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Tiffany Ball Pandemic Pedagogy

Time:2020-04-09 10:40:04

Dear Students,
I am writing to you from Detroit, Michigan, where I am currently sheltering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As of today, April 1, 2020, documented cases of COVID-19 have reached 860,000 globally. While New York continues to be hardest hit in the United States, cases in my city are accelerating. Public gathering spaces have been closed, and our state governor has issued a “stay at home” order for all residents. I haven’t left my apartment, except for brief outdoor exercise, for 19 days.
And yet, every Tuesday morning, logging onto my computer in order to teach my course, Modern American Poetry, I feel moved. When I see your faces appear on screen and we begin our discussions for the day, I feel an undeniable spark of joy.This is a grim moment in history, and we all have burdens on our minds and hearts, but I am grateful for the work that we are doing together, for the comfort it brings me. This course was supposed to be held in Beijing, China on the Tsinghua University campus, and I do miss the opportunity to share physical space with you all. However, I am grateful for the online “classroom” that we have created, for the technology that brings us together across time and space, from my morning to your night, from my home office to your kitchen tables. 
This classroom that we share together online is a way of carrying on. Even during this difficult moment, we are able to connect, to think, to discuss, and to write. In a way, this virtual classroom enables us to practice a form of mindfulness aswe focus our attention on the task at hand and, thus, inhabit the present moment when perhaps we are tempted to yearn for the past or fear the future. Whether we are discussing an Imagist poem or a Cubist painting, we are tuningin, shifting our focus from that which we can’t control to that which we can. I don’t see this work we do together as a form of distraction. I see it as a way of continuing our work and of calming our minds so we can better weather the current challenges we face.
Moreover, the poems we study, though they were written at the beginning of the previous century, sometimes offer insights into our present situation. Recently, we read and discussedParis, A Poem. It is the most famous work by an under-read modernist author, Hope Mirrlees, a woman whose talent is comparable to that modernist giant, T.S. Eliot. I planned this syllabus months ago, long before COVID-19upended life as we know it, but the poem contains compelling synchronicities with our present situation.
Paris, A Poemtakes place in 1919 as the speaker sets out on a psychologicaljourney across the titular city. The First World War has just ended, and Mirrlees’s poem conveys a sense of both joy and trepidation as Parisiansemerge to celebrate the end of the war and the beginning of spring. The city is, at once, mourning its deadand reanimated by postwar peace as the poem documents how everyday life returns to the Parisian streets. The speaker witnesses “little boys in black overalls” riding a carousel in Tuileries Garden and “lilies bloom[ing], blue, green, and pink” (23;384). She sees people fill up cafes with joyous chatter as “workmen in pale blue” and “hatless women in black shawls,” a symbol of bereavement, mill about the streets (325; 323). She observes as famous paintings such as édouard Manet’s Olympia, which had been stored for protection during the war, are returned to the walls of the Louvre for all to enjoy. As the speaker notes, “little funny things [are] ceaselessly happening” (338) as Paris proves that it can and will carry on.
We discussed this poem only a few days after China first reported no new domestic cases of the coronavirus infection. Although some cases have been reported since that important day, it seems that everyday life is returning to Beijing just as the city welcomes spring, as the stunning gardens on Tsinghua’s campus bounce back into life. Hearing uplifting reports from you all and from my friends in China, I am reminded of Mirrlees’s poem and hopeful that the United States, and the rest of the world, will soon join China in defeating this virus. Humanity is resilient, especially when we work together, and we can emerge from this grim winter. As Mirrlees writes, “Whatever happens, some day it will look beautiful” (286).
As students in theInstitute for World Literatures and Cultures, you may be asking yourselves, “What is the role of the humanities in a time like this? Why do the humanities matter?” It is easy to see what the sciences afford: research, treatments,vaccines, public health guidelines. This kind of knowledge is, of course, vital to our survival as individual peopleand as an interconnected species sharing the same earth. But insights from the humanitiescan also be indispensible at a time like this.The humanities teach us critical thinking. They help us understand our present realities in the light of history. They enable us to empathize and connect with one another rather than divide and discriminate. Now is not a time to fear each other. It isn’t a time to place blame. It isn’t a time for racism or xenophobia. It’s a time to recognize our shared situation and pull together, to care for one another.
So, to my former students, whom I first met in Beijing but who are now pursuing graduate degrees and careers all over the United States and the globe, I am thinking of you as we face this challenge. I urge you to be strong and to remember you have a friend and mentor in me. Take care of yourselves and listen to what your bodies and minds need. And to my current students who reside in China, I thank you for your willingness to show up for our classes, for giving all that you give every week. I look forward to seeing you all again soon.
Dr. Tiffany D. Ball
Tsinghua University
Institute for World Literatures and Cultures

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