Top 20 of '20: Juliana Gray's "A Message from Your University’s Vice President for Magical Thinking"

Hello, patrons! It's the time of the year where we start tabulating our most-read articles of the past year. We'll countdown the full list on the Tendency between Xmas and New Year's. Until then, we're offering a Patreon-exclusive peek at some of the pieces that have made our "Top 20 of 2020," along with micro-interviews with their authors.

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A Message from Your University’s Vice President for Magical Thinking 

by Juliana Gray

Published June 26, 2020

Excerpt:

Dear University Community,
Since we first announced our plans to reopen this fall (a far too early decision given the lack of reliable data about the likely prevalence of COVID-19 in the fall, but done out of necessity to beat the June 1st National College Decision Day deadline), many students, parents, faculty, and staff have asked us how we plan to ensure that we reopen safely. Our strategy is outlined below, but the short answer is this: Our university will proceed as if everything will be okay because we really, really want it to be.
Classroom safety
After measuring classrooms and examining our antiquated ventilation systems, our staff (those who haven’t been furloughed) reports that there’s absolutely no way our already scheduled and enrolled classes can safely fit in those spaces. But our university has always valued creative problem-solving, so we have posted NO COVID-19 ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT signs on the doors of every campus building. Plus, to show how seriously we take the situation, the signs have been laminated.

On the inspiration for writing the piece...

I’m a professor at a small university in western New York, and when COVID-19 hit, we were absolutely thrown. Our students went home for spring break and never returned to in-person classes; the campus felt creepily abandoned, as if the students had been stolen away. Like a lot of schools, we struggled to adjust to online teaching, and several of my students who returned home to hot spots in New York and New Jersey contracted COVID. They'd Zoom in while coughing and describe how they’d lost their sense of smell. It was terrifying.

I’d rather not say anything that could cause my administrators to reconsider the terms of my employment, but let’s just say that some colleges and universities proceeded rather blithely through their fall reopening plans, disregarding the need for expensive upgrades like classroom ventilation or the realities of weather (eating in a tent is fun in August; in November, not so much). Administrators cheerfully talked about “delayed” sports seasons and other misinformation designed to raise enrollments, and met faculty’s concerns about pedagogy with endless (and often pointless) training webinars. By mid-summer, it seemed obvious to me that some universities’ reopening plans were based not on science, but on financial needs and wishful ­– nay, magical – thinking.

On the writing process...

This piece came pretty quickly; I think I started it on a Friday and submitted it the following Monday. I was trying to work quickly, so no one would beat me to the idea.

My first draft was pretty tame and not especially funny; I was writing a more or less realistic response to the situation, the kind of rant one might air in a (Zoom) faculty meeting. When I revised, I had to add actual jokes. For example, in the first draft, the university president’s magical thinking was wearing the same pair of lucky underwear for weeks at a time. Okay, believable, but not funny. Once I upgraded his ritual to offering his eldest child to the Kraken, the line got a genuine laugh.

On the audience reaction...

I got a lot of really positive feedback from this piece, especially from educators; most of their comments ran along the lines of “If only this were satire!” The only uncomfortable moment was when the piece was mentioned in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which my dean ruefully forwarded to my university’s president. He sent me a quick note of congratulations, but I don’t think he read the piece, and I hope he still hasn’t.

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By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 300 exclusive posts
7
Audio releases
315
Images
1
Livestream
1
Poll
11
Writings
10
Videos