A professor’s insights from student memoirs during COVID (opinion)


Last fall, we were beginning an academic year that defied explanation and perhaps also this website’s rules of editorial decency to describe accurately. A few months prior, I had published a piece, “Memoirs Are Made of This,” about my Introduction to Literature class assignments that had refocused on memoir writing as a means of processing the emerging reality.

Now, after a period in which curricula and modes of delivery were more deliberately than accidentally shaped by COVID-19, I return to share additional insights I have gained from assigning and partaking in such acts of reflective writing, up to and including this present piece.

My roughly 30 freshman literature students this past spring, while only 12 months removed from their 2020 predecessors, were more different as a collective than is the norm, perhaps predictably so. Those students, having had their high school senior experiences taken away, arrived on campus with fears or doubts about what kind of first-year experience any college would be able to provide in the midst of a pandemic. Those staying on campus knew at the outset that some or even most of their class time would take place in online settings, and they had to align with even more requirements and regulations than the typical college beginner faces. Those who opted for fully remote classes, including some of our international students, had the challenge of making a connection with a place and community they had never physically seen or experienced. Those were all considerations that shaped my preparations to guide the students in my classes, to be delivered online and asynchronously.

Memoir was a more conscious framing device in the spring 2021 course design, not only in the segment in which we read autobiographical works but also in periodic student discussion exercises. I recognized that such planning for my asynchronous online classes — a notoriously difficult delivery format for building a sense of community — would facilitate participants getting to know other learning partners on levels that go beyond the superficial. Making sure to include appropriate trigger warnings and options for alternative assignments upon request, I planned a number of memoir activities interspersed through a semester of literature.

Thanks to deliberate and consistent memoir practice in class, I saw the same resilience, vulnerability and desire to be heard from students’ contributions. I was grateful, again, to learn from them. But, perhaps primed by the vulnerability I allowed myself to show in modeling the memoir process — for I, as teacher, participated, too — I learned more about how a year of living in pandemic times has molded who these students are. I also identified some subtle yet significant shifts in the experiences of that spring 2021 class from those of students suddenly thrust into a redefined world in 2020. The most prominent theme woven through the following observations, appropriately enough, was the weight of expectations on us all.

  • Last year, students reflected on the prospect of what they would miss. This year, as I would have predicted, students reflected on what they had missed, but a nuance emerged: they had as much regret about the expectations attached to the loss as about the loss itself. Students worried about how not having pivotal experiences, like a prom or a traditional graduation ceremony with the attendant Instagrammable photos, would shape others’ opinions of their completeness. Our social media-centric society often values what can be shared publicly as much as what can be experienced personally, and rather than dismissing and judging here, I note that social media does have some benefits — after all, it is essentially a form of memoir. Rather, my point is that the loss of personal experiences was and is magnified in the loss of opportunities to share.
  • Adulthood could very well be more intimidating now than it was before. Before the pandemic, the uncertainty awaiting students at the end of their undergraduate careers was present but, for many, largely theoretical. Part of their reason for being in college is a shared understanding between them, their families and their institutions that education mitigates that uncertainty. All of us living through the past year now face the reality that uncertainty can stretch out for months or years, despite our best efforts. For better or worse, the luxury of denial is considerably less accessible.
  • Some students resent that living through COVID is generally perceived as the greatest difficulty they have experienced. In one memoir exercise, students wrote about the most challenging calendar year of their lives. The greatest number wrote about 2020 and the effects of the pandemic, but some others focused on grief, loss, disappointment and heartbreak that occurred in previous years — or occurred in 2020 and overshadowed the pandemic. Individuals who have faced abuse, neglect, emotional estrangement and identity crises may still be feeling the effects of these traumas even more than those of the pandemic reality.
  • In fact, for a few students, the disruption and upheaval of the previous year were not novel experiences but the continuation of lives that feature disruption and upheaval as regular themes. That reality could mean either that an individual was better able to deal with the new reality or that they were/are pushed closer to the breaking point.
  • Even students who thrived throughout 2020 might cope with something akin to survivor’s guilt. More than one student who found that their new schedules actually made them more efficient and adept at time management, for instance, regretted that it took these circumstances to arrive at that place.

We were hoping to move closer to normalcy in this 2021-22 academic year, but the threat of the Delta variant has introduced perhaps more uncertainty than ever. A new first-year class has arrived and settled in with another set of perspectives and outlooks shaped by their experiences, pandemic and otherwise. This semester, I am teaching my freshman classes in person and my upper-level classes online, but my current plan is to return to teaching all face-to-face classes in the spring. With the new groups of literature students whom I will meet, my goal remains to create communities, whatever the mode of delivery. I intend to continue using memoir strategies that allow those students not to wither under expectations but to confront, analyze and communicate about them. I look forward to hearing then tell their stories.



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