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The End of the World, One Year In: Notes from (Off) Campus

Joel Heng Hartse
Joel Heng Hartse
Dr. Joel Heng Hartse is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He has written for publications including Image, Geez, Christianity Today, the Stranger, Paste, and the Vancouver Sun. His books include Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll, Teaching English at Colleges and Universities in China, and the forthcoming Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do.

January

I get an email from a scholar in China who is interested in working with me. To be honest, she probably isn’t interested in working with me and doesn’t know who I am, though we have both done research about Chinese students’ English writing. She is interested in coming to Canada, though, and has probably emailed everyone in my department. I’m one of the few who replied. She lives in Wuhan, which has been in the news recently. We exchange a few messages as the situation there seems to be getting worse, according to the news I read. I ask whether she still plans to travel to Vancouver given the virus. How are you hanging in there?

I’m fine, she says. I don’t live in the part of the town where the Seafood market is. This should be over in a few months. I’m looking forward to coming to Canada.

March

We have officially switched to online instruction. The translated poetry reading we were supposed to do as a celebration ending the multilingual writing class has been moved, like everything else, to Zoom. Incredibly, everyone shows up, dressed up, wearing lipstick, some with cans of beer or glasses of wine. It feels a bit like we are having a party to commemorate the end of a battle, though we are aware that the war continues.

One student, from Wuhan, has done a translation of Li Bai. A few weeks ago, a mention of Wuhan would elicit a nervous laugh from the class. I made a joke when a student coughed last month. It seemed funny at the time.

The poem he reads is about exile, missing your home, being unable to return. I have to turn off my camera for a minute.

April

It’s my first Zoom office hours. Some students are “dropping by” because, I think, they are lonely and scared and not sure what to do. One young woman I taught when she was a fresh-faced first-year, now in her fifth, appears on my screen.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“I guess I’m okay, considering that the world is ending,” she says. “How about you?”

“I mean, I would never go so far as to say that the pandemic is good,” I say. “It’s not good. People are dying. It does feel apocalyptic. But inasmuch as apocalypse just means an unveiling—laying bare the way the world really is—I welcome that.” I don’t mean to be heavy, but it seems like the time calls for honesty and seriousness.

“Boy, talking to your prof during office hours has really changed,” she says, deadpan: “‘I welcome the apocalypse.’”

June

One of my summer students writes to let me know she may have trouble finishing assignments because of a number of personal and family crises. She is also organizing letter-writing campaigns and protests. She, like me, is an American living in Canada. We are both trying to figure out what to do when it feels like our home is burning. She will later prove to be able to finish all her assignments on time.

I write a letter to my Congresswoman. I have to enter a fake address and explain that although I vote in her district, I live abroad. I encourage her to support a bill that I’m told will help end police brutality. I expect to be ignored, but I get a form email that begins “George Floyd should be alive today.”

July

I suspect more than one of my students has been receiving treatment for mental-health issues, but only one has actually FaceTimed me from a hospital. She remains steadfastly academic and professional, not mentioning her surroundings or circumstances or the gown she is wearing. She’s ready to talk about revisions to her final paper.

I find myself full of empty platitudes. I have been saying “hang in there” and “I’m rooting for you” more often than I ever imagined I would. These phrases don’t seem at all capable of carrying the weight I intend them to.

“I will your good,” I say to another student. It is hard to say what I really mean. I don’t know how honest I can be.

Another student promises to get back on track with his late assignments next week. He seems relieved when we finally have a chance to talk about making a plan to turn some things in with an extension. I don’t hear from him again.

September

I am teaching mostly to blank screens. I know my students by their names, the sounds of their voices, and occasionally their punctuationless chat messages. I am starting to understand why they don’t want to turn their cameras on—they just woke up, they’re still in bed, they’re using the old family desktop computer that has no webcam, they don’t have makeup on yet, they’re working on something for another class, whatever.

I will be accommodating. There’s no other ethical thing I can do. I’m not going to force anyone to show me their face. I can’t even force them to “attend” class, because I don’t know what country they’re in, some of them.

 

Some of my students are in Vietnam or China or Iran or Taiwan or Korea or Germany. They applied for college in the fall of 2019, expecting to have moved halfway across the world by now. Instead it is two in the morning where they live, and they’re still showing up to my class.

“You don’t have to do this,” I say earnestly to one of them.

“I don’t mind,” he says. “I have another midterm at 4:00 a.m.”

“Your professors can’t make you do that,” I say. “You have to advocate for yourself.”

This, again, feels much weaker than I intend. I would advocate for them, if I knew how. There is more I want to say into those blank screens, but I feel so lost as I watch them watch me, one small, brightly animated square among the black. In this moment I hardly know who I am without them. They are the black holes, but I am the one floating untethered in space.

My mother tells me that my twelfth-grade English teacher has died of cancer. She had us memorize Hopkins. We recited his poems as prayers every day. More than anything, I want to tell my students that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. But I’m not sure how honest I can be. I work for the Canadian government, for God’s sake.

October

“He saw that it was good,” my youngest son says, apropos of nothing. He’s just started kindergarten, in person, at the Catholic school in our neighborhood.

“Are you talking about the beginning of the Bible?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. With a matter-of-fact shrug, he adds, “at first, there was just, like—NOTHING.”

We’re on our way to check out a new park—one of our favorite pastimes during the pandemic—and we’re talking about what it would be like if we lived on this side of town.

“I’d be closer to work,” I say. “Although I don’t need to go to work nowadays.”

“But after,” he says. “After.”

December

Advent comes, and with it, news of a vaccine. As I scramble to start some research projects, students are turning in their final papers—they are mostly late, but most are trying their best to do good work. Most of the papers are about the impact of the pandemic on university students.

“How are your finals going?” I ask. They usually sigh.

“Good luck with everything,” I say as one face disappears and the ding of the Zoom waiting room lets me know the next student is ready.

What I am really trying to say is I love you.

What I really want to tell everyone is that though the last lights off the black West went / Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

I have more grading to do though. I’ve got to finish marking these papers. B+, you’re doing great, I’ll write. B-, hang in there. I hope they will know what I mean.