It’s December already?
It’s the end of December already?
As in, tomorrow is January 1, 2021?
I don’t believe you.
Time flies when you’re having fun, they say, but the real secret is that time flies when you stay busy. Was 2020 every busy. I got off to a roaring start teaching five different classes at two different institutions while also writing and applying for jobs, and then COVID happened. It took my classes online over a weekend and managed to stay one jump ahead for the rest of the semester, but when I emerged I discovered not only that the sudden contraction of university budgets had axed the jobs I had applied for but also that the places where I had been picking up classes didn’t need my services.
Since there was a pandemic going on and I wasn’t in imminent danger of being cast out on the street, I resolved to give myself a couple weeks to recover and work on writing projects. Pretty soon I had a bead on various other employment: an online class in Australia that ended up falling through, reviewing a manuscript that came with a bit of pay, some freelance editorial work. Then the classes started trickling in: one class for a school I’d previously worked (I ended up not teaching this one), then a community college class, then three courses at a local college. Suddenly I was teaching five classes on three different academic calendars at three institutions. Three of the classes I’d never taught before.
Oh, and I took a six week course on online pedagogy in the middle of the fall semester.
What I’m saying is that I’m still waiting for that part of lockdown where I get bored because I’ve exhausted all of my entertainment options.
My year-end essays each of the past few years have largely echoed each other as I grasped for new words to say the same thing. Increasingly, I wrote about my professional experience—giving in to the gremlin telling me to work harder, my failures on the academic job market, the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with being a very contingent professor—concluding last year that I’ve been experiencing stagnation.
In some ways, 2020 was much the same, only with lower peaks and lower valleys. I was more anxious and more tired than ever, but I am as proud of any of the writing I did this year as anything I have done in the past, inclusive of both the work that came out and the material still working its way toward daylight.
Only in the past few weeks have I started coming to grips with how 2020 was different.
The isolation brought on by the pandemic was more annoying than debilitating at first. I’ve lived too far from most friends and family for regular visits for more than a decade so when restrictions pushed everyone online, it actually brought many loved ones closer to me than they had been for some time. Similarly, I suddenly found myself more able to sleep with neither a commute nor an available gym. (I’m still trying to figure out replacement work outs that work with what I have available, though.) Work took more time, sure, but I find working toward clear goals relaxing, so I could often put my head down and dig in.
Reader, this was neither healthy, nor sustainable.
Our decision to be responsible and stay home for the holidays caused the isolation to crash home anew, balancing whatever physical rest we get by avoiding holiday travel with emotional strain of not seeing family.
Much of my exhaustion can be traced to the usual suspects (work, anxiety, depression), but this year has also brought into relief another source of exhaustion: rage. I spent so much time angry this year, often whipping from one target to another. Any list of triggers would be inadequate, and perhaps the most infuriating part is how few of conditions were actually new. COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.
Forget a lockdown, many places in the United States didn’t put in place a mask ordinance. There is a restaurant in Jefferson City, MO, about twenty miles south of me, that only started requiring masks a month ago, and then only from 3–5 PM as special “COVID-safe” hours.
I am numb at the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and millions more could have long-term health complications—maybe now a dreaded pre-existing condition, who knows!—with millions more out of work or with limited income and yet so many people seem to have simply given up anything more than token efforts. Not to let a good crisis go to waste, the profits of billionaires have soared, the families of congresspeople engaged in what seems like blatant insider-trading, and the people in charge of overseeing a pandemic response either treated a deadly disease like a hoax or a PR-stunt. If the stock market doesn’t crash and the carnage is confined to your political opponents, then everything is fine, right? We could feed people and stimulate the economy, but have you considered the deficit? It has been a full year since COVID started and nine months since it started racing through the United States and just today I read reports about doses of the COVID vaccine spoiling because its rollout has been so haphazard that the clinic didn’t have “eligible” recipients.
I can feel the bile rising writing the preceding paragraphs, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s the thing: none of things is going to change with the calendar flipping to 2021. Sure, a Biden administration will help a little given enough time to straighten out the official response and to take the mean edge off of some policies. But setting the goal at normalcy is tantamount to wanting to sweep everything that happened this year under the rug so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.
This is the point I keep coming back to as new year approaches. I have long maintained that teaching is what I can do to help make the world a better place, but my surety of that has been shaken over the past year. Doubts that began pre-COVID given the nature of contingent faculty work have only accelerated once the pandemic hit because it is almost impossible to do the sort of teaching I want to do while everyone involved was also coping with the pandemic. This may entail a career change, but I thought as much last year, too, so who knows.
If all of this sounds bleak, that is because I’ve spent my days recently cycling through rage and resignation. Compared to many people this year, I’m fine. I’m exhausted and little heavier than I’d like to be, but that’s what happens when you lose access to a gym and spend a lot of the year expanding your repertoire of baked goods. I am healthy, as are those closest to me, and I have a roof over my head and food on my plate. But this year has also made clear that we should not take these basic necessities for granted.
I might be ready to leave 2020 behind, but I have no intention of forgetting it anytime soon.