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Another semester in fine print

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The official Princeton transcript is not a pretty document, but it gets the job done. There, in 8.5 x 11 inches, I can visualize the entire last three years of my academic life, arrayed in neat lines of 12-point Courier font framed by a loud orange border that belies the intimacy of the words it circumscribes.

Below the summary of the last semester, there’s a disclaimer:

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“The COVID-19 pandemic required all classes to transition to remote instruction for the second half of the spring 2020 semester. Grading patterns reflect this disruption, as some instructors moved to a pass/D/fail-only basis for assessment, and students were permitted to elect the pass/D/fail option in all other undergraduate courses.”

Few could forget the epic debate that ensued on Princeton’s campus about the right way to deal with grades during the shift to remote learning. Even as I “studied abroad” from my home, I looked on in awe as the University moved from a department-by-department policy to a universal optional PDF for courses, prompted by outcry from the community. At the time, it was obvious that “business as usual” in the classroom simply wasn’t possible — or just.

Now, months later, we find ourselves surrounded by many of the same circumstances. On top of the “normal” stressors of pandemic life, we’ve experienced a summer of intense reckonings with racial injustice and a politically tumultuous build-up to the November election. But our collective attitude toward these conditions has changed.

Academic departments have adopted a patchwork of grading policies, some reverting to pre-pandemic standards. In classes and meetings, facilitators worry about talking about the pandemic “too much” — we feel a need to let it seep into the background because it’s “just the way life is now.”

When we do make space to acknowledge the state of the world, our words don’t always prompt self-compassionate action. We keep chugging along. We fear the cost of dwelling on what’s going on around us and within us — because we have papers to write, because we have emails to draft, because we have things to do. Now that everyone’s back in business, we can’t afford to let ourselves fall behind.

With time, it’s become easy to let these feelings build up inside. But just last weekend, in a Zoom book club meeting with a former professor and a classmate, I couldn’t keep up the dam — the words spilled out, a mixture of disappointment and uncertainty about the state of the world and our tiny pocket of it. Eventually, I had to mute myself, turn off my camera, and let go.

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I broke down because of what a friend had helped me understand weeks earlier. I had spent all my time thinking, “Things aren’t great right now, but so many people have it worse, so I shouldn’t feel bad,” but deep down, I was feeling, “Things aren’t great right now, and so many people have it worse.” I realized that it doesn’t matter how long I ruminate on the major life events missed, the companies shut down, or the lives transformed by or lost to the virus. The knowledge of perpetual external suffering isn’t comforting; it’s compounding. It’s heavy.

In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, professors Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan introduce the “bandwidth tax” — a term meant to capture the effects of scarcity on cognitive capacity. They argue that facing a lack of money — or time, or material resources — can impact our executive functioning, our memory, and our impulse control by continually drawing our attention toward the source of concern regardless of the task at hand.

To demonstrate their hypothesis, Shafir and Mullainathan detail the results of a study that measured academic performance for sixth graders in classrooms on two sides of a school, one of which faced a noisy set of railroad tracks. Students on the noisy side ended up a full year behind their peers in school; the city’s installation of noise pads eliminated the discrepancy. The research demonstrated the detrimental impacts of noise on concentration and performance. But the authors take it a step further:

“Now, picture yourself working in a pleasant, quiet office: no distractions, no trains. Instead, you are struggling with your mortgage and the fact that freelance work is hard to come by […] You sit down to focus on your work. Soon your mind is wandering. ‘Should we sell the second car?’ ‘Should we take another loan?’ […] These noisy trains of thought are every bit as hard to ignore. They arrive at even greater regularity and are every bit as uninvited. But these trains pull you on board. ‘Should we sell the second car?’ leads to ‘That would raise some money, but it would make the logistics so much harder, just when I need to be working as hard as I can. We don’t want to risk the one steady job we do have’ […] Though this room seems quiet, it is full of disruptions — disruptions that come from within.”

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In a normal semester, it is fair to expect that students will be dealing with similar “trains” of various sorts at any given time, from extracurricular engagements to family emergencies. Many professors account for that reality by granting flexibility on assignments and examinations on a case-by-case basis.

But the personal and social upheavals that all of us have experienced this year — and those we continue to experience, since the world around us has hardly stabilized — transcend individual accommodations. Many students are now a little over six months into living in their childhood homes as adults or just over a month into living independently with friends for the first time in their lives; hundreds of others are occupying a campus transformed by social distancing regulations. The public health crisis continues to creep into our lives, as COVID-19 outbreaks and scares arise unpredictably around us and our loved ones. And much of our time is spent wringing our hands about a political scene that is disheartening at best and disempowering at worst.

All of these factors, sometimes acutely disruptive and sometimes insidious, make it incredibly difficult to operate at our normal standards. This has to do, in large part, with the bandwidth tax. Some of us are facing a scarcity of money or material resources amid the widespread economic impact of the pandemic; all of us are facing a scarcity of certainty as the benchmarks of our pre-pandemic lives continue to elude us, half a year later. 

Professors and students alike feel the need to shake off the weight of the world, log onto Zoom, and press on. But we are all surrounded by trains moving a hundred miles an hour, and most of the time, we can’t tune them out.

So what are we supposed to do?

Writer and professor Arthur C. Brooks notes that we often think about pandemic constraints in self-destructive ways: “[In] the case of the coronavirus lockdowns, the complaint about work I most often hear is that with the inability to work in a normal way, productivity is ruined,” he writes. “We can’t perform up to our own standards — whether because of competing child care demands, being isolated from coworkers, or just Zoom fatigue — and it is maddening. Many people feel like they are stuck in a cycle of frustrating mediocrity.”

But he proposes a solution: “to change the definition of productivity.”

It’s a radical proposal for a place like Princeton, where the pursuit of productivity permeates the fabric of our identities as scholars and aspiring leaders. We have grown accustomed to the weekly juggling act of undergraduate life: balancing test preparation and problem sets, filling out applications for summer internships and postgraduate opportunities that may someday become lines on our resumes, tabling in Frist Campus Center for our extracurricular engagements, and attempting to achieve acceptable levels of social engagement.

But adapting to this reality will require us to perform a different sort of labor: reframing our self-perception.

This is a time for us to recognize just how hard all of us are working to stay afloat, and to reward that hard work with positive reinforcement and compassion. It would do us well to accept “the state of the world” as a valid reason for lethargy and shorthand for the multifaceted but difficult-to-explain circumstances that make it challenging for us to be our best selves right now — emotionally, socially, and academically.

And, in acknowledging the difficulty of co-creating the virtual classroom after so many years of in-person teaching and learning, students and professors should offer each other the benefit of the doubt. We have all been thrown into this educational model without an obvious timeline or a tried-and-true instruction manual; the least we can do for one another is offer a hefty dose of forgiveness in our judgements and give explicit permission to be less-than-perfect at this.

A quote from physician Gabor Maté is a helpful guide: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”

This year, we should all make a practice of being empathetic witnesses to each other’s challenges and breakthroughs, big and small. And some day in the near future, perhaps our Princeton transcripts can include a different sort of message below our grades for this school year — one that remembers the resilience, resolve, and compassion that can’t be fully captured in those loud orange borders, but which will always mark the character of this generation of students.

Remy Reya is a senior in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at jreya@princeton.edu.

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