The coronavirus has taken the narrative shape away from both students and professors.     

-Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

For this special edition of Literary Sustenance, we’re reflecting on an aspect of our new normal that’s impacting millions: the disruption of higher education.

The closing down of campuses and the transition to distance-learning may seem minor when we compare it to overwhelmed hospitals and massive unemployment, but the eradication of campus life is still a loss, and a complicated one. College isn’t just a place to get a degree; it’s the setting for a formative period of growth, a wellspring for some of the most significant personal and professional relationships of our lives, and a symbolic and literal promise—especially for first-generation and nontraditional students—of a future full of new and different possibilities.

In March, shortly after many cities across the country issued sheltering-in-place recommendations, renowned poet and critic, longtime New Yorker contributor, and Wellesley College English professor Dan Chiasson published a powerfully resonant essay, “The Coronavirus and the Ruptured Narrative of Campus Life,” in The New Yorker.  This piece, full of poignant insights about the consequences—emotional, logistical, health-related—of removing students from their regular learning environments, struck a chord with people across the nation, personalizing the impact in a way that hit home:

I keep thinking especially of students who are in love, and who may be in love in ways not permitted in their homes or communities. The person you became infatuated with last Thursday is now suddenly going to be on the other side of the world. I think of students whose identities needed the entirety of spring to play out. What will they face when sent abruptly home? They’d just got started.

We spoke with Dan, below, about the emotional intricacies of teaching poetry and being there for his students in the midst of a semester that’s anything but typical.

In our next blog post, Part II of this reflection on higher education in the midst of COVID-19, we have something we’re especially proud to share with you: personal reflections on this issue from the other side of the lectern (or the Zoom screen, as it were), courtesy of four of our amazing BABF interns. You can find their personal reflections on college life in lockdown here.

Moleskines, The Waste Land, Meeting Students’ Cats, and Adventures in Zoom: A Conversation with The New Yorker‘s Dan Chiasson

“I threw out the old syllabi and chose poems that speak to interruption.”

BABF: Since you’ve started teaching your poetry courses online, do you find that the narrative trajectory of the class—the progress you’d all made together thus far, and are now trying to build on virtually—has been deeply disrupted? Or are you able to establish a different kind of collective forward motion?

DC: Today [editor’s note: this conversation is from last month] I began our online ZOOM courses, and it was fantastic to hear each others’ voices and to adapt as best we could to the circumstances. I was in our filthy kitchen, but had angled the screen to give a view of the window behind me. It was 6 AM for the students on the West Coast. I met two magnificent cats, and we bonded over the Netflix show Tiger King. Clearly, here was a new experience with its own phenomenology—and though I’m trying to stitch the new reality into the old, the moment calls for some measure of reinvention.

My classes are continuing on three fronts. I started blogs for them on Blogger, which takes everybody back to the heady days of 2012. It’s pleasingly low-fi and nostalgic. I post a poem or text a day and a short comment. The students respond to my comment with their own, or generate new posts with information about the day’s text—or about anything they’s like to share. Distraction is important. Second, we’re doing the ZOOM classes. Third, I had them all buy moleskines and create homemade books, using the space however they choose. I’m going to prompt them to upload images from these books to the blog.

The ZOOM classes remind us that every situation is different. Some students are disadvantaged by, say, being across the world; others might be down the block but need to care for their little brother all day. Nobody so far that I know of has become ill, but lots of students have parents and loved ones working in ways that put their lives in jeopardy.

BABF: What’s been resonating with your students lately, poetry-wise?

DC:  Both of my classes are reading Emily Dickinson (one is a seminar on Dickinson; the other is an introduction to literature, where I do a long unit on Dickinson). I threw out the old syllabi and chose poems that speak to interruption. Today we discussed “I tie my hat—I crease my shawl”—a poem about “life’s little duties” and the ways they do and do not shield us from existential terror. It’s good to read that poem alongside another Dickinson poem, “The clock stopped—not the Mantel’s”—both are about time-telling as a fragile practice bound to artifacts which can and do fail.

BABF:  You mentioned in the essay that you often synchronize your syllabus to the changes in seasons and light. If you somehow could’ve seen what was coming this spring semester, and were able to remake one of your syllabi in advance to correspond to these circumstances, what do you think you would’ve put on it?

DC: Such a good question. I wouldn’t know how to get through this period without Dickinson. I’d also assign (I’d have to think in depth about why) some early Frost, and maybe Hardy’s poetry. Some of the poems of the nineteen-teens and twenties which seem so simple and lyrical, and yet the backdrop was pandemic and war and carnage. And I suppose The Waste Land will be on people’s minds. We do seem to be living through a period like the one Eliot synthesized in that poem.

BABF: Do you have any chance to read for pleasure these days? Is there anything in particular that’s been bringing you solace?

DC: I am slowly reading War and Peace, trying to keep track of which princess has the mole and which princess has the mustache. It’s a slow process but we have the time. I just read a wonderful memoir by the philosopher John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story, about his discovery of a scholarly library in the wilds of New Hampshire, infested by animals and insects, but containing some of the most important books which belonged to the giants of 19th century American philosophy: people like William James and Charles Sanders Pierce. The book asks whether life is worth living, which is the question James asked. I think it comes out on the side of Yes, Barely. Which will have to do, for now.