Dispatches from Quarantine 2020

Tanya

As I wrote on Facebook earlier, today is tentative. Today, I was supposed to start my (much-needed) two-week spring break. My goal was to sit in my home office and work on my book. I spent the weekend relaxing and reading, hanging out on the couch while my son played Minecraft. Any time I thought, “oh, maybe I should go get started on some book edits?” I paused and told myself it was okay to do that later.

Then my son’s school district announced at 6:30 last night that there is no more school for 3 weeks.

We’re very fortunate: with my two-week break, we don’t have to worry about childcare. My reality may look different than I planned, but it’s okay. (Or it will be: in all honesty, I’m struggling to wrap my head around everything and feel more than a bit panicked at times.) Even when my “break” ends, my school will also transition to online learning, which will also alleviate childcare concerns for the most part, but synchronous learning will present its own new challenges.

For the time being, I’m going to try to settle in. I was homeschooled for most of my own education before college, and helped raise several of my (much-younger) siblings. I’m a teacher, although admittedly I don’t usually teach first grade. On the plus side, I’ve been paying close attention to the Singapore Math they’ve been doing, and I think I can get my son more practice on his reading and math, with a few more side adventures, in the next couple of weeks.

Today is tentative; my self-care focused on breathing and not setting expectations too high. I’m hoping for fun and cuddles with my kiddo, laughs, and – probably the highlight of his day – my first-ever Minecraft tutorial, which will turn the teacher into the student.

 

Lynn

As Tanya stated above, I feel that my own success during this ordeal will be achieved by keeping realistic expectations and having appropriate responses.  As a newly immunocompromised person (only 3 weeks of chemotherapy to go!) I oscillate between concerns that I’m too worried and not worried enough, feeling prepared and then panicked. 

So far, I feel that I’ve been rolling with the punches fairly well.  When colleges and universities started moving online I was ready with my web based courses.  When local schools closed I was prepared to work from home so I didn’t have to stress about childcare.  However, with both I’ve had to make adjustments with my expectations. Due dates for students have to be more fluid as we all work together to continue despite new challenges that none of us have ever faced and I can tell in our electronic communications that students are stressed so I’ve tried to keep that in mind in my responses. I’m trying my best to focus on compassion and kindness.  I’ve been trying to do the same in my own home as I’ve quickly discovered that my attempts at home-schooling a 1st grader will have its own unique challenges, as well. 

I’m doing my best to take it easy on myself and those around me.  That’s all I can do, and hope that everyone can come out of this safe and with a renewed appreciation for teachers, nurses, those stocking shelves, delivering supplies, and everyone keeping us all on track as best they possibly can.

 

Raquelle

What a month. Less than two weeks ago, Nashville was hit with a tornado that barely missed my campus and ravaged our neighbors. Now, my students have to be out of their dorms by tomorrow at 5pm because of covid-19. The original date for move-out was Saturday evening, but administration has hastened the deadline in anticipation of increasing governmental restrictions.

I’ve mostly been in states of shock and stasis, frankly. I sit down to get started on work only to get distracted by an article on travel bans, an email that another of my conferences has been cancelled (and now I have to attempt the reimbursement circus), or a text from a connection in France with updates on the total lockdown or who is suffering from decreased access to medical services. Today, I was finally able to type out a plan for the rest of the semester. My motto? Simplify. I’m taking a step back, reconsidering my course objectives, and cutting out material that doesn’t directly meet them. I don’t have the emotional or mental ability to do otherwise, and I also want to be compassionate toward my students who have widely varying priorities and access to technology. So, we’re going to keep it simple. In an uncanny turn of events, the adjunct professor of another French course at my university passed away, so I’m also absorbing that (now online) class. Today, I created and sent a video message introducing myself to those students in hopes of striking up a human connection. To give some semblance of stability, I also shared a plan for moving forward––which I instructed them not to even think about until next week, because they needed to focus their time and emotions on getting themselves home and attending to loved ones.

For now, I’m totally operating from home. I’m trying to act out of compassion by self-isolating (with my spouse/housemate) to flatten the curve and attempt to care for those who are most vulnerable. I’m not worried about catching the virus, but I do not want to spread the virus as an asymptomatic carrier. I’m really lucky to be able to work from my apartment, as so many I know do not have this luxury. 

After this month, I’m just grateful to be alive and grateful for the human connections that I have, both beautiful and terrifying. My students and I had no idea that we would be sitting in the same room with each other for probably the last time last Wednesday. I’ll be excited to reconvene virtually with them next week–synchronously and asynchronously–and imagine that I’ll hesitate to take such relationships for granted in the future and will learn a whole lot about my teaching (and about myself) during this phase.

Angela

Just two weeks ago, on March 4, 2020, an EF3 Tornado ripped through my neighborhood of North Nashville, taking out homes, churches, businesses, and power lines. It happened early in the morning, and there was no warning. I woke up, ran to the bathroom, and crouched next to the bathtub as my house shook and the sound of a roaring freight train drowned out the clanging of debris battering the roof. I was unbelievably fortunate that the damage to my home was minimal, but the house 8 doors down the street from mine saw utter devastation. Trees older than this nation had been ripped out of the crumbling sidewalks and dragged through houses. Nearly all of the neighborhood was rendered uninhabitable. 

For over a week the entire area was left without power, and people slept under tarps or in cars in front of their ruined homes, trying to figure out what to salvage and how to navigate the complicated and emotional web of disaster response and relief. 

We were already aware of Covid-19, but back then (I say, as if this was long ago, because these past two weeks have been the longest year of my life), few Americans feared it, or understood its potential for spread. We couldn’t think about a virus when people’s most basic needs weren’t being met. Dozens of families struck by the tornado with no immediate shelter travelled by foot over wrecked houses and downed trees and powerlines in order to join the survivors at the Farmer’s Market makeshift overnight shelter. When damage was discovered to the sanitary facilities there, the shelter was moved to the Sportsplex. Their beds were just a few feet apart: certainly not far enough to meet social distancing recommendations. Meals came from generous donors everywhere, and were served by countless volunteers. There was so much touching, and so much in the air.

In the aftermath of the tornado, competing concerns drowned out awareness of the virus. You see, people in North Nashville live in one of the most rapidly gentrifying communities in the country. The historically black, mostly working-class neighborhood with three HBCUs in its area code, is just a mile from downtown, and so it became inundated with opportunistic developers who posed as tornado relief volunteers. These predators knocked on doors of ruined homes with offerings of canned food and bottled water in one hand, and a business card in the other. 

Every time I leave my home (which is getting rarer and rarer these days), I pass a sea of blue tarps waving in the wind, barely concealing the fragmented remains of my neighbors’ homes beneath. Yet  I’ve stopped seeing news about one of the biggest natural disasters of the decade, because Covid-19 has taken over all media. Many articles are chiding people for not being cautious enough (which is true), but how can we be? 

In a way, the story of this virus reads almost like a fairy tale: billionaires in bunkers notwithstanding, no one person can securely protect themselves against the virus, but each person can protect everyone else from it. Self-isolation and obsessive hand-washing and disinfecting isn’t so that I don’t get sick- it’s to stop me from giving the virus to someone who can’t survive it in case I’m already infected. This virus is showing us how tightly we are bound together- if I don’t take care, I could hurt others. Those who aren’t taking care are endangering me, and everyone else. 

But when a tornado has taken your home and/or your job (many of the businesses here hire from within the community), and supermarket shelves are bare, and you were living hand-to-mouth to begin with because gentrification has raised property taxes and rents in the area, there’s no space to think about sanitation and self-isolation, even if those things were affordable and available to all. Which they are not, at all. 

These are the thoughts that consume me during my Covid-19 self-isolation in North Nashville. I’ve read the Imperial College Report. I know what’s coming, and I know how North Nashville will once again bear more than its fair share of the brunt of the awfulness. I know that we are nowhere near prepared to deal with any of it: the racism and classicism and ageism endemic in the private healthcare industry, or the vast number of deaths this nation will sustain. 

We are all going to lose someone that we love. 

That someone is going to be older, and hold a wealth of experiences and knowledge vital to the community.

Many of us are going to lose more than one someone. Especially up here. 

When this is over, nothing is ever going to be the same. 

If you are in a position to help, please do. Gideon’s Army has my strongest vote of confidence to always make the right decisions for people affected by the tornado and by the virus as they help rebuild North Nashville. 

 

First Impressions 15 years in the Making

by Lynn Clement


Ah, February.  The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start.  It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me.  It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.

A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.

For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included.  However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial.  This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.

I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”

In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium.  Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence.  Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident.  I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education.  This is because I immediately saw its worth.  This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.

auditorium benches chairs class
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking.  We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have.  I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom.  We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation.  We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing.  How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see?  Hopefully by taking my class.

This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking.  Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.

I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person!  Really!  I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.

I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years.  While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.

Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.)  They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?

exhibit painting display
Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com

Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment.  In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation.  What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done.  Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.

I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years.  With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.

 

Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh

First of all, Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

I’m a historian of Atlantic Africa, the slave trade, and Africans in the Americas, so often that’s where my focus is. But this week I want to remember that while this nation was built by the enslaved, it was built on native land taken by force. I want to remember not to make anyone feel guilty, but to take some moments to sit in my discomfort with America’s past. White people’s attempts to avoid discomfort have caused a great deal of hurt and destruction, and change begins with the self. I will sit in discomfort, and I will help others do the same. I truly believe that it is only when we tolerate our discomfort to fully acknowledge the injustices of our shared past that we can move into an equitable future.

I still believe it is possible, even if the ideal of an equitable future feels far away sometimes. Especially this week, especially if you are a woman or a non-binary person with any history of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or related trauma. Which is, well, all of us. We all have some experience with it, either directly, or through friends.

I’m not going to mince words. This week, most women in the US, like many other groups of people targeted by this administration, have felt that their country treats them like garbage.

That’s because right now, women (and other groups) are treated like garbage by our country. It’s the only way I have to explain what happened with Kavanaugh.

Something I want to address is how much something like this can affect the writing and productivity in general of women. Most of us are one “let’s give him the benefit of the doubt” away from either full-on screaming or bursting into tears in public. Our writing outputs are suffering. Continue reading “Self Care for Women Writers in the Age of Kavanaugh”

The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice

I’ve always been somewhat of a giant. Being the tallest kid in every class made me a bit shy,  and so I retreated often into my head, where all of my favorite stories lived. In kindergarten, I loved going to the bushes at the edge of the playground during recess and collecting the ladybugs that lived there.  I would let them crawl around on my hands with their tickly little legs as I gave them names and invented stories about their lives. Every now and then the other kids would ask if I wanted to swing, or play house, or do other things kids did, but I was obsessed with the ladybug game, so I thanked them and promised next time I would.

One day, a boy came up to me and asked me what I was doing.  I knew him as kind of a mean boy, but he had never done anything to me, and truth be told, though I was shy, I had my meangirl moments so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I explained the ladybug game to him, catching him up on the latest drama in bugland.

“That’s really neat,” he said. “Can I hold one?”

None of the other kids had ever expressed interest in my game. Eager for a friend to share in the joys of my ladybugs, I held my hand to his and nudged Esmerelda onto his thumb as I explained her backstory. She was going to become the first ladybug in space.

He held her up to the sun and nodded, then looked into my eyes. His squinted as the right side of his mouth curled up into a smirk.  He dropped the ladybug onto the ground, then stomped it while looking at me in glee.

Everything inside of me screeched with the injustice of it. He hadn’t just ruined my game, he had ended a life. It was unforgiveable.

I think maybe he expected me to cry. Or to run and tell the teacher. Instead, in one fluid movement, I shook the other ladybugs off of my hands, grabbed his hair, and threw him to the ground. Then I put my little pink sneaker on his throat and held it there until he started to cry and the teacher intervened.

Now, why am I sharing this story that paints five year old me in an incredibly unflattering and violent light?

It’s all about writing voice. Bear with me.

Continue reading “The Elusive Nonfiction Writing Voice”

St. Louis Protests 2017: Resource Round-Up

I’ve been thinking of Mandela’s words a lot in the last few days. It’s a reflection that resonates quite a lotfor me, standing on the sidelines as I watch and listen to news about the protests and often questionable police responses that have been happening daily for more than a week. On Friday, September 15, a judge found Jason Stockley not guilty of murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, an African American man who fled the scene when Stockley and his partner tried to confront him for what they suspected was a drug deal. Stockley shot Smith five times at the end of the ensuing chase.

You can read more about the verdict here, and see the full verdict here. Stockley opted for a bench trial, rather than a jury trial, and in the weeks leading up to the decision, things were tense. The governor even decided to make sure the National Guard was on hand “just in case” when the verdict came down. (Note: I may have missed something, but I don’t think the National Guard has actually been used at any protests.)

Continue reading “St. Louis Protests 2017: Resource Round-Up”