Nursing taught me something about the professoriate and myself

Today, I was reading about how the covid-19 pandemic has burned out and traumatized hospital nurses. I caught myself unexpectedly nodding along in recognition, though I’m not a nurse. I’m a professor. Nurses have faced more dramatic, more dire conditions than I have. Yet the demands from their employers and their patients were startling familiar. The expectation that nurses selflessly serve, no matter the costs they bear, also struck a deep chord.

I started to think more carefully about what the pandemic exacted from me professionally.

Right at the start of the pandemic, my university announced that it was suspending payments to faculty retirement plans (this lasted for eighteen months) and that it was seeking financial contributions from faculty in the form of voluntary declined salary. At the same time, we were asked to reinvent our curricula and our courses for an online video format; to create online social activities for students and to participate in them; and to provide psychosocial support for them. As the pandemic wore on, we had to fight premature efforts to resume in-class instruction. When we did go back to the building, we had to mediate between the administration’s insistence that everybody return and many students’ legitimate preferences for a hybrid approach. We were expected to trust that a university that had pled relative poverty to justify cutting our financial compensation had made meaningful investments in improving ventilation.

I teach law students. Throughout the covid pandemic, the ever-increasing thrum of the current cultural and political fights has particularly affected the law, law schools, and lawyers. Rising misogyny, racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and other bigotries and hatreds complicate every aspect of legal education. So do efforts to overcome and ameliorate deep antipathies and the injustices they create. Law faculty had to contend with these complexities first while adapting courses to zoom; and then through returning to classrooms with everybody masked; and now while teaching when almost nobody masks. We have had to teach law while the Supreme Court has gone rogue; while the-then President of the United States called for an attack on the Capitol to prevent the lawful transition of power to his duly elected successor; and while the Republican Party has degenerated into a cross between a criminal syndicate and a cult.

Now I realize just why the story of the nurses’ burn-out and trauma struck me so powerfully. Universities have done no better than hospitals in empowering their most critical workers, those who work most directly with the people who seek on a daily basis what the institutions exist to provide. Like hospitals and nurses, universities have asked more and more of faculty while giving them less and less support. Like nurses and patients, faculty have had to provide for students who have had unprecedented and enormous needs. American law faculty have had to face existential threats to democratic rule of law, just as nurses have had to confront a healthcare system overwhelmed by covid and its knock-on effects.

No wonder we faculty are raw; no surprise that I related so viscerally to the plight of nurses. Faculty need to address the toll we have paid and continue to pay. I doubt our employers will, even to they extent they could. University administrators have not been upping our salaries, augmenting our research resources, or reducing our teaching loads. Like all wage earners, we professors mostly need our jobs. Many of us do not want to quit anyway. Unable or unwilling to abandon our posts, we faculty have to reorient ourselves. We will have to figure out how to be educators and scholars who have been and still are going through a pandemic in a culturally and politically riven country. We must do this even as we experience the burnout and the trauma our profession has inflicted on us during the covid pandemic. I do not know exactly what a new stance will look like. But I know that the only way to adopt one is to start by recognizing its necessity.