[This is a lightly edited version of the message I sent to students in my online MA course on “Negotiating Digital Media,” announcing a change in grading policy for the course in light of the twin emergency of COVID-19 and widespread unemployment/financial collapse. I spoke further to the point in an accompanying YouTube video.]
It is strange, I know, to be carrying on as though things are normal when, ever more terribly clearly, things are very much not normal. The world is in tumult, and each of you is caught up in or relatively free from or attached to or responsible for helping others negotiate that tumult in very different ways. We share a common predicament in the novel coronavirus raging through our analogue and digital worlds, and yet we each access that shared predicament in profoundly different ways. We occupy “worlds” nearly altogether separate.
And all the same, here we are. Here each of you is, writing or speaking into the ether, hearing and reading one another and being together in a space that is no-space, a digital classroom space of discussion delimited by the mental link you cannot help but make between this email and past emails from me and discussions between you unfolding on BBLearn and the general framing of the course via the different modules of the BBLearn shell, all capable of being called up visually in real time with near perfect synchrony on each of your—of our—individual desktops or laptops or tablets or phones or, for the love of Pete!, watches. Here, then, we are together in a digital no-space, precisely where we most definitely are not as analogue selves (and yet also really are as analogue selves, inasmuch as our being digitally here is a matter of giving attention, pupils dilating and contracting with our breathing as we each read and process these and other words).
And here we are, too, in time. Arriving via the digital or virtual space defined by this email or BBLearn, each of which depends on (and co-creates the meaning of!) the analogue space of the university at large, we occupy a shared time zone, so to speak. We share the instantaneity of our digital connections. We share the temporal framing of the course, which places us along a course that moves along with time’s arrow to a definite end, and that at every moment shapes each of us through our readings or re-readings (or not-readings, as the case may be) of the course materials at hand. And we virtually or digitally share, too, a larger cultural moment, a moment organized around the fears and realities of viral transmission, of suffering, death, economic derangement—though we each access that larger moment in our very different ways, it is a hard kernel of reality (both digital and analogue!) that unfolds and enfolds us all in that unfolding.
We share a common bodily susceptibility to viral replication within us. We share a moment of widespread vulnerability to that hard truth. We share, each depending on their analogue and digital locations, in larger social difficulties and suffering and solidaristic activity that have begun developing and will almost certainly deepen. We share, both bodily and digitally, in vulnerability and capacity alike. Both agency, or capacity, and vulnerability to the world are equally real.
So, I’m writing here to speak to our shared vulnerability and capacity both.
Let me be very direct and simple about the logistics. You will all receive ‘A’s in this course, no matter what you do from here on out.
Your life and work circumstances vary widely. Some of you can complete our shared work and thinking together even more readily now than before. Some of you are straining to do even a little of the reading, already at capacity from lives overburdened by radically new demands. You are suddenly free from the dictates of work but cannot tear yourself away from pandemic updates or are facing a financial emergency; or, conversely, you are now working from home while somehow also caring for small children. Or, you are now responsible for creating newly digital courses for high school or college students, on a moment’s notice and with hazy parameters at best. Or, you are being paid still at a 9-5 job where real task demands have slowed to nearly zero as you “work” from home. Or, and or, and or, and or . . .
None of those experiences is right or wrong. We each occupy this moment of shared vulnerability differently. We each find ways to negotiate our semi-shared constraints differently. But, there is no denying that this is a time of disaster. So, again, you will all receive ‘A’s in this course. This is, in my view, a reasonable negotiation of the fact that some of you—for reasons simply beyond your control—are suddenly far more vulnerable than you were a few weeks ago, when the course began.
At the same time, I believe that our work here in this course is more important than ever. The work, of course, is discovering useful ways of negotiating digital media together. In a period of worldwide vulnerability to bodily contagion, where all lives that can be are almost instantly far more digitally mediated than they previously were, this work matters. The theoretical and practical work we do together enable you to better shoulder your share of a newly intensified set of demands on digital life, demands that are likely only to increase in the months to come. All who can, I expect to participate fully in our work in this course.
Please know that I will continue to read your writing and watch and listen to your videos with the utmost seriousness, and that I will be responding to formal writing assignments accordingly—and please know that by “seriousness” I mean not some fiction of rigor to be attained by distributing grades along a continuum from best to worst, but rather an attendance to your personhood in your work, to each of your own serious efforts to engage in conversation with the material you are reading, as you sort that out together to some extent, and your efforts to negotiate in discourse the constraints I have set up for the course.
In other words, I will continue to read or watch carefully your discussions on the discussion board, and to respond conversationally to your weekly writings. Those who are unable to participate fully, I trust are unable because they are called to responses to our collective emergency that make such participation impossible. If that describes you, I hope you will consider reaching out to communicate with me about it. Those who are able to participate fully, I trust will continue to do so.
In this exceptional time, I ask only that each of you participate in our course as fully as is consistent with the dictates of conscience and care for yourself and others.
I look forward to continuing to learn with you all, and wish you each all good things.