Beyond the Paper Screen / Returning to campus an ambivalent yet positive experience so far

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Image photo : A woman cycles on an empty University of Southern California (USC) campus, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 17, 2020.

The much awaited new academic year has begun at my university. Our campus opened its doors two weeks ago, to bring back our juniors and seniors after 17 months of closure and to welcome two years’ worth of students who are new to campus.

On the first day of classes I expected the chaotic energy that usually fills the hallways of my historic building, as students rush to and from classes, stopping to greet friends they haven’t seen all summer, or looking for professors to get into the classes that are already full.

When I got there, I found the hallways strangely quiet and nearly empty.

The reopening of college campuses this fall is a welcome change from the year of online teaching and learning; yet, it comes with more than a small measure of ambivalence for several reasons. We are all aware of the threat of the delta variant of COVID-19 and are watching, anxiously, to find out whether the vaccination requirement and other preventive measures will be effective enough to keep it at bay in a densely populated small-college setting.

No wonder many instructors opted for outdoor spaces or larger classrooms in newer buildings and deserted the old building with its small, poorly ventilated classrooms.

The university made it a requirement for both students and employees to get vaccinated to be on campus, and the faculty is authorized to ask those who have not met the university’s preventive requirements to leave the classroom. Though we understand its necessity, it seems eerily Orwellian to categorize and color-code students based on their vaccination and compliance status, and to single out those in violation.

I had such a situation in one of my classes and had no choice but to discuss the problem in front of everyone. The student whose ID was in the red (or non-compliance) category looked mortified and scared — something I hate to see in anyone, but there was no graceful way to drive the point home that not just her own well-being but that of everyone else in the room was at stake. If we have one positive case amongst us, all of us who came into close contact with that individual will have to go into quarantine until we have negative test results.

I’m also finding out about the reality of mask-wearing in the classroom. I usually teach in a small classroom of no more than 30 students, and never have to use a microphone. But I found that the effort to speak through a well-fitted mask was considerable. I was exhausted after the first day from straining to project my voice through the mask. Not only that, I realized that it made me a little tense and constrained in my speech. So I started using a voice amplifier, which made it possible for me to speak more freely with a normal voice. But then I kept fussing with the headset, which tried to slip off my head constantly.

Masks that cover half of everyone’s face also make it much harder for me to “read” students in the room, and I imagine that the same is true for the students, who can’t see my face or each other’s faces fully. They also seem to dampen students’ ability to speak up spontaneously, and hushed silence predominates in my classroom, even when I ask them casual warm-up questions, like how their summer was or what it was like to be back on campus.

Then, there is the widespread awkwardness of not quite knowing the right social protocol. When we are excited to see another human being, our impulse is to close the physical distance, which is risky in the late-pandemic conditions in which we live. Can you hug a friend, whom you know to have been vaccinated? How close can you stand to talk to a friend or classmate? Is it okay to shake hands with your professor or is a fist-bump better? What if you are invited into a faculty office but feel uncomfortable not being able to keep the six-foot distance?

This is a fascinating moment for anthropologists and other watchers of human behavior. We learn normative behavior in a variety of social contexts as we grow up. We become uncertain and confused when what we learned early in our lives suddenly becomes questionable, even dangerous. We are yet to find out what effects this sense of uncertainty and confusion will have on our social interaction in the long run.

We are made to adjust to these new situations once again, and the effort of doing so takes some of the excitement away from our return to campus. Behind all the ambivalence, however, I’ve also seen positive signs of being together in person already showing in my students’ demeanor in class: broad smiles as we spot familiar faces, eyes gleaming over a mask during discussions, frantic nods and thumbs-up when a fellow student makes a comment they resonated with.

For the next few months, we will be figuring out how to balance our need to be social and the risks associated with the ever-changing state of the pandemic. If adapting to the sudden onset of the global pandemic required quick thinking and decisive action of us, figuring out new ways of staying connected and moving forward through the moments of uncertainty will perhaps take more deliberate and long-lasting efforts.

But if these early signs are any indication, I am hopeful that we as a community will prevail.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.