In mid-March, in a city bracing for catastrophe, I sat in the pediatrician’s lobby telling my husband the news. My daughter was inside seeing the doctor. I didn’t yet know she had Covid-19. What I said was that after spring break, all classes at The New School would be held online. A man sitting across from us, waiting for his child, laughed. “Maybe they’ll discover that teachers aren’t needed anymore?” he speculated.
I learned a few things about college this spring. None involved the expendability of teachers.
When my students gathered online after the pandemic spring break, some had moved home with their families, as my daughter had. Others remained in off-campus apartments, struggling to pay rent after their employers (restaurants, bars, and stores) shut down. All of us were exiled from our beloved campus. In our class called “Literary Reinvention,” we discussed Mrs. Dalloway, a slice of life in London after the Great War. The feelings of a middle-aged woman still suffering from the aftereffects of the 1918 influenza were newly comprehensible to us. Stepping out into the city, “she always had a feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
I saw how critical our community was for my students. When we turned to Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel about refugees in a changing world, many identified with the protagonists. “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class,” we read, “but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying.” One student wrote that she “related to this line. Distracting yourself from impending danger by immersing yourself in the small things—the normalcy of everyday existence—is an effective strategy!”
I observed this in my own household, as my daughter finished her junior year in quarantine. It was fascinating to see a college student up close. I learned that the studying is as time-consuming as high school work, if not more so. There is little downtime. She couldn’t join us for after-dinner TV. Sometimes, we felt like the family of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, cajoling her not to read. She had serious responsibilities as a teaching assistant, reams of digitized paper to read, Zoom meetings with colleagues, digital data to assemble, and essays to write. All the fun, which had dominated her reports from campus, must always happen in corners and crevices, sleepless nights, moments stolen from time.
College is about continuing your studies while growing up. It is a way to combine the acquisition of a vastly expanded set of skills and knowledge, including the participation in the production of knowledge, with growing independence. Now, as a half-measure, we’re just burrowing into our own tunnels in a shared space.
Some students joined my class from their backyards in Los Angeles and others joined us from different rooms in the same New York apartment. My daughters, too, were Zooming in separate rooms, with some interruptions from online trolls. In one room, I walked into a physics discussion; in the next, I heard Italian chatter or glimpsed erotic art of the Renaissance.
The online environment, for a teacher, is merely a different classroom. Yet it’s an unusual one: oddly infinite (or expandable), synchronous and asynchronous, blurring our usual lines. Like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter, it is both capacious and oddly permeable, conjured by our desires. It is a portal to other worlds—much like the novel. As Hamid writes of his protagonists in a city under siege, “Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be.”
But if the online classroom, accessed through a phone, can be a refuge, we are forced to stumble past a dystopian threshold on our way to this room. As two of my students pointed out by email, explaining their absence, the portal was littered with pressing deadline reminders and marks of death—from grim statistics to personal tragedy, as friends and colleagues lost their mothers and brothers. On top of this, we were becoming cross-eyed. At the end of a long day of online classes and meetings, my eyes became unhinged and I saw two of everything.
Still, there were compensations. I was struck by the strange beauty of class comments and conversations in written form. Student posts could be nuanced, articulate, and precise. “This novel is very relevant to today’s trying times,” a student observed. “The civil war’s effect on the population in this book mirrors our reaction to the coronavirus: Empty store shelves, people isolating themselves from the outside world, the closure of businesses and offices, the suspension of rights, social unrest, burial overflow, and a global crisis.” I could picture him fending off his family’s requests for attention as he composed this message.
What we have witnessed in this moment of temporary exile online is not the abolition of school but the migration of school. Home/school, in one space. Gathering this spring in our virtual world, in our suspended state, we have discovered the urgency of literary reinvention—and of school itself, online or off.
Carolyn Vellenga Berman is an Associate Professor of Literature at The New School.