I’ve been pondering for days now how to sum up the experience of teaching his trimester. While messages speed toward us from all over higher ed about things being “back to normal” they’re anything but. Yet how do we quantify the shifting physical, emotional and mental landscape of our teaching life? What are the things we point to when we try to give definition to the shape our fatigue and unease?
As best I can describe it, I feel displaced, like a jigsaw puzzle piece that someone thinks ought to fit into a particular spot, but which isn’t quite right. I am a teacher-shaped jigsaw piece; I’ve been put down in the classroom with students; I’m facilitating discussions; I’m wrestling with the LMS. But I’m conscious of the tiny gaps around my edges, the way the bump of my body doesn’t quite fill the space at my side.
I feel uneasy on campus, acutely aware of the heightened risk I bear of complications from Covid should I catch it. I don’t use my office; I’m teaching in buildings some distance away, in classrooms that are accessible, so my office comes with me—as it does for so many people—in the shape of giant totes. One holds my laptop and lesson plans, books and phone and wallet. Another is full of snacks for students to take home at the end of class, and another with markers and fidget toys. I keep giant post-it notepads in the back of my car and hope it doesn’t rain when I need to walk one to class. I miss the simple ability to drink water when my throat becomes raw. I Zoom with students who need help with their assignments and I’m forcibly struck by the impact of seeing their faces without a mask. Their smiles are not what I would have predicted—they’re better, different, and it’s strange to know I’m only seeing half an expression most of the time, and that they see only half an expression from me.
The pandemic sits behind us all the time, peering over our shoulders. Everything takes longer; everything costs more energy, involves more planning. My students are struggling to find themselves around so many people all the time after eighteen months of anything but. We’re all socially awkward in new, unexpected ways, trying to smooth our rough edges after time apart. Schoolwork still takes up more bandwidth than my students have, and we all spend time trying to find breathing room around the edges of what “should” be done. There are questions that we’re puzzling out together, about reading loads and deadlines and new ways to think, and questions that no one will answer, like why does it have to be like this?
Loss is everywhere. I’ve lost members of my family and grad school acquaintances to Covid, have friends who still wrestle with the virus’s long-term effects. We’ve lost routines, habits, celebrations. I often feel like I’ve lost my way and need a map that can tell me how to navigate the places that look familiar but feel sharp and new. I’ve lost the lion’s share of my naiveté, see things differently than I once did.
It’s hard to pin down, hard to sum up, and so I struggle. I’m used to using my words to give expression to my feelings, of writing my way to understanding, but there’s so much that ducks beneath and away from the words I have. I chip away at my to-do list, which grows longer every day, and I roll the concept of ‘cognitive load’ around in my mind like a marble, like it’s physical, exerting pressure that explains each daily headache. I wear my mask, until—today—I forget it and wander into a campus building without that protection, not even cognizant that my face is bare.
It rains, and I wonder where my motivation is hiding, where my sense of purpose has gone. It rains, and at least I can take pleasure in stomping through puddles in a good pair of boots, splashing toward teaching, for a second like a child.