NO JOY IN TEACHING LITERATURE THIS YEAR: ON COVID-19 AND RETURNING TO CLASS

I should be celebrating in today’s post, the first one in the academic year 2020-2021, that this blog is now ten years old. Instead of happiness, however, the feeling that necessarily affects my writing now and that makes my nights so restless is fear. Fear that the return to class next week means being infected with Covid-19, with who knows what consequences, and fear that I might infect those who live with me and endanger lives I love even more than mine. This is not at all the spirit in which a teacher should start a new year and I’m writing today to leave a record of that fear, hoping that by next semester I can read this post and laugh at my concerns. Right now I feel no joy. I do look forward to teaching Literature again but not at the cost of my health, which is very much at risk, and my peace of mind, which I have lost.

Like all my colleagues in Spain, I have been working from home since 14 March. I taught about four weeks in the classroom before lockdown forced me to go online, with no major problem as I already knew this crisis was coming (the news in The Guardian about the plague in China had been scaring me already for at least one month). My experience of teaching online using an asynchronous model, combining forums and weekly activities, and without using streaming, worked very well to the point that I awarded the highest marks since the implementation of the new BA degrees ten years ago. I even published a very handsome e-book on American in documentary film with my students (see ). In view of this, I have been defending, to no avail, each teacher’s right to choose whether to continue online or return to class. Like the rest of us who prefer staying online I find myself, however, forced to return to the classroom against my better judgement and forced to assume a serious risk to my health. Ironically, many teachers in my Department who could have plead their age (past 60) or their poor health and stay home have chosen to teach in person, which totally baffles me.

I have been imagining what the first day will be like and I see myself first on a very crowded train, which no minimal social distance at all. I work at a campus university and it takes me about 30 minutes to get there. It is just impossible to run more trains and thus make more room for passengers; in fact, the railway management had already acknowledged last year that trains are running at more than 100% their capacity and this is not going to change because of Covid-19. Next, I see myself reaching the also overcrowded building of my school, which will not really be emptier despite the measures taken by the Dean’s office.

In my own case, I have been given a larger classroom to accommodate my 45 students in Victorian Literature on Tuesdays, but with no guarantee of the necessary 1’5m social distancing required. I have been asked to split my class in two groups, in rigorous alphabetical order to keep track of eventual contagions, and see them on alternate Thursdays, ideally streaming my lessons for those who cannot be in the classroom (but who will possibly be in the school corridors waiting to attend another course taught in similar ways). I am totally against the idea of streaming my lessons and having people I cannot see watch me teach and, so, I have decided to have my students share each other’s class notes and my own notes. This morning I have been working on a calendar to guarantee that everyone will get sufficient hours for the needs of the course and, basically, I need to teach more compact lessons, with less time for student participation. That might work if I focus more intensely on the assessment requirements and cut any extras that might enrich the students’ learning about the Victorian Age.

In my visions of Tuesday next week, I enter next my classroom wearing a facemask and I see 45 equally masked students. I see no point in checking their names for I will never be able to recognize them. I must carry, or will be provided with (that is not clear), disinfectant to clean the table and be able to leave my notes on it, and the computer to use my USB. The windows need to be open for fifteen minutes between sessions but I intend to keep them open all the time. I don’t know yet whether I am supposed to shorten my lessons by fifteen minutes at the beginning, I don’t know who to ask. It’s now September and still beautifully warm (the air conditioning might even be on for the virus to circulate…) and I don’t know what will happen on colder days in November but the windows will stay open. I will buy and carry my own blackboard eraser and chalk, as we’ve been told that they cannot be shared. I don’t trust that the eraser will be properly disinfected, as we have been told it will be.

We have been told that we can teach without the facemask on provided we are two metres away from the students and even though facemasks are now compulsory in all private and public spaces. I have been using so far surgical masks of the basic type but my pharmacist tells me I should wear KN-95 respirators on the train, which possibly means I should also wear them in class. There is no way, however, I can properly breath and project my voice with a facemask of any type on and this has me very, very worried. The masks were never designed to be worn for so many hours and much less to teach in big classrooms, so I have no idea right now about what I should do. I don’t know either how one communicates with masked students whose expressions I cannot read at all.

So, supposing I manage to teach for seventy-five minutes without suffocating and feeling cut off from the masked persons before me next comes the nightmarish time to leave the classroom and join the hundreds of persons abandoning the other classrooms in the same corridor. The authorities have limited gatherings to ten persons but all the universities will have gatherings in many classrooms of fifty and more. There is, besides, absolutely no way the occupation of the corridors, the bathrooms, or the cafeteria can be limited to safe numbers (no problem in the library, though, the least crowded space always). I have been given the choice to be available for tutorials either online or in person, by the way. I chose to be available online any day of the week at my students’ convenience but I was told that, according to the Dean’s office, I must be in my office for online tutorials. Luckily for me, I have a big office and I have chosen to meet my students there at a safe two metres distance, with open windows and disinfecting the chairs they may use. I hope this relative proximity gives a human touch to any possible meeting, though I’ll try to solve problems by e-mail if possible.

No doubt staying home all this time and carefully managing my meeting friends and family may have turned me into a bit of a misanthrope. Perhaps that’s not the right word but I don’t know if the Covid-19 crisis has already given us a word for the fear of personal contact. I have never liked crowds but that is very different from feeling that my 45 students are a danger to me, and I to them. To be honest, I fear that they are a much bigger danger to me than I am to them because they are part of the demographic now responsible for the largest number of contagions. I’m sorry to say that the young have been breaking the safety rules implemented by the authorities more than other age groups and, with no previous testing, we teachers simply cannot know how to assess the danger in our classrooms. One of my colleagues also made the point that by forcing students to attend lessons we are committing a sort of moral fault, for they are indeed also risking their health. Covid-19 has killed many more older people but the young have also been affected, sometimes cruelly. Nobody is safe as we all know by now, so why insist on making classes presential?

After introducing myself on the first day, I will write on the blackboard the word ‘candid’ and will invite my students to have a candid conversation about why we need to risk our life by meeting in a classroom in the middle of a truly scary plague. I know that, right now, this means assuming a totally unnecessary risk but I want to hear from them what they expect from me and why, all of a sudden, attending classes has become such a big issue. Every year students cut classes, and nobody checks on them, or miss them because they are ill and nobody tells the teachers that we have to make up for these absences by teaching online. Absurdity and self-denial rule our return to class. Some of my colleagues are telling me that we’ll start next week and will close down the week after for there is no way Covid-19 can be controlled in a university environment. That might be a correct assessment of the situation but even just one day of teaching is a risk we cannot assume. I find that primary and secondary schools are a different matter, for kids stay in the same classroom and don’t move about all over the place. In universities, masses of teachers and students circulate from classroom to classroom, which will also increase the circulation of the virus. I think of the cafeteria and I shiver…

I am not saying, then, that universities should abandon presential teaching for online teaching for good but I am saying that we live in exceptional times and that there is absolutely no need to return to the classrooms. We have been receiving these days cheerful messages from the Rector’s and the Dean’s office and though I know they have been sent with the best intention they have done nothing to appease my fears, quite the opposite. I have kept so far my concentration and carried on with my academic work at home but I tried to prepare my first session for next week today and I simply couldn’t focus. I have serious difficulties to believe that what I teach is so relevant to myself and my students as to want to risk my health, much more so when I could perfectly fulfil my teaching duties online. I know that some might think I am a coward, or exaggerating the risks, but there are two kinds of negationists right now: those who claim that Covid-19 does not even exist and those who claim that the return to class is safe. It is not.

Good luck to all of you, keep safe. If you can.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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