Worry, planning, and (not) writing near Lake Ontario

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This post by Kaitlin Stack Whitney is the eleventh in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.


The semester here in upstate New York has already started, so recently the only writing I have been doing is finishing syllabi. I annually teach a Great Lakes environmental history course in the fall. It’s a place based course that focuses on the international basin from the time of the formation of the lakes through to its many possible climate futures, with a focus on Indigenous environmental management across centuries. While I generally love preparing for a new year and considering all the possibilities, I freely admit to being full of dread at the changes required to teach and learn in person during a pandemic. We won’t get to take the annual field trip to Lake Ontario, only a few miles away from campus. We won’t be able to pass around the glacial deposits that my wonderful colleague collected from a construction site and brings in every year. We won’t be able to do the county park scavenger hunt where students try their hand at landscape reading. Many other faculty at other institutions have spent the summer working on developing strategies for place-based coursework and connection in virtual classes. I worry that being in person this semester means none of the safety of online and also none of the fun of previous years.

The Dentzel Menagerie Carousel at Ontario Beach Park, installed in 1905, in Rochester. It is currently closed to the public.  Photo credit: Kaitlin Stack Whitney 2018

I worry more about needing to use the other scavenger hunt activity I wrote for this class, one with no learning goals other than generating a sense of community and maybe some laughter.  That activity was written three years ago for this same course, when a student passed away suddenly mid-semester. No one can or should focus on learning while grieving – the syllabus written in the before times had to change. I worry that that experience, so hard for everyone in class, will be the tenor of all my class and any class at any university in person this fall. I worry my class will be too busy mourning to learn and write about lakes.

Docks along the mouth of the lower Gennesee River, where it empties into Lake Ontario in Rochester, NY. Across the river is a US Coast Guard station and a yacht club.  Photo credit: Photo credit: Kaitlin Stack Whitney 2018

Most of what I do manage to write during my limited work time is to and for students – entering payroll (by hand, for ten people), protocols and paper suggestions, reference letters, submitting reimbursements, messages to check in across multiple platforms and three time zones. I want to know they are safe, feel supported – I worry if I do not hear from them for a few days. In these times when everyone is remote and everything is online, silence could mean good things (taking a much needed break) or the worst things. There is a small, nagging voice in my head that says this writing doesn’t count as “real” writing, typing into chat windows to check if it’s a good or a bad silence. Real as in that it won’t count for tenure. That’s true. But that is so far away, so abstract – what will universities even look like in a year, let alone five?  I need to make sure student collaborators are doing okay right now.  

A close up of part of a mural of the now-gone trolley line that ran to Ontario Beach Park. The mural is located inside the port building. Photo credit: Kaitlin Stack Whitney 2018

I should also admit that I submitted this essay two weeks late. It seems important, and very appropriate to this series, to mention that. The writing – and not writing – that have been possible for me during lockdown, and now the murky hereafter (the lockdown is technically over, but many restrictions are still in place here in upstate New York and across the US), unfolds on the timeframe and time/energy estimates that is quite a bit different than before.  Everything takes longer; time seems to be moving at both glacial and rapid paces.  For whatever it’s worth, I did try to get this essay in on time. My environmental historian spouse and I are trying to work full time, and do the best we can manage day to day with two small children. And I suspect that many of my students, before and especially now, are doing the same.

A close up of graffiti on the lighthouse at the end of the Charlotte Pier, which is located on jetty butting out into Lake Ontario.  Photo credit: Kaitlin Stack Whitney 2018

The before part feels more important than ever to specify. Disability advocates like Imani Barbarin have written about the unfairness or irony of flexible work and school arrangements previously denied to disabled students and colleagues becoming commonplace, even necessary, for nondisabled people now. For example, she mentions that a company that previously denied her request to work remotely, deeming it “impossible,” now has all their employees working remotely. The quick pivot to remote and hybrid work and instruction shows that these arrangements can be very successful – and that, as Dr. Ashley Shew writes, there are  enormous possibilities of letting disabled scholars and experts lead. For example, with archives now closed and archival work being done remotely, the experience and expertise of disabled historians as highlighted by history graduate student Angela Gallagher, can show how to make archival work more accessible for everyone, regardless of whether they open in person again.

I am hopeful that however and whenever we emerge from the pandemic, that any “after” time will be one in which schools, workplaces, and other spaces are more welcoming and supportive to more people by applying these lessons. 


Feature Image: A close up of part of a mural of native fish found in Lake Ontario in the City of Rochester Port building. Photo credit: Kaitlin Stack Whitney 2018.

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Dr. Stack Whitney is an assistant professor in the Science, Technology & Society Department at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, USA. She lives near the lower Genesee River, which drains into Lake Ontario, on unceded Haudenosaunee land.

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