This is the fifth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.
By Victoria Seta Cosby
Being back on campus is like being in an alternate universe where everything is the same and yet somehow different. Everything feels familiar while also being simultaneously much more sinister and dangerous. Teaching on campus has always carried some pressures, but now I am responsible for the physical health of my students in the classroom. I must ensure that my students wear their masks (properly), which is a significant additional anxiety on top of my teaching responsibilities. Despite this, I am not being compensated for the additional burden of maintaining COVID-19 safety procedures. I am also not getting any hazard pay to make up for the risks I am exposed to being in contact with 50 undergraduate students on a weekly basis. Communication from the university about safety planning and backup plans has been slow and generally unhelpful.
All these additional problems have worn me down physically and mentally. I am finding it very hard to work on my thesis when I am also trying to maintain my own safety in the unpredictability of this new reality. The university refuses to acknowledge that graduate students are facing any real hardships and need extensions on funding and completion times.
The uncertainty of the future is weighing heavily on everyone. We do not know if we are going to be teaching in person one week to the next, or if we will have to isolate because of exposure. The situation is unpredictable and anxiety provoking. I am seeing the toll that it is taking on my peers and myself, mentally and physically. We do not have a choice about teaching in person; graduate students were not consulted in those decisions. At the same time, even as we are exposed to large groups in our professional lives, it feels irresponsible to meet up with people socially. The social aspect of graduate school was often the thing that kept me going, and I am now grieving the loss of this social connection. Many graduate students feel hypocritical for teaching in close quarters – as universities are exempt from the 6-foot social distancing rules – while also advocating for mask wearing, vaccinations, and general pandemic related safety measures. Seeing as we are already betraying some of the public health measures for our jobs, how can we rightfully socialize even in small groups when we might be endangering those who haven’t broken the rules for their careers?
I am also dealing with my own personal set of issues. My knee is mostly recovered from my surgery in July 2020, but I still have some physical limitations. In general Queen’s campus is difficult to navigate when you have knee troubles, let alone any other mobility needs. The classroom I was assigned is “accessible”, but only if you take a specific elevator. I made this navigation mistake and was forced to walk up a flight of stairs because of the odd set up of the building. Accessibility will become even more of an issue in the winter months when icy and slippery floors make every step perilous. I fear that a slip or fall might lead to more serious injuries. Although my family lives in Ontario, I am still hours away from my support system. I also inhabit the strange in-between space of having a temporary injury which causes mobility issues. My knee will become stronger over time, so I am very aware that my experiences are not the same as someone with permanent physical disabilities, and I do not want to take up space or talk over the voices of others. But these past many months have taught me that the university is not prepared for able-bodied students to encounter sudden changes to their health – either through chronic illness, injury, or other means. There is not even an easy way for students to stay home when they are sick with a cold or flu – and these sweep through university campuses every year! There needs to be alternatives in place so that students can attend classes virtually if needed, and thanks to COVID-19 we know that these electronic alternatives are possible. It is time for the university to update the cruel custom of pushing through illness and injury for education as if it were some sort of hazing ritual.
Though the return to campus has brought additional stressors into my life, I am doing my best to prioritize my physical and mental health, and to look after my personal needs before my research, teaching and writing responsibilities (and I would encourage all of my fellow graduate students to do the same).
Despite the challenges, there have been some benefits to the return to campus. I have been able to reconnect with many friends, now that we are back together in the same city. I am enjoying some advantages from being able to teach in person, as I do see that some students benefit from these face-to-face interactions in the classroom. I do very much enjoy teaching, even with the stress of potential COVID-19 exposure. My cats (I have three) love my new apartment. My supervisors are incredibly kind and understanding. They are strong supporters of my research, and my mental and physical health. I am also lucky to have an amazing cohort of colleagues who have become friends. I have many things to be grateful for, and I am consciously making an effort to remind myself of these things whenever I start to get overwhelmed. All of these positives do not outweigh the everyday stressors of our new reality, and university administrators need to address the needs of their vulnerable populations, from staff to graduate students and the ever precarious adjunct professors.
Victoria Seta Cosby is an upper year doctoral candidate in the Queen’s History Department. Her research interests include Canadian women, the British World, and gender and sexuality studies. She is currently working on a critical feminist biography of Harriet Dobbs Cartwright.