Erica Cirillo-McCarthy


During the Monday in the last week of March, after the extended spring break and the move to all-remote delivery, I was thinking broadly about work. I was sitting in front of my laptop, temporarily located on my dining room table and surrounded by papers, mail, notepads, my phone charger and phone, my work bag. My first task of the day was to serve as the on-call administrator for writing center tutors from 10am to 2pm. The writing center I direct created a discord channel, a social media platform, and invited all writing center tutors and staff to join. Tutors could ask tech or tutoring questions and receive answers in real time as they quickly, and without precedent, moved to tutoring remotely. One of the brilliant tutors suggested it (they always have the best ideas), and I thought it would be an effective and engaging way to maintain the sense of community for tutors. And it has, but I’m also chained to my laptop and phone for my on-call shifts. 

My experience brought me back to when I worked in retail and had to be on call for certain shifts. It’s the worst limbo to be in: on-call means you aren’t working, but you need to be ready to work at any moment. You can’t go far, you can’t make plans, you can’t have a drink, and you can’t go to a movie. You are basically working without getting paid, and it’s terrible. That is certainly not the case now. I am still receiving my university salary and still directing the writing center. But that sense of limbo permeates my every move. This limbo—a sense of waiting—feeds into my procrastination so that I avoid the things I need to attend to: the article revision due in five days; the feedback I need to provide on a dissertation; the creative writing contest I need to judge; the grad school applications I need to evaluate; the friends and family I haven’t yet scheduled to meet on Zoom; the 4Cs Documentarian stuff. I can’t pay attention to those things because I’m possibly waiting for something else that might happen. As I waited for tutors to chime in with a question or post cat photos or coronavirus memes, I sat at my laptop from 10-2 and did nothing but flit from webpage to webpage, from Twitter feed to Twitter feed, obsessing over responses to the stimulus package and to the growing chorus of sacrificing grandparents to save the economy for the young people. How did we get here? And will this experience change our value system that places work above everything else, including life? 

Like many grown children, I was checking in on my parents daily. In one of our daily calls, I caught myself complaining to my mom. On this particular day, I was on call for my administrative shift on the discord channel, and since it was our second day being fully online, tutors and tutees alike had a lot of questions. I had a current graduate student email me to say they had not yet heard anything about our class scheduled for later that night and did I want them to run the class? Even though I had sent out multiple messages to my graduate students via email and our LMS, because my state has rural areas that lack reliable internet access, this particular student did not get the messages, panicked, and made assumptions. This student then looped in the graduate program director into emails because the student couldn’t understand why I was frustrated with them, which then doubled the number of email exchanges. At the same time, my neighbor started burning debris from the very recent deadly tornadoes, sending us to close our windows so the entire house wouldn’t smell. While this is illegal where I live, I felt like I couldn’t or shouldn’t call the fire marshall because I thought the hazardous smoke was a small insignificant thing for a firetruck to attend to. I waited for my neighbor to realize what a crappy thing that is to do to neighbors. Finally, I had to plan and facilitate a Zoom meeting for my graduate class who had not met in two weeks due to the extended spring break. 

So I complained to my mom: “Wow, today was tough and it still isn’t over.” She quickly replied: “At least you have a job.” I said nothing and slowly inhaled and exhaled. Yes, she’s correct. I am grateful I can work from home and still get paid. However, her comment ignores how much more I work—we all work—now that we have moved university work online. But it doesn’t matter. All that matters IS the job. And my value—no matter how much I resist, push back, ignore—is based on that job. I wanted my mom to reply to my complaints by exclaiming, “They are lucky to have you!” But she didn’t because she is fearful of losing her own job. I am too (we all should be worried!) because so many of us live in right-to-work states or in precarious positions in academia. My own department has not committed to rehiring all of our full-time lecturers yet, and these are contractual positions, supposedly well above the discardable adjunct positions. On my campus and most others, federal student workers were not allowed to work after the campus closed down. These are the most vulnerable students – I was once one of them. Fortunately, on our campus at least, federal student workers continued to be paid till the end of the semester, even though their job locations were closed. 

My mom also happens to live in a state with few social services, for example, there is no  functioning unemployment insurance process. I can only hope that this experience, with so many people losing their jobs, helps push us in a new direction where we re categorize “essential” workers and really pay them their value: grocery store workers; certified nursing assistants; janitorial staff; migrant farm workers; food preparers; teachers; first responders; garbage workers; postal workers; bank clerks. I hope that we move away from valuing hedge funders, brokers, Wall Street, vampire CEOs, and movie producers. I hope that we will value our honky tonk bartenders and performers, chefs and servers, and not just the famous owners. These two things can be true at the same time: All work is valuable, AND we are worth more than just our work. 

Two days later, I was still thinking about work, but specifically the work we do in our discipline and in our institutions. I met with four very dear graduate school friends for a happy hour Zoom. I wanted to add them to my Documentarian process because they play such a large role in my professional and personal life; bringing their voices into this process adds much value. We are scattered through the US – Northeast, the South, Midwest, and the Southwest. We teach in different types of institutions: community college, private R1, mid-size regional. Doing this is a way for me to amplify their voices and add to the diversity of voices in the Documentarian pool. All participants agreed to me taking notes and synthesizing the key parts of our conversation while maintaining their anonymity. 

We started talking about Zoom, since we were using it to communicate. I had a virtual background, something I picked up from another friend, so we started chatting about the features. But our conversation quickly focused on the limitations of Zoom, including hackers, privacy issues, HIPAA, and the lack of ways around these limitations. All of us were concerned that our institutions, on one hand, asked us to use Zoom as a way to communicate with colleagues and students, and on the other, warned us of hackers that would log in and take over with violent racist and sexist images. How do we protect students? How do we protect ourselves? Could we get a minute to figure this out? 

One of us serves on Faculty Senate. They talked about the important decisions they face, specifically on faculty raises and student evaluations. These decisions will have material effects on both faculty and students, and they aren’t taken lightly. But having to make these decisions collectively exposed the different way disciplines orient themselves to student support and service. Certain disciplinary representatives could not understand why an ‘A’ student would suddenly see the value in the Pass/Fail option during the pandemic. One graduate admissions committee member, when asked if they would be open to undergraduate transcripts with P/F on them, said they would question the student’s ability to succeed. Highly motivated students, to them, could overcome adversity and do well in any situation, even one where their entire livelihood (or family’s livelihood) suddenly disappears. 

Unfortunately, this divide in supporting students occurs within our home departments. While my chair sends out supportive emails every two days or so that encourage student-centered solutions to shifting online, responses to them on the department listserv illustrate the deep generational divide between English Department faculty members' understandings of pedagogy, online teaching, and, quite frankly, students. Some older faculty members proclaimed they had never used any kind of LMS. While Writing Studies faculty see the totality of the situation and have a more holistic view of students and their varied and complex lives, literature faculty were focused on the lack of academic freedom they might face if they used an LMS. A senior faculty member was upset that one of their students figured out that, due to the P/F options, they would not have to take the final exam yet still earn a pass. The faculty member saw this as a student using the P/F option as a way to “weasel out” of a final exam; I saw it a legitimate way for the student to receive credit and move on to more pressing things, such as the pandemic, health, and dwindling finances. 

But that’s only part of the picture. It is one thing to be resistant to technologies and online pedagogical approaches, but there are contingent faculty who are now being asked to teach online yet do not have hardware. One of our home institutions loaned contingent faculty laptops, and when they ran out of laptops, they loaned out desktops. Then, the institution loaned more desktops to students who lacked personal computers. So while it is important to talk about inflexible faculty who make students’ lives harder (which is an evergreen issue), a bigger problem is the technology divide between contingent faculty and faculty and between students. 

I cannot believe we are still talking about this in 2020. When I started teaching in 2003, we all anticipated this Microsoft-sponsored world where everyone would have a laptop or desktop. But that hasn’t happened. What compounds the issue is the complete lack of concern of our legislators on bringing the internet to rural (and not so rural) areas. While university students could use their academic libraries or drive to hotspots, over 10,000 of our k-12 students do not have working hardware or reliable internet. I have a few graduate students who have very little access to wifi in their homes so they have to go to nearby institutions – and risk their health – to gain access. Heck, during our happy hour Zoom call, one friend yelled out to her partner to get off the computer because it was slowing down her device. Reliable internet access needs to be reconceived as a public utility. It appears that as we all shift to this new reality of online teaching, both students and faculty are in limbo where neither can do their best. 

I want to end on a positive note. In looking back at my notes and my survey responses, I noticed that I had a problem with seeing anything positive within the moment. I have to do better. But looking back, I see that limbo is not quite liminality, as we perceive it as a colonial construct, but we can learn from scholars who argue that liminality is a generative place, a place of possibility. It is about not letting the paralysis of limbo dominate. This pandemic has exposed the fissures in all of our support systems, and it is clear from the young people protesting police brutality and systemic oppression writ large that they have found that generative space within the limbo. They are not waiting for something; instead, they see the cracks and the weaknesses and are employing them quickly and effectively. The action-oriented nature of feminist rhetorics, Black rhetorics, Latinx rhetorics, and queer rhetorics map on to and scaffold the voices of our students as they (and we) march in the streets, breaking the paralysis of limbo and demanding a reality that more closely aligns with a broad vision of justice. By extension, this global movement centers the marginalized and the vulnerable, which includes workers who are traditionally not seen, heard, or valued. I have hope that the pandemic and subsequent actions will lead us beyond this reality to a more equitable one. I don’t know what that other side is or looks like, and try to avoid creating binaries. I’m starting to see the generative possibilities of limbo, so perhaps we will next move to a liminal space where we function on the threshold of a more just way of seeing each other and the work that we do.