I look out my office window and see the students walking by in their masks and think of the stories they will tell their children about college during the pandemic. Thanksgiving holiday is approaching, and just as in normal years, the students are thinning out as they trickle home a few days ahead of schedule.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, but it is timed poorly for the academic calendar: a week off right before the end of the semester. So, like many colleges, Russell Sage planned for all classes following Thanksgiving break to be conducted remotely. Some students will stay in their dorms through the end of the term; those who go home for Thanksgiving will stay home until classes resume in January.
And we now disperse into the renewed pandemic wave for a Thanksgiving holiday where Thanksgiving gatherings themselves are rightly forbidden. This pandemic Thanksgiving reminds us of what we miss, of what we have lost, in a time of necessary separation and isolation. It’s an object lesson in what being human means. We can learn from it about what matters most to us.
And what matters is being with other people, that very impulse for gathering that we must temporarily suspend. Interested in those powerful social forces, I wrote my dissertation and first book on the role of parties in modern literature (holiday and otherwise).
I studied the anthropology of shared meals and community celebrations and looked at medieval carnival and Lent. I traced the development of house parties through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the powerful behavioral license granted by masquerade balls. I looked at how authors used parties to bring together a social microcosm and to delineate who is part of a group and who is not.
The history and literature of social gatherings reveals the fundamental nature of people gathering around warmth, light, abundance of food and drink, and companionship against a forbidding outer world of cold, darkness, scarcity, and isolation.
What we celebrate is celebration — or it is life itself, made more poignant by our understanding that it is fleeting.
Now as we disperse for holidays to be spent in semi-isolation, we must remind ourselves that the abandonment of human closeness is temporary; it is not a new normal, but a temporary discipline to keep the virus at bay.
So I find myself, having written The Life of the Party and attended quite a few parties in my lifetime, telling college students to forego them. That’s how strange our present condition is.
This Thanksgiving: let us be grateful for the health we still have and the communities that nourish us, however distant they may seem.
At Russell Sage College, we are thankful for essential workers, a phrase that has had its meaning renewed. We realize how much we depend on people whose labor could not switch to working remotely from home: farmworkers, truck drivers, transit workers, “first responders,” grocery store workers, our own college facilities and housekeeping workers, our Sodexo partners, and so forth. And at Sage we are especially grateful for the health care workers and those who teach them: our dependence on them under extraordinary circumstances continues.
As Sage nears the end of a fall semester conducted mostly in person, I feel gratitude for our whole community and how they have pulled together so that students could still go to college. Our faculty have transformed their teaching to work in multiple modalities — often at the same time. They have engaged students with their academic content but also looked after their emotional well-being in a trying period. Our staff have transformed their work routines to preserve and protect the public health while still doing their jobs. Some have shifted job descriptions to help with tasks like contact tracing. Residence life staff and student RAs have taken on the difficult job of ensuring safe behavior outside the classroom.
And our students. Well, they have kept their masks on and their spirits up. Nothing is so clear as the fact that they want to be here. I’m sure they also look forward to some return to normality, but they voted with their feet in choosing to be in class and in a community of fellow students. I’m grateful to all they are doing to make a good experience out of a difficult time, and to the sacrifices they make, along with the rest of us, to stay safe and in operation.
I wish you all a safe and healthy Thanksgiving.