In February of 2020 as news began to trickle out about the novel coronavirus and some universities were recommending against travel, my plans for the third week of March 2020 did not change. The Conference on College Composition and Communication had been on my calendar since my proposal was accepted the year before, and I also planned to present at the International Writing Centers Association Collaborative in Milwaukee. I was ignorant of how serious the situation really was until both conferences were canceled by the organizers and more information became public about how the virus could potentially affect the United States. I started to take COVID-19 more seriously, and I made plans to stay home as much as possible even though most businesses in my home state of Florida were still open.
I didn’t think that staying home would be difficult for me emotionally. I already taught in an online writing center. My children were already homeschooled, so they didn’t have any adjustment in their school situation, and my husband was retired. I wasn’t worried about making it work logistically. Although adjusting to the “lockdown life” should have been very little change to what I normally do, looking back over the daily journals that I kept over the week, the common themes of anxiety, stress, and trouble focusing emerged. Where did these emotions come from? Every night as I watched the news, I could see the numbers of people being infected and dying increasing. It became more and more difficult to buy basic grocery and hygiene supplies for my family. Although we had no need to leave our home for our daily routines, we often would go on outings during the week, and we missed seeing friends and just getting out of the house. Nothing was supposed to have changed, and yet, everything was more difficult. I found that although the journal prompts may have focused on when and how my work was taking place, my journaling documented the frustration of scarcity and the rising numbers of Floridians infected and with COVID-19. I didn’t need to work in a time and space that was separate from my normal routine, but I needed a mental space to process the crisis, and I was grateful for the pause in my day to fill out the journaling reflections during the Documentarian week.
In addition to facing the pressures of the crisis itself, as a teacher of rhetoric and research writing, I felt an obligation to debunk a lot of the misinformation being shared about the virus and about finding credible research information online. I spent a lot of the week waiting to see what my own state would do; we were in the height of spring break season, and the governor had not ordered our beaches closed. The state did not order a lockdown until April 1. Without an official order not to go, people considered the beaches safe and went in large numbers, and the virus infection rate spread rapidly (Figure 1). I found it difficult during the week to convince friends and acquaintances that YouTube videos and blogs were not reliable sources of information on the virus. This augmented my feelings of stress and frustration, and I began to only share resources when people directly asked and to otherwise withdraw from social media. While this cut back on some exasperation, it added to my isolation, and without ways to engage with colleagues and other academics to debrief and check in, it felt as though the whole world was going mad (Fig. 1)
Florida daily confirmed new COVID-19 cases, (5-day moving average): March 17-April 4, 2020.
As I am submitting this draft, Florida residents are currently facing a similar situation with going through reopening phases. Our beaches were once again crowded on Memorial Day, and huge crowds gathered to watch the SpaceX launch near Cape Canaveral. Though according to the national guidance, states are not supposed to advance through reopening phases until infection numbers have declined for 14 days (“America is Reopening”), Governor DeSantis moved all of Florida except for Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to phase 2 of the reopening stage on June 5 (McCloud) when infections were on the rise (Fig. 2). This means, among other lower restrictions, that large venues can open at 50% capacity, including auditoriums, movie theaters, and casinos, and restaurants can now be open at 75% capacity. Those of us who work in academia can help people to find reliable direct data sources such as the Johns Hopkins coronavirus data tracking site (www.coronavirus.jhu.edu/data) or sites that track available hospital beds. These kinds of objective data-based resources can enable people to make informed decisions on whether they personally feel safe to be in large gatherings or whether their states face rising infection rates that would stress hospital resources.
Florida daily confirmed new COVID-19 cases (5-day moving average): May 16-June 3, 2020
During the week-long Documentarian experience, I continued my work schedule uninterrupted. However, I couldn’t say the same for some of my students. Since the university where I taught at the time was a health sciences university, the students were also health care professionals on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. We tried to help out in any way that we could—changing appointments at the last minute, allowing for rescheduling past the deadline, or allowing cancellations without repercussions. Some students had to cancel appointments to accommodate a heavier workload, and some even had to take an incomplete for the semester. Students expressed so much gratitude for what seemed minimal flexibility and compassion to me. It was the very least that I could do given the incredible stress and risks they were facing. As a writing center coach, it became more important than ever to respond to writers with empathy and to provide a space and time for connection as people. I believe this was the key learning experience for me as a Documentarian during this week, perhaps not a new concept, but one that was reinforced as being even more vital in times of crisis. Writing conferencing is not just about the text, but about the writers. As we take time to address the affective domain and connect, acknowledging the common crisis and empathizing with a deeper challenge that perhaps we do not face, we can unload a burden and make mental room for the writing work that is to come. Demonstrating concern and expressing empathy can be part of the writing conference scaffolding process (Mackiewicz and Thompson, 2013). Just as I felt a need for professional connection and debriefing, the students with whom I met needed the same. Our meetings became an online coffeeshop, and in some cases, it was the only pause in the day for someone running from pulling on scrubs to intubating patients, then showering and collapsing in bed. Of course, we read the text, but the text became a pretext to deeper conversation about what was really happening in the students’ lives at a point of crisis. Those were the conversations that really mattered, regardless of how far we read in the drafts.
Though the focus of the Documentarian experience was the week that would have been documented for the CCCCs conference, I must acknowledge another crisis we are facing: the murder of George Floyd by a member of the police force in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests and calls for racial justice across the nation and the world. We are having conversations about racism and privilege that have been long overdue, and more than just conversations, we have calls to action for genuine reform. We are seeing horrible violence wrapped with glimmering hope, and yet so much remains uncertain as I type this draft.
As I circle back around to the themes that emerged in my own journaling during my Documentarian experience, anxiety, stress, and trouble focusing, it is clear that as professionals, writing teachers need the same space as our students to address the affective burden of crisis. More than anything, we need to pause in the human experience of the pandemic and listen to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to our students. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it has taught us the value of human connection and how much we miss each other when we are forced to be separate. As we come back together in the middle of another crisis, I hope that we emerge with a willingness to listen, as many have a need and a right to be heard.
Reflecting on what I wrote a year ago, I see tremendous privilege as an undercurrent in my documentarian tale. While so many had no access to healthcare or lost jobs, I had the audacity to complain about having trouble buying meat or toilet paper. If I were to tell the story this summer in 2021, it would be with a deeper sense of gratitude. It was the year of not being busy, so rather than constantly being on the go and trying to figure out schedules, my family spent time together.
Though in retrospect, I feel I dwelled too long on the stress and frustration that affected my work focus, my observation regarding the need for human connection is one that still resonates with me in 2021. I recall the conversations with exhausted nurses, their need to decompress and share their experiences before discussing their writing. The time spent listening and sharing the emotional load for a brief time helped these healthcare workers acknowledge their experience, receive validation, and find a space to reconnect with their educational goals through writing. Some of these students kept a recurring appointment, and the routine of a regular day and time set aside to continue working on a master’s thesis or a dissertation brought a reminder of the hope and opportunities that lay ahead.
As I read back over my reflections from March 2020, I am keenly aware that there is no magic reset button to pre-pandemic reality. I grieve over the enormous loss of life, and I am saddened over the continued political schisms that seemed to only grow rather than resolve. However, I am thankful for some positive change such as improved accessibility in online educational technology. I am optimistic that as writing professionals, we are sharing resources, best practices, and ideas and meeting in virtual spaces in ways that didn’t happen in the past, and this will increase scholarship and mentoring in composition studies.
“America is Reopening. But have we flattened the curve? See new case trends in all 50 states.” Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, www.coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/new-cases-50-states/florida. Accessed 7 June 2020.
Mackiewicz, Jo., and Thompson, Isabelle. “Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing Center Tutoring.” Writing Center Journal, Vol. 33, no. 1, Mar. 2013, pp. 38-73. EBSCOhost.
McCloud, Cheryl. “Florida Coronavirus Updates: State Reports Eighth COVID-19 Death as Confirmed Cases Continue to Jump to Well Over 300.” Florida Today, 18 March 2020, www.floridatoday.com/story/news/newswire/2020/03/18/florida-covid-19-update-number-cases-deaths-map-symptoms-look-news-tips/5076042002/. Accessed 8 June 2020.