CCCC: COVID-19 Cancels Composition Conference

Thomas Reynolds


Wednesday morning. I’m sitting on my couch, watching Breakout Kings, having just eaten leftover chicken salad sandwiches for a late breakfast. My wife is next to me, answering questions about Chromebooks, purchased with a recent grant, that we are offering to students, faculty, and staff in need of laptops so that they can work from home. American Airlines kindly reminds me that I should be boarding my flight at 10:35 a.m. I can’t get anything done.

I would normally be in the office after dropping off the kids at school, 8:00 a.m. at the latest. I work better with the structure of a work day—breakfast, drop off, office hours, classes, meetings, workout, car line, homework, activities, dinner, sleep—wake up and do it all over again. Each activity has its own space, its own version of me: office-advisor, classroom-professor, conference room-Faculty Senate President, and so on. Today the schedule is empty. I’m stuck on the couch, and I don’t know what to do with myself.

It’s spring break. It's a beautiful sunny day, in the upper 80's, but we’re staying at home. My kids are playing online with friends (my son on Fortnite, my daughter on Roblox). It’s quiet here—it always is in the town of Steel Magnolias—but there is noticeably less traffic. Students have left town, and everyone who can stay home is staying home. Louisiana is now the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. At the same time, a woman in my parish was arrested for falsely claiming contact with one of the two confirmed cases here so that she could get out of work for a month, costing thousands of dollars for unnecessary tests on her and those with whom she had contact.

The COVID-19 pandemic means moving all classes online, so I’m using my spring break to shift my three preps onto Moodle. I’m emailing students who are working on an argument from fact or definition over break. As WPA, I’m advising my instructors and adjuncts as they move their courses online. Because I serve as President of the Faculty Senate, I’m in touch with colleagues about their concerns. I’m texting our Provost to share those concerns directly with him so that we can address them before faculty officially return to work after break—whatever that might look like. The issues are mostly related to tenure clocks, grading options, timekeeping, and projected budget cuts. These are challenging times. I plan to Skype my parents in Virginia to make sure they are staying home; my wife has already called hers in Spain. The news of the day: Uncle in Hospital Having Tested Positive.

Up until now, Wednesday mornings this semester were filled with Advanced Grammar and Introduction to Literature. A senior-level course for English Education majors and English majors and minors, grammar is a seminar with nine eager and engaged students. We joke around with puns and silly sentences—all grammar nerds to the core. How does that translate to an online environment where technology mediates the communication and unleveled the access my students have to the course, each other, and me? The lit course provides non-majors a humanities-based approach to identity and culture, connecting their own experiences to those we read about. I can only hope that students will leave the course having critically examined their own identities and having learned to understand and appreciate the experiences of others. I’ve always taken that course seriously, but, as I write this two months later, the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor remind us why it is necessary and part of our general education requirements.

Today, of course, I was hoping to arrive, check in (at the hotel and conference), and kick off my CCCC experience by attending the Documentarian reception. I was excited to learn more about this new project and how others viewed it. I was looking forward to working with my community of scholars to work out my own approach to being a Documentarian. Instead, I’ll mow the grass and pull some weeds. Maybe I’ll jump in the pool. If I can't be in Milwaukee exploring a new city with a bunch of colleagues from all over the country (and world) during my spring break, I should at least save some time to enjoy my quarantine space. FOMO is in full effect: I am sad to be missing out, afraid I’m missing so much, even when I know not much is happening. I was supposed to be in Paris last week for an international week, but that was cancelled. Today I should be on a plane to Milwaukee for C's, but that was cancelled. I am missing the conversations that happen when you travel with other scholars. I am missing the new friends I would have made, the new ideas I would have encountered and thought, and the feeling of renewal that comes from conferencing.

At the same time, I am thankful. I am thankful for having a family and house and yard to keep me busy during our voluntary quarantine. I am thankful for being able to work from home and get paid, while so many others are risking their lives by working or are unable to earn the money they need to pay bills. I am thankful for technologies that allow me to stay in touch with family, friends, colleagues, and students. I am thankful for great internet access.

Wednesday night. I'm back on my couch (did I get off the couch today?) watching Dispatches from Elsewhere. I'm all alone, kids and wife in bed. If my life were a Venn diagram right now there’d be only one perceptible circle, everything piled atop itself, each indistinguishable from the next. I'm having an end-of-the-day beer.




Thursday morning. I’ve moved to the kitchen table. I make my kids pancakes for breakfast—something more than the normal bowl of cereal. My work for the day is cooking, cleaning, and caring for my children. My work for the day is also working on courses and answering emails. My office is my home, wherever I am: on the couch, at the table, by the pool. 

Before COVID-19, Thursdays meant back-to-back second-semester FYC classes; yes, the WPA here carries a 4/4 teaching load. The course focuses on argument and research, and students are supposed to finish Essay 2 over break. They were to be ready for peer review when we returned. The mechanics of review will work online, of course, but how can I float around the room, asking questions and connecting to students? Those moments, in which students have my undivided attention as a real person who clearly cares about their success, are perhaps the most valuable in their education. Those moments are gone now, replaced by emails and texts that might be more frequent but never quite get there, wherever there is. 

I heard from my Japanese student. She is safely home in Okinawa, catching a flight while she can. She is crushed to cut her semester short, and I hated to see her go. She brought a fresh perspective to my grammar course, and she really enjoyed small-town America. Hearing from her has motivated me to prep next week's grammar lessons for online delivery. I can't use synchronous learning because some of my students do not have good internet access, and she is now 14 hours ahead. Instead, I create an elaborate PowerPoint lecture on conceptual approaches to active and passive voice, focusing on the underlying concepts of focus and responsibility in the way we construct passive voice to divert focus from the agent-doer. It’s particularly interesting in these times when blame is such a political game that everyone is named in active voice while historically we tend to hide the bad actors through shifts to passive voice.

If I were in Milwaukee, today would have been a full day of conferencing. I would’ve been up early, like a kid on Christmas, excited to open my physical copy of the program and plan my day. I like to mark the book so that I have it as a reminder of the panels I have seen when I get home—the feel and smell of the pages taking me back to “multimodal this” and “systems of power that.” I had also hoped to get out for a Milwaukee lunch and a Milwaukee beer. If everything worked out, I imagine I would have found a place to bowl with some colleagues—the full Laverne & Shirley experience—Happy Days, for sure.

Every time I think about the conference, I am down a bit. Still, I remain thankful that I am healthy and have the things I need, including a job. Today one of my friends posted on Facebook that he had been laid off at his job because he was non-essential. What a designation, “non-essential”: he doesn’t matter and now he knows it. And, he’s not getting paid, waiting on unemployment paperwork to process. That stress right now must be terrible. In the meantime, I am on break but having to put in some serious work to make sure that my courses will be ready for my students next week. Prep was done for the face-to-face courses, but online requires much more frontloading of materials. I am lucky, too, to be comfortable teaching online and using many technologies for online communication and teaching. Still, it’s overwhelming. I am on spring break but it is cancelled this year, just like the conference, just like face-to-face classes, just like so many big plans we have for the semester.

I have a WebEx in the early afternoon about grading issues with the deans and the provost. The policy is coming together so that students will know their options. I’m impressed by how well we work together, administration and the Faculty Senate. It’s true what they say about Americans, I think: We come together and rise up in times of crisis.

I make time to call my best friend, too. One thing I always do at conferences is make time to share my experience with my best friend who is a professor of public administration at a different

university. It's nice to share my experience with someone who understands conference culture, and it's a great way to stay connected over distance. The little things seem bigger when the big things are just too big to manage.

My neighbor is having a family get together in the middle of quarantine. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins are running around outside. I want to scream at him, “People are dying.” The U.S. now has the most cases in the world. American individualism mixed with American exceptionalism is so dangerous. But, I don’t say anything. Sometimes there just aren’t the right words.

I spend the afternoon reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different. It’s a fun book on writing that I may use (in pieces) in my own writing courses. He frames advice so clearly with “So if you were my student I would tell you” throughout the text; a soundbite ready to be cast over the airways. The narrative of the text punctuated with these practical takeaways inspires me to make my own lectures both more engaging through narrative and more useful with quick, summarized lessons.

Thursday night. I’m back on the couch, watching Criminal Minds reruns on Netflix. The house and the world outside are quiet. I’m restless.




Friday morning. I’m on the couch. National news is reporting that New Orleans and perhaps all of Louisiana is the frontline of the pandemic in the US. But today I have to go out. A few of my colleagues are immunocompromised and/or elderly, and we all need groceries. 

Today I am supposed to be delivering my presentation at C’s. I was excited to talk about faculty governance and how I had used a “rhetoric of reframing” as Faculty Senate President to transform the relationship between the Senate and the administration. Instead I am going grocery shopping.

I grab gloves, a mask, and a whole container of Clorox wipes as I head to my van with four shopping lists. At Walmart I realize that rationing is in effect. I can only get one gallon of milk, one package of meat, one carton of eggs. They have most of what we need, but I have to make multiple trips to different stores to get the essentials. Hours later I’m finally making deliveries. I leave groceries in the back of an SUV at one stop, on the doorstep at another. At the final stop I’m met at the door. “How far away is six feet?” I think. We awkwardly stare at each other before it all falls away, and we begin a conversation I don’t think will ever end, while my ice cream melts in the back of my car. As much as I miss going to the office and heading to a conference, I am still at home with my family. Others are stuck at home alone. When I get home, I spend an hour wiping down my groceries.

While I was out, my wife got notification that her uncle had a confirmatory positive test for COVID-19. He’s 80. We’re worried. Today is the day she breaks down a bit. I do too, but I don’t tell her that. I spend the rest of the day worrying that I had contact with someone infected. I wore gloves and a mask. I kept my distance. I am still worried and stressed. I manage to answer student emails throughout the day, including one around 11:30 p.m. My student tells me that he has to access the class at the closest McDonald’s, which is 30 minutes from his house. He’s sorry his work is late. He is worried that he won’t pass the class. I tell him it’s all going to be ok. I feel like I lied.

We find fun where we can. Today a local graphic designer who has started documenting quarantine life in town takes family pictures of us doing the things we have been doing to pass the time—holding our devices, shooting basketball in the driveway, jumping into the pool. She stays far away and distant, but, when they arrive in the evening via Messenger, the pictures are intimate and hopeful.

Friday night. I’m back on the couch finishing up the Palahniuk book. Everyone else is in bed and asleep. My wife wakes up early stressed, and I can't get to sleep at night because of stress. Long days. Tired. It was one of those days where an hour could seem like a day and then the day just disappears. I'm missing my routine, my colleagues, and wonderful experiences that academia affords, like C's.




It's Saturday! I’m at the kitchen table. I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I’m living the same scenes over and over again, and nothing really changes (but perhaps I can?). I do not have a place to work (really work) at home. I find myself working at the kitchen table, on the couch, or just on my phone as I can. My work-life balance had been constructed by compartmentalizing each activity to its own place—work on campus, life off campus. My days are even more compartmentalized in all of my activities that now blur together and overwhelm one another. The problem I now face is that my life is to be lived in one compartment, and that compartment is full of everything I need to do and deal with.

I would have missed today's conferencing. Because my kids were supposed to be out all week, I had scheduled a shortened trip (mostly conferencing Thursday and presenting Friday) with Wednesday and Saturday as travel days. I should be at the airport boarding a plane to come home. I should be feeling renewed in my profession and excited about bringing ideas back to my instructors and my classrooms.

Policy is the word of the day. Students return to online classes in two days, following our break, so there needs to be clarity for them about how they should deal with advising, online classes, grades, and finances. These issues matter perhaps more here than some other places as we serve an economically-disadvantaged, rural region, where the internet is not available to all and students typically depend on part-time jobs, Pell grants, and loans to get by. Closing dorms and reducing dining services means some students have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. Closing campus means no library, no computer labs, and more. I am proud to be part of the team developing plans to help our students, faculty, and staff. This is administrative work worth doing.

We take my son to a drive-by birthday party at 1:00 p.m. just before the thunderstorms blow in. Articles abound about how New Orleans and Louisiana are at a breaking point, and we watch local case numbers blossom on the Governor’s daily briefing.

I’m still adjusting to the new norm. I realize I need structure to be productive, so I will make a schedule for Monday-Friday next week to ensure that what needs to be done will get done. I fear that my scholarship will fall to the wayside, as I am reading a lot of fun books and not really motivated to do much else.

I hope this thing ends soon. I am stir-crazy. I am stressed. I am generally out of sorts. I crave structure, and I am ready to have the time when my kids are in school to focus on my own work. As it is, I am the primary caregiver, so I am homeschooling, entertaining, feeding, cleaning, and everything else involved in keeping a home together.

Saturday night I fell asleep on the couch and then zombie my way to bed. It’s been a strange C’s, for sure.