As Adrenaline Wears Off, Campus Community Searches for Meaning amid Monotony
By Benjamin Pontz, Editor-in-Chief
Since Gettysburg College began remote instruction three weeks ago, everything has changed. From the obvious to the surreptitious, students, faculty, and staff report that they feel the weight of fulfilling their lofty goals while coping with a global pandemic in ways both concrete and ineffable, and many note that they are struggling.
With only three more weeks of remote learning to go, it has been a race to adapt without losing forward momentum as projects turn on a dime and deadlines rapidly approach.
Claire Woodward ’20, a biochemistry and molecular biology major and Goldwater Scholar, has been studying the effects of a protein that seems to play a role in the development of a part of the cell that is important to maintaining shape and regulating cell division. For two years, she has planned a series of experiments, and, right before spring break, she had what she called a breakthrough: a part of the protein she has been studying does appear to have a novel effect. She had planned to spend the remainder of the spring confirming that her results were not a fluke and demonstrating the significance of the finding. She no longer has that opportunity.
“It really is a disappointment for me because trying to present my capstone research without completing these last experiments is essentially taking the last chapter out of a book,” she said. “It was still a good book for the first seven chapters, but the eighth chapter was the one with the resolution and now you will just never know what might have happened.”
Since being home, where she has not lived full time since high school due to college and summer internships, finding motivation has been next to impossible, and Woodward estimates that she is only 25 percent as productive as she was when on campus.
“Honestly, nothing I am learning in my classes right now feels important or pressing enough to demand my attention in the face of a public health crisis,” she said.
She is not the only one struggling to maintain ambition in a dispiriting time. All nine members of the campus community interviewed for this article said that it has been hard to focus or commit to work at near the same level as under normal circumstances.
Psychology and studio art double major Darby Nisbett ’20 still dresses as she would if classes were held in person to try to make things seem as normal as possible, but she feels a sense of senioritis even more acutely than she did on campus.
“I’ll get my work done still, but it’s not as high of quality work and I’m less enthusiastic about doing it. There’s also a lot more distractions at home,” she said. “I think there was a certain sense of excitement and adrenaline the first week of online classes—it was something new and we were all bonding over the sudden change in our ways of life, but now that it’s worn off, it all seems a bit more monotonous now.”
When classes are held on campus, Austin Nikirk ’20, a music performance major, would find her days packed with rehearsals and lessons on top of her more traditional course load. Suddenly, she finds herself with significant amounts of unscheduled time but a circumscribed environment at home.
“Being here and trying to get work done while sitting in the same place all day, without the luxury of walking to different classes or my favorite table in the library, has been really tough,” she said.
All of her music ensembles are trying to do some kind of online project, which she said is “more work than I expected,” but missing out on making music together with other people — including a concert in which the College Choir was to perform with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City — has been “really sad,” she said.
And while Nikirk performed her senior recital in February, four senior recitals scheduled for the second half of the semester have been postponed or held virtually.
Despite the manifest letdown in not finishing their time on campus, none of the three harbor any ill-will towards the college, and all expressed fondness for the 3.75 semesters spent there.
“I have been pleasantly surprised by the college through this whole debacle, as everyone who I’ve spoken to and heard from is fully committed to continuing to build community and foster a valuable liberal arts experience,” Woodward said. “[President Iuliano] has shown incredible judgment and leadership in the past few weeks and I have the utmost respect for the way he has handled the situation in general.”
Sometimes, mental reframing has been necessary.
“I’m honestly trying to not think about everything I’m missing too much,” Nikirk said. “So many things I have spent four years looking forward to just disappeared in the matter of a few days, and I’m still processing that. A lot of the ‘lasts’ that I was anticipating and preparing for, I have realized recently, have already happened—some last year.”
For those students who — pandemic permitting — will return to campus in the fall or at some point further down the line, the experiment in remote learning has helped to recalibrate priorities and provide a sense of perspective even as they face the same existential realities as graduating seniors.
Music education major Bridget Haines ’21 said that she has had an opportunity to reflect on why she does what she does and affirmed to her that it matters.
“All of this has made me realize how important the music making process is to me,” she said. “Of course I knew it was important, it’s my future, but amid all the hustle and bustle of courses and observations and working, I can lose sight of how much music means to me. When I got the news that we were moving to remote learning my heart sank and I immediately thought, ‘what’s going to happen to orchestra?’ Not being able to have that time with my ensembles and chamber groups has certainly taken a toll on my mental wellbeing, which I wasn’t really expecting.”
While, in the future, she thinks she will complain less about her days being full of rehearsals, in the meantime, Haines said she is not immune to the sense that her day-to-day experience during this period of remote learning is hollow.
“I, along with some peers, am really struggling to see the value and importance in what I do when the world is in a state of crisis,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure right now to make an impact and be an important contributor to society and sometimes it’s hard to see how me practicing Hindemith’s Viola Concerto or perfecting a chord progression on the guitar to write a song for our musical in my music education class, is really contributing to society at any level.”
Nicole Parisi ’23, a cinema and media studies major, said that, while there are some isolated positives like seeing people’s dogs and cats via Zoom, ultimately, she just wants to be back on campus.
“I know when I return to campus, I’m going to treasure it more than I already do,” she said.
Admissions counselor Luke Frigon ’18, who lives just off campus and is in his first year as an administrator at the college, said that since students have left, he finds an eerie sense of emptiness as he takes walks around the campus.
“To me, where I am sitting right now, I do not see Gettysburg. I do not see the campus,” he said. “I see buildings, and I see empty chairs, and I see occasional bikes. But I don’t see what makes this campus a campus. It’s been really weird.”
That weirdness has extended to the fundamental paradigm of his job as well. In April, the admissions office has an almost singular focus on getting admitted students to enroll, and that has long meant encouraging visits with the idea that if prospective students set foot on campus, they can see themselves here and decide to come. That is no longer an option.
With the second-largest applicant pool in college history this year — a 10 percent increase from last year — Frigon expressed confidence that the college will hit its targeted enrollment for the Class of 2024 and said that he and his colleagues have been working long hours towards making that happen, including nighttime phone calls with students on the west coast.
And, like everyone else, admissions counselors are doing their best to provide opportunities for virtual engagement both via digital programs throughout the month of April as well as one-on-one Zoom meetings with prospective students.
Frigon has found that, without being able to feed off his colleagues, he has had to find new ways to keep his professional energy high.
“I had a student text me who I have been talking to since August, who I gave an interview to and gave a campus tour to, and he committed yesterday,” Frigon said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “He sent me a picture of him with a Gettysburg shirt on. It’s things like that that, normally, I would obviously be instilled with a little bit of pride and I think I would let that propel me through a day. That text from that kid is getting me through this week. I have no doubt.”
Professor of Religious Studies Megan Adamson Sijapati said that, although the days feel longer and more demanding than ever before and she is principally focused on keeping her classes afloat and supporting her advisees, she too has found some silver linings.
“It has been so cool on Zoom. Though there are ways that being online highlights differences in privilege among students, I do see an upside, which is that I have found that the people who are shy – and maybe they didn’t have the confidence to speak before – they’re speaking a lot in discussions,” she said. “I think there’s something about the platform that creates this kind of egalitarianism in the classroom. When you have a grid screen and everyone is the same size on the screen … it changes the dynamic.”
Still, it is not the same as being on campus and she does not think teaching remotely would be as successful had she not already gotten to know students while on campus such that the endeavor “could give us a new appreciation and a renewed commitment to what it is we do on campus and how important that part is.”
As far as aspirations for her students, she hopes that through course readings and optional online discussions, students will be able to think beyond the present circumstances.
“I do hope to give them some things to read and think about that has a higher level of meaning than just the mundane in their lives,” she said. “I’d like to be able to round these classes out at the end with something that feels satisfying for them, something that feels productive and useful at a time when I think many of us are wondering why and how we’re doing what we’re doing when the world’s crumbling around us.”
Doing all of this, though, takes a toll, and time seems to slip by, she said, noting that her research agenda has taken a back seat.
Assistant Professor of Economics Ivanova Reyes, who is on a pre-tenure research leave this semester, said that she has had to completely restructure how she approaches the research she is undertaking this spring. Before the coronavirus hit, she was coming onto campus to work in her office. Now, working at home with a young daughter in the house and balancing her need to conduct research with that of her husband (also a professor in the department) to record lectures from home requires flexibility.
“I was in my happy place. I was like, ‘Finally, I have some time for researching!’ I was going to my office every day, writing calmly at a good pace, feeling motivated, and staying productive. And then this happened, and I have my kid at home, so, for a while, my productivity really tanked. But now I have a new rhythm,” she said. “I have lower expectations in terms of what I do with my kid. I enjoy time with her, and I do some activities with her, and then I let her watch a movie. And then I do work. I take turns with my partner too, and that’s kind of how the day goes. The routine is a routine of juggling a kid and trying to get work done.”
Reyes said she does plan to take advantage of the opportunity to delay her tenure clock for a year to have more time to work on getting publications together before her tenure review. She says she is still on track to meet her major deadlines and goals for the semester’s leave.
“I write every day to not lose momentum,” she said. “If I did not write every day, I would get totally lost.”
Alumni Professor of Mathematics Darren Glass said that he too has restructured his days and is in much closer proximity to his pre-teen son most of the time.
“The big difference, of course, is that I am in my home office with a series of interruptions by my eleven year old son and I’m staring at a screen far too much,” he said. “And I may or may not be wearing pajama pants for most of my classes — I’ll never tell.”
Glass sees a number of potential opportunities to apply what he is learning now having been thrust into online teaching to his future teaching. Recording lectures as part of a flipped classroom, for example, might inform both future in-person pedagogy as well as if he were to teach an online course as part of the college’s summer hybrid learning program.
But maintaining focus on other intellectual activities has been challenging.
“I am an extrovert who likes connecting with people, so I have found it hard to not interact with my friends and to have far more limited interaction with my students, and I definitely have moments where I have lots of anxiety about different aspects of the situation. I have found it harder to have sustained focus on my research, or even on reading books, so I have to say that work has been replaced by other activities,” he said.
“I have been doing a lot of crossword puzzles.”