Yale leaders talk about COVID-19: FAS Dean of the Humanities Kathryn Lofton

Kathryn Lofton
Kathryn Lofton

This interview is part of a running series.

How are faculty in the humanities responding to the effects of the COVID-19 crisis?

Yale humanists are creative and conscientious. They are also, like all scholars, committed to the search for truth. For that reason, they are allergic to saying everything is fine when, quite obviously, it is not. In responding appropriately to public health directives, our lives are changed. Newly crowded living quarters, economic precariousness, and worries about our physical well-being define our everyday. Yale humanists experience these realities as family members and citizens, but also as teachers and researchers whose common subject and craft is the interpretation of reality. “We know what is by marking the shape of what is lost,” Meghan O’Rourke, editor of the Yale Review, has recently written, aptly capturing what scholars of the humanities practice, every day.

How has the turn to remote learning affected the humanities classroom?

What you see is an effort on all sides to make something work. Faculty have corresponded with each other at length about principled adjustments to remote learning. Scores of faculty show up to video conferencing training sessions at the Poorvu Center, ready to learn. Department registrars coordinate at all hours of the day and night with directors of undergraduate and graduate studies as they rethink deadlines for senior essays and practical resolutions to individual student dilemmas. Our instructional faculty, especially those teaching languages, have led the way, since the work of language learning necessarily includes daily pedagogy. I learn anew how insightful and committed our colleagues at the Center for Language Study are.

This is a fatiguing reorganization of our work. The faculty rally because of their commitment to a liberal arts education as a moral and political imperative. They find ways to reconvene because they hear strong calls from their students to have an intellectual connection apart from news updates and family struggles. This is not about the classroom as an oasis, but a requisite site for thinking-in-common about problems. We will benefit in the coming generations from what students continue to learn in Yale courses about ethics; about medicine and society in American history; about neighbors and others; about how to write about the past; about art, magic, and science; about social movements and social change.

As indicated by the success of Open Yale Courses, lecture courses are the easiest to shift to an online model, although those Open Yale Courses emerged from many years of experience and production, so using them as a standard for this moment would be inappropriate. Lecture courses often include seminar teaching in the form of discussion sections, and these are the most difficult to stage digitally. Neither online discussion threads nor video conferencing reconstruct the same level of rigorous discussion and debate that are the hallmarks of seminars. Instructional continuity is about the positive power of human connection, not the perfect recreation of what was.

Does faculty research in the humanities continue?

The next month includes the publication of several books by Yale humanities scholars, including Valerie Hansen’s “The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World — and Globalization Began,” Alan Mikhail’s “God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World,” and Nicole Turner’s “Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia.” These wonderful books are the result of learned engagement with archives and library collections. The closing of libraries and collections, necessary for our public health, creates a pause in the production of such research.

Some academics on social media, looking for a positive element in the present chaos, point to Isaac Newton’s or William Shakespeare’s productivity during the plague. Although there may be reflective dividends from sequester, the emphasis on productivity during an international crisis misses the truth of malady and its relationship to creativity. “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill.” Woolf noted how rarely illness appears in the arts. Artists and critics find their voice in considered reflection on trauma — as Woolf would in “Mrs. Dalloway” — not easily in the midst of it.

A focus on the possibility of research productivity in crisis is countered by traditions of political and philosophical inquiry that enjoin us to direct our commitments outward at such times. In pandemic, war, and social upheaval, individual accomplishment and glory take a backseat to being present to what is going on around us, asking how we can best serve others in this particular moment. This virus and its consequences deepen already existing inequalities. Our vulnerability to falling ill does not relieve us of our continuing responsibility to acknowledge and alleviate inequality through our scholarly engagements.

What are humanists reading during the Covid-19 crisis?

Everyone seems to be reading right now, passing hyperlinks back and forth, sharing this tough-minded piece about how the pandemic will end, and that powerful piece about life with the virus, or this perceptive piece about the changing narrative of campus life. Colleagues around the world are building a crowd-sourced #coronavirussyllabus.

As we read this abundance of commentary, we’re reminded how we write through experience. In a recent message to teaching faculty, Richard Deming, director of creative writing, described how “the writing life, the life of the mind, is not an escape or separation from life, but the way of engaging it, head on, no matter the weather.”

When asked what they recommended to students, colleagues sent me passages from Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations,” Albert Camus’s “The Plague,” Mary Douglas’s “Purity and Danger,” Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” Octavia Butler’s “Parable” novels, Okakura Kakuzō’s “The Book of Tea,” Thomas Mann's “Death in Venice,” and Susan Sontag's “Illness as Metaphor.” Someone sent me Joy Harjo’s “Perhaps the World Ends Here” and someone else passed along Philip Larkin’s “The Mower.”

Ayesha Ramachandran explained that Petrarch framed his collection of letters (Rerum familiarium libri) as a response to the Black Death of 1348, constructing a common conversation among the living and the dead. Matthew Frye Jacobson reminded me that when Odetta sings “Boll Weevil,” she sings about the beetle infestation that destroyed the cotton industry in the early 20th century and encouraged the Great Migration. We research and teach materials that instruct us how people think through what their lives are and how they can make them differently. This thinking, how to live forward in moments of pain and loss, could not be more essential to our present and our future.

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