a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
After several months of fully distant teaching in this unprecedented new school year I’ve started to grasp at the feeling of regularity about my work. Ordinarily my freeway commute to the high school where I teach English is both a morning ritual and a liminal space between my personal and professional life. Now, I commute from my bedroom to my kitchen table where I park myself in front of my neatly arranged bookcase that belies my cluttered apartment and sockless feet. I’ve so far avoided three of the most anxiety inducing situations I imagined over the summer: my laptop camera works, my Wi-Fi has cut short a class only once, and most importantly, all my students have been able to get a school Chromebook or a Wi-Fi hotspot at home if they need one thanks to our amply resourced school district.
Our school community is working hard to make the best of a bad situation, but it’s not without its silver linings. In addition to reducing the spread of Covid-19, distance learning has allowed us to continue school despite the record level air pollution in the Bay Area this fall–air pollution that in a normal year would force us to cancel classes for at least several days. In spite of Covid, racialized police violence, ceaseless wildfires, toxic air quality, threats to our democratic norms, and the economic precarity that many of my students’ families are feeling right now, we are meeting for class online every day. We are reading. We are writing. And I see learning happening. It’s not perfect. It’s certainly not ideal. But I take heart seeing how hard students, families, and my colleagues are trying to make things work right now. I don’t mean to paint a rosy picture of American education generally. Many of the stark social inequities that exist during a normal year persist and are exacerbated by distance learning.
For my students’ part, their distance learning experience varies. In their wellness surveys, many students respond that they feel “good” and “fine” but an equal number use words like “tired,” “overwhelmed,” “confused,” and above all “stressed” about distance learning. Many students are intrinsically ill-served by distance learning, students that thrive on human interaction and are invigorated by a caring, in-person teacher. The digital divide is much worse for these students. I know because I’m trying to support them every day, but so much of our humanity is obfuscated by the distance.
Educators have to be open and cognizant to the many traumas and stressors our students feel, both ongoing and specific to this year. One issue raised this year is what we should compel our students to do while they are attending our Zoom classroom. Specifically, can we require students to turn on their cameras, or will we teach to a sea of black screens? High school students in general are not eager to show themselves on screen. In my school district, we have not mandated students to turn their cameras on. I believe rightly so. Many students feel uncomfortable projecting their homes and bedrooms onto a screen with 34 other students. Some students don’t have their own space to work. If a student has another sibling, streaming a second video through Zoom can add pressure to an already stressed Wi-Fi connection. I encourage my students to turn on their cameras and I tell them it’s great to see their faces, and that if and when we return to school it would be good if I can actually recognize them. Most do not turn on cameras during whole-class instruction and it’s harder to build community in the classroom with most screens turned off. However, I require them to turn on cameras when we go into our writing workshops of five or six students, and I get to know them then.
Not requiring their cameras on is one way we reduce student stress, but it does have its trade-offs. By providing this space for them, we increase the emotional distance between student and teacher. So much of education is about relationships and much of a teacher’s job is being able to read the room. We learn to read students’ faces for their changing emotional experiences day-to-day, but that’s become more challenging for everyone now. The ongoing question is how to remain present, accountable, and human to one another as we continue with distance learning.
As I work to learn about how students are really feeling this year behind their black Zoom screens, how they’re coping with the many shocks we’ve endured this year, I’ve been thinking broadly about seen and unseen trauma. This past September marked the 19th year since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. September 11th is to this country many things: a national trauma; a testament to service and sacrifice; a symbol of resilience for New York City and the nation; the onset of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy adventurism. As an English teacher, I don’t devote much space for imparting the significance of that day which occurred years before my students were born.
9/11 was an odd sort of remembrance in 2020, during a month we were most focused on the wildfire pollution coursing through our state. Had I emphasized 9/11 in my English class–in the East Bay, in 2020, during a national pandemic, when millions of acres were actively burning in California, when our air was filled with ash, the day after our skies were carpeted with a toxic orange fog and a haunting glow stalked us through our windows as if to shake us in our own homes which are our last Covid refuges–it would seem that my priorities were misplaced. Covid has displaced our lives. At least 32 people died from California fires and over 200,000 people in the U.S. had died from Covid-19. Responsibility for the pandemic was pushed from the Federal Government to the states, and from the state governments onto us. We lived with dangerous air quality for over a month to start the school year. It wore on my students as they were forced to stay inside longer, and many told me they got little sleep on September 10th after the sun couldn’t break through our toxic orange fog. 9/11 is a historical event that predates my students’ memory. Conversely, September 10th, 2020 was our most jarring spectacle drawing attention to the climate crisis and it was felt in the lungs of people in every direction for hundreds of miles.
In my reluctance to emphasize 9/11 in the classroom, however, I’m missing an important opportunity to teach civics, not on duty or sacrifice as such, but what we might call civic attention. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon describes the televisual spectacle of 9/11 to show how public attention is galvanized by images of violence. He contrasts 9/11–what he calls an immediate spectacle of violence–with his concept of slow violence, which he defines as the social and environmental “calamities that are slow and long lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans–and outside the purview of spectacle-driven corporate media.” Nixon considers the human toll of climate change, oil spills, nuclear fallout, air pollution–any environmental degradation with harms to individuals that extend long after the initial spectacle has faded and been discounted by political and media elites. He argues that the public is not well situated to take heed of such slow-moving violence as it is rendered virtually invisible by our media consumption habits. Writing in 2011, Nixon warns that ours is an age of distraction. If we are info-whelmed we are unable to support the ongoing attentiveness required for the civic engagement to address global climate change. For Nixon, 9/11 represents the kind of attention that distracts the public against the subtlety of slow violence:
Efforts to make forms of slow violence more urgently visible suffered a setback in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, which reinforced a spectacular, immediately sensational, and instantly hyper-visible image of what constitutes a violent threat. The fiery spectacle of the collapsing towers was burned into the national psyche as the definitive image of violence, setting back by years attempts to rally public sentiment against climate change, a threat that is incremental, exponential, and far less sensationally visible. Condoleezza Rice’s strategic fantasy of a mushroom cloud looming over America if the United States failed to invade Iraq gave further visual definition to cataclysmic violence as something explosive and instantaneous, a recognizably cinematic, immediately sensational, pyrotechnic event.
Although it seems counterintuitive to deconceptualize 9/11 as the definitive act of violence the United States has experienced this century, Nixon wants to draw our attention away from the immediate and the sensational, focusing more on the numerous instances of environmental suffering that are glossed over in the popular imagination.
While Nixon uses the concept of slow violence to describe the long-term effects of environmental devastation often wrought by Western nations in the developing world, it can also describe several effects of U.S. domestic policy in 2020, a marked year for slow violence in America. 2020 has also been a year of televisual spectacles, though not all of them have sparked a thoughtful response—or any response—from government. And yet every spectacle–rabid wildfires, soaring Covid infections, police brutality, a would-be authoritarian president–has seen and unseen impacts on our lives, our communities, and our democracy itself.
It’s the unseen impacts that weigh most heavily on my teaching right now. While Nixon warns of the allure of the spectacle, distance teaching can be described as the utter lack of spectacle. Many teachers are struggling to keep students engaged as the distinction between home and school is blurred and students have to be attentive to a teacher on a screen rather than being accountable to a physical classroom community. Students are anxious about their families and about managing the new demands placed on them by distance learning. When I greet them every morning, I receive cheerful hellos, but still there are many students whom I don’t see or hear from. As we delve into our readings and develop our writing, I don’t know what spectacles from the larger world are foremost on their mind: a recent Covid spike or an infection in their family, a parent losing their job, an encounter with racism, or something the President said the night before. All of this has swirled into the dull hum of 2020 as I teach into the green camera light on my laptop every morning.
I am writing during our prolonged presidential election, when we are spending several days anxiously following the vote counts from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona that will determine our next president. A less prominent story this week is that in this so-called “third wave” we’ve now had several consecutive days of new Covid infections numbering over 100,000 and each day setting a new one-day record that surpasses the previous. During the first five days of our election week, there were 548,414 new Covid infections reported. The total death rate for those infected in the U.S. since the pandemic began is about 2.4%. That means that of the 548,414 people that reported a Covid infection during election week, we can expect that about 13,000 people will die from the novel coronavirus. That figure is more than four times the amount of people who died on 9/11. In other words, we may have a 9/11 death toll two or three times over every week resulting from a surge in infections.
As a televisual spectacle, the pandemic has failed to galvanize the totality of the American public that now seems divided over the issue on party lines. For many Americans, the numbers speak for themselves, and every precaution is a warranted necessity. Many of us now know several people who have been infected. Many others still refuse or resent mask wearing. This is not to say the pandemic has been without its spectacles; the news media covered the hospital ship Comfort entering New York harbor, as well as the Grand Princess cruise ship docking in Oakland after days stuck at sea with a Covid outbreak. So too did they cover the crowds of people hoarding toilet paper, the one-per-customer signs on frozen vegetables in grocery stores. The President’s rally in Tulsa at which attendees weren’t required to wear masks certainly received attention, and scrutiny. News media covered the President himself visiting hospitals without a mask, although I don’t remember if that was before or after he suggested we drink bleach. The President’s actions have been an ongoing spectacle that only increases our quarantine fatigue and blurs the feeling between important civic communication and watching an episode of Tiger King. In that sense, we can say the pandemic as a televisual spectacle hasn’t failed to galvanize the American public so much as it has failed to mobilize this Administration. The anti-Covid war production mobilization we imagined back in March never materialized in dramatic WWII terms, the Commander-in-Chief instead punting to state leadership. Our President, to say the least, has not projected a spirit of civic responsibility or personal sacrifice for the greater public good.
The second story of election week, which has also been a kind of televisual spectacle, is that as votes were still being tallied the President gave a press conference from the White House in which he attempted to delegitimize our elections by conjuring the notion of illegitimate ballots being counted in states he lost. The harm here is to our democracy itself. As Ezra Klein said on his podcast recently:
We have lived through a coup attempt. We have lived through a president and his family trying to burn down the political system, as opposed to being rejected by it. It is the absolute instantiation of if they can’t have America then nobody can. That it didn’t work does not mean it didn’t happen.
Many people thought this election would be an emphatic rejection of the President’s attempts to slide the country into authoritarianism. Instead, the President still won 48% of the popular vote with over 70 million Americans voting for him. Donald Trump will have to leave office, but Trumpism may be here to stay. The concept of slow violence in recognizing unseen harm may be useful as we consider that many Americans take the President’s statements at face value. His flagrant lies inflicted on our discourse have made us unable to meet each other on the common ground of facts, in a common discourse, and have made it difficult to affirm our democratic processes. These wounds, though unseen, will play out for many elections to come.
For a televisual spectacle of sheer ominous beauty, one can look back to the air pollution of September 10th, 2020 seen throughout California. After days of multiple wildfires burning a record number of acres, the nation saw striking images of the orange fog shrouding San Francisco for an entire day. My local experience of this national spectacle was that I went outside for about ten minutes to find bits of ash falling through the air and a thick layer of burnt dust coating every inch of my car. The sky in my city was a deep yellowish brown, not quite the cinematic orange of San Francisco. We had unhealthy air in our cities for over a month in California, setting a new record of 48 “spare the air” days for the year. The images of September 10th were a harbinger of the new reality in our state, that climate change has brought a drier fire season for three straight years, and wildfires will continue to threaten our homes and our respiratory health for every fire season to come. In addition, the issues of mental health during quarantine are further compounded when we can’t enjoy the outdoors because of dangerously toxic air quality.
Without a doubt the most wrenching televisual spectacle of 2020 was the killing of George Floyd. The horrific video of Minneapolis police officers detaining and killing Floyd need not be recounted here. The video is difficult to watch and swells outrage in anyone that cares about justice. The terrifying image of a man being killed before our eyes for nearly nine minutes is enough to ask the question: is the purpose of a police force to keep people safe or is it to inflict terror on the people it’s supposed to serve? The calls to examine police budget priorities are one of the many ways the Movement for Black Lives asks us to examine our own situatedness in systemic racism. The spectacle of George Floyd’s death has given clear visual representation of the experience that black Americans have had with the police and other institutions. This tragedy has been a wake-up call to many Americans to ask: how am I privileged in systemic racism and what am I doing to challenge it?
The televisual spectacles described above serve as lightning strikes in our moral imagination and our memory of 2020. Those frustrated with our government want a politics that will address racial equity, climate change, the pandemic economy, and we certainly need a competent and honest presidential administration to address these challenges. The question from 2020, or rather, the question for 2021, is whether these spectacular and terrifying images–images that have given us moral clarity on so many issues–will galvanize us to mobilize our democracy for change. Or will we instead, as they say, go back to brunch. Rob Nixon is right to remind us that much of human suffering is invisible, not televised, eluding the perception of day-to-day consciousness. Slow violence escapes us in the absence of proximity to one another. In a world in which we’re all curating our own digital attention space, our ability to stand in proximity to one another and perceive each other’s suffering is shrinking smaller and smaller.
It’s in the absence of physical proximity that I think about my students. Distance teaching can be bizarre, alienating, isolating, and so too can distance learning. It’s challenging to reach across the sea of black screens. Fortunately, I get to read their writing. A lot of it. A colleague of mine recently quipped that “I can recognize my students’ writing more than I can recognize my students.” In one writing assignment, I asked students to describe their most vivid memory from 2020. Their narratives reveal a classroom deeply impacted by the events of the year.
I’ve read a student’s account of his whole family contracting Covid, his own case more protracted and terrifying than his older family members. Another student described how he lost his grandmother to the virus, warning us all to take it seriously. Another student wrote about attending her first protest for black lives, her feeling of empowerment and joy for standing with her community demanding justice. Another student wrote a meditation on the police shooting of Steven Taylor in the East Bay and her feeling of loss, that her identity is suspect and her life revocable. Another student wrote about her father’s deportation, what it means for her to visit him across the border. Another student with many family members who served in the military wrote about her frustration at being labeled a racist for expressing her patriotism. I’ve read numerous accounts of our last day of school on March 13th, the surreal feeling of its sudden closure and the slow realization that we were in for a long year. I’ve read many accounts of the wildfires and the smoke. I’ve read multiple narratives of students suddenly moving to a new home, as many families were uprooted in the precarious pandemic economy. And still, so much is left unsaid.
There have been so many traumas that remain unseen in America, so much experience obscured by race, class, and geography, but what these narratives reveal to me is a new public emerging from the shared and recognizable experiences of the Pandemic. These experiences will no doubt change us in many ways. The first year of the American Covid pandemic was an onslaught of spectacles, and although they were perhaps not as immediately sensational as 9/11 was, I hope they will mark our collective memory and guide us toward a politics of recognition and shared futures.
 Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2013. pg. 6-13.
 Klein, Ezra. (The Joe Biden Experience) Interview with Evan Osnos. The Ezra Klein Show. Podcast audio. November 7, 2020. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-joe-biden-experience/id1081584611?i=1000497582540