Elegy to a lost (and found) year

Now you’re at the other end of the telescope
Seven billion stars in her eyes
So many stars
So many ways of seeing
Hey this is no time not to be alive

To get to commencement weekend, we had to walk through a bit of fire.

I don’t want to make this an overly long post, but I wanted to mark the end of the 2020–21 academic year — really, the pandemic 14 months — by sharing a few things.

This was, by any measure, a lost year. Certainly we accomplished some things, as the conferred degrees can attest. I’m absolutely certain students learned some things in my classes. But we did not pretend that it was ideal, or at least I was determined to not do the THIS IS FINE thing. It was difficult, and a moment to be survived. I left space for lament in classes for this reason.

I found out during spring break 2020 that we were going online for the second half of the spring semester. I’d been quietly been making plans for at least a temporary online shift for about six weeks, mindful of the virus news getting increasingly bad. But in my foolishness, I figured maybe a couple weeks or a month. Instead, our seniors lost their ability to be together, to graduate in person, and to say goodbye properly.

What followed was the most difficult year of my life. I don’t want to oversell this because I lived with the privilege of having the ability to manage my job from home. But that didn’t make it easy. My wife was working full time from home just as I did, and we had kids at home eager for attention and a taste of normalcy. Their lives were upended too. “When the germs go away, I can …” as my little one is fond of saying.

Universities run on faculty service, and apropos of associate-level professors I’m at a point in my career where I was already overloaded with service; during the pandemic, service needs increased exponentially. Struggling students, AWOL students, mental health woes all made the work heavier and more necessary at a time when my work/life balance was atrocious and the job became a 7-day-a-week deal.

I told my students early and often to focus on what they could control. We had no control of the virus, but we could control the people we would be during this pandemic, and the type of person we’d emerge as. We could choose love and community, or we could choose self-centeredness. Certainly anger and bitterness are understandable, but they are not places we can stay without getting stuck. Our choices were the one thing we retained, and so we should use them wisely.

A few things I’ve been jotting down as I went, saving for the day I’d write this post:

  • The most heartening thing I saw from students was their understanding. They knew I was parenting while teaching. They asked about the kids and welcomed class Zoombombs. The first time I was asked how I was holding up, I didn’t know how to respond. But I appreciated it every time.
  • I will never forget those moments of graciousness people showed one another. It was a salve for the nonsense I’d see on TV and social media.
  • Staff made this whole thing go. They are the unsung heroes in higher ed anyhow, but this whole thing would not have been possible without our friends who held the ship together in technology, student support, office work, and so on. I am so deeply grateful for my staff colleagues at Lehigh.
  • I saw examples online at times of parents and students complaining about “lazy” faculty wanting to teach at home in their sweatpants. I tried to let this roll off me, but it did bother me at times and got me riled up more than once. I have yet to hear a colleague say they preferred this mode of teaching. We pretty universally hated that it was necessary. We were dealing with health concerns, childcare issues, elder care issues, and a whole host of other things. We were stressed out and constantly battling the competing needs of our students and families. We are all looking forward to being back. Again, I have some privilege here, but please be kind to teachers. We had a rough year, we know this wasn’t our best format, but we did everything we could to make it excellent.
  • Sacrifices included my scholarship, which is supposed to be 40% of my weekly effort but lol like that was happening. Carving out time to write in a house with no quiet and crazy advising/teaching demands was impossible. This was a lost year for a lot of us in that regard. Tenure and promotion committees are going to have to grapple with this, and I’d beg my fellow academics to choose the human path of expecting less rather than just extending clocks and timelines.
  • I had a whole bit here about the wonder of our technology making this past year possible, but Jeff Jarvis said it best and you should just read that.
  • I’m more convinced than ever that the work of the university is relationships. Yes, I can transmit material in online classes. But the real secret sauce of higher education is learning in community. That’s why I designed all my teaching around community first, material second. It’s why I can’t wait to go back, and why I will cherish the picture atop this post. It was emotional seeing students again in person after 14 months. It’s not because of a ceremony. It’s because you are part of each other’s lives for four years and those relationships matter, something that can’t be built as well in Zoom.
  • What we build out of this pandemic is going to matter. We cannot go back to business as usual. The pandemic surfaced inequities, financial aid gaps, food and technology insecurities, and the challenges everyone is facing daily. We should rebuild with purpose, treating solving those inequities as Job 1 when we get back. It changed me as a professor, and I will be applying that forward.
  • Finally, my students are resilient people. I don’t want to say “tough” because I don’t want to valorize the notion that we just have to suck it up and not complain. Instead, I’ll just note they got through it, and that says a lot about them just to reach the finish line. Ignore their grades and resume gaps. They finished. That alone is worthy of our praise.

We are at the other end of the telescope, as U2’s lyrics above note. What once seemed big seems small, because the past 14 months were spent clarifying about what really matters. If there’s anything we can take away from this time, other than the really cool vaccines that science gave us, it’s that it should reorient us toward keeping the focus on our values.

I can’t wait to see my students this fall and teach in person.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University.