The canary in the classroom

The canary in the classroom

Every January, at the start of the spring semester on college campuses, faculty members receive advance notice of impending doom. There will be flu; there will be colds; there will be outbreaks of strep throat; there may be plagues. One year, there was even a panic about swine or bird flu, I think it was. And, there was also the SARS scare, which pushed some campuses to bar students from Asia from their summer programs. At one point, there was a proposal circulating that we should not meet with those germy students at all and, if we did, we were not to accept any assignments from them in person. Don’t handle anything that they have handled, the administration suggested. I shrugged my shoulders. I have long figured out that with over fifteen years of teaching under my belt, that I most likely have the immune response of the well-traveled doctors from Medicine Sans Frontiers. Perhaps, I am too careless. Heck, I don’t even completely disinfect all my students by spraying them with a steady mist of Lysol; nor do I pass around a bottle of Purell before class, asking that students “disinfect into” my classes. I just let things lie where do they and hope for the best.

Given all that, however, I do take some precautions. I cling to the front of the classroom, walking along a tight line there as if I am perched on the edge of a skyscraper. I don’t hug any students until graduation in May. I don’t meet with students individually in my office; I hold meetings across campus on a bench where students are downwind from me. I arrange these meetings when the weather forecast calls for a strong ocean-driven wind behind me.

However, despite our best efforts, there are dangers that faculty members face no matter how careful we are. There seems to be an ineffable law of Murphys’ that predicts that students with the lowest immunity levels will sit in the front row. There are the sneezing, coughing, and sleeping students wthho a few days into the semester present you with a note that they have mononucleosis, which they inform you, as if you’ve never encountered it before, is very contagious. They follow that with a big achy swallow and a giant cough. They are eager to shake hands and bid you farewell. Sometimes, they tell you they don’t when they will ever be able to return to class. Can you email them to let them know if they miss anything in class?

By the time the class next meets, the students who were sitting near the first sick students are sending emails. They have fallen to the disease or something like it. Their best writing of the semester is contained in these detailed emails where I learn all about their symptoms and what their mother thinks they have and what they should do. I do believe these emails sparked the movement to electronic medical records. That day in class I am noticing that so many students are sneezing and coughing from all areas of the classroom that it sounds like a syncopated session of allergy-prone bullfrogs on a warm summer night. The noise is so distracting that my thoughts move from my lecture to thinking about how I should really apply to the CDC for a research grant. I am thinking of an investigational grant titled “Tracking the velocity, vectors and distancecanary-1 traveled by coughs, sneezes and other respiratory effluvia expelled by students in the direction of professors in confined spaces during high-threat conditions” Actually, that sounds like a pretty fundable proposal.

On my more cynical days, I think that perhaps, the administration is already conducting research to see how faculty members survive conditions of constant exposure to germ-bearing students They may already be collecting data. It seems that we are the ideal sentinel cases. Google should be monitoring our emails to see what doctors’ notes and emails we are getting reveal about student absences (as if they are not already). These are wonderful experimental conditions—millions of students getting little sleep, drinking to excess (some not all), cavorting with uncounted others, traveling here and there, vaccinated and not—really, this could be a perfect storm. How perfectly innocent victims like faculty members survive in these settings must be a matter of the most serious public health concerns.



About professorenos

I am a professor of sociology and coordinate service-learning and social entrepreneurship work on my campus at Bryant University. This blog brings together academic and creative work.
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