I started college as a seventeen year old freshman in 1976, and with the exception of two years in the early 1980s, I’ve been affiliated with a college or university ever since. During my forty-plus years in academia, our nation has faced wars, recessions, political scandals, sexual abuse crises, and much more. But there’s never been anything like the current Covid-19 pandemic. My family and I spent the 2005-2006 academic year in China during the “bird flu” pandemic. We took precautions and experienced some anxiety, but there were no restrictions on travel, and during my eleven months there, I gave thirty-seven lectures across the country. The bird flu was hard to catch—the virus had to enter your lungs—but Covid-19 is highly contagious, though for most people it isn’t nearly as serious. My son, who is in the PhD program in English at the University of Wisconsin, has it, and so does his fiancée, who defended her dissertation in political science at Georgetown in April. Their symptoms are akin to those associated with a bad cold. But we know of others—in the United States, Europe, and China—who haven’t fared as well. I’m sure many of you do, too.
We all have our own stories, and we’re all facing different forms of uncertainty. It’s my understanding that the university plans to open in the fall and is implementing technology in classrooms that will allow students to participate virtually, if that’s their preference. It’s also possible that we’ll all spend another semester online. But no matter what happens, it will be some time before most of us feel like things are “normal.” There are two lines of advice I’ve given my family over the years. They’ve become family clichés, and I’ve experienced some good natured ribbing because I’ve repeated them so often. One is, “You don’t know what’s coming, but you know that something is coming." The other is, “Take the good.” Well, now we know that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and that we can’t be sure what’s headed our way next. We also know there’s still plenty of good to take. Some of you—our students are the very best in the university—will be earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. Your studies may not have wrapped up the way you envisioned, but that shouldn’t detract from your achievement. You made it despite the pandemic. It’s a big deal and the faculty is very proud of you. I hope you take time to celebrate and savor your success. Others are making progress towards their degrees. The key word here is progress. Again, it may not be in the way that you wanted, but you are still moving forward. When the pandemic ends—and it will end—you’ll be in a better position because of your resiliency. Our faculty—the very best in the university—accepted the challenge of online teaching and have worked hard to make it as successful as possible. Our scholarship continues. Several faculty members have completed, or are on the verge of completing, new books; and a steady stream of articles and other publications continue to flow from the department. We’ve hired a terrific new faculty member, Amanda Auerbach, and we have a full cohort of six new students entering the graduate program in the fall. Take the good. Taryn Okuma and I also will be introducing a new fashion line for the department, one that will give the English department a distinct identity on campus:
David M. O'Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
Chair, Department of English