I started this post nearly six weeks ago, and couldn’t finish it. I’ve thought about it a number of times since then. But as we reach the night before what would have been UMW’s commencement ceremony, I find myself returning to it and to the sentiments it started with and that have continued to resonate with me since then.
I know that none of us in education were ready for what the last two weeks months have been, nor are we prepared for the days and weeks (and hopefully not months) to come. Maybe we should have been, maybe we could have seen the slow yet practically inexorable movement of the COVID-19 virus from other parts of the world to the United States and eventually to our own locales. But in the end it came and we are dealing with the consequences for our work and our lives, and they are not insignificant. Fighting this virus requires remarkable disruption in the daily activities, the gatherings, the human interaction, that are part of our schools, our social life, our culture. Even in this age of digital-mediated work and leisure, we still live in work and school settings that are inherently about being with and near other people.
In the ten days before Mary Washington made the decision to move to remote learning and send our students home, I spent an immense amount of time with other people. [More time spent than I did in most weeks, let alone one that encompassed UMW’s Spring Break.] And after we moved to our homes and away from campus, I continued to be part of teams working to figure out how my school could deal with the impact of the most serious disease outbreakswe have seen in the world in our lifetime. Initially, it was about deciding to close out the in-person aspects of what we offered, then it was dealing with the fallout of that move (such that our students and faculty and staff were not overly impacted), then it was what would the summer look like if students (and others) were not on campus, and now it is how can we, as a school that prioritizes the residential, face-to-face educational experience, imagine a fall semester that may or may not include students on campus, that may or may not include the revenues that residential campuses depend on to pay their employees and support their mission, that will somehow include social distancing and the latest thinking on public health, testing, contact-tracing, and hygienic practices.
I am blessed to be working with a dedicated, hyper-competent, thoughtful group of staff and faculty and Cabinet members, who believe in our mission, who are smart and dedicated to their students and their colleagues, and it is an honor to Zoom with so many of them each week as we work to build a future for our school and our community in the months and years to come.
I am fortunate to work with a President and a Board of Visitors who ask, over and over again, “what is best for the students?” no matter how difficult or complicated the answers to that seemingly simple question might be.
I am lucky to have a home and a family who believe in the mission of education, a family who has supported all of its members during this stay-at-home order, family members who make each other laugh as we make each other meals and make each other at home in our house.
I am grateful that I am in a position to both teach and learn from our students AND to shape the direction of our institution at a time when nothing is normal. I am constantly aware of the responsibility that is involved in being both a teacher and an administrator at this time and place, and I am glad that most days I believe I am making a difference.
And then today, the day before commencement was supposed to happen, I got to preview the video that will be shared tomorrow with graduating seniors, their families, their faculty, and the Mary Washington community. And it broke me, at least a little. Don’t get me wrong. It’s funny, and heartfelt, and full of terrifically caring alumni, our president, my colleagues, and lovely sentiments. [I’ll link to it here once it is released.]
Maybe I should point out here that commencement is one of my favorite times of the year. It is unalloyed joy. It is a chance to meet students at their happiest, parents at their most proud, the community at its most relaxed. It is a payoff for all of us after the always-stressful spring semester (or even the whole academic year). It is goodbye, good luck, thank-you, and hell, yeah all at once.
And watching that video, knowing that we won’t be donning our regalia tomorrow, marching to the bagpipes, congratulating graduates as they walk the Campus Walk gauntlet of proud professors on their way to Ball Circle tomorrow, well, it broke me. Or at least it broke the dam of emotion that I’ve been holding back these months as we have all worked (students, faculty, staff, family) to get through, to survive (literally) to the end of the semester and school year. And I grieved for what we have lost as a community of learners. And I celebrated with happy tears what we have done together and apart. We are capable of both being sad and grateful, regretful of what is lost and thankful for what has been preserved, sorrowful at what was missed and yet celebratory about the amazing things that have been accomplished.
So, hear the bagpipes, sing the alma mater, hug your loved ones (be they near or far), and grieve what was lost and be grateful for what has been accomplished and what is still to come. And know that all of that is okay.
In a normal year, yesterday would have been the day in the semester when the students in Digital History would present their projects to an audience at the History and American Studies Department Spring Symposium. This is a tradition that began back in 2008 with the first iteration of the class. It was an amazing debut of digital history projects during a day which previously had been reserved for presentations of 30-40 page research papers. It was an important moment for digital history projects in the department and has continued to be a wonderful moment for the students, their friends, faculty, staff, and project partners.
I’m sorry we won’t be able to do that public in-person presentation this year. Nothing about this semester has been normal, but I am happy to share the projects and the students’ presentations on them once again. I am incredibly proud of their work, even as they were pulled away from each other and away from some of the original sources they were working with to digitize, analyze, and share.
I encourage you to check out each of the presentations and the Digital Public History sites that students created this semester.
It has undoubtedly been one of the strangest semesters in the past 50 years ago. We started out as a we normally do then things changed suddenly in late February. Cases of the Coronavirus had appeared in Washington State and schools there started to close to slow the spread. In early March there were reported cases in New York City and a few days later the first cases were found in Virginia. On the Monday I was having lunch with another professor and I suggested off-hand that we may have to switch to online instruction (I didn’t think it would happen). Just to hedge my bets, in class on Wednesday I spent the first few minutes of all of my classes talking about the plan to go online should that remote possibility come to fruition. I left campus at 4:45pm that day and a few minutes later I read the email from President Paino which told us that we’re going online and everybody that can leave campus should do so. So much has happened since then and it was undoubtedly strange to the students. I asked one of my outstanding students to finish off his internship by making a short documentary on how the changes have impacted him and other students. He put together this outstanding video to give that perspective. It’s quite good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFpbNKGOmnU
These indeed are strange days. COVID-19 has upended life here in so many ways and one of the challenges is that we’ve moved all of our classes to online instruction. This is the first time that I’m teaching an entire class online. Here’s how it went down, on the morning of March 9th a few of the faculty were talking about a couple of cases of Coronavirus found in Virginia. On a hunch I decided to mention online instruction to my classes on the off chance it could happen. That afternoon I meeting with some faculty and it dominated our discussion. On Wednesday I made a plan and presented it to my students on what would happen if we went online for instruction. I didn’t actually expect it to happen, a couple of hours after my last class and after I left campus I received word that the University would move to online instruction for a few weeks. I scrambled to get things ready for online instruction, my first day I forgot to share my screen, didn’t press record, and my system crashed. Things have since improved but we just received word that we’re going to finish the online semester online. We’re in the midst of upheaval right now but I hope to write more at a later time that reflects on what went right and what went wrong with the transition.
Every year my digital marketing class (Mktg 417) finds a product that would have good sales online. The students are tasked with creating a Facebook ad for the product and then we create the website and run the ad. Then we track the audience to the page using Google Analytics. This year’s winner is a solar charger for your devices that you can use when you’re exploring the great outdoors. Our shop is located at www.mysolarcharger.myshopify.com, give it a look and enjoy.