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25 November 2020

COVID on Campus, a Fall 2020 Retrospective

The University System of Georgia (USG) forced faculty, staff, and students into in-person classroom instruction for the Fall 2020 semester. To my knowledge, there has been no indication that any high-level campus administrators at Georgia College (GC) raised any concerns with the Chancellor, Board of Regents, or anyone else at the USG over the wisdom of this initiative. Over the semester, I have regularly updated data visualization of my campus's COVID-19 cases. In-person classes ended yesterday (11/24). Below are those charts:


Here are some facts, findings, and dates:
  • More than 12% of students (727) taking at least one in-person course disclosed a positive COVID test during the semester.
  • 36 employees disclosed a positive COVID test during the semester.
  • The peak reporting of new cases occurred on 8/24 with 79 new cases, 16 days after students moved into on-campus housing and 12 days after classes began.
  • The peak of active infections (i.e. total cases 14-day window) occurred on 8/31 with 539 cases (9% of students [536] taking at least one in-person course), 23 days after students moved into on-campus housing and 19 days after classes began.
  • GC president, Steve Dorman, threatened students with suspension over non-compliance with university policy on 8/25.
  • GC Student Life announced the creation of a COVID CARE Response Team on 9/8.
  • GC Student Health Services began offering no-cost COVID-19 saliva tests on 9/11.
  • USG chancellor, Steve Wrigley, announced that we will "stay the course" on 9/15.
  • Under remarkably similar circumstances (i.e. 700 student cases on ~4000-student campus), SUNY-Oneonta president, Barbara Jean Morris, resigned on 10/15.
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A few notes:
  • The data are primarily confirmed test results volunteered by students and employees, which means the actual numbers are certainly higher than reported.
  • At no point before or during the semester did the administration conduct any systematic contact tracing.
  • The administration neither required nor offered testing of students or employees before returning to campus for the semester.
  • 5859 students took at least one in-person course during the semester.
  • The administration published "employee" test results but did not distinguish between faculty and staff, and I have been unable to find a total count of current employees on campus.

23 November 2020

Rethinking Honors Education

My small, public liberal arts campus just transformed an honors program into an honors college, helped along with a very healthy donation from a wealthy emeritus professor. Over the years, I have taught a handful of honors sections of a frosh-level course. To be honest, they have been among the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career. They were what I imagined teaching at a liberal arts college would be. The students were enthusiastic. They wanted to be in the room. They interacted with me and with each other. They welcomed challenge--at least as much we humans can actually welcome that kind of thing. They were hardworking. Frankly, though, most of them were no more or less intelligent than their counterparts in non-honors sections, as far as I could tell. I don't have systematically-collected data to confirm this, but the honors students seemed to be disproportionately white, middle-class, and women.

I have found myself asking several questions about honors education (HE) over the years, though:

  1. What is the purpose of HE?
  2. Are honors students better off having HE?
  3. What do HE programs mean for students from marginalized backgrounds, who are not typically in HE?
Here are some answers that I've worked through:
  1. Disappointingly, I've yet to hear why we do HE articulated clearly. Inasmuch as there is explanation, it draws on much of the same mission, values, and buzzwords that are used on our campus to articulate what we do more broadly.
  2. I suspect that the kind of student who would qualify for HE is the kind of student who is likely to be successful with or without HE.
  3. My fear is that HE diverts resources from those who would benefit most to those who need it the least.

What the literature in the sociology of education shows is that education, at least as we currently do it, is not an equalizer; instead, it does social reproduction. Honors education seems like a quintessential example. Imagine how much more of an effect that million-dollar donation could have had for at-risk students (i.e. BIPOC, lower-class, first-generation, etc.). It's difficult for me to justify. While honors students are likely to succeed in college and beyond without much help from us, at-risk students benefit from any help that we can offer.

13 November 2020

Pop Culture, Decline, and Nostalgia

I listen to podcasts on my commute to work. During the summer, when I don't need to commute regularly, the podcasts accumulate so I've been listening to the backlog. I just listened to a Fresh Air interview this morning from mid-March with Hank Azaria when he discussed his show Brockmire, in which he plays the titular character, a troubled baseball announcer. I had heard about the show before but don't get IFC, where the show airs, so I hadn't thought about it much, which is a little surprising because it checks several boxes for me, being a baseball, comedy, and Azaria fan. I think it's available on Hulu now, though, so I'll probably check it out.

Hank explained the origins of the series in the interview:

I created the character when I was a teenager. I saw it as a sketch, as an excuse for a lot of sophomoric laughs, and I had the guy be a blackout drunk because it would justify speaking like that on the air, but [head writer] Joel [Church-Cooper] saw the man's alcoholism coming to the fore and how he kind of represented baseball, and baseball kind of represented what was kind of aging and out of touch in our society, as Brockmire now is as he's been sort of exiled and trying to find his way back. [lightly edited; emphasis added]

As much as I love baseball and it pains me to acknowledge, my love of the game is mostly a nostalgic love. Its popularity has wained over the years, and even though we may still refer to it as "America's pastime," it's more accurately America's pastime of the past. This reminded me of Ken Burn's Baseball, the sprawling, 19-hour documentary on the institution. Burns has also taken up other Americanisms in his works. Jazz, for example, documents the birth and development of what is often referred to as America's only truly original artform. Jazz the musical style, though, is inarguably in its terminal, traditionalist genre form (see Lena's Banding Together). Like jazz, baseball lingers as a traditional remnant, an artifact of a bygone era that we can't seem to fully jettison, something that still feels definitional even as it's losing popular resonance.

Honestly, Burn's ability to highlight both locations for cultural decline as well as our often-uncritical nostalgia over those institutions is unsettling, especially given some of his other films, like The National Parks. What are our roots? How have they changed and been replaced? How do we relate to that now? Much of our politics today seem to be an abstraction of these very questions, a messy working-out of our past, present, and future.

28 October 2020

The 3B's and Politics

I've written before about the 3 B's approach to understanding religion. Essentially, it argues that we should think about religion as a combination of believing, behaving, and belonging. All religions can be understood to fiddle with those three dials. For example, Evangelical Protestantism sets the knobs for believing and behaving very high, while belonging is fairly low; Reform Judaism sets the knob for belonging at 11, but turns down believing and behaving. In other words, Evangelicals are definitely about having the right beliefs about Jesus but don't care about what denomination or congregation they are a part of, and Jews won't bat an eye if you're an atheist as long as you belong to the tribe. The cultural dominance of Protestantism broadly has hampered the study of religion by focusing too narrowly on believing. We gain predictive power by paying attention to belonging, in particular.

I think that we could gain a lot to apply this same approach to understanding politics. How do people set their relative knobs for political ideas (believing), political participation (behaving), and party identification (belonging)? We've been hampered by an insistence on the importance of political ideology (i.e. conservative vs. progressive) for too long. People's beliefs are often internally inconsistent and at times not in their own best interest (e.g. working-class folks against social benefits programs). If we take party identification as belonging more seriously, these kind of dissonances become less perplexing because people may have the believing dial turned down and the belonging dial turned up. This is quite evident here in the South, where I live, among Republicans. Many have internalized this label in the same way that they have their loyalty to their favorite college football team (which is to say to the bone). They care far more about their "team" than they do about actual policy. Instead of being dismissive of that, we should take it seriously, just as they do.

24 September 2020

Sentimentalizing Downs

For some time now, I've noticed something disturbing on social media. There are countless memes and several accounts/pages that are devoted to what I'll call the sentimentalization of Down Syndrome. (I will not link to them here, but they are easily discoverable.) On the surface, the content seems innocuous and heartwarming: cutesy photographs of young children with the physical characteristics typical of trisomy 21. Presumably, those who administer, contribute, disseminate, and "like" the content do so at least in part to destigmatize the condition. In that much, it seems admirable; however, it may have a darker component. I see parallels in the similar treatment of young, black boys. White women (and, yes, it is racialized and gendered because "social construction") will coo and ahh at pictures of black boys, but it is these same white women who will contribute to the negative, racist outcomes for the black males once they stop being cute and start to be perceived as dangerous.

Treating marginalized peoples in the same way that you would a puppy dog does nothing to normalize and everything to perpetuate otherness. The full personhood of those with Downs can be achieved only through full humanization, not through sentimentalization.