Every US university has begun planning for fall term, 2021. All of them for the past year have been forced to make decisions within hours or days because of shifts in the course of the pandemic. It seems somewhat unreal to have the luxury of thinking months ahead, but teaching assignments and class scheduling demand it.
I write this in my campus office, having decided to come into the office a few days a week, despite my life being entirely on Zoom all day. I usually pass one or two students, GUMC staff, or facility staff on the walkways, but there is nothing like the hustle and bustle of a normal semester.
I see our colleagues who are part of Redeploy at the entrances of all buildings. They check that I have a green digital badge certifying that I’ve complied with health protocols (testing, attestation regarding absence of symptoms, etc.). I thank them for their work in keeping us all safe.
The buildings are largely empty. Those that have open study spaces have some students quietly studying.
The provost office suite is quite clean. I note that cleaning crews come by every day, regardless of the emptiness of offices, a symbol of our commitment to keep the community fully employed throughout the pandemic. My office had papers on the desk from February, 2020. The signup sheet on a conference room was dated March 9, 2020. It feels a little like entering a tomb of sorts.
If the buildings on campus were sentient beings, I am convinced that they would miss us. The life of a university is us (collectively). We animate the space. A glimpse of an empty campus (much emptier than during a summer, for example) makes me think we are all missed.
My memories of what is missing?
- Walking across campus and seeing a colleague you haven’t seen in awhile
- Chance encounters with students with an opportunity to see how they’re doing.
- The flowers on campus surrounded by students
- The quiet feeling of belonging in one’s office space, the familiarity of objects in the space
- The enthusiasm of students in Red Square, laughing and debating all sorts of issues
- Wednesday farmer’s market
- The unmistakable pleasure of entering a classroom and feeling the enthusiasm of students to your presence (Our colleagues have expressed this more eloquently. See a MCEF-CNDLS symposium on “remembering the classroom when it’s not there.” Try to watch the whole event.)
Many of these features of a university campus form the key psychic supports of faculty and staff. It’ a big part of why they chose to work at a university.
As vaccinations become more prevalent, we are all coming to the end of this separation from what feeds us. We can begin to imagine being in the classroom. We can imagine working in our offices, walking down the hallway and meeting students and colleagues and having spontaneous conversations.
We are changed people because of this last year. We’re hurt and wounded. But, sitting in an empty office suite, in a relatively empty building, on a largely empty campus, I am convinced being back together can be a significant healing event. We can re-animate this space in a way that only we can accomplish.
Over the coming weeks we should exchange ideas about how we can plan our community’s return to maximize its benefits. I’d welcome your ideas.