An end-of-semester reflection

Sanford school at twilight.

By Dr. Eric Mlyn
Lecturer in the Sanford School of Public Policy
Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the Kenan Institute for Ethics

As we approach the last day of classes of this semester that we will always remember, I am aware of some new and conflicting feelings about this time of year.  Usually, the end of classes is a time of some relief for faculty.  The intensity of teaching and grading can be a lot, and the end can often signal a welcome return to having some time to work on research, read that pile of books in the corner of our office, or generally put energy into long delayed projects.

But this year feels different, and I think that is because I feel like I know my students in a way that I have never known them before, and that they know me in similarly unique and almost intimate ways.  With Zoom, I now have seen where my students live and what their childhood rooms look like.  I have met some of their pets, seen their parents or siblings in the background, watched them in class from the comforts of their beds, and watched them eat leftovers while participating in conversations about COVID-19 and the challenges of democracy.  They have also shared with me real fears and struggles with mental and physical health issues, many of which predate the pandemic but have been exacerbated by it. 

Moreover, they have gotten to know me in a different way as well.  They have seen my family room, caught a glimpse of a canvas of a nude hung on my dining room wall, seen me answer my front door during class, and watched my hair grow longer than I would like.  They have watched me (and helped me) learn how to use Zoom and change a syllabus to reflect the policy challenges before us as we explore the semester’s topic of Engaged Citizenship and Social Change. 

The virus has been a great leveler.  We have appeared to each other more in our “natural” states and I have been less the “expert” as we learned together about how we might have fair elections in November given that real public health concerns are likely to persist.  Through this I also learned about my students’ parents I never would have before.  I sought to take advantage of their being home to have them ask their parents about how they were viewing the ability of the US to hold fair and safe elections and to share that in a Sakai forum.

So what I realize is that I am really going to miss my students of spring semester 2020.   We may have imposed physical distance on our relationships but we surely have not been socially distant. We have gone through something awesome together and we have shared much and done well.  We may never experience anything quite like this again.  We agree that remote teaching is OK and not great.  We agree that we missed the beauty of our campuses, running into friends and colleagues on the quad or East West bus, and generally the genuine preciousness of the residential college experience.  And as I look forward to all of us continuing to learn together in whatever form that takes, I for one cannot wait for us to meet in person again. Until then stay well.