Finding Humanity in a Pandemic

In the face of this global pandemic, we currently find ourselves at the advent of what many have called a “new normal.” It consists of going to class from your home office (that is, your bed), suiting up in a Bane-esque facemask before getting groceries and feeling a constant, gnawing uncertainty about what is to come. 

Amid the Black Mirror episode that is the current state of our world, optimism may feel like a scarce commodity. The self-isolation necessary to combat the spread of the coronavirus can make us feel, well, isolated. 

However, despite the geographic distances that now divide us, this pandemic may actually build communities — and specifically, bring together the Amherst College community — more than we initially think. That is, by stripping away the environments we are so used to interacting within, this new normal can push us to more deeply understand our shared humanity.

While we acclimate to this new way of life, we witness a new side of each other. Our professors are no longer just conveyors of knowledge, facilitators of discussion and bearers of new assignments. They are also parents, pet-owners and partners, Zooming to us from their own homes where these other identities flourish. Our classmates are not just people to wave and soft smile at when you cross paths. They are children, caretakers — and also pet-owners.

In fact, the remote college experience allows us all to see a deeper layer of humanity within each other.

The relationships we build within a direct classroom setting often filter out our personal lives – or at least, sieve our personal lives based on what is academically relevant. That is not to say that every person on Amherst’s campus sees the person sitting next to them in class as a dehumanized shell labeled “classmate.” The Amherst community is bonded by an ongoing goal to connect those within it through real empathy — seeing each other, first and foremost, as human beings. However, despite our best intentions, sometimes the classroom setting establishes professional boundaries that inhibit us from truly achieving that goal.  

Remote learning — for all of its deficiencies compared to the in-person learning experience we have all had the privilege to become used to — may have a positive impact on our working relationships. Prior to the coronavirus, professors may have mentioned elements of their personal lives in passing during a lecture. Students may have drawn on their own experiences to contribute to a discussion. However, referencing your dog in a class conversation and having him seated next to you while you participate in class are two very different things. Removing the classroom setting from the learning experience, though not ideal, presses us to see our peers and professors as individuals with lives outside of those professional roles.

Getting interrupted mid-Zoom lecture by a professor’s toddler may be disruptive for pedagogical purposes, but it subtly helps us all see each other through a more human lens. And, during a time when thousands of American lives are being lost, understanding each other on a human to human level is worlds more reassuring than fully comprehending a lecture in economics or a seminar on postcolonial thought ever will be. Even after we return to campus, how we understand each other will be forever changed, possibly for the better.

Of course, having a window into the home lives of each other is not just about community bonding. It also exposes the inequality that sometimes remains veiled on campus. Not all students return to the same home once they leave campus — some struggle to navigate their family’s difficult financial circumstances, or lack the adequate space and resources to complete schoolwork effectively. Some may have to attend to complex familial relationships or juggle multiple roles in their home life.   While disparities between students permeate in other ways on campus — to the surprise of some, not everyone can afford to jet set to Europe for spring break — being invited into someone’s home via Zoom reveals another dimension of inequality. It becomes clearer how privilege is distributed among members of the community.

Still, confronting these truths is yet another step to deepening, and truly internalizing, our understanding of each other as people, beyond just the roles we serve in each other’s learning environments.

As we collectively fight to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, we do face a new normal. Zoom may never truly replace our classrooms. Interacting with people from six feet away may never get comfortable. It may feel impossible to find a silver lining in any of this — and maybe there isn’t one. However, we will undoubtedly come out of these extraordinary circumstances with a renewed, profound grasp of what it is that makes us human.  

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)