DHers tend to be a fairly adaptable, tech-savvy bunch. However, transitioning collaborative and project-based classes from in-person to online learning is no small feat in the best of times. Although most, myself included, cannot even begin to quote Charles Dickens’ famous opening of The Tale of Two Cities, we have likely learned a great deal about ourselves and our students, our resiliency, and its reasonable limits organic nugs. Most of us have also confronted the question of what to do when we are pushed beyond those limits. As I write this, I am grappling with this question once again.
I’ll begin with what is probably a shared experience for most of us at some point in this pandemic. After a tumultuous return to mostly, but not entirely, in-person classes in the fall, I was excited to launch my new course – a study of “Pirates of the Mediterranean” through computational text analysis, a class I’ve dreamed of teaching for three years. Yes, some of my dreams include classes to teach, and yes, I am a proud nerd through and through. With the late December announcement that UCLA would once again return to virtual classes due to the Omicron variant, my heart plummeted through my stomach and ended up somewhere near my toes. I was disappointed not to share this class experience in person, of course, but so much more than that, I grieved for my students. The grief of each loss – loved ones, time with friends and family, anticipated experiences, and more – compounds, and each subsequent loss chips away at our emotional, mental, physical, and perhaps even spiritual reserves.
And then something else happens.
For my students – and just in the past few months, let alone the rest of the pandemic – this has included Covid and other serious illnesses, sick family members, the death of loved ones, housing insecurity, experiencing homelessness, assault, stalking, skyrocketing anxiety, and debilitating depression.
The fullness of my own story awaits another time. For now, this week will suffice. After a stomach bug knocked me out the entire week I had planned to build my new course in the new learning management system that UCLA insists we switch to immediately – yes, in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, in the middle of an academic year, and in the middle of course modality uncertainty after bringing everyone back to campus – I began this quarter with great trepidation. Then, on Day 2 of Week 2 while biking to campus for my Covid test and to pick up materials from my office, I was “doored.” Flying along at about 20mph, I checked to make sure it was clear to move farther into the road and away from parked cars, but I wasn’t fast enough. With the thoughtless flurry of a woman who had just sat on her cupcake (true story), the driver opened her car door directly into my shoulder. That day vindicated my decision to shell out for a Garmin GPS bike computer. As its alarm blared, we flew in opposite directions while notifications flew through the ether to my two emergency contacts that there had been an accident and my precise location. Meanwhile, I sat in a heap with my bike, making sure I could still feel my toes. Toes decidedly intact, I gingerly stood and began taking stock of the rest of me. I was incredibly fortunate not to have broken anything, and my beautiful black Dahlia (my bike) seemed to be fine after a few quick adjustments. I did, however, discover just how much pain one could be in without breaking bones once the adrenaline wore off. Let me just say that it’s considerable.(my bike) seemed to be fine after a few quick adjustments. I did, however, discover just how much pain one could be in without breaking bones once the adrenaline wore off. Let me just say that it’s considerable.
That afternoon, my two brilliant, diligent, wonderful research assistants ran my research capstone meeting while I attempted to answer their questions via Slack and keep my three ice packs in a steady rotation to everything that hurt and migrate the heating pad to everything else. (DH capstones operate like very small classes that bring advanced undergraduates, and sometimes graduate students, together with a faculty member to collaborate on a “live” research project.) And of course, Week 2 was a crucial week in my project timeline as students were choosing their specific focus within the broader project objectives. Everything worked, not entirely smoothly, but we at least made it to Friday this week, everyone chose a topic, and I think (fingers crossed!) everyone understands our work plan between now and our meeting next Tuesday. Time will certainly tell.
I reduced the pirates class meeting length from three hours to two, given that we’ll be on Zoom through the end of the month, and we are all “Zoomed out.” I had already decided on this plan, which was fortuitous after the accident. Probably the only silver lining to this whole saga is that we are online right now, so I could actually offer the class in Week 2 while also taking care of my poor not-quite-broken body. Yes, I taught class from my couch with a heating pad, ibuprofen, and a thermos of water. I put a beautiful virtual background up, and we pretended we were meeting underneath the graceful fig and sycamore boughs on campus.
Collapsing after class (sliding a little farther down the couch), I passed out and slept for two hours, woke up and proceeded to work for far too many hours trying to make up for the lost day before; I won’t bore you with the details. The next day was a similar scramble of prepping, teaching a workshop, heating pad, ice, ibuprofen (on repeat), meetings, email, keeping my research students on track, troubleshooting problems with the new LMS … You get the picture. By that evening it felt like my body was on the mend, but one of my eyelids hurt like hell and was beginning to swell. In the morning it had nearly swelled shut. And the tank hit empty. I gave up at last, letting my students know that I couldn’t film the video of the mini history lecture I’d planned to provide, nor could I film some of the detailed instructions on the data sets we’re constructing for the research project. It was all going to have to wait. My body was sending a very clear message; I could not, should not, do one more thing for anyone, as much as I wanted to. “But the book project, classes, conference proposals, grant proposals, …!” my anxious, perfectionist mind chanted at me. My body responded with a concise, “No!” I needed physical rest, and I needed to refill my emotional reservoir. At last, I let myself off the hook, rested, called dear friends, and reminded myself that if I was not well then I wouldn’t be able to fulfill any expectations – neither others’ nor my own.
When we reach the end of our resiliency, we need to pause. Especially for those of us who are care-givers by nature or nominated to act as such by societal or work cultures, it can be so difficult to prioritize our own needs, even when we are sick, or hurt, or grieving, or …
This has been a long-winded meditation on what happens when we reach our limits. As rough and emotional as this week has been, this has not been my worst, nor even my scariest, experience in the past two years.scariest, experience in the past two years.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, I know you have gone through shit too. No matter how hard today is, we have made it to today. We have slogged through everything life has thrown at us, and we are still here, and you are not alone.