I’ve been in higher education long enough to feel that I experienced everything academia could throw my way. I taught political science as a graduate student during President Clinton’s impeachment trial. I taught legal studies on September 11, 2001. I taught law and society in 2008 as the country dealt with a financial crisis. Then along comes March 13, 2020. None of us were quite prepared for how we’d have to become nimble and pivot, words I often used in regards to pedagogy but not in these ways. Having taught in San Diego, California and Amherst, Massachusetts – both different places and in different times – I found myself adapting to Mahwah, New Jersey in 2007 when I came to Ramapo College. The transition was enjoyable as it forced me to rethink some of the tropes I had used in the classroom.
Let me get back to Fall 2020. The wonderful Law & Society faculty I work with asked me to teach a course as we’re trying to cover all of our courses. Having been in administration since 2015, my time has been limited in the classroom. They asked me to teach Lyrics and the Law, a course I hadn’t taught since Fall 2012. I was ecstatic. The course involves looking at musical lyrics and connecting them to legal theory. We cover critical race theory, feminist legal theory, jurisprudential schools of thought, all through music and with attention on constitutive theory. It’s a provocative college course. That is, we cover the lyrics, which are often times quite graphic. As I’ve said since 2001 when I first taught the course, college should force you to question what makes you comfortable because in those places of discomfort lies progress. While I would preface the possible offensiveness of the topics to the students at the beginning of each semester, I never felt that I’d be offending anyone because the topics simply needed to be covered, especially in the safe space I established. But 2020 is different than 2001 and faculty had been telling me for years that I should be aware that some topics may be off limits. The impact of the Trump Administration and movement towards taboo topics was something I needed to consider, they said. I heard them loud and clear.
In August of 2020, as I prepared for the semester to begin, I emailed the students with a disclaimer of sorts. I outlined that we would be discussing controversial topics, including lyrics that used the n-word and that we should all be prepared for these discussions, again, in this safe space. To my surprise, it was not the controversial topics that altered the nature of the course but rather the stress the students were under that truly affected that semester.
When I write a quiz, I always write in a freebie question. Most of the time it is some kind of joke: salmon is overrated. Please discuss. Or what was the greatest thing before sliced bread? That is courtesy of George Carlin. For the first quiz, I give students a freebie that simply asks how the semester is going so far. Historically, I have received some incredibly personal and even funny answers but post-March 13, 2020, there was a tenor of stress I hadn’t seen. They divulged what was happening in their lives. They talked about losing family and friends to COVID. They talked about getting the virus or being afraid of getting it. They talked about issues of racial unrest or the impact of Trump Administration policies. It wasn’t the lighthearted conversations I had grown accustomed to. Rather, they were stressed and it was impacting their learning.
This brings me back to the lesson: it is about coping, not acquiescing to the temporary normal. My time back in the classroom has reminded me that we need to tell our students, our faculty, our staff, our administration – we need to shout it from the rooftops – that we’re not supposed to get good at this. We’re just getting through this incredibly stressful and difficult time but we’ll see light on the other side and while our campuses may be different moving forward, and our mode of delivery altered, the goal remains the same: find progress in discomfort.
There’s a line in Bob Marley’s “Running Away” in which he says, “every man thinks his burden is the heaviest.” While reggae is the dominant musical genre in my Lyrics and the Law course, that line has always resonated with me regardless of its academic applicability. Time since March 13, 2020 reminded me that the stress our students, staff, faculty, and administration have been under to maintain a campus full of vibrancy, but all done through a computer, must be considered.
Since March 27, 2020, I have been sending my faculty a song every Friday. It started as Quarantune of the Week and evolved simply to Friday Tune. I’ve tried to send a song that motivates and creates a sense of community, that community so sorely missed since we’re all working predominantly remotely. One Friday, Vampire Weekend captured what we were all thinking in their song, “Campus.” They sang, “how am I supposed to pretend, I never want to see you again.” We’ll all be back on our campus soon – some of you may already be. I’m sure being back on campus will alleviate some stresses for our students and new ones will arise. I’ve learned, I just need to be sure to empathize and stay focused on delving in that material that is contentious but always keeping evolution in mind.
Aaron R.S. Lorenz is Dean of the School of Social Science and Human Services at Ramapo College. Some of his most recent work focuses on comedy and law as well free speech issues and Colin Kaepernick. He serves as Treasurer of the Consortium.