Well, the past academic year has not been one that we’ll forget soon.
Since early March our more than 70 teachers have been pursuing our educational mission online. We’ve been working overtime to ensure that our students continue to grow in their mastery of writing and critical analysis, pedagogy and persuasion, knowledge and use of the language at its highest levels—and to make sure our students stay on track towards graduation.
For more information on how Ball State as a whole is responding to the crisis, learn more on the website. For more information on how we’ve adapted as a department, check out our recent awards ceremony on the blog or our daily poem project and faculty pep talks on our YouTube channel.
It has been impressive, and so heartening, to see the teachers and students in our programs step up and do great work in the face of serious difficulties. I’ve been in constant email contact with our teachers over the last month and a half, and I can report that they have leaned into the challenge—going the extra step in reaching out to students struggling with technical problems, learning snags, emotional distress, and more. They’ve been doing all this while adapting their classes, designed for face-to-face interaction, to online formats.
This change doubles or triples the amount of time it takes to do individual tasks. And for all this, I’ve gotten exactly zero complaints from our teachers. All this speaks to the commitment that our professionals, including staff, graduate assistants, tenure-line and non-tenure faculty, bring to their work.
But this will not come as news to any of our students or alumni, and I do not want the non-Pandemic related accomplishments of our faculty and students to get lost in our memory of the extraordinary circumstances of the last two months. The 2019-20 school year which ended so strangely began brilliantly, with faculty from our department winning three of the university’s major awards: Outstanding Creative Endeavor Award (Professor Jill Christman), Outstanding Junior Faculty (Professor Emily Rutter), and Outstanding Faculty (Professor Jackie Grutsch McKinney). Jill Christman also won a coveted NEA grant. And, in the midst of the scramble of finishing the semester, we learned that one of our graduating master’s students, Valerie Weingart, won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to teach in Poland next year.
The humanities matter more than ever
My fellow Ball State English teachers and I have one advantage in times like this: we have work that we believe in, that we find meaningful and important. And the last two months has shown us yet again how much the world needs English and humanities majors: people who use language carefully and precisely, as an instrument for the discovery of truth; people who use the means of persuasion ethically; people who value what is best in human nature and what is best in human culture, who value humanity’s creativity and intellect enough to spend their time, money, and energy studying this thing we call, for exactly these reasons, the humanities.
About a week into quarantine, as I was idly rearranging a bookshelf, an old copy of Albert Camus’s The Plague dropped to the floor. As I’ve been carrying this book from place to place for more than twenty years, I took it as an omen that I should actually read it.
You might think that reading an idea-soaked novel about a ravaging, communicable disease is a peculiar choice at this moment. In fact, the experience of reading it was consistently uplifting. It’s powerful to see someone really smart and perceptive describing precisely the experiences and feelings you are experiencing.
Reading it was a powerful reminder of one of the main things literature and art do for us: re-present our experience, in a higher key, with craft and context and care, so that we can see it more clearly for ourselves.
Striving to be healers
The thought Camus displays in The Plague embodies exactly what we describe and model for our students, what we ask them to practice and coach them toward: precise and ethical use of language and the intellectual imagination, while acknowledging complexity, difficulty, and ambiguity, for the betterment of our fellow human beings and in pursuit of the truth.
Reading The Plague increased my reverence for the accomplishments of our students and teachers in the last two months. Because what Camus’s narrator takes away from the experience of plague and quarantine is a realization of the dignity, even the nobility, of ordinary acts, of simply getting by.
Philosophically, Camus was a complete skeptic, believing neither in God nor an afterlife nor any kind of human transcendence. He did not believe that history was inevitably moving towards progress or that human beings would ever conquer the cosmic forces arrayed against them. But, unlike many other modern skeptics, Camus came away from staring down this void with a greater respect for humankind, and with this core value: the nobility, the honorability, of human beings getting by.
So I want to close sign off on this academic year with the thoughts of Dr. Rieux, protagonist of The Plague, as he walks amid crowds celebrating the demise of the virus he has spent the novel fighting. It strikes me as a credo for the writer and the humanist in such troubled times as ours:
And it was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure, and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of final victory. It could only be the record of what had been done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.
Thank you, again and always, for your support for the Ball State English Department. I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Till then, I am your grateful correspondent.