Things to Remember From the COVID Spring #5: Astronauts

For over two years I have taken a deep dive into the literature on the Anthropocene—the climate crisis, human/non-human/inhuman worlds, and the issues of human culture’s effects on the Earth’s biosphere. It has been a fascinating yet dark slog through some pretty terrifying and important stuff.

I began this semester very excited to work through a selection of highlights from my readings with our senior anthropology majors. The syllabus I put together charts a journey through the deep time of our planet’s previous worlds, the geologic past, the questions and concerns of material media, capitalist extraction and production, the collaborative evolution and co-existence of life, ways of being human together and the various visions of living together amid Earthly damage, depletion and crisis.

Initially I was concerned that class content would be too upsetting for undergrads, but I have felt a moral obligation to teach this most pressing issue of our age. It is a failing if today’s college students graduate without a grasp of these issues.

Very quickly after the semester started the class became very meaningful to me, engaging and enjoyable to teach. Perhaps because there is so much at stake, the students have been very active, concerned and thoughtful. I have enjoyed working with them so much that I have always looked forward to 9:40-11:10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It’s been nearly two weeks since we last met in person. I want to remember that day—easily among the most memorable classes of my eighteen-year career—when we had an unexpectedly powerful conversation about death, ghosts and the hauntings of memory. The trust in the classroom led some class members to share important stories and really invest and care about the conversation. At the end of the class one of the last things I said was, “Wow, we could never have a conversation like this online.”

The next day our university notified us that courses would be going online.

This week of “Spring Break” has allowed me to indulge in some denial about going online, but now the reality is settling in. Our class is never going to meet in that room again. I feel sad because we were just getting started.

And yet, my sadness is partially nudged aside in places by another feeling–wonder that our seminar happened to be this semester: Anthropology at the End of Worlds.

Most anthropology majors at one time or another get asked what they are going to do with their major. A few years ago the governor of Florida even asked what good such a major could ever be. Students ask, their parents ask. I’d like to point out that this semester we were in the middle of studying, climate change, the interdependency of life, the symbiotic nature of evolution, and the “ends of worlds” when in a matter of days the taken-for-granted nature of our sociocultural reality began to unravel.

When this is all over, I want to remember the weird feeling I had last week when I spoke to my students for the first time as little digital heads in boxes on my computer screen. Some of the boxes were blank with only names to mark their presence. We were spatially dispersed and yet chronologically synched, distant and yet together. I’ve taught online before, so it wasn’t a feeling of novelty at the tech. It was that we were getting our first taste of a new reality.

I imagined them each as astronauts out in the void each experiencing a different parts of a strange world and sending back remote feeds to me in my office—a kind of classroom Mission Control. We shared some conversations about confusion and displacement and the uncertain future. It’s a little scary. The next day the students started two weeks of an extended Coronavirus spring break.

It’s been over a week and I haven’t received any updates. I am concerned about them and wonder where they are. I worry about their welfare. I even emailed once. Not a peep in return. They are no doubt busy negotiating our current reality.

With a week to go until we get back underway I am already wondering how many heads will pop up on the screen and what they will have to report and share. I am anxious that some may not show. I’m worried about the viability of the semester. What if things get worse?

None of us know. Everything has changed so fast.

What our online conversations may lack in presence I hope they will make up for in careful observations, analysis and care. We will get through some of the material on the original syllabus, but there will be much more important things with which the class can work.

In a sense my class has changed at midterm from a discussion seminar to something else entirely: a practicum dealing with the issues we would have otherwise just studied in the classroom. Or, perhaps I can think of it as an internship in the Anthropocene.

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