Covid snuck up on us early this calendar year and after the initial disorientation and a fast pivot to online, we spent a remarkable and unsettling spring glued to our screens, whether teaching or—in our "free" time—scrolling through new kinds of numbers (positivity, incidence, prevalence), trying to divine some more general meaning for what was happening. As I write this, I'm trying to remember and differentiate the welter of things that underwent a sea-change during the pandemic summer.
Letter from the Chair
We cancelled overseas programs to prevent the transmission of the virus across borders and invented new summer courses, we closed the campus, we conferred constantly on Zoom, and got to know each other's WFH backgrounds, we shared memes and videos, learned protocols and wrote up some of protocols of our own, came up with policies for reopening safely, for contingencies in case things weren't as safe as we hoped, and plans for teaching, orienting, and recruiting. We learned about webinars and podcasts and padlets and how to use screenshare and waiting rooms and avoid zoombombing. It's been a welter of adjustments and, though I hope no one is ultimately reconciled to them, we've willy-nilly found ourselves caught up in a host of new routines we could scarcely have imagined a year ago.
After a summer of improvising and provisioning, Germanic Studies this fall has been teaching all of our basic language courses remotely, though mostly in real time. Courses above the fourth semester largely have at least one component that meets in person. It's this in-person teaching in Ballantine—which might have represented a familiar remnant of our old IU routine—that I've found the most uncanny. Hallways that would normally be packed between classes are eerily quiet. Classrooms have been assigned to have a capacity three times greater than enrollments. But enrollments do not reflect the number who actually show up in person. In one of my classes, in which I have 21 students in a classroom that holds 64, I've had as few as 3 show up in person, with everyone else—isolating or quarantining or enrolled from another state or city or country—appearing on a Zoom screen projected on either end of the classroom (where does one even point one's eyes?). What really makes it uncanny, though, isn't the mixture of presence and pixels, but something more subtle. What's strangest is how largely normal it is to walk into a de-densified classroom, fasten on a lapel mike, adjust the mobile ceiling camera, turn on projectors and monitors, and once we're all communicating across platforms and over empty desks, to proceed to share our screens with each other, or to pass around a hand-held mike so those of us speaking in the room are also audible miles away in zoom-land. My students certainly haven't missed a beat—I don't know if they are especially more digitally native than the faculty, I think it's rather just that everyone is simply game for making a virtue of necessity. And while it would be a shame if we adjusted too completely to this technical virtuosity, everything so far has fallen more or less neatly into place in a new world that turns out to be a surprisingly reasonable facsimile of the old world. Who knew we could just switch things around like that? Still, as much as I'm astonished by our adaptability, it feels less like we've taken one giant leap for humankind, than we've skewed the world a few degrees off its initial coordinates, and now only occasionally notice with a shudder that everything isn't quite where it used to be.
Philosophical Befindlichkeiten aside, for those of you not here in the hybrid world of IU Bloomington Germanic Studies, let me emphasize that despite the strange torsion of a campus in Covid, our department is thriving in all the ways it needs to thrive. Of course, it's not always easy, especially for our many new-comers in this time of transition. Irit Dekel, Chris Sapp, and Lane Sorensen have had to adjust to being new faculty members without the benefit of having been able to gather in person at GISB or at all the other places we'd normally be formally or informally gathering. But from the force of their presence in our virtual life, you'd hardly know anything was amiss. And our new graduate students and Kade fellows—Brian Hensley, Elaine Dalida, Jacob Hoffman, David Garner, Ivette Dreyer—have likewise hit the ground running, despite having to negotiate all the directives about testing and distancing and to find new channels of communication to replace the rich interactions that otherwise would be happening on campus and in town. If, on the one hand, there's surely something uncanny about the brave-new world of Covid, on the other hand, uncanny is not the right word for the wonderful resourcefulness, kindness, creativity and persistence of the faculty, staff, and students in Germanic Studies. There's nothing calculated and dialed-in about how we've regrouped to continue our common mission of teaching and learning, posing big and persistent questions, hosting imaginative and challenging voices, collecting and writing up research, and analyzing, parsing, interpreting, and arguing the meaning of what we find. In that fundamental project, I'm happy to report, IU Germanic Studies remains patiently undeterred.