As the COVID-19 crisis lingers on, I am struggling, as I imagine many are around the world, with what is happening now. When the crisis began in March 2020, my community, and much of my country, entered a few weeks of unity and support, instigated by immediate shock and dismay. Political officials held daily briefings; academics sponsored special publications and conference sessions on pandemics; we all adapted for the cause and developed new strategies for living; we were in a crisis.
On it went, and on we went and by late summer 2020, what was once a crisis became more normalized, and also uncertain. Were we in a crisis or not?
Over one year later, the crisis seems even more uncertain: even as the initial scare subsided, a new one emerged unexpectedly, disorienting all our plans for recovery. Was this still a crisis? Were we back to normal? And what was the crisis now? Educators and local government officials faced a series of political crises, fed by a combination of frustration and false information; medical staff faced increased numbers of patients with decreased levels of support; in offices and shops across the land, workers wondered if they were at risk or not; were they eligible for protection or not?
In the midst of this lingering crisis, one of my education students, a school superintendent, is reviewing literature on crisis leadership with special attention to the assumption that a crisis is a single emergency situation (a heart attack, a financial implosion, a first outbreak) or is it the more sustained change of the very texture of society? One scholar argues that leadership in a crisis involves responding to two distinct phases: first the emergency phase when the leader’s task is to stabilize the situation and buy time; second is the adaptive phase when the leader tackles the underlying causes of the crisis and builds the capacity to thrive in a new reality or a new norm or what some refer to as a VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). Certainly the adaptive phase best represents the needs of modern schools, even before COVID, as school crises include ongoing threats of funding cuts, and the challenges of curricular revisions, community conflict, and safety crises from the annual flu to a school shooting.
Historians of epidemics have hinted at such questions of immediacy versus longevity. In his classic essay on the history of epidemics, Charles Rosenberg identified an underlying dramatic structure to all epidemics as occurring in three acts: recognition, explanation, and response, and noted that epidemics end with a “whimper not a bang,” “a flat and ambiguous yet inevitable sequence for a last act.” Such an ending, Rosenberg writes,
provides an implicit moral structure that can be imposed as an epilogue. How had the community and its members dealt with the epidemic’s challenge? Not only during its reign but most importantly – afterwards? Historians and policymakers concerned with epidemics tend to look backward and ask what „lasting impact“ particular incidents have had and what „lessons“ have been learned. Have the dead died in vain? Has a heedless society reverted to its accustomed ways of doing things as soon as denial became once more a plausible option?
Others have reflected on the long term impact of COVID on work practices. Jonathan Malesic left a tenured position in higher education to become a free-lance writer on issues of work and spiritual matters and he has written extensively on the importance of reimagining the nature of work. The American work ethic, Malesic argues, has historically subsumed life to work and Americans have historically positioned work at the center of a meaningful life, indicating dignity, self-worth and moral value.
The pandemic challenged this notion of the compulsory dignity of work: when millions lost their jobs, Congress stepped into provide supports; when offices closed, professionals who took their work home found the freedom to rethink the value of work in their lives.
Malesic joins many scholars, including the German initiative called #IchbinHannah, which addressed the problem precarious working conditions for scientists in discussions of the negative impact of high intensity labor. Indeed, Malesic’s thoughts on work pre-date the pandemic, and he often refers specifically to the nature of academic work. In one essay he introduces the concept of acedia, a term originating with early Christian monastics who identified acedia as one of the eight bad thoughts that threaten monastic life (others include anger, lust, and pride). Acedia particularly refers to the dissatisfaction with the present, a sense of inadequacy, restlessness and disaffection with the world.
For the monk, acedia made the day longer, the daily task inadequate, the sense of self unsteady. It made the monk
hate the place and his way of life and his manual work. It makes him think that there is no charity left among the brethren; no one is going to come and visit him. … It makes him desire other places where he can easily find all that he needs and practice an easier, more convenient craft.…It joins to this the remembrance of the monk’s family and his previous way of life, and suggests to him that he still has a long time to live.
Malesic uses acedia to describe his experiences in academia when he felt alone, worthless, and insecure, plagued by a restless anxiety: have I published enough? Why can’t I finish this paragraph? Why did my colleague win that award when I deserved it? Why don’t I check my Twitter account for some news?
Acedia leads to more work: plagued by self-doubt, the academic leaves the library and goes to a meeting or the classroom where work is more visible, accountable, and validated. As Max Weber wrote in 1905, capitalism reduces the person’s dignity to his or her employment, then puts that employment perpetually in doubt. For the academic scholar, this doubt exists in hours spent alone thinking and writing, and exacerbated by political suspicion from outside that this is not really work, especially when it happens at home.
Remote teaching under COVID only furthered acedia. Were faculty working more or less? What was the impact of working at home with children at home? Was there more autonomy and flexibility with work? How were faculty and staff accounting for their work?
Modern academic novels about the American professoriate thrive on these tropes in what one scholar refers to as “anxiety narratives”. Like much of the professional middle class, the American professor exemplifies that late 20th century anxiety and “fear of falling,” as Barbara Ehrenreich observed in 1989, where faculty life has been transformed from one of independent prestige to a slot in a neoliberal bureaucracy subject to financial insecurity, impersonal standardization and managerial control. The modern American professor is a beleaguered middle manager, beset by angst and disappointments, marginalized from the rush of society, hapless, disoriented and insecure.
Such anxiety has only intensified under COVID with increased concerns about finances and enrollments, faculty and staff layoffs, increased workloads, reductions of shared governance, public and political criticisms of higher education, and threats to tenure. Early studies of faculty life under COVID found that the stressors of integrating work and life when working from home were particularly hard on women academics with children. But faculty of all stripes have complained about both teaching online and forced returns to face-to-face teaching, and general moral and health issues raised by administrative responses to COVID.
Further, echoing the work of Jonathan Malesic, many faculty have admitted that being away from the campus has allowed them to reflect on what they think about their job. Time at home offered faculty the opportunity to reflect on academe’s culture of over-work and bureaucratic hierarchies.
What might it be like not to work every weekend and holiday grading papers, applying for grants, preparing for meetings, and answering work-related phone calls, email, and text messages? Not to worry constantly about what senior professors and administrators think of you? Not to feel like a failure because you are not tenured at a leading research university?
The dynamics of “long COVID” — the ambiguous psychological, neurological, and physical symptoms that afflict COVID survivors – only further this question of endings. Mysterious in origin and resolution, and located in the gap between objective science and personal experience, this amorphous syndrome is strangely akin to academic acedia, with similar questions about diagnosis and treatment. How to define the actual problem? Where to find a resolution?
Charles Rosenberg wrote: “Epidemics have always provided occasion for retrospective moral judgment. What, then is the task of historians of education in this retrospective work?“ In the past two years, many of us have focused on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and how that offers lessons to historical understandings of education. Perhaps the lesson for us now, in this “long pandemic,” is to consider the endemic – the daily, chronic, challenges of education, including daily mental and physical health challenges, and changes in work practices and identity, due to both sudden and on-going crises. Rather than focus on the unusual, “once in a lifetime” “epidemic,” might we examine the more regular, and persistent endemic conditions facing education, including, in higher education, what appears to be increasing alienation and acedia of faculty under decades of neoliberal reforms?