Iam standing at a lectern, gesturing behind me at the projection of a syllabus. I have spent hours shaping its structure and flow. On the first day of class, the syllabus is reassuring. But before I can get started, a student walks in late and sits down toward the back of the packed classroom — without a mask. Time stands still, particles suspended in the air. I can feel the this-is-not-right of 30 pairs of eyes fixed on my silhouette. “Do you have a mask?” I inquire. The student looks at me not with contempt or disdain, as I was anticipating, but bewilderment. It was as if it had never occurred to this student that the mask mandate on our campus was real. Thankfully, another student had an extra mask and handed it over. Crisis averted. Back to the syllabus.
Only a few days earlier, the president of Stony Brook University, Maurie McInnis, sent an email to the campus with the subject line “Looking Forward to Seeing You in Person.” (You must have received a similar email from one or several administrators.) As I was scanning this welcome-back missive, I paused over McInnis’s characterization of turning to the fall “with a renewed vigor and purpose.” I don’t know what I was expecting, but “renewed vigor and purpose” does not accurately reflect the mood among my colleagues. We are exhausted. I have heard quite a bit of apprehension, if not outright dread. I feel it myself.
I live in Brooklyn. I remember seeing bodies being loaded into ambulances at all hours, day and night. Sirens echoing down empty streets. I remember the feeling of constant insecurity, walking down a sidewalk tentatively behind a makeshift mask, rushing to the grocery store and back before curfew. I remember when we didn’t know if or when this was going to stop.
It hasn’t stopped. Maybe I am being overly cautious, paranoid even. But then again, I am a queer Indigenous person, and I am also a 19th-century-studies scholar — so I know a thing or two about epidemics. Or at least, I know how people narrate them, what policies are enacted in their wake, and how those policies affect the lives and futures of different populations. These policies always involve the management of bodies and resources, but they often regard public health as an individual concern rather than an issue of collective care. And they fail to address the core issue of trust.
Let me be clear: I love teaching. But as a scholar of queer studies, Latin American studies, and Indigenous studies, my teaching asks questions about how power functions — and I dread the precedent that we are setting by returning to campus as if everything were normal. My students know all too well that “normal” is a dangerous idea. As the Accessible Campus Action Alliance puts it, “We are against a ‘return to normal.’ We need a new, more accessible normal.”
The problem is deeper than simply failing to gauge faculty feelings on reopening and not allowing faculty to teach according to the modality that best suits their own medical, familial, or community needs. Have we learned nothing from the past year and a half? The problem is that the logic of the university appears to have no way of accounting for the fact that we are not just pure intellects — we are embodied and interconnected.
In an essay on his blog, the historian T.J. Tallie reminded us recently that returning to class in person reveals how protected we faculty members have been since the pandemic struck. Such protection was not afforded to “essential workers,” which has become a sort of euphemism for a permanent, racialized underclass. Faculty with tenure have been spared daily exposure to Covid-19, until now. Many of us are now confronting a risk that others have been forced to endure all along.
Universities like to invoke community when rolling out and justifying their policies. But invoking community and centering it are two very different things. Centering community means caring for our most vulnerable members. It means putting the lives of our kin at the core of our decisions. It means offering the means by which our sense of dread can be turned into purpose. As it stands, we are being asked to trust that people will accurately report their vaccination status; that the air ventilation will be sufficient; that the testing protocols will catch infections early enough to avoid new outbreaks; that the long-term effects of the disease are not as bad as people say, and as some evidence suggests.
In other words, there is a contradiction between the invocation of “community” and the rampant neoliberalization of the university. At its worst, the rhetoric of community uplift is completely devoid of any real, meaningful relationship with the communities most affected by the pandemic.
If our administrators truly had community in mind, the most vulnerable, those with the least amount of privilege or access to health care, child care, or housing, then they would be arguing for the most flexibility possible for the fall semester. They would be arguing that we need to implement the most vigorous plan to prevent infections of those who are immunocompromised, children, and disabled people. They would be arguing that we must have the option to choose how to best care for our communities on the terms set forth by those communities. Instead, we are left with calls for “vigor” in the face of adversity.
Over the past several months administrators have had to weigh the possibility of losing tuition dollars, grant monies, campus residence income, etc. So, in addition to risk, there is cost. What is the cost of returning to campus? And who is doing the accounting? These are real questions that need to be answered.
Clearly, administrators are evaluating risks to the student body, faculty, staff, and the broader community. But they are not straightforward about how those risks inform the decisions they have made — risks that are particularly acute for marginalized and vulnerable community members. We are being asked to trust decisions made for us, not by us. How can we trust administrators if they do not transparently and honestly explain what risks they have deemed acceptable, and what costs they have deemed too great?
Without answers we are left in the position of trusting that the policies of university compliance will be sufficient to protect us and protect our communities. But a regime of compliance is not a regime of care. And until universities develop methods and policies of care, rather than compliance, we are going to keep rehashing these same debates over and over again. Our bodies will remain merely academic.