Please, Professors: Stop Pretending the Dying Isn’t Happening

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(tweet image shared with permission)

Last night I saw this tweet by Emily Arbelo, an undergraduate student at Cornell University. As of the time of this Medium post, it had been retweeted over 36,000 times, and liked 362,000 times. A quick glance at the more than 600 replies suggest that most are from other undergrads, at Cornell and around the country, expressing outrage that this happened — or sharing stories of similar insensitivity on the part of their own professors.

When I saw the tweet last night, I realized I had things I need to say. And I did, in a thread that I wanted to share with friends & colleagues who aren’t on twitter.

So here‘s that thread, lightly edited for readability and to fix my early-morning errors.

If you’re teaching young people right now, you need to think about that thing that none of us wants to think about: people dying from the coronavirus.

People close to people in your classroom.

Maybe people in your classroom.

Which probably means thinking about people close to you dying.

In her viral tweet on April 7 (pictured above), Emily Arbelo shared a shocking description from an online class at Cornell:

My TA fully said her friend died and began to cry on zoom and the professor responded by saying that that’s why we still have assignments to get our mind off tragedy. Sir what?

What Emily describes is truly horrifying — and I feel so much compassion for the TA and the students. And at the same time, I recognized this professor is in the same position as everybody else right now: we are all just doing our best to survive, to get through the day.

This tweet has stuck with me — and eventually allowed me to say something I believe needs saying. What it comes down to is this:

Everything is terrible.

There are no good options.

BUT there are bad options. And walking into a virtual classroom without thinking about COVID-19 deaths is irresponsible.

And walking into a virtual classroom without being prepared to compassionately respond to a student’s or a TA’s disclosure of the loss of a loved one — or, for that matter, their own severe symptoms & fear — is also irresponsible.

And, at the same time, this was definitely not part of the job description.

Just like everyone else who finds themselves in an intensified version of a job, a child/family care situation, a quick family visit that turns into a month stuck in a house with your parents — all of which we may have found manageable or even loved in its “regular life” form — professors didn’t sign up for what is being asked of us now. And, to be honest, I fear that we may be far less equipped than most people are to have any level of responsibility or authority over a group of emerging adults during this time.

This is because full-time professors at major research universities like Cornell, like Rutgers-Newark where I teach now, like NYU where I was a sophomore during 9/11, get away with a lower level of awareness of the needs of others.

So much of the job of anyone in a lower status position — both the jobs for which we are paid, and the ones for which we are not — is emotional labor. But high status? No so much. Along with the perception of intelligence that goes along with the job title, professors are rarely asked to perform emotional labor. And while that may have seemed like a blessing before, it now leaves professors ill-equipped to be publicly human in the face a deep pain & fear.

It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility to remedy this.

And if we can’t show up with emotional awareness on any day, for any reason— it is our responsibility to remove ourselves from the classroom.

We urgently need to be talking about trauma-informed pedagogies — in all disciplines.

But we urgently need to do a million other things right now, too.

I’ve been deep inside academia for two decades, so everything I’m writing comes from that experience and also most definitely applies to me, as well. With that said:

Professors are relatively sheltered. Many haven’t really ventured outside academia, and to some degree think everyone else desires and functions like they do.

But that is never true. It’s not true for anyone.

We cannot know what our students need, what is best for them when under stress, when experiencing grief. So I encourage my colleagues to think of themselves as amateurs, here — no matter how many years of teaching and how much brilliant research you have under your belt.

It’s ok not to be an expert, not to know what to do.

But it’s not ok to just try to brush off your lack of preparedness.

Not this time. It’s bad enough that your students are being expected to carry on as usual — to stick to the same assignments and exams, on the same schedule (maybe not by you, but almost certainly by some of their other professors). Don’t make things worse by being unprepared when their loved ones die from COVID-19.

It is absolutely the case that professors who are women, non-binary, trans, Black, brown, first generation, queer, etc, may be better equipped to show up with emotional awareness in our classrooms during this crisis. But that doesn’t mean we can skip the work of making sure we’re ready for this conversation.

And if we are not?

What if we’re not ready to talk about death from COVID-19 in class at all — or maybe just that particular day?

What if someone we love has died, or is in the ICU, and all we want to do is be distracted?

Answer: do not teach.

Burying yourself in your studies may have helped you cope with trauma in the past and present — and it may help some of your students now, too. But I guarantee you it will be the opposite of what many need right now.

Seriously: Don’t teach if you are not up for facing the horrifying reality of what is going on, with your students. You don’t have to bring it up if they don’t — though you might choose to make space for conversations about COVID-19.

But for the love of god do not pretend it isn’t happening.

How do we “not teach,” though — it’s our job, right?

Here are some ways to look at it:

  • Back in the pre-Coronavirus days, you’d cancel class if you were unable to be there physically because you were in the hospital, or at a conference, right? Same idea here: check in with your own emotional coping before class — and keep checking — and if you notice you’re not able to be present emotionally, cancel class.

No matter what you do: DON’T PRETEND THE DYING ISN’T HAPPENING.

Think about it now. Make a plan now.

I know: it all sounds impossible. There are no good options.

But it may help to consider what you value most.
Is it your humanity?
Your students’ well-being?
Your institutions’ finances or accreditation or whatever other bs reasons they’ve provided for the rules handed down for how you have to teach now?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Written by

PhD: Archaeology & the Ancient World, Brown University; Prof: American Studies, History & African American Studies, Rutgers-Newark; Director: The Museum On Site

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