A few weeks ago, I couldn’t quite figure out how to welcome my students back from their spring break. In the two weeks since we had met, our world had changed. The subject matter for this course was all too relevant, globalization; that is, as we defined it, the increasing economic, cultural, political and environmental interconnectedness of the world. Except that interconnectedness had suddenly turned on itself.
The global and personal connections our society has depended on was putting us all at risk and, at the same time, shutting down. I wasn’t sure how to introduce that to my 26 students who were now sitting in front of their laptops instead of in a classroom on the UConn-Waterbury campus.
If the class had been in person, as it had been all semester, I am sure I would have been able to string my thoughts together into a semi-coherent introduction. When you’re in front of a class you can read reactions, ask questions, gauge understanding of the subject. This class has been one the most engaged and thoughtful I have ever had and that participation is incredibly valuable for a teacher. I have taught an online class before and know how different and impersonal it can be. But even with that experience in recording myself onto a PowerPoint, I kept stumbling over my words and mixing up what I wanted to get across to my students, afraid that I wasn’t articulating the content fully or missing important connections that I wanted to make.
When the semester began in late January, the first cases of COVID-19 were making news in Washington. It was more background noise than anything and while I maybe mentioned it in class, I was busy trying to articulate a subject as broad, complex and integral to our lives as globalization for the first time. Not only was this my inaugural globalization class, it was also my first in the UConn system.
After an introduction to the class and the subject matter, the first three weeks were dedicated to economic globalization, the foundation and engine of the whole project. We talked about trade, the liberal world order and they wrote essays on whether the World Bank and IMF have had a positive or negative impact on global society. We wrapped up that section and they submitted those essays on February 17. That day, the U.S. had tested 467 people, 15 had tested positive and cruise ships were beginning to be quarantined.
The next section was focused on cultural globalization. We talked about Americanization, mass media, the internet and Facebook. They read a brilliant article by Jia Tolentino called “The I in the Internet” and wrote essays about Mark Zuckerberg and “McWorld.” They submitted those essays on March 9 when 153 new cases were confirmed in the U..S, bringing the total of 717. That day, Italy announced a total lock down and Republican congressmen were going into quarantine, including Rep. Matt Gaetz who, days earlier, had mocked concern over the virus by wearing a gas mask on the House floor.
I mentioned to my students at the end of that class that I thought it unlikely we would be meeting in person again. They seemed incredulous despite the fact Sacred Heart and the University of New Haven had moved to online classes that day. That Wednesday, UConn made the decision to move online and Connecticut high school sports were cancelled. That Thursday, hours after student-athletes protested that decision, the NBA halted its season, and by Friday, all sports leagues had shut down and TV shows suspended production.
Society was, one light switch at a time, powering itself down.
After clearing my mind with a run, I sat back down and told my students that I hoped they were healthy and staying home, that our class would be online from now on and that everything we had studied so far they should take with a huge grain of salt because that the global economic and cultural connections we studied and took for granted a few weeks ago were now coming undone and that the political and environmental costs, the two sections left in the class, were unknown and likely more dangerous than before.
That was then. Last week, when Connecticut alone has thousands infected and we are coming to terms with an indefinite period of social distancing, I started my class with a simple hello and dove into the content. In other words, I started as normally as I could because this is our new normal; online classes and virtual happy hours, no sports or sports bars, working from home and astronomical unemployment.
And of course the uncertainty of how long this will last, how many lives will be lost and how damaged our globalized world will be on the other side.
Rowan Kane is Adjunct Professor of Globalization at UConn Waterbury and Deputy Policy Director for Attorney General William Tong.