One of my classroom aphorisms is, “The Introduction is for the reader; the Body is for the evidence; the Conclusion is for you.” If you care at all about your subject, I urge the students, the Conclusion should be your favorite part. Once, in my desperation, I even got a bit melodramatic: “For everyone you meet, there will come a day when you’re seeing that person for the last time. Usually, you won’t know. But what would you say if you did?”
Sometimes, in other words, being denied a Conclusion can be an even harder challenge than having to write one.
According to Nick Anderson, in a December 28 article at The Washington Post, “The public health crisis and economic and social upheaval of the past two years have led to significant enrollment declines at community colleges around the country.” Agreed. It certainly has with ours. What the article doesn’t mention, though, are the trajectories of those students who did enroll for the fall semester only to fail by the end of it and, even more subtly, how it affected their instructors, who had to watch their classrooms gradually empty out, students disappearing one by one, until there was practically nobody left. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
This was anything but “burnout,” an expression that connotes a surfeit of unsustainable energy. Adam Grant, in an April article at the New York Times, uses a different word to describe one of Covid’s psychological effects: “languishing.”
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield…Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference.
The students appeared to struggle gamely but fitfully, like a flame using up its small amount of fuel, only to flicker and die, leaving behind an empty, abandoned campus.
John Koenig, in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, coined the word “kenopsia,” which he defines as “the eeriness of places left behind.” It’s not just that a certain place is empty, but that it was “once bustling with life, but now lies abandoned and quiet.” Here, of course, there be ghosts. “And if our houses are haunted,” muses Koenig, “it will be because we’re haunting them ourselves, as if there was ever such a thing as unfinished business.”
A sense of closure is just one of Covid’s many deprivations. Normally, I would use the final days to exemplify the strategies I try to teach regarding the end of a paper: reassert your main point(s), answer the “so what” question, make an appeal to the reader and, if you care even a little bit, interject some emotion. Oh–you can also end with a quote.
Well, I have unfinished business. To last semester’s students–many of whom I have already seen for the last time–I’d like to conclude with some words of advice, which a student from several years ago told me she got from her father every time she left the house. Here they are:
“Be brave, always remember who you are, and watch for deer.”