The following episodes trace a theme that has emerged from my experiences as a writing teacher and researcher during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In tracing this theme, I am bypassing others: the mundane rituals of housework amplified by confinement; the surreal moment of arriving at work, only to be evacuated through sirens and loud speakers; and the constant fear of loss. Instead these recollections impose order on these moments of chaos and capture my attempts to understand an unfathomable series of events. In such moments of uncertainty, I searched for answers to my questions and concerns, only to realize how fragile any search for Truth can be.
The closure of my university and my daughters’ daycare, the cancellation of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), and the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic corresponded with my least favorite assignment in my Intermediate Writing class: Annotated Bibliographies. Drained each night after spending all day with my toddler and preschooler, I dutifully corrected citations and prodded reluctant student researchers. The assignment required students to cite, summarize, evaluate, and apply the source to their own argument. However, only one-third of the students evaluated the source’s credibility, bias, or usefulness. Among those who did, many offered superficial estimates, surmising that a source could not be biased because it was peer reviewed or that a source must be accurate because it came from a well-known network, like Fox News or CNN.
Moments like these tempt me to bemoan Millennials and Generation Z students’ lack of media literacy and yearn for a mythic Golden Age when we all cross-read sources and dug into authors’ backgrounds. But, looking over my sixteen years as a teacher, I question if such an age ever existed. I have found this challenge prevalent across various generations and types of students. Indeed, as I Google answers to my four-year-old’s favorite question, “Why?” and query Alexa to settle a debate with my husband, I wonder if I am really all that different when it comes to processing information on a daily basis.
One morning, while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across an opinion piece from PBS Newshour: “The Problem of Thinking You Know More than the Experts.” In this piece, Tom Nichols, author of the book The Death of Expertise, argues that “many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.” He blames this hubris-driven ignorance on Google for enabling instantaneous and often dubious search results, schools for inflating grades and egos, and media outlets for promulgating click bait and conflating news with entertainment.
Accessing this argument through social media seemed ironically fitting. The replies ranged from nostalgia for the era of authority figures, like Walter Cronkite, to the acknowledgement that experts contradict each other and even themselves.
The piece, which aired in 2017, seemed eerily prophetic. Nichols ended his argument with, what seems in retrospect, an unfounded note of optimism: “Historically, people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble or distress. We're all willing to argue with our doctors until our fever is out of control.” Circulating this broadcast on social media seemed to be a “told-you-so” impulse that, sadly, undercuts much hope that this sentiment will change.
Reading this piece unearthed a conflicted response from me. So much of what Nichols had written fit my initial reactions to my students’ research. Their arguments seemed to reflect an unsettling combination of naïveté and arrogance. At the same time, this narrative itself seems oversimplified. For one thing, it is too easy to glorify or villainize the past, finding it either superior or inferior to our own. Were Americans a century ago really more willing to defer to experts, and if so, is such a stance desirable? At one time, McCarthyism, Eugenics, and Thalidomide use among pregnant women reflected expert opinion. Critical thinking is based both on an informed opinion and a willingness to interrogate authoritative sources of information. Yet, the past few weeks have made me realize how hard it can be, both within the classroom and our nation, to find that sweet spot between absolute Truth and nihilism.
In response to so many conflicting opinions and information, I have been trying to make sense of my own confusion, fear, and even anger. When I hear yet another disheartening public health or economic report, my first reaction is an irrational anger towards the messenger. At the same time, I have also experienced an overwhelming sympathy and gratitude towards public health officials, whom we expect to immediately have all answers and reassurances. They have to walk that fine line between being honest and assuaging public fear. I remind myself of this any time I feel frustrated over conflicting messages. I may have students asking me to predict whether or not I think they can still earn an “A” in my class, and my position has its own challenges and moments of uncertainty, but nothing like this.
Beyond this emotional response, I have also viewed this situation as almost an intellectual abstraction that gives insight into the ways a field constructs its knowledge and commonplaces. I know that my own attempts to make sense of this situation have been influenced by my own disciplinary background in rhetoric and composition studies, which has a longstanding tradition of blending skepticism with informed opinion. This tradition has ranged from Plato and Aristotle who identified the dialectic as the primary source of knowledge, to Kenneth Burke who argued for the importance of a counterstatement to prevailing wisdom: “When in Rome Do as the Greeks” (119). I have noticed that the 2020 and 2021 CCCC convention themes have both emphasized the idea of commonplaces. I see this theme as critical in this historical moment. I find myself yearning for my own professional community to help me make sense of things I do not understand, to help me identify some common beliefs and values. Paradoxically, perhaps one of our greatest commonplaces is this ability to discuss and, when necessary, reform our shared beliefs, knowledge, and values. We are not experts in health care or disease control, but we can bring our epistemological awareness to the rhetoric of this situation.
These commonplaces are especially important to me at a time when protesters are defying public health guidelines and vigilantes are shaming neighbors on social media. I want to try to make sense of this, and I am not used to doing this in isolation. More than ever, I miss going into work and being able to talk to colleagues and students. I look forward each year to the CCCC annual convention because it is a time to both identify with others who share my commonplaces and to engage with innovative ideas that refine and reshape them.
I initially volunteered for a new non-speaking role as a Documentarian at the CCCC annual convention because I wanted to make sense of how I identify with and participate in this professional community. I also wanted to share my experiences with other conference attendees and identify both our commonalities and our differences. Doing so both helps to reaffirm what is most important to me by tapping into professional traditions. Conversely, it also helps me stay current and avoid burnout from repetitive practices.
This year, I viewed the shared presentation materials that this community generously shared. I have already started thinking about how it will inform my own teaching and scholarship. However, I missed the opportunity for discussion when I was confused or wanted to explore an idea further. My hope is that, although this Documentarian role has changed, it will help me connect with this community that has been so influential in shaping my inquiry practices. In the future, ideally, this community can shed some insight on these events and use them to clarify some important concerns within our own professional lives.
This phrase, “new normal,” is increasingly cropping up in discussions about reopening local and global economies. I understand that this phrasing tries to acknowledge the loss of life and way of life during this pandemic. I am also not sure I am ready to face whatever this “new normal” is; although, I suppose that I will not have much of a choice. I still miss what flying used to be like before 9-11, even though I accept the need for beefed up airport security.
What this “new normal” might look like is still pretty vague. I have read social media posts urging us all to learn from this experience, to make it something productive and transformative. I have also read articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that this pandemic calls higher education’s “cult of productivity” into question. Instead, they suggest, we should take more of a survivalist mentality, keeping ourselves and our families safe and doing the bare minimum to keep our institutions running. I do not really see myself at either end of this continuum. Most of the time, I am treading water, barely keeping my head above the surface. Yet, I am not ready to throw in the towel; I still want students to learn and to have an intellectual outlet.
A couple of weeks before the pandemic spread from an epidemic, I was immersed in this cult of productivity. I was teaching three classes, writing a book, and performing service obligations, such as judging a local academic decathlon for high school students. In the speech portion of this event, a prompt asked participants to defend the importance of optimism in the face of hardship. Listening to bright-faced adolescents offer Pollyannaish arguments brought out a cynicism in me that, perhaps, reflects my middle-age status. I found myself wishing that just one of them would problematize or complicate the issue.
At the same time, I am not sure I am entirely ready to dismiss optimism, nor am I ready to make something productive out of this pandemic. My email has been flooded with tips for transitioning online and ways to create lesson plans, assignments, and discussions based on data and news about the pandemic. I rarely have time to read these, and honestly, I am not ready to create any sort of COVID-based curriculum. Beyond checking in to make sure students have what they need, I avoid discussing the pandemic with them. Perhaps this is a lapse on my part. However, before I can attempt a productive discussion about these events, I need to better understand my own role in this situation. Am I to acknowledge my fears and concerns, or is it better to be reassuring? How do I enact the right balance between being professional and calm and real and accessible?
Teaching online has the benefit of masking this performance, of giving me more time behind the scenes to consider and revise. My courses are asynchronous, so any video or post that fails to enact this balance can be deleted. But now, I realize that these events will very likely continue on into the fall. At some point, soon, I realize that I will need to make productive decisions about how and when I will address these current events in the classroom. Beyond following my institution’s health and safety guidelines, I need to decide what tone I will take towards this “new normal,” which is hard because I can only speculate about what this will be. I do not know if my teaching can or should continue to largely ignore what is happening.
Perhaps, accepting this uncertainty presents an opportunity. As I look over my notes for this Documentarian project, I realize that I have been modeling some of the very moves I ask student researchers to make. I have read articles and data regarding this pandemic with a genuine spirit of inquiry. I have recorded my inevitable subjectivities and biases. Sure, I do not really want to believe that it could take between eighteen months and two years to develop a vaccine. Nor am I eager to accept that different mutations and strains could further complicate the development of a treatment or vaccination. Yet, when I record these reactions in writing, I can come back and challenge my biases. They are still there, but I can identify them for what they are.
In the past, I have discouraged students from researching and writing about an unfolding event. For instance, during the government shutdown in 2019, events shifted so dramatically and quickly that students could not keep up. Their writing seemed out-of-date by the time they found information and wrote about it in a formal paper. This experience has made me question what I value in student research and writing. Traditionally, I have valued timely and authoritative sources over searches that show knowledge evolving or shifting. In other words, I may realize that knowledge is socially and historically situated, yet my research projects fail to communicate this to students. Yes, media literacy is important, and they should realize that not all sources are created equally. However, it might also be worthwhile to trace how a topic is discussed over time and across communities. For instance, what factors shaped arguments around wearing face masks or reopening a state? In other words, rather than just discussing a source’s accuracy, as if Truth is always some absolute, it might be more useful for me to take the more contextualized approach that our field has largely accepted. This is not to say that I see all information as relative or that I want my students to adopt such a view. Now, especially, that view can be very dangerous. Rather, I want to find ways to help my students become more aware of the processes and contexts in which information is generated and processed.
Being socially isolated also makes me realize that, largely, I ask students to take on the role of lone researcher for term papers. Sure, they workshop drafts, conference, and submit proposals and annotated bibliographies. Still, these exercises ask them to share and evaluate discrete products rather than to truly collaborate in seeking or creating knowledge. In many ways, this mirrors my own experiences as a researcher undertaking my own project, article or book, and discussing my findings only in conferences and peer reviews. I read other people’s work with little insight on their thought processes and complications. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that I struggle to make this process more transparent to students. I have a fairly limited view of my colleagues’ inquiry processes, so it is a bit harder to understand and share the messiness of my own.
Yet, at the same time, I conceal these practices from my writing students. I encourage students in my English Education or Teaching Practicum classes to make their processes transparent for students. I encourage them to write with students and conduct think-alouds about their reading. I realize that students might benefit from seeing the type of work that I have done with this Documentarian project extended. They could see how my thinking changed, how and when I monitored my subjectivities and biases, and how my reading and thinking influenced my own writing. To be honest, these events have made me more aware of this issue. I have always seen myself as “too busy” to do this type of work with students, but I hope that this experience helps me to find more opportunities to invite students into my professional inquiry process. It seems like projects, like the annotated bibliography, just expect them to produce a series of inquiry products charading as an actual process. Indeed, their rather superficial engagement with sources in their annotated bibliographies probably reveal that they are as bored writing them as I am in reading them.
As I finish this piece, I realize that none of the traditional moves seem right. We have all probably heard enough dire warnings, and a call for further action or research seems, perhaps, out of place given the uncertainty of this moment and the fact that my role, as I understand it, is to document my own experiences, not to tell you what yours should be. I am not here to make sense of this experience for others or to suggest the next steps. Perhaps, everyone needs to take stock of their own experiences to determine what happens next.
I regularly pass a billboard by my house that says, “Alone Together.” Like me, many people probably appreciate this sentiment but remain uncertain on how to enact it. Right now, our community cannot come together in person, and many of us who are trying to care for ourselves and dependents, have limited time to come together through alternate media. It probably feels more like we are truly alone in our isolation. Even though none of us can truly share the exact same experiences of this time, in the future, we will be able to compare our stories and use them to identify commonplaces in whatever this “new normal” brings.
As I reread my original documentarian piece over a year later, I am struck by how much I underestimated the potential dangers of misleading information. I grew up with parents who celebrated the counterculture of the 1960s, and my academic interests also supported questioning authority.
Now, I feel confused about these sentiments. Part of me still thinks it is important to question authority to avoid a fascist, cultish existence. However, I also see how dangerous this can be. Within the past few months, I have seen a trailer bed with an anti-vaccination digital billboard promulgating bizarre and fallacious arguments like, “You would not trust Jeffery Epstein with your daughter, so why would you trust Bill Gates with your health?” This strikes me as a rather misleading and manipulative analogy, despite recent divorce allegations that these magnates were affiliates. I was creating a quiz on rhetorical fallacies and briefly considered snapping a picture as an example of false analogies. However, my husband warned me that several of my students might share such a sentiment. I decided not to include the example, but I was left with an unsettling thought, Do I have a responsibility to challenge students’ erroneous and dangerous beliefs?
Despite the dangers I see with the Anti-Vac Movement, the resistance to Critical Race Theory in schools, and Capital Riots, I feel uncomfortable presuming I know better than my students and that their core beliefs are wrong. I am still wary of imposing my cultural ideology on students even though I feel that misinformation needs to be challenged. I also think it is important to acknowledge that I too am vulnerable to misinformation.
I want students to learn critical thinking skills without imposing an ideology upon them, and I have been looking for teaching approaches that embrace this philosophy. While listening to my local NPR station, I heard about a useful tool that Folklorist Jeannie Thomas developed called the Scare Logistics A-List Prejudice (SLAP) test. Basically, when a legend or conspiracy theory involves celebrities, fear, and faulty logistics while appealing to our biases, it should be suspect. I have considered introducing this technique in my writing classes and am also collaborating with a colleague to develop a themed introductory writing course on conspiracy theories. I think that such a course could offer students an opportunity to re-examine their biases and information sources within me foisting my beliefs on them.
Burke, Kenneth. Counterstatement. University of California Press, 1968.
Nichols, Tom. “The Problem with Thinking You Know More than Experts.” PBS News Hour. Public Broadcasting Station. 14 Apr. 2017.