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I would think that we, as faculty members, would remember what was essential in our own academic journeys. Are the educators and leaders at American universities blind to the impact that a closed campus has on students? Is our unexamined comfort in remaining online driving our easy acceptance of a remote semester?
The virtual college experience is not good enough. Students need an in-the-flesh community to engender the relationships and connections the traditional university is designed to provide. This is especially crucial for students as they enter and when they leave the university. Their life plans hinge on finding friends and mentors when they begin their college years and cementing those relationships before they exit. It is unrealistic to believe this can be achieved online. The person-to-person connection and commitment is not the same.
I write from experience. During the first months of the pandemic I taught entirely online “Case Studies in the Lives of Persons” at Harvard Extension School. To be fair, the face-to-face Zoom interaction often felt intimate and satisfying. But here’s the rub: I am fairly certain that if I was walking on campus and passed any of these students, I would not recognize them beyond some uncanny feeling they seem familiar.
Most of my academic load is teaching and supervising doctoral level clinical psychologists. I am also a practicing psychoanalyst. In the past, before I would consider initiating or terminating a therapeutic relationship, I wanted to be physically present. Nonetheless, since the pandemic began, I have begun working online with a few individuals and couples who simply could not wait until we felt safe to meet in person. Online therapy has a different cadence and perspective. The face-to-face immediacy is both challenge and asset. However, as with my online-only students, I fear I would not recognize any of my new patients if we sat at nearby tables in the outdoor cafes now open in Boston.
Here is what I am observing: My academic peers — people at least for now reassured about their means — are sleeping better, feel less hurried, and find comfort in their extended, sheltered-in-place lives. We are enjoying our enforced staycation.
Suddenly freed from physically showing up to class, freed from the demands of students, we are quietly invested in remaining at home, on Zoom, reading what we want, getting caught up on TV, tending our gardens, having our food delivered. We are thriving. Thriving, that is, at the expense of an obligation to our students and those less sheltered. This staycation is a relief for people secure in their social lives, family, and career. For people who are not secure or established, the profound isolation of shutdowns and the extreme uncertainty of what they face in the future provokes responses from ordinary anxiety to scarring trauma. I witness both patterns in my conversations with patients daily.
For those for whom the pandemic has not created desperation, has it actually offered a welcome break? Is whatever guilt we may feel by staying home dampened by our virtuous acceptance of a social distance we don’t really resent?
We are complicit in intergenerational injustice if we relish the cozy existence we have in our socially-distanced retreats. I would not have thought this weeks ago, but I am discovering conflict with the comfort I have achieved. I say I want the lockdown to be over, but at the same time, I am reluctant to have it end. When the lockdowns started in March, I would have thought I would want them ended as soon as it was clear our hospital systems were no longer in danger of collapse. Months later, I cannot claim my comfort with the closed campus is an ethical concern for the greater good of students; instead, it’s mainly about my comfort.
We all face a pandemic. A terrible disease for some elders, for those with preexisting conditions, and for those whose social conditions along racial, ethnic, and economic lines place them in harm’s way; and also for the medical responder inadequately protected and overwhelmed by a viral load. Nonetheless, ordinarily, the virus is a manageable sickness for most students. There are exceptions that require proper caution, but do the exceptions justify us all to stay at home instead of continuing to educate students properly?
We need careful planning to protect those who are exceptionally vulnerable. We need to be prepared for expected and unexpected tragedy. But this pandemic could last for years. The promise of a working vaccine by the winter may be good for the markets but does not reflect medical reality. Anticipate this. Sequester vulnerable faculty in well-lit, well-ventilated rooms with bright monitors and good headsets. Give us sufficient bandwidth, but let students and willing faculty gather with realistic caution of contagion. A degree of contentment is apparent, but what should be obvious is that this contentment is complicit with the degradation of a generation of future academics.
The pandemic is a prequel of global stress to come. We need a thousand solutions. Those enjoying their comfort should be aware they are part of the problem.
Wynn Schwartz is a lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
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