I’ve been teaching for a hundred years, and this one is the most difficult. Every day I receive marketing emails from textbook and educational service companies; one offered free resources to “help deliver content during this difficult time.”
Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not a delivery person (nor a service provider, nor a learning manager). If my aim were to deliver content during this pandemic, I’d write it on newspaper and bicycle around campus at 5 am, tossing it to dorm doors. I’d write on waxed paper, fold it into boats, and float it down the campus stream. I’d tie content to carrier pigeons and postal ponies.
I am an anthropologist, but I don’t teach anthropology. I teach students. Put more poignantly, we professors profess. We proclaim, announce, wonder, and query. At root, we philosophize, befitting the distinction between a PhD and an MD. We work the methods and theories of our disciplines to better know the real. We exhort our students to organize their lives around the pursuit of the true and the good.
And this fall, we also summon authentic energy and humor to bring to each and every class, with masks and microphones strapped to our heads and limited ability to hear students through their masks. We juggle course material with new technologies we learned a few weeks ago, or are just now learning while standing in front of the class. If tomorrow, pandemic conditions require us to do this while riding unicycles, most of us would.
Such dedication is about neither the urgency nor the beauty of delivering content. It’s about the glory and honor of our students’ lives, and the lives of those they will one day serve, each one created just a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8). We encourage students to know and to claim their place in God’s world—to display the glory that is theirs—in right relationship to all of creation.
Lest I sound grandiose in my estimation of faculty skill and devotion, depicting each of us as a GOAT (that’s millenial for Greatest Of All Time – a student-athlete taught me that last week), be assured that I’ve suffered under teachers burned out, careless, and even predatory. I’ve certainly had my own share of teaching days that were forgettable and even regrettable.
It seems to me that during this pandemic as during all other times, the burden of learning – and the reward, as well – rests mostly with the student. Even under unfavorable conditions and with less than well-delivered content – or perhaps even assisted by these seeming obstacles — a committed student will learn the material, advance in skill, deepen character, and clarify calling. I see all of that happening already this semester, as my students learn from a woman fighting back tears because she can’t remember which key to push to make the audio work and her microphone isn’t turned on and she obviously doesn’t understand the joke about GOATs that everyone else got immediately.
If anyone really wants to help me during this pandemic, here’s how: I need to speak my questions aloud, and see that others hear them. I need to hear their questions, too, and then ponder the answers together. Unsurprisingly, my questions are not commodifiable like, “How can I deliver content?”, and none will be resolved by purchasing a product.
Why should we care to stay alive, when daily life has become so difficult? What will society be like on the other side of this? How will we grieve loved ones without gathering in person to hug, cry, and sing? Why is evil—racism, violence, and the rest—so tenacious? When joy and delight present themselves, is it OK to indulge, even while others are suffering?
Many of us professors need this kind of help, and it can’t come too quickly, as we teach while our own children aren’t attending school normally, as loved ones suffer and die from COVID and other causes, as our students struggle with disrupted homes and social isolation, as we reel from program and faculty cuts, and as the world incinerates from climate change and human animosity.
Help is available, though to my eye it looks more like scaffolding that will hold us, and less like a silver bullet that will bring quick relief. Help cometh from the Lord, and from those made in God’s image, namely, our colleagues and students. May our academic work bear fruit in the world’s economy, medical systems, social institutions, and individual lives. May the fruits of the Spirit also ripen in our hearts: gentleness, love, patience, courage, and long-suffering.
For a Christian perspective on Anthropology see Jenell Paris’ work, co-authored with Brian Howell, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective.