November 19, 2020

CHANG | COVID Lessons Yet Unlearned

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“This semester is just so weird.” 

“I don’t know what it is, but this semester is harder than all the other ones I’ve had … and I’m a senior.”

“I’m studying remotely, but this is still hell.”

This is just a small sampling of where so many Cornellians are at this semester, as classes end (for the first time) and we begin a schedule of semifinal exams and project deadlines before returning to two more weeks of being beat up all over again. Weary, seasonally depressed, hurting and alone in so many ways, what are the lessons we can take from this semester in preparation for the next?

When I first registered for classes this semester, I thought that coursework might be a bit easier. The end of last semester demonstrated that professors realized that online exams were nearly impossible, and it was much better to use open-note formats, which I perceived to be less challenging. This pattern was repeated this year: Fewer classes have exams, and instead, course staff are relying on projects, assignments, problem sets and quizzes to assess students.

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding the academic load this year to be much tougher than normal, even with few synchronous classes and a minimal number of credits. Many of us lack the motivation to attend online lectures, which are typically less interesting and certainly less engaging. This isn’t the fault of professors, and begs the question of what attendance would have been like for in-person classes for which attendance is not required. Moreover, the work is a drag. Spending days slaving away at homework is not really better than the two hours that are needed to take the exam.

If the pandemic continues and classes next semester are held in a similar hybrid format, we need to rethink our classes and academic course loads. Maybe academic departments won’t change their graduation requirements — although a reassessment of this on a department by department basis would be beneficial to students — but reasonable credit caps, no matter how controversial, might be the move to limit students from overworking themselves, as Cornell students are wont to do. Or, better yet, Cornell could provide better advising resources, ones that are honest and open to students about feasible schedules.

During our pre-enroll, I propose that we individually consider each credit to be 1.5 credits as a more accurate representation of the work involved in this online format. Furthermore, mapping out a path to graduation with several academic calendar scenarios could help us better plan our academic lives. We have no way of knowing if we’ll become better adjusted to this new way of life or if we’ll continue struggling, but erring on the side of caution could serve us later in the semester when our walls are suddenly crumbling.

What I found even harder was the separation of work, school and life. Attending class, doing homework and participating in clubs no longer takes place in distinct physical locations. I can complete the entirety of my daily schedule from the comfort of my desk or my living room table … or, on the more degenerate days, from the comfort of my bed. In our current environment, we no longer associate rest or sleep with our living spaces. Instead, we conflate them all, making it even harder to take a break.

I don’t have a good solution to this yet. But, as one of my colleagues suggested during my internship this summer, I’m hoping to be better about routines next semester. Maybe I’ll wake up earlier (doubtful, to be honest), and simulate a commute to campus by taking a quick 10 minute walk. I can change my meeting locations within the apartment so that I don’t become sick of staring at my blank white walls. Other options must exist; I’m not sure if I can survive another semester of self-inflicted hermitude.

Finally, the effort needed to maintain any semblance of a social life has meant I hang out with myself more than ever before. I’m not all that interesting or introverted of a person, so this has meant a lot of bad video compilations and scrolling through social media. I’ve been trying to find ways to entertain myself off-screen, whether with a book or by learning to cook real meals instead of fridge-cleaning expeditions.

Do we develop our own self-socializing skills, or do we find ways to socialize with others online or in continued compliance with social distancing guidelines? I truly have no answers to this one. I’m grateful I came back to Ithaca this semester, but being in the same physical location as my friends hasn’t guaranteed a solution to COVID-induced isolation, given that Cornell has (reasonably, in my opinion) removed our primary ways of hanging out in large groups with our clubs and friend groups. I can only imagine the social situation for remote learning students.

With one semester (nearly) down, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the environment, but we still have a long way to go before we finish the year. Do we learn from our mistakes and create a better next semester, or do we allow the “new normal” of the virus overwhelm us? 

Darren Chang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Thursday this semester.