25. Super rich and successful people from Los Angeles on an impromptu visit walk up and down the strip at 1 am and play slots right right next to the next to janitors from Montana that saved for years for the trip, and it’s oftentimes hard to tell them apart. So maybe Las Vegas is a level of hell, but at least we’re all in it together.

Anyway, right after we scheduled our second dose, we wanted to make May travel plans. Las Vegas was an easy choice because of the (sort of) bookend experience of before and after Covid, and also because of the prices. I should point out there is no fucking way we would have done ANY of this without being fully vaccinated. I mean, we didn’t go to any restaurant during covid, indoors or out. Also, the idea that Las Vegas has been open since last summer (albeit with restrictions) kind of freaks me out. I’ll come back to this point.

Last February, we stayed at the Wynn because of a game Annette played on her phone for literally months where she got enough points (or whatever) to pay for the room for a night or two. This time, we got a fountain-view room at the Bellagio because we’ve always wanted to stay there and the price was right. And then– long story short– we ended up being upgraded to an enormous penthouse suite which was, well, sweet. Last year, we rented a car so we could get off of the strip a couple of times, including a trip out to Red Rock Canyon, downtown, and to The Mob Museum. And as a bit of unsolicited advice to those who might think of going to Las Vegas: if you think you’re liable to need more than one Uber or cab per day, or if you are planning on doing any tourism off of the strip, renting a car is the way to go. Also, Red Rock Canyon and The Mob Museum are both completely awesome.

This time, we kept it simple because we thought it wise during pandemic-y times to not plan too much, and also because this was our sixth trip– and the third one since 2018. We kind of had already done stuff we wanted to do off the strip, at least for a while. So we took a cab to and from the airport, and otherwise stuck close to the hotel. During the day, we spent a lot of time enjoying our ridiculous suite and also hanging around the fantastic pool area. We didn’t have any particularly fancy food experiences because a lot of those restaurants were closed on the days we were there– Monday night through Thursday morning– and it was too late to get a reservation at one of the few fancy places that were open. We didn’t see any of the big shows because none of them had restarted yet, though we did go see Absinthe, which was a modern take on burlesque: a couple of SUPER dirty insult comics, a number of acrobatic and strength acts of the sort you might recognize form America’s Got Talent, and several dancers, both men and women, and featuring a stripper who started out in a gorilla suit. If you are okay with extreme potty mouth and breasts with pasties, I’d recommend it.

And of course, there was the before and after Covid. Back in February 2020, the pandemic was something that was almost done in Asia and raging in Italy; the idea that it would come to the U.S. was still a bit abstract, at least for me. Back then, I saw some people wearing masks, though they were mostly Asian and I just saw it as being overly cautious and a cultural thing (it’s not so odd to see people wearing face masks in more “normal times” in places like China and Japan). And keep in mind that this was when the official advice was masks weren’t necessary and to just wash your hands.

This time, there were masks and distancing and other Covid protocols pretty much everywhere, and I was surprised by the extent to which people played along. Oh, I’m not saying compliance was perfect. There were lots of chin diapers and noses hanging out, and not a lot of distancing while waiting in lines for things or walking around crowded casinos or sidewalks. But given that there are a lot of parts of the country where you rarely see people making any effort at all, I thought the compliance was pretty good, and that was especially true in casinos. If the choice is follow the rules or get kicked out, people follow the rules.

On the day we left, the CDC changed the guidelines about masks so that anyone fully vaccinated didn’t need to wear one anymore, inside or out. I noticed that the Bellagio’s web site now says “fully vaccinated guests do not need to wear masks,” though I don’t think there’s any system in place to verify that. I suppose we will all see if the rule changes result in an uptick in covid among the unvaccinated going maskless, though there hasn’t been any sign of that yet anywhere. And really, even though Las Vegas and all of its casinos have been open (albeit with severe limits) for quite a while now, Covid has been less serious there than in Michigan and metro Detroit. I’m not sure if anyone quite understands why, though it’s a lot easier to be outside in southern Nevada in the winter months and the ventilation in casinos has always been good (which is why you don’t smell as much cigarette smoke in those places as you might think). So maybe going to Vegas was at least as safe as staying home?

The success of the vaccine and the beginning of a return to what life was like before the pandemic is great, but I do have to wonder what would have happened if there was no vaccine and we were going to have to live with face masks and distancing and the risk of dying from this stupid disease indefinitely. How long would I have stayed out of restaurants, movie theaters, casinos? At what point would even the cautious like me said “I don’t care anymore, I’m just going to go to Vegas and take my chances?” At what point would those of us following the rules and the science have thrown that all out and joined the reckless and the deniers and just did what we wanted? Tens of thousands of people die needlessly every year in this country from guns because we have almost no restrictions on them and we’ve gotten pretty used to that being just the way things are. At what point with the pandemic would we have all kind of just accepted it and went back to doing what we did before?

Mostly, Covid is Boring

Lockdown started on March 11, but I think the last day I had that was close to “normal” last year was on March 13– naturally, a Friday. I got a haircut at Arcade Barbers, which was crowded with waiting and largely maskless customers. The state closed down barbershops and hair salons until at least May a day or two later. I went to Meijer, trying to stock up (shortages had already begun on weird things, though we always have plenty of toilet paper), saw a few masks and kept my social distance. Will was back home for his spring break, though he cut his trip short because the University of Michigan sent all of their students home (and so he didn’t have any old friends to hang around with), and also because he was worried about potential travel restrictions as the number of cases and deaths climbed.

But at the time, it didn’t seem like this would last that long. The predictions that we’d all be back to normal by Easter seemed a little optimistic to me at the time, but I didn’t think this would last through summer. We had planned on going on a cruise with Annette’s parents in May and then on a trip out to Seattle in June. Those things started to seem less likely to happen after other academic conferences cancelled, and especially after the NBA and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament canceled. Maybe this would last longer than we thought, but hey, we’d still all be getting together again at Thanksgiving and Christmas. How could this last that long?

So, here we are. It’s mostly boring.

My family (near and extended) are physically healthy. Annette and I have been careful, and our biology PhD student son is careful and gets tested all the time. At least one of my sisters (and probably two of them) and several college-aged nieces and nephews had mild cases of Covid. My parents, clearly in the demographic most at risk for hospitalization or death, did more going to restaurants and socializing with friends and traveling than I would have preferred, but they’re fine and now vaccinated.

The impact of all of this on my mental health has been more significant, and that was especially true in late May and early June. There was (and is) the anxiety about a mysterious disease where the outcomes range from you never know you have it to death. It’s also of course been everything else– George Floyd’s murder, the insanity of the Trump administration, the election, the closing of everything, the many cancelled plans. I’m better than I was and working on getting better still, and Biden’s win and Democrats being able to (kind of) take control of the Senate definitely helped.

As far as my work and finances go, Covid has not been a problem; if anything, it’s been a slight positive because I feel like the new research I’ve been trying to get off the ground this year about teaching online will have some relevance for the next few years and beyond. Granted, Annette and I are dependent on EMU’s finances and future and higher education was in a difficult state before all this, so there’s definitely still time for us to feel some pain. The faculty contract is up for renegotiation this summer and that could be bad. Or, given that part of Biden’s Covid bill is some money for higher ed, it could be fine.  And of course, because this is not my first online teaching rodeo, moving everything online hasn’t been too hard for me– certainly not relative to a lot of my colleagues, that’s for sure.

As far as I can tell, all of my family and friends are in the same boat: that is, Covid has forced us all to work remotely, which isn’t always easy obviously, and there has been plenty of complaining about all that on social media, much of it justified. But the fact that my family, friends, and I are complaining about this and not complaining about being laid off is clearly a mark of privilege. This past weekend, The New York Times published this interesting and helpful series of infographics to demonstrate how unfair and uneven life has been during Covid. Reading over this data and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve never felt more white and well-off.

I have experienced some of the darker parts of Covid tangentially through some of my students. I’ve written about this a few times before, notably in what has become the most popular post on my blog in the last few years, “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic.” Many of my students have had relatives die from Covid, have had Covid themselves, have lost jobs, have had to move (in some cases these moves have been to completely different states) because they lost their homes/apartments. I always have students who have mental health issues, but those numbers have increased a lot. I try to help as much as I can (that’s kind of what that blog post was about) and it’s not enough. The disparity between many of my students’ Covid experiences and my own both amplify my guilt regarding my privilege and simultaneously make me feel very lucky indeed.

So while my life has changed since before Covid, it hasn’t actually changed radically or even become that much “worse,” if that makes sense. We haven’t eaten at any restaurant, inside or out, in over a year. No going out to see movies, shows, festivals, events. No gym– I try to make up for it by walking in the neighborhood and doing some exercise in the basement. Instead of grocery shopping several times a week to just pick up what we need for the next day or two, I try to keep it to once a week. We’ve been able to travel a bit to a couple of VRBO rentals for a few nights, but that’s mostly been about going from keeping to ourselves at home to keeping to ourselves at a vacation home with some nice views and a hot tub. I talk to my parents once a week, and it’s been mostly the same phone call every time: after an exchange of news regarding Covid and the vaccine (I avoid discussing “everything else” with them), we tell each other what we haven’t been doing lately, which is usually “nothing.”

Mostly, Covid is boring, and it’s a bad boring. Boring can be useful; think of the romance of the artist alone in their studio or in front of their keyboard or whatever with no worldly distractions, bored, ready for inspiration to strike. I’ve found myself writing in a lot in boring times in the past. The problem with this boringness is it was happening during a terrifying time. I remember posting on Twitter something like “for those of you who are too young to remember what it was like right after 9/11, it was like this,” and at least for me, that meant it was impossible to get it out of my head, impossible not to watch the horrific images on cable news, just impossible to not be constantly thinking of it all. Plus everyone I know who had to shift everything to working at home and online were completely overwhelmed and swamped.

Being bored, terrified, and depressed at the same time is not a good way to get things done or to be creative.

But it’s getting better, and it has been getting better for a while now. Trump and his crazies are still out there, but lurking in the shadows– for now. Going out and about doesn’t worry me much (at least around here) because people wear masks and keep their distance, and it turns out we probably never needed to wash our groceries in the first place. The number of cases are starting to fall steadily, the vaccines are rolling out. Annette and I will almost certainly be vaccinated by the end of this month. I’m looking forward to starting to do some of the little normal things soon– go to a restaurant, see a movie in a theater, hang around a coffee shop. I suspect it will be more difficult to reflect on the date when everything went back to normal (or “close enough” to normal) than it has been to remember the date when this all started, but it does feel like it’s coming soon.

Three Brief Thoughts About K-12 Schooling During Covid (spoiler alert: they never “closed”)

There have been a lot news stories and commentaries about the public demanding we “reopen” schools. Most of these stories irritate me tremendously; I have three thoughts.

K-12 schools never closed. Period.

I realize that the phrase “reopen the schools” really means going back to normal, face to face instruction, and who doesn’t want everything to go back to normal? But c’mon, K-12 school teachers, staff, and administrators have been busting their fucking asses trying to make schooling work online and with hybrid arrangements and all that. Actually closing the schools would have meant just that: lock the doors, turn out the lights, everyone go home. Instead, there are K-12 teachers literally risking their lives trying to make school work.

I’ve been watching a lot of cable news lately (I mean, there’s been a lot of news, and I’m a fifty-something white man so of course I watch a lot of cable news), and it’s pretty standard to end a show with some kind of uplifting or inspiring story of perseverance in these “difficult times.” Whenever these stories feature teachers, I cringe. There was the story about the older woman who has been teaching third grade for 30 or 40 years, but this teacher is so dedicated and so great that she’s teaching via Zoom from her hospital bed while she’s dying from Covid. Or maybe it’s the one about a teacher who is doing house calls and checking in on each of his high school students by figuring out where they live, driving around town, and showing up to chat with them while appropriately socially distanced on the front lawn. My guess is that that this guy doesn’t have 125 or more students, which is typical for most of the people I know who teach high school.

I’m supposed to admire these teachers for their dedication and their great example of going way above and beyond what’s required. But what I see instead are completely unrealistic and unsustainable expectations we’re putting on these people. I mean, do real estate agents or bankers keep doing the paperwork and serving their clients while on oxygen in the ICU? Do we restaurant cooks spend their own money on food to cook and then drive around and deliver that food to their customers for free? Mainstream media loves these super hero teacher stories, and then parents see these stories and think it’s totally okay to expect their kid’s teacher to do the same far beyond the job description activities. Simultaneously, teaching as a profession and the teachers’ unions are getting bashed all the time. It’s no wonder that fewer people are going into this work.

Which brings me to my next point:

It’s not online courses, and it’s not only students.

All the teaching I’ve done online and all the research I’ve done about distance education tells me that it can definitely work, but there are clearly circumstances and settings where it works better. Online classes work best when students have some experience and maturity at being students, which is why (IMO) having advanced undergraduate or graduate classes online is much more effective than having classes like first year writing and other “gen ed” classes online. I think a lot (but certainly not all) high school and middle school students can do okay with online classes, but I have no idea how anyone expects a third grader to succeed online when that student is still trying to figure out how to just read and write in the first place.

So obviously online courses are difficult to pull off in K-12 schools, particularly for elementary school. For example, elementary school-aged kids typically do not have their own computer and a quiet place in the family home to do school work. So yeah, I can imagine the online classroom experience for the fifth grader who has to share a laptop with a sister and/or a parent and who has to do all of their work sitting at the kitchen table with said sister/parents and who are all working off of the personal hotspot wifi network on Mom’s iPhone, yeah, I can imagine that’s not going great.

But look, it’s not all about school  being online. It’s mostly about “everything else.”

By “everything else,” I don’t just mean this mysterious disease that has emerged like we’re in a dopey science fiction movie and forced all of us to change almost everything we do in our day to day lives. I don’t just mean the protests that are the result of long-simmering racial injustice and that came to the forefront this past summer. I don’t just mean the enormous number of people out of work and struggling to find food. I don’t just mean the completely fucked up politics we’ve had during the Trump presidency, cumulating in the “Big Lie” of a stolen election and the first violent transition of presidential power in our country’s history. I mean all of this as part of “everything else,” but not just this.

I also mean that for a lot (most?) kids, just being home all the time–even in the best of times– is horrible. I’m not just talking about families where there is abuse, though those are obviously the absolute worst situations. I’m also talking about perfectly normal children– particularly teens. It’s been a while since I was that age (though not that long since I had a teenager in the house), and I grew up in a completely supportive and loving household. But like most normal teenagers, the absolutely last thing I wanted to do back then was hang around with my parents or sisters for any longer than necessary because I was 15.

So what I’m saying is when I see stories on cable news about how children are struggling with their schooling, are feeling stressed, and find themselves depressed, I keep thinking two things. Number one, the main cause of these problems is not school being online. It’s “everything else,” and there is A LOT of everything else. If there had been no pandemic, no BLM movement, no economic collapse, no Trump administration, etc. etc.–and if the only issue was high schools shifted their classes online for some reason, then there would be no story here.

Two, whenever I read or see on the news these stories about how students are more depressed and stressed out than ever, my reaction is who isn’t?! Join the fucking club! I’ve seen a whole lot of student meltdowns this year and I’ve done what I can to try to help students through all this. But look, we’re all stressed and depressed– at least to some extent– and we’re all struggling. So yeah, open the schools to help the depressed and stressed students, sure; just remember that that elementary school teacher who has been working her ass off to teach those kids has a ton of the same problems of her own.

Finally:

If folks want to have f2f classes in K-12 schools again, vaccinate.

The CDC has said that K-12 schools can have f2f classes again even if teachers and staff aren’t vaccinated, and there are other studies out there that suggest the rate of transmission in K-12 schools tend to be lower than in the community in general. Now, I’m a “follow the science” kind of person when it comes to all things Covid. But if I were an elementary/secondary school teacher– especially a high school teacher– I’d be very skeptical about all this. And honestly, given that every teacher in the world has had to deal with administrator’s telling them stuff that turned out to be completely wrong, why should teachers trust the experts now?

The bottom line is parents (and students and a lot of teachers too) who want schools to have f2f classes need to prioritize doing the things to contain Covid that can make that happen, and we as a country need to prioritize vaccinating K-12 teachers and staff. Ya’ll can’t yell and scream about schools not being open for f2f classes and then complain about masks and insist that restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and all of these other high Covid risk places are open for business as usual.

So let’s concentrate first on vaccinations and everything else first.

What didn’t suck about 2020?

I usually write a post at the end of the year to kind of sum up highlights of the previous year (particularly highlights from blogging and social media posts), mostly as a reminder to myself of how things went. You know, like all these “the year that was” articles in MSM. And I had started here recapping all the ways that Covid disrupted everything and how it all sucked and all of that, and then I thought: who needs more of that? I am quite sure I’ll remember all the ways that 2020 was a disaster for the planet and for the country for the rest of my life, and I’m also sure I’ll get the chance to re-remember in movies and books and television shows for some time to come. I’m quite sure I’ll remember the ways 2020 hurt me and my family personally, and those are things I’d rather not go into in a blog post. Not now anyway.

So instead, I thought I’d take a bit of time to write about/meditate about what didn’t suck about 2020, about what I still managed to do that was good, about what I learned about myself. Part exercise in living in the moment/mindfulness (which I think is mostly a bullshit way of looking at the world, but I’ll play along), part needing to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Here it goes (in the order it occurred to me):

I’m grateful I didn’t have any close friends or family members who became seriously ill or worse from Covid (knocking on wooden things). Annette and I both thought we might have had it several different times (who hasn’t wondered if that cold or cough was something worse?) and we’ve been tested a couple of times as well, but so far, so good. Same with Will, though he gets tested about weekly because of the stuff he’s doing at Yale. I have some more extended family members and friends who have had it, some with barely any symptoms and others who felt it like a hard flu. Given some of the terrible stories I’ve heard from some of my students, I am grateful and feel lucky about this.

I’m happy my day-to-day life and work carried on mostly the same. Don’t get me wrong– this has all been much different and it’s hard. I have been in my EMU office three times since mid-March. I haven’t been to a restaurant at all since things locked down– not even outdoor dining– and I have been to a coffee shop/beer garden kind of place exactly once when I met Derek for a beer at Cultivate Coffee and Tap House and then we sat a picnic table distance apart in the outside area on a lovely day back in September. I used to go to the gym at least four days a week and then often went shopping for whatever I was planning on cooking for that night, and I haven’t done any of that since mid-March. No movies, no shows, no museums, none of that. I go to the grocery store or places like Meijer about twice a week, and I make a point of trying to get outside to walk around a bit. That’s about it.

But the thing is I was already mostly working from home and mostly teaching online before Covid. Ironically, I spent a lot of January trying to make more use of my EMU office, which has kind of been a failed New Year’s resolution for a few years now. The short version: I keep thinking I need to draw a firmer line between my “life” and my “work,” this despite the fact that I’ve spent the last 30 years working from home and coffee shops with few boundaries (physical, intellectual, emotional, etc.) between life and work. Plus I have a very nice office that seems wasted with me not using it for much of anything beyond office hours and storing junk. So once again in January, I was trying to work more from my office, and once again, I had given up on working more at EMU by mid February. All of which is a long way of saying shifting to working at home and teaching online wasn’t exactly a big lift for me.

And of course, let’s not forget the basics: Annette, Will, and I all still have jobs, insurance, money in the bank, etc. Speaking of which:

Annette, Will, and I all are very lucky to be able to comfortably shelter in place/just stay home. Will started his PhD program in Cellular Molecular Biology at Yale in Fall 2019 and he had (continues to have) a nice (albeit student-y nice) apartment in New Haven, and since his work mostly shifted to working on qualifying exam/pre-dissertation portion of things, he was fine. With Will out of our modest three bedroom house (and this has been the case since he was living on campus at Michigan), there is plenty of room for Annette to do her thing in her work space/library downstairs and me to do mine in my hard to beat office/study/man cave area upstairs. Which is to say we just had each other, mostly: no pets, no really little kids, no school-aged kids, or none of the other things (many much worse than this of course) that made staying close to home challenging. Sure, having more people around means, well, having more people around, so there’s an advantage there. But let’s just say I think that having all three of us here would have made for a very difficult year.

Despite it all, we did get to travel a bit. We mostly got our travel jollies out in 2019 with trips that took us to three different continents (not counting North America), and we did have a couple trips we were going to go on in 2020 canceled. But we weren’t completely at home in 2020. We went to Las Vegas at the end of February, one of the nicest trips we’ve taken there. We had a room that was basically free at the Wynn (long story), saw some shows, did some gambling, stumbled across a Banksy exhibit in a shopping mall, and went to Red Rocks. Covid was just starting to leak into everything, though we didn’t think a lot about it then. I do remember seeing some people in masks (mostly Asian tourists, so I honestly didn’t think much about it), and I also did make a point of getting up to wash my hands about every hour while playing slots.

In July, we went “up north,” staying at a really cool cabin on Glen Lake– well, not on Glen Lake because that’s pretty much all multimillion dollar homes, but across the road from Old Settlers Park, which meant we kinda/sorta got a lake view. We didn’t get out to any of the fancy restaurants up there (a number of them were closed anyway) and we didn’t get into Traverse City or do a whole lot of shopping, but we did get to do some hiking, we looked at a lot of trees and nature, we got to see some friends who live up there, and we did a lot of relaxing and hanging out.

And then in September, we took a road trip to Maggie Valley, North Carolina to spend a four-day weekend with Annette’s parents– they rented a house there. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to making the trip (the driving, during the midst of the school term, an area of the country that isn’t really my cup of tea, etc., etc.), but it was a nice change of scenery, and it’s certainly not a trip I would have been willing to make with the current crazy spikes in Covid.

We watched A LOT of movies, and a lot of kind of weird and/or old ones too. I generally write down the movies we watch (I keep a list as part of my journal), and I think we saw about 170 of them last year. In normal times, we watch a lot of movies, but 170 or so is, well, A LOT. Mind you, that includes multiple viewing of some comforting favorites (The Big Lebowski, Dirty Dancing, A Knight’s Tale, Star Wars), rewatching of a lot of movies we’d seen before, and a few new ones too– got to see Parasite in the theater before Covid and again at home on demand during Covid, too. But it also included a lot of odd/weird/old movies, including True Storiesthe almost 5 hour long Until the End of the World, Killer Klowns from Outer Spacethe Sean Connery sci-fi flick ZardozFoodfight! (which is perhaps the worst animated movie of all time), the fantastic Forbidden Planet, Vincent Price’s Theater of Blood, Eating Raul, the fantastic musical Golddiggers of 1933 and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent thriller The Lodger. And more than that too, of course, not to mention a lot of other shows– The Queen’s Gambit, working our way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

Oddly enough, a pretty good year for me in terms of scholarly activity.  For me– which is to say it isn’t a lot compared to really prolific and famous scholars, but it’s plenty for me.

What will probably be my one and only single-authored book (at least in terms of academic writing) More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs came out in January– actually, it was already available in December 2019, but it has a 2020 copyright date. Kind of a bittersweet moment because I think the book was published too long after MOOCs and of course Covid didn’t help, but still, it’s done. And it did get at least one good review, too.

But beyond that, I once again was reminded that the weird thing about blogging is it is very much like writing the proverbial message in a bottle: every once in a while, someone somewhere picks up that bottle on the beach, reads what’s inside, and reaches out to find the writer. Startled and confused by the number of faculty who have decided to teach online synchronously with Zoom, I wrote a blog post, “‘Synch Video is Bad,’ perhaps a new research project?” Not a lot of people read it, really (I think my most popular post of this past year was “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”), but the right people read it– namely, someone at Media & Learning, which is a Belgian group promoting “the use of media as a way to enhance innovation and creativity in teaching and learning across all levels of education in Europe.” They invited me to submit a version of my post as a newsletter article, and also invited me to participate in a panel discussion for a conference they had in November (all via Zoom, of course). And this is all motivating me to kick off a new research project about teaching online during the 2020-21 school year– see this post here to see what I mean and maybe take my survey.

So like I said, kind of small potatoes in the general scheme of academia and scholarship, but I don’t often get to add a short publication and an invited presentation to my CV just as a result of a blog post.

And last but not least, Biden won and a cure is coming. Last but far from least, imperfect and incomplete as of this writing for sure because who knows what craziness Trump and the Republicans are going to attempt before January 20, and we’ll likely see another 100,000 or more deaths in this country before the vaccine is widely distributed. But still, it could be much, much worse. Developing a vaccine so quickly was far from a foregone conclusion back in April and May, and if Trump and his administration had done an even half-assed job in dealing with the virus back in the spring, I’m pretty sure he would have won a second term. So yeah, I’m thankful that what is a terrible time now and what will probably be a terrible time for a few more months at least is not being made more terrible by another four years of Trump.

So let’s hope that 2021 continues on that path.