Failure to launch in the age of COVID-19
Updated: Mar 22, 2020
Last night, during a Zoom session, one of my friends commented, "It's kinda crazy that this has irrevocably changed our lives forever."
He's right; this was in the context of job searches, which, in a normal timeline, we would be conducting furiously. Not only is the hiring process up in the air right now, we're not even sure what jobs will look like this summer, this fall, or next year. Will working from home become the new normal? Are we going to have to rely on unemployment or other government assistance to eat and pay rent? Where we will even live? Right now I'm in the process of applying to Summer publishing institutes, but even that feels somewhat moot. Are the application fees even worth it if the concept of physically going to school is in question?
For the time being, Zoom videoconference hangouts seem to be the new normal for conversations like the one I was having with my friend. Last night, I streamed an episode of "Love is Blind" concurrently with my girlfriend while we talked about it in the virtual meeting space, an endeavor that was hindered by problems launching our Netflix Party extension (if you're also having trouble using it lmk because it seems like a pretty common issue). After that, we invited a couple of other friends to join so we could host a listening party for the new Weeknd album, After Hours (we listened closely for a few minutes and spent the rest of the hour-long runtime talking about the virus, Animal Crossing, and how to modify our webcam backgrounds). One vastly overlooked symptom of quarantine (not of COVID) is burnt thighs due to my 2-year-old Macbook straining to process four young adults playing with green screen settings.
Originally meant to be a tool for remotely meeting with coworkers and students, Zoom is quickly becoming the new normal for social interaction, facilitating watch parties and virtual happy hours. Suddenly everything exists, to borrow an outdated term, in cyberspace; jobs, school, and basic social interactions have all been brought onto a few of our screens, pixel-by-pixel windows looking out to what we once knew as the normal world. It's hard not to let this new way of living for, optimistically, the next few months depress soon-to-be college graduates. After all, it seems like quarantine has essentially nipped in the bud what we saw as opportunities to leave home and set some kind of career path. On Tuesday I will be logging onto Zoom with the rest of my Intro to Medieval/Rennaissance Literature class to discuss Marie de France; besides the obvious parallels between our situation and that of the Britons in the Dark Ages, frankly, there's not much I care less about right now than Marie de France.
Colleges and universities, in that respect, are putting stress in the wrong places in the way they handle their responsibilities for students' futures. There is much discussion on how to handle classes and grades for this semester; optional pass/fail, universal pass/fail, universal pass, and universal A's are all options being tossed around at the moment, and the choices that universities are making at the moment seem to be impermanent as the quarantine situation continues to develop.
The clear choice is universal pass/fail at the least, as schools such as Harvard Medical school are not accepting pass/fail grading that is from universities where pass/fail is optional. Student-led movements such as No Fail Yale are advocating for universal pass systems.
"So that no applicants are disadvantaged by policy decisions made by their colleges/universities as a result of this unprecedented event, [Harvard Medical School] will accept pass/fail grading for spring 2020 coursework provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades."
Obviously grading is an important issue to discuss in the context, one that could affect students' chances at graduate schools and certain jobs down the line. But when I first visited my university as a high school student, one of the statistics they paraded out to me was the high rate of placement of students into jobs directly after graduation. This meant career counseling, plenty of networking and recruiting opportunities, and a robust alumni network—in a word, support.
The world is on the precipice of an unprecedented chapter in history just as students like me are simultaneously on the precipice of an alien chapter of their lives. We are already innovating new ways of living and enjoying company; Zoom conferences, livestreams, and online gaming are being leveraged to maintain social connections while we are cloistered. We will soon, in the light of a new day post-quarantine, and even in the intra-quarantine job market, forge new ways to work and produce, ways that might not even be evident to us now. This is why the grading conversation is a misuse of our energy (and why the universal pass system, or something like it, is so obviously the best way to handle students' grades)—grades are the last thing students, the last thing anyone, should be concerned about. We should be concerned, instead, about support, the same support that was advertised when I first stepped on to a college campus. Otherwise, there won't only be a frightening rise in unemployment, there will be a nationwide failure to launch, one that sees graduating students unable to even fathom what their careers will look like in the coming year.
For students like me in the ill-fated class of 2020 (we started freshman year with the 2016 election!?), those who are essentially watching the last moments of their time with friends and professors winnow away from a nearly four-million-person Zoom meeting, what is needed is assuagement of fears and direction—direction towards something that might not even exist at the moment. Without the support and assistance of universities, in the best-case scenario, graduates will be sedentary for a while and a recovering nation will eventually, hopefully, allow for some kind of path forward. If we are to gain something, anything, from the COVID-19 crisis, if we are to take advantage of the privilege that is afforded by the unknown, we will need to seek new ways of living and working. That is no small task, and certainly not one that a passing grade in my Medieval Literature class will make much easier.