Self-isolate en masse indefinitely, but also eat and work and pay your bills. But do not go to work if you are sick.
But if you do not go to work, you will lose your job. And you need money, and jobs are disappearing.
But at least there is gig work and “essential” work (i.e., almost entirely low-paying, low benefits, high-exposure jobs); and without gig workers and essential employees, other people cannot self-isolate.
But if you go to work as a gig worker or as an essential employee, you are almost certainly performing public (delivery, broadly construed) services that increase your own risk and thus the risk of those with whom you interact as you work; and if you are a gig worker, you have almost no protections or health benefits to protect you from this increased risk.
But anyway, if you lose your job, you will not have health insurance. So go to work. But also, if you have a part-time job or gig work or countless other types of jobs, you probably do not have health insurance in the first place.
And even if you do have health insurance and you don’t do anything to lose your job, it might just go away anyway. But it might not go away entirely; it might go down to zero hours, which means no income but also no unemployment benefits.
But anyway, if you are sick, stay home. But don’t lose your job.
And if you are sick, get tested.
But you cannot afford the tests without health insurance, which you won’t have unless you are one of the lucky few who manage to keep a job that has health insurance. But even if you have health insurance, there are not enough tests or beds or facilities or medical staff or money or any real means to treat you if you get sick.
And health workers, you definitely must go to work because you are one of the few who are trained to treat the sick; but, you do not have the tests or beds or facilities or medical staff or money or masks or any real means to treat the sick or protect the healthy, including yourselves; and if you go to work without protection, more people will get sick and more people will die, including you; and if too many of you die, who will treat the sick?
And almost everyone of working age is at risk of death at this point, and no one really has had enough time or data to fully understand what else is possible.
And the list goes on.
So anyway, self-isolate en masse indefinitely, but also eat and work and pay your bills and maintain business as usual and hope for the best in a time when no one can.
Early April, 2020—Four weeks ago, I accepted a tenure-track job offer. No one knows I did; how could I tell them right now? Instead, privately processing the changes underway in my
life and suddenly off the job market, I am preparing to defend my dissertation, a project that explores how to study rhetorical audiences on social media. It’s funny, in the way that nothing really is funny these days, that as I wrap-up a project that advocates for better exploring and acknowledging the rhetorical capacities of audience, I have never felt more like the embodiment of the traditional, passive concept of it.
As I am writing this reflection, the COVID-19 virus is rapidly sweeping across and infecting the world. Here in Austin, Texas, I am living under shelter-in-place orders. In indefinite isolation, it feels like all I can do is live within the ever-narrowing boundaries presented to me. Around me and around the world, everyone has been asked to do the same as much as they possibly can.
Suddenly, survival is paradoxical. Go to work, but stay home. Don’t go to work, but pay your bills. Everything you depend on is collapsing, but everything that depends on you is business as usual.
My “business as usual” right now: defend my dissertation on time. Tenure clocks are being extended, pass/fails are being granted, teaching evaluations are being forgiven—but my graduation timeline remains the same, thus, so do my plans. Importantly, substantial privilege is helping me continue with this plan, despite the circumstances. As an academic, for instance, I am better positioned and supported in more ways than most to practice social distancing. Moreover, I am on fellowship this semester, so I am not teaching, nor am I suddenly having to shift my on-campus courses to an online format. Likewise, my fellowship means that my income for the next couple of months is not in jeopardy. Underlying all of this, I know, are my privileges as a white, cisgender woman; these privileges are especially apparent as centuries of systemic racism and oppression collide with COVID-19, presenting substantially higher threats and worse challenges to marginalized communities (Bagley). From the privileged protection of my home and my job, I now spend every moment of my life (except for an occasional, uneasy walk outside for a few minutes of exercise) in the same four rooms, pressing on toward the dissertation defense. Yet, my defense now presents its own COVID-19 challenges. For instance:
And—tuition, healthcare, and so forth aside—there’s no getting around the fact that I must defend the dissertation amidst the ever-shifting existential terrain of a pandemic’s first wave.
Every day I write, and as I write, I wonder: Will my new job disappear (Flaherty, “Frozen Searches”)? If it doesn’t, how will I safely get to it (“Considerations for Travelers”)? How will I safely do it (Flaherty, “The ‘Right Not to Work’”)? How will I safely get food (Associated Press)? How will I safely get healthcare (“What If”)? How will I safely breathe (Parshley)? How will I live? How will my family live? Will I ever see them again? Is now the time to say goodbye? My life now is two competing lanes of tunnel vision: defend the dissertation, and survive.
But I am surviving. It’s funny, in the way that nothing really is funny these days, that as I wrap-up a project that advocates for better exploring and acknowledging the rhetorical capacities of media and technology, I have never felt more at the mercy of either. After all, for almost a month now, my connection to others has been happening almost entirely through and thanks to media and technology.
Every day in my inbox, I receive daily news briefings from newspapers and an onslaught of emails about new protocols and expectations for working during the pandemic. Every half hour (at least), I receive some sort of public relations and/or promotional email from companies that are telling me about the “abundance of caution” they are taking in response to the virus, typically followed by offers for heavily discounted, non-essential goods. My social media feeds are almost entirely comprised of links to every kind of article about COVID-19 that could possibly exist, and the same goes for posts from friends, groups, organizations, institutions, and businesses I follow on these platforms. To speak to someone, I text, call, email, or instant message them; maybe I video chat with them; maybe I connect with them through an online video game. Sometimes I receive paperwork or cards in the mail. As needed, and as part of social distancing, I receive deliveries—the closest physical “human” connection that I feel like I still have to the world outside my front door.
The jobs are disappearing, and so is our health. But the need for money—to earn it and to pay it—is not disappearing. Neither is the need for connection to others.
How could any of us manage what is being asked of us—on every level—without the media and technology upon which we are all so heavily, so suddenly relying? Indeed, both are playing invaluable, influential parts, as we are all being told in exhaustingly high volume.
We hear every day how technology is failing us, for instance. There aren’t enough masks. There aren’t enough respirators. There aren’t enough gloves. Vaccines take time. Mass transportation leads to mass contamination.
Media is failing us, too. Talking heads are talking as much as ever, at a time when we need less noise and more unified direction and support from experts and officials. Social media is overwhelming us with COVID-19 content. Through its daily briefings and other public addresses, the current White House administration spreads misinformation and dangerous medical advice along with justifications for sending people back to work prematurely or not investing in medical supplies or tests (Peters)—all of which is promptly broadcast and re-circulated through all forms of media.
But in other ways, technology is not failing us. There are masks. There are respirators. There are gloves. (In other words, we have the technology, just not enough of it.) The medical race to develop medical treatments is well-underway and is a worldwide sprint. Mass transportation leads to mass home deliveries (i.e., more social distancing).
Media is helping us, too. Through digitally networked communication media like social media and digital work environments, for instance, we have the means to engage with others
beyond our front doors and/or our radically narrowed social and physical lives; moreover, we can immediately see, for better or worse, how we are engaging with one another.
Audience is in all of this. I’ll ask my earlier question again, but differently: how could any of us manage what is being asked of us without the engagement by/between media and technology and audience upon which we are all so heavily, so suddenly relying? Without the medical workers volunteering to serve on the medical frontlines? Without the immediate, in-situ audience engagement of Dr. Anthony Fauci during the White House daily briefings (Haslett)? Without those in their homes who are sewing and donating masks to others? Without those who are volunteering to serve as human subjects for rushed-to-trial vaccines? Without the poorly protected gig workers and minimum-wage staff and delivery workers and “essential” employees who increase their risk of exposure and death every day so that others can self-isolate?
Indeed, my life now is two competing lanes of tunnel vision: advocate to others for the importance of everyday audience engagement, and process in awe the inimitable influence of such audience engagement in every minute of my life. Take, for instance, my participation as a Documentarian for the Conference on College Composition and Communication in late March.
In the weeks leading up to this participation, I have had little to give. Four weeks ago, suddenly off the job market and currently on fellowship, I could finally do what my workload has not permitted for a long time—visit my family. So, three weeks ago, I visited my grandfather. Then, two weeks ago, he and I said goodbye to each other over his kitchen table—talking through how much the world and our lives had changed in a week, how we knew I needed to go home before the inevitable shelter-in-place orders would go into effect, how I may be the last family member to ever see him in person, and how we knew that there were was nothing we could do but accept all of this. On that last day under the same roof, we said goodbye, knowing it would likely be the last time we would. (Still grieving the sudden death of my grandmother from last summer, we know too well it’s better to say goodbye now than never.)
Back in Austin, I am in lockdown. I don’t know how to safely get food, much less walk through my front door. Every minute the ground of my daily life seems to be shifting, and I watch through my computer as the ground of everyone else’s lives does the same.
Yet, as a Documentarian, I am once again in front of and part of an audience; as a result, and in just a few days, I have felt my life coming back to me. My routines, my writing, my sense of time. Each morning and night, I have been completing open-answer surveys about my work productivity and my well-being, including reflections on how each of us is being affected by the pandemic. One of the questions in the survey asks: “What was one news item, headline, or event that impacted you today? Why?” Every day there are so many answers I could give to that question. So, I’ve decided to simply choose the first one that comes to mind. Interestingly, a different kind of public text has come to mind each day (e.g., a broadcast, a headline, an article, a shared image).
Yet, the text that stays with me every day is a public text on a much smaller scale than those reflected in that survey. On March 14, one of my Facebook friends published a post in which she proudly—and with several laughing emojis—announced that she is a “Stacy,” under which she shared Maddie Reed’s list of the “5 Types of Corona Virus Moms” (Forsey and Hodge). A “Stacy,” my friend’s post explains, “does not give a shit about the threat of covid-19 and will continued [sic.] on with life as if everything were normal.”
In this post: I see someone that I personally know who is deciding to endanger others; I see the potential for her publicly circulating decision to persuade others to do the same; and I see the implicit influence on this decision of the different media-and-technology-infused rhetorical ecologies in which we are all engaging as audience members.
It’s a lot to see, but I am glad to see it. Or rather, I am glad that I can see it. We may want, especially in times of crisis, to live in the comforting, collective isolation of echo chambers, but we should not. It has been surreal, to say the least, to see the tide of public opinion shift so swiftly and sizably, but at least we can see it.
I can see, for instance, local businesses like Austin’s Crema Bakery & Cafe offer a “free sack lunch to anyone who needs it, for as long as we need to” ; a few days later, I can see them begin selling a small selection of groceries, a selection that was determined by social-media audience engagement.
I can see my friends around the world offering to help one another—running errands, and making masks, and checking in via video and phone calls and texts to keep each other company, and sharing information articles, and posting uplifting content, and advocating for at-risk communities, and staying at home as much as they can to protect one another.
If I have any hope right now, it is because of the audience efforts I am seeing presented to me through media and technology, and I suspect the same is true for others. As others have argued, this hope is in capable hands (Bowdon; Jackson; Lievrouw; Potts). It’s funny, in the way that nothing really is funny these days, that as I wrap-up a project in which I have spent years exploring and acknowledging the capacities of audience, I have never felt more aware and appreciative of these capacities—in myself, in others, in every ontological and rhetorical sense.
To my 2020 self: Hold on. Envision next year. You’ll still be here.
You started working remotely in summer 2019, thanks to a fellowship, to finish your dissertation. Occasionally, you’d leave the house for quick errands, but you were laser-focused on two tasks then: finish your PhD, and get a new job. You’d planned to catch up with loved ones and the rest of your life once those two tasks were done.
Then: pandemic. Suddenly in early March 2020, your two tasks became defend (the dissertation) and survive (the pandemic), and they were all-consuming. Within the same few days, you got your dream job, and the US entered lockdown. What you’d hoped would be a long-awaited moment of joyful relief and respite was instead a period of prolonged fear. Immediately, you began social-distancing and self-isolating. Fortunately, you’ll be privileged enough to live this way through summer 2021. By then, you won’t have seen your friends or family in over two years except through the phone or internet—not for coffee, holidays, farewells, funerals.
In spring 2020, you’ll defend your dissertation, and you’ll graduate—both from inside your home. Quiet and without celebration, it won’t be what you’d dreamt of. Still, you’ll be grateful to your committee for helping you defend on-time and grateful to your new institution for being accommodating then and throughout the pandemic. A family member will die. That summer, you’ll move across the country in the peak of the first wave of infections. It’ll be terrifying. For so long, life will be terrifying, but you’ll acclimate. You’ll start a tenure-track job as an assistant professor and a writing program director. A friend will die. Nothing will slow down for you, but you’ll be thankful for everything you have. In a new job at a new institution in a pandemic, you’ll hit the ground running: directing a degree-granting program, designing new courses and redesigning others, developing new research projects and expanding upon others, and more.
Your current circumstances will require the tunnel vision that defined your perspective in spring 2020 to continue. Your pandemic life will have two lanes: work and survive. You’ll take it day by-day, amazed at how the practice of writing a little every day—jump-started in spring 2020 by being a CCCC documentarian—helps you stay in motion and move forward.
Amidst overwhelming change and challenges, you’ll find ways to persevere. You’ll discover new capacities within yourself. You’ll yearn for what life used to be, but you’ll treasure the time you’ve had with your partner and your cat at home. You’ll miss the city you’d been living in, but you’ll savor the feeling of the grass beneath your feet outside your new home. You’ll lose loved ones, and you’ll grieve them. You’ll cherish those still with you and the life you still have. You’ll defend, and you’ll be surviving.
Associated Press. “Social Distancing Difficult in Grocery Stores.” NBC4i.com, 21 Mar. 2020, https://www.nbc4i.com/news/u-s-world/social-distancing-difficult-in-us-grocery-store.
Bagley, Katherine. “Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Injustice and the Coronavirus.” Yale Environment 360, 7 May 2020,
Bowdon, Melody A. “Tweeting an Ethos: Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 1, 2013.
“Considerations for Travelers—Coronavirus in the US.” CDC, 28 May 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-in-the-us.html.
Flaherty, Colleen. “Frozen Searches.” Inside Higher Ed, 1 Apr. 2020,
---. “The ‘Right Not to Work.’” Inside Higher Ed, 4 May 2020,
Forsey, Zoe, and Lisa Hodge. “Mum Says There Are ‘Five Types of Coronavirus Parents’— Which One Are You?” Mirror, 20 Mar. 2020, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/mum-says-five-types-coronavirus-21708164.
Haslett, Cheyenne. “Tensions with Trump: Dr. Anthony Fauci on Telling the Truth.” ABC, 23 Mar. 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/tensions-trump-dr-anthony-fauci-telling-truth/story?id=69750768.
Jackson, Sarah J. “(Re)Imagining Intersectional Democracy from Black Feminism to Hashtag Activism.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 39, no. 4, Oct. 2016, pp. 375–379.
Lievrouw, Leah A. “Getting People on the ‘Street’: Mediated Mobilization.” Alternative and Activist New Media. Polity P, 2011.
Parshley, Lois. “The WHO Has New Guidelines on Face Masks to Fight COVID-19.” Vox, 6 Jun. 2020,
Peters, Cameron. “A detailed timeline of all the ways Trump failed to respond to the coronavirus.” Vox, 8 Jun. 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/6/8/21242003/trump-failed-coronavirus-response .
Potts, Liza. Social Media in Disaster Response: How Experience Architects Can Build for Participation. Routledge, 2014.
“What If You Have a Medical Issue That’s Not Coronavirus.” WebMD,