There is a saying “may you live in interesting times”, which is intended as a curse. This curse has seemingly come to pass as all around the world many educators like myself sit at home, 6 feet apart from another, trying to plan or adapt lessons for online consumption while outside the classroom where we once taught, a pandemic spreads and a war rages against it. As I scroll through Twitter and Facebook and read links to online news articles through both platforms, I, as an applied linguist, find myself analyzing all the different ways people are talking about this disease.
First, there seems to be an abundance of discussions about and images of the process of conducting teaching itself. I am particularly disturbed by discussions about the need to tell people to wear clothes during online meetings, but also amused by discussions about how to manage online platforms and how to manage interruptions or distractions from family members. I am impressed by the number of reports of companies that are dropping their paywalls to expand the use of textbooks, academic articles, and technology during this time, and inspired by organizers of now-canceled conferences who see genuine possibilities in imagining new modalities of conference interaction.
In my armchair analysis, I also note a number of ways people are talking about the virus that could form the basis of further investigation or discussion by students and teachers in a range of disciplines. There is the biological science of the virus itself, the shape of the virus (corona), and the concepts of “respiratory droplets” and “social distancing” or “quarantine”; only one of these three terms was a part of my vocabulary prior to today. There are historical comparisons of this disease with the Spanish flu of 1918. From the field of environmental studies, people are sharing images of the positive impact of staying home on the canals of Venice and the CO2 emissions over China. There are philosophical and ethical questions raised about the availability of tests and respirators for the rich and famous, and the need to protect those who are medically vulnerable. There are multiple labor and economics questions–about the stock market and its transition from a bull market to a bear market, about businesses that do or do not provide paid sick leave during this time, about family businesses and small enterprises that are vulnerable to closing while major corporations like airlines receive more than a mere bailout. There are psychological conversations about the power of being an “introvert”, which is then contrasted to the social-psychological movement to reframe “social distancing” into “physical distancing and social solidarity”. In marketing circles, there are multiple ways businesses are communicating about their response to the virus, and blindly sending sales ads for their products as if the world has not changed. From religious studies, there are people who are using this moment to promulgate their faith.
Any of these topics could be the basis of a teacher-led Powerpoint lecture, a student-led research project using social media analysis and/or academic sources (many of which are free online right now), a teacher and student discussion or debate in an online forum, or a combination of two or more of these. Yet, perhaps prior to this, and more critically in the present moment, we as educators could find ways to engage our students in discussions about the virus, and its impact on their lives. We would like to provide them with the opportunity to share their fears, and get reassurance from us on what is being done to address those fears. This becomes more challenging as students become more spread out. However, synchronous platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or those available through a school course management system make this initial interaction possible. This could be enhanced with individual emails or chats with students already known to be at risk. Particularly for students of Asian backgrounds, we want to make sure they are not being targeted or harassed as this disease is sometimes called the “Chinese disease”.
This virus raises unprecedented health, mobility, and educational challenges. Yet as I am reminded from my undergraduate social work studies, the written form of the word “crisis” in Chinese means both “danger” and “opportunity” (see Bermeo & Pontusson, 2012). While I strongly believe that the threat of the virus must be taken seriously, it is also an opportunity for us as educators and students to reflect on our lives, our world, and our ways of working together. And when that fails, we can always look to each other and online for people who are finding humor in the situation. Laughter is, after all, the best medicine.
Bermeo, N. & Pontusson, J. (Eds.) (2012). Coping with crisis: Government reactions to the Great Recession.New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Bridget Goodman is Assistant Professor and Director of the MA in Multilingual Education Program at Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education, Astana, Kazakhstan. Her teaching and research interests include: the use of the first language (L1) in second and foreign language classrooms, language policy, and sociolinguistics in post-Soviet countries.