Year One, AC (After COVID)
November 11, 2021
I think in metaphors.
Perhaps an unintended side effect of being a Xennial—having an analog childhood and a digital adulthood—but my mind works in illustrative comparison for most things. This has been the key to my success in my career, in my opinion, because it affords me a level of creativity and innovation that I use to find and create applications between theory and practice. But it has also served as the source of my disillusionment with this work, with this field, because all metaphors aren't comforting. Some metaphors call you to create a parallel between something you are passionate about, something you have personal attachment to, to something that may very well be a hard reality to face.
I will give you an example.
I was having a conversation with my high school-aged offspring the other day about COVID, and the impact it is having on us personally, but also on the work that I do, and the life that we live. I wanted to convey how transformational I view COVID socio-culturally and socio-politically, but I could only come up with one prevailing metaphor:
COVID is like the Vietnam War.
Hear me out.
First let me say, I am American, so we call it the Vietnam War. I don't have other language for that, and I want to own that up front.
But COVID is like the Vietnam War. It will create the same cultural watermark, the same fundamental shift in ideology, the same impact on philosophical understanding. We are seeing it already.
With the Vietnam War, there was the culture: we need to go to war with this country because it poses a threat to democracy. It is our American duty, and we must rise to meet this challenge, whatever it takes.
Then there was the counterculture(s): 1- I do not believe in war and will not participate (conscientious objectors); 2- I do not disagree with war, but I will not be your instrument of war in this conflict that I do not understand against an enemy that I do not have (the Muhammad Ali approach); and 3- I do not trust the government and therefore do not believe this is occurring, so I will behave as if it isn't (anarchy).
For 20 years, we watched as the war raged on, conscripting millions of people to impractical and mandatory service expectations, tearing families apart, creating cavernous and traumatic levels of loss of life, impacting our economy long- and short-term, changing our political landscape, radicalizing two different generations of Americans, and spurring a new wave for almost all social issues: women's rights, civil rights, gender and sexuality equity, abortion rights, and even more.
We saw how the landscape of the modern higher education institution changed: soldiers returning from war now in classes, with needs and concerns that the university was not prepared to appropriately respond to; demographics of the student populations changing to account for the loss and then re-emergence of male students; institutions being challenged to desegregate, reincorporate or reconstitute their structure to accommodate a new population of students and staff. We witnesses the emergence of space for academic disciplines that were historically marginalized: women's studies, gender studies, africana studies, chicano/a/x studies, age and aging studies, and more. We watched departments and offices spring up to respond to those students: cultural centers, resources centers, student centers and organizations. We witness the radicalization of students in the way they gathered and met: rainbow coalitions, amnesty organizations, mutual aid societies, race- and culture- based student groups. I am only scratching the surface in this description of how response to this war changed the way we understood and had to create collegiate experiences on campuses across this country.
We don't and perhaps we can't appreciate or articulate the ways in which that occupation shifted how we understand service, country, and right and wrong. My father was drafted out of high school to fight in Vietnam, and even I lack a true understanding of how life was in the "before" times.
But again I say: COVID is like the Vietnam War.
There is the culture: we need to respond to this virus because it poses a threat to our ability to live. It is our American duty as a developed country, and we must rise to this challenge, whatever it takes.
Then there is the counterculture(s): 1- I do not believe that this is as serious as you say, and I will not acquiesce any personal freedoms to participate (Right to Choice); 2- I do not agree with your reasoning, and I can think for myself, so I will craft my own solution and act only towards that solution (those who are taking horse de-wormer); and 3- I do not trust the government, and therefore do not believe this is occurring, so I will behave as if it isn't (anarchy).
For almost two years, and almost 3 different academic years, since March 2020, we have watched as this virus has raged on, conscripting millions of people (service industries, educators, medical and caring profession personnel, and more) to impractical and mandatory service expectations, tearing families apart, creating cavernous and traumatic levels of loss of life, impacting our economy, long- and short-term. We have watched it change our political landscape and how we respond to government oversight (or the absence of); we have observed it radicalize generations of Americans (the Great Resignation, the early forced retirement of millions of people, the loss of over 740,000 people); and we are now beginning to see the ways it is impacting social issues across the country, and the world: employer/employee rights, caregivers, socioeconomic shifts, police presence and engagement, political and social demonstrations and activism, and more.
I fear, much like we didn't and can't appreciate how Vietnam changed our lives and lived experiences, we are not demonstrating an understanding of the ways COVID has and will continue to change us: how we determine individual vs collective action, how we see or fail to see our government protect or support all persons, how we understand rights and responsibilities, and how we navigate life and death. I fear that because of our American exceptionalism and individualism, baked into every facet and field of our lives, will prevent or denigrate our ability to understand that we will never return to the "before" times, and we are in a wholly different reality now. I fear that, like Vietnam, it may take us 20 years to come to terms with this fundamental shift.
My dilemma is: what do we stand to lose, who do we stand to fail, in those 20 years? If it takes us that long, what will we have left? Who will we have left?
I chose to use my blog post, as part of the AAKC, to highlight this metaphor because it is the central metaphor of our work at this juncture, in my opinion. Our work is part of an ongoing legacy, created for a population most of us will never fit into; expanded to incorporate all of the social, political and cultural shifts that have taken place since 1650, when the oldest university in America was founded. Our work is only a slice of that long, contiguous and continuous narrative, a flash of lightning caught in a bottle. But if we are not intentional, deliberative and consciously engaged in that work; if we are not reflective of the larger learning our communities require; if we are not a mirror for which our students can understand their own reflection; if we are not responsive to the shifts that push our movement, we are but a bystander on this journey. Water always takes the path of least resistance, but also creates new environments from the strength and force of its constitution.
We have no idea what awaits us during this fundamental shift, but we are not prepared. We are not even aware of the myriad ways in which we are unprepared. We have not considered how this shift will ripple through the next five years, ten years, or the next length of the Vietnam War: 20 years. I hear staff, faculty, administration and students refer to "post" covid, and "returning" to normal, and "resuming" normal operations. We will never return to where we were, and we would be doing a disservice that would border upon negligence if we continued to try. We are in the midst of a transformational shift, akin to when women entered the academy, akin to when institutions admitted their first Black students, akin to watching soldiers return from war and enter classrooms—and our failure to reset our clocks, to move to Year 1 of this new era, does not stop the inevitable. It cannot change the course of progress and human advancement. It just ensures that we will not be part of it.