Trying to do things I might have referred to as "normal" before being under NYS PAUSE restrictions as if nothing has changed is the equivalent of trying to go for a hike in the middle of a forest fire. This cognitive dissonance is lost on almost no one, considering the amount of self-care advice coming from all corners of social media and especially taking into account what I consider to be worse: the "how to be PRODUCTIVE!" porn coming from people who are so deeply grieving the loss of normalcy and just about every institutional form of media that exists.
I did the hustle to transition my face-to-face class to an online format, but I didn't do it alone. I worked with my students to understand the kinds of challenges they were and are up against, and we problem-solved together. I'm excited that a short reflection on that experience will be published in National Teaching and Learning Forum in May--while it may seem that I got entangled in the productivity monster's tentacles, what really happened is I pitched a reflection that I already wanted to share with my students. I want them to know how integral they were to our success. I want them to know how proud I am of them for embracing reality and flexing skills we have been developing all semester: flexibility, openness, and self-forgiveness. I won't re-hash the reflection here, as I'm excited to share the published product, but I do want to write a bit about how I'm experiencing the all-or-nothing form of pressure that offers self-care and productivity as binary options.
In this moment, all I really want to do is sit around and drown in familiar, nostalgic television that reminds me of getting off a yellow school bus around 3pm, plopping down with a math textbook, and pretending to do my homework while Laguna Beach distracts me from a world in which I feel unprepared and awkward. I've been doing a lot of this, combined with combing through social media and leaning into FaceTime and Zoom social calls. Unavoidably I feel guilty that I'm not practicing self-care the "right" way by exercising, stretching, meditating, connecting with my loved ones, etc. But I also (still) feel guilty that I can't bring myself to work. I find myself doing the bare minimum by making sure my students have some kind of content and guidance to work from, but I'm not reading or writing for my dissertation. My dissertation feels like someone else's far-off memory. I can't bring myself to think about it beyond either the tinge of guilt that tells me: "Danielle, you should be thinking about it," or the little sparks that go off when I read the brilliant engagement my students have with films that are part of my project.
From my perspective and location in the world, I am feeling like my students are thriving in comparison to me, and while I know that "comparison is the thief of joy," I also know that I put a lot of value on being accountable to them. I dropped the ball on some materials that I owe them, and while I'm owning that here, I still need to let them know: I dropped the ball, I recognize it, I am picking it back up, I am doing my best, and let it be a lesson that the compassion that I strive to always lend to them comes from a mirror of my own human fallibility. When I'm done here, I will write them a letter responding collectively to their reflections on their day-to-day work in the class, the transition online, and where they are in the process of trying to reach the goals they set for themselves. I can tell you that I'm pretty confident I won't work on my dissertation.
At this moment, teaching is the only thing that makes me feel connected to the world in a way that transcends my individual needs. I can't sew, and I'm scared to volunteer in person, but I can teach and I can help my students find a tiny nook in their lives where the purpose is not based on grades, tests, right or wrong, but instead is a space that fosters forgiveness and growth in the face of our reality. Whenever we add the "mistake" label to a setback we experience as a result of this sublime reality right now, we shift blame from a collective responsibility we have to each other as members of a community to an individual responsibility that further isolates us when we need each other most.
I try to remind my students that accepting our reality doesn't mean that we stop showing up. Rather, we begin showing up for each other in new ways: letting each other know that we understand or don't understand what we are going through, offering time and space to grieve or get our bearings, and re-examining and managing our expectations, always with the current moment in mind.
We are all doing our best, but it's important to remind myself that "our best" will not look the same from one person to another--we come from different worlds and starting points, and that means we need to cut out the noise that is, in good faith, trying to tell us how to survive this: make sure you exercise, establish a daily writing practice, pray, breathe just so. Sometimes, the greatest learning experiences can only emerge from our own explorations and curiosities, and sometimes I'm most curious about Rich White Housewives causing drama in Beverly Hills (I'm so thankful for Garcelle Beauvais's debut on RHOBH today!). Other times, I find a strange urge to sit down and write an informal reflective blog post while I procrastinate writing a formal reflection to my students.
If the outside push to take good care of your body, mind, and soul helps you then I am very happy for you. If the productivity porn is something you need, then embrace it if you'd like. But, if like me, you need to tune it out in order to find acceptance, you don't need anyone's permission to do so (but if you do, you have mine). The more I've accepted that flexibility and being stubborn about what I feel works for me aren't binary states of being, the more I've felt a teeny-tiny bit of drive returning to my soul. It's mine--it internal and it's nice to hear its song, take in the beautiful coloring of its feathers, be with it when it's there, and resist the urge to run for the binoculars in order to identify its genus and species.
My intuitions are so strong and beautiful, but the thing about intuition is this: if I try too hard, I stifle it in favor of prescription and "best practices," that don't feel the best. I'm not going to let the capitalist system that takes precarious labor like me, chews us up and spits us out, trick me into getting comfortable or feeling normal when the very idea of best practices in the face of an unprecedented pandemic is oxymoronic.
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Assistant Professor of English/Film Studies
Transnational Cinema, Decolonial Methodologies, Feminisms, Neoliberalism
Winona State University
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