The Panicked Pandemic Call
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
March 10, 2020, at 7:30pm
Two university colleagues on a call facing uncertainty due to the looming pandemic.
Donna – frenzied faculty member
Mary – exhausted colleague and program coordinator
Deb: Hi Mary, it’s Deb.
Mary: Oh, hey Deb.
Deb: Do you know what’s happening? Is the school closing?
Mary: (tired voice) The last I heard, the campus is remaining open.
Mary: Yeah. (short pause) Admin announced today that faculty are expected to teach their classes until the end of the week.
Deb: Do you realize how incredibly irresponsible this is? I’m deciding if I should even teach my class on Thursday.
Mary: You can choose not to. I believe the admin is—
Deb: This is completely outrageous! The students are emailing me that they will not come to class and I don’t blame them. This is serious—the students are scared and upset. It’s irresponsible. Doesn’t anyone care about them? The school is putting them at risk! They are frightened to be in the dorms!
Mary: If they are so scared, why are they engaging in risky behavior? Did you know that two of the juniors went to a concert last night? And you teach juniors.
Deb: It doesn’t matter. These are smart and engaged students! We need to listen to them!
Mary: (deep breath) I know. But I can only tell you what the school is communicating. They are following NYC Health Department and CDC guidelines, and those agencies have not recommended school closures.
Deb: (irate) Mary, you don’t understand, the city and the state don’t know what they’re doing.
They don’t know what they’re talking about! My ex-husband is a doctor and he said the school needs to close.
Mary: I didn’t realize you still kept in touch with your ex.
Deb: He and my son are really close, and then there is our new grandchild. He is convinced the school needs to close and I should not be going to campus.
Mary: He’s probably right. (pause) Deb, I just got off the train and I’m totally exhausted. I need to be up early and on campus again tomorrow. Look, if you feel this strongly, then email the provost. He makes the decisions, not me.
Deb: Mary, I realize you are just communicating what the administration is telling you, but you cannot believe them! The provost and the admin don’t care and they are not doing the right thing!
Mary: (tired voice) I’m just the messenger, Deb. The provost said there are no confirmed cases on campus despite the rumors.
Deb: (angry) I’m not emailing him; the admin won’t listen! That’s not my job! You need to say something.
Mary: Okay. I will be on campus tomorrow and if anything changes I will let you know. I really need to go now. I’m so tired and I just want to get home.
Deb: Let me know what you find out.
Mary: I will. Talk to you tomorrow!
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.