2020 and me: personal reflections

Here’s a 2020 story: this Tuesday my wife became the first person in our house to get a COVID-19 vaccine. She received it so soon because of her new job as a contact tracer for the county east of ours. The vaccine was the Moderna flavor, and the kind professional who did the deed was named Laura.

Ceredwyn getting COVID shot Moderna vax Laura

Ceredwyn’s arm was sore for a day.  She’s scheduled for the second shot in January.

This story a good way to close out 2020 on a personal note.  After so much chaos and stress, a small victory is something our household very much needed.

Terri Givens and others asked me for a personal post about this year.  I’m not very good at that kind of thing. I try to keep myself out of my writing as much as possible, which might be a generation X trait. But as 2020 shambles to a close, a personal reflection sounds fitting.

So much happened to me and my family this year!

Twelve months ago we had recently moved to northeastern Virginia when 2020 began, and were basking in lavish infrastructure.  I shudder to think how my work would have proceeded had we still been living in rural Vermont. We could not have done any videoconferencing there, so… would we have desperately moved somewhere we could? Perhaps crashed with friends of family somewhere that had 21st century fittings?  Or would we have had to suspend the work and… retired?

As it was, COVID hit our business very hard.  More than one half of my work vanished in a few days.  That was the stuff requiring travel to in-person events, like workshops, speaking engagements, and on-site consulting.  I used to travel up to six times a month. That all vanished in March.  So: we had to pivot.  Everything went online and fast.

Remember that my work is done without a net.  I’m not bankrolled by a company. I don’t have tenure. And I definitely don’t have family riches to draw on.  Being a higher education futurist is a perpetual scramble for sustainability, and the pandemic threw that hustle into overdrive.

The first move was to hold, support, and join lots of live video events.  I had hosting and facilitation skills, both online and off-, so I put those to use. In spring there were weeks when I hosted, helped, or was hosted in two or three video sessions per day. I taught myself the admin ropes behind platforms I didn’t know well enough, like WebEx. I reached out for potential clients. I wrote about videoconferencing… and it all came together by summer.

The second was to get in front of the pandemic and stay there, figuring out what was actually happening, how it hit higher education, and futuring based on that research. This was a way I could apply my skills and knowledge to the growing crisis, doing some good and maybe in a sustainable way.  One page in Academia Next became notorious – that’s the one asking readers to anticipate a pandemic. But I threw myself into getting live data and information, then getting it out to people in as many ways as possible. I created this COVID resource post, stuck it on top of this blog, and have edited it there ever since. I hosted a torrent of videoconference discussions and presentations, both on the Future Trends Forum and elsewhere.  I followed and interviewed experts.  I blew up Google Apps with a spreadsheet tracking the great spring academic migration online. Above all I listened hard and asked questions.

This, too, yielded results. People within and adjacent to academia needed this stuff.  They were looking ahead, trying to improvise responses to a very fluid situation. They also needed to get their experiences and stories out.  Hosts asked me less about the macro trends reshaping higher ed and more about opening in-person campuses versus going online.

Does this sound deliberate and strategic?  It was, to some extent, being based on brooding, analysis, research, reflection, and consultation… and it was also the result of dread, anxiety, and stark terror. As I said, I watched the virus spread worldwide very carefully.  As a futurist I knew how to anticipate negative outcomes, as well as positive ones.  So I could see how this –

March 5, 2020.

might become this:

coronavirus world spread 2020 Dec 31

Just now.

I heard from the pandemic’s ravages from my student who had family in Wuhan. I also heard about them from my own family: my daughter, the disaster planner, and my wife, the emergency services guru. I heard from my father, nearly 90, riddled with comorbidities, surrounded by other such folk, and not sure what to do.  Again and again I imagined deaths, injuries, social dislocation, cultural upheavals, political unrest. I saw this worldwide, and imagined it at home. Sure, it might not turn out that badly.  Some friends and other people assured me it was overblown. But we could not take the risk.

So we locked down and stayed down. We ordered groceries and all kinds of supplies by delivery. Our pantry became a survivalist bunker which we checked and rechecked. We masked up when we took brief, nervous forays into the outside world for exercise, walking at the least crowded times, and shunning people energetically.

This was and is so, so strange for me.  I’m an extrovert, a person who thrives on interaction with other people.  I love being in groups and crowds.  2020 rewrote this bit of my software, turning me into an anxious homebody who flinches even at fictional representations of people being physically close to other people.

Bryan with plague doctor mask in office

And yet I had to be close to some. Our household is large and full, with a string of humans and animals. We each have private spaces, but we also must spend time together.  It’s an enforced family closeness. I love it, because I love being with my family. Yet at the same time I want them to get away from me and the rest of us, to live their own lives with other people.

They needed to be supported, too. Hence my far too many 70 hour work weeks. (I wrote more about this earlier.) Hence the kind of work experience when, exhausted, you force yourself to keep going, even with accidental naps at the desk. When people talk about the pandemic giving them too much downtime I just grind my teeth. I think that January and February will see things on a less frantic pace. I hope so.

COVID COVID COVID, as soon to be ex-president Trump once said. That really is what loomed largest over my life in 2020.

Stepping away from the pandemic itself, I was fascinated by how higher education responded. All of the analyses and explorations I was doing showed me a complex struggle, a myriad of institutional and personal stories.  The story that colleges and universities were brittle, unchanging temples got a little more complicated in 2020, and that’s something I find inspiring.

One part of that transformation involved responses to the year’s “great awokening” over antiblack racism. I saw this throughout higher education, first in the US and then in other nations.  I saw it in my classes and with the students. It was clear in the Georgetown Big Rethink project. My summer gaming seminar was wracked by George Floyd’s killing and electrified by the popular mobilization.

I did not say much about this. I felt that I had little to contribute. Instead I tried to give platforms to others,  especially black folks, and to do what I could to help my students think about race and racism. I read and thought. Our son got us out of the house to march:

George Floyd protest Manassas

BLM march in our town.

Students: I taught more in 2020 than I have since 2000. Four classes this year, and dozens of splendid students. I love teaching. I love these seminars and invented a whole new one from scratch this year. It was my spring ed tech class that transitioned from being in person, deep in Georgetown’s Carbarn, to being wholly online.  An appropriate class for that process, no? I keep saying this: the students are a perpetual delight and inspiration. So are my LDT colleagues.

2020… at times it felt like my life was consumed in the grand fiery ideas of the year, the pandemic, racism, what was happening to academia, and the reverberations and implications of these. At other times I felt like I was doing the year the wrong way.

For example, I switched my eating habits over to veganism, starting gradually last December, then fully by spring.  Yes, when the good advice was to welcome eating comfort food and making dishes one loved, I chucked all of that to figure out what to do with garbanzo beans and why there were so many kinds of lentils. I loved eating and making food, and it took months to stop thinking of a plant-based diet as something other than medicinal or experimental. I’m still not there yet.

But I lost nearly 50 pounds. My body feels better.  I’ve learned an awful lot in terms of what to eat and how to prepare it.  I just prepared a kind of mega-menu of what I now know how to cook and was shocked to see thirty items listed.  I haven’t become a vegan apologist or evangelical yet, but am happy to talk about the experience. It seems like it was the right thing to do. (Let me know if you’d like to hear more. I might do something additional with this story.)

Another example: some told us to step back during a crisis, to ratchet down our expectations for what could be accomplished during an asterisk of a year. Nah, said I, apparently, and overdid it instead. I followed the old Soviet shockworker (уда́рник) model, it seems, of urging oneself on to every greater workloads for the greater good. Was this the right thing to do? Perhaps?

Recognitions actually came in.  I was interviewed by a range of media outlets, perhaps most visibly the Wall Street Journal, who did a fantastic job with video. Academia Next won an award from the futures community. I won another award from an organization I greatly admire.  This wasn’t just from my 2020 work, of course, but the year seemed to bring attention to my career – which is outrageously humbling.

And now it’s very late.  My eyelids keep malfunctioning, shutting down over my eyes to blot out the laptop. My wife is asleep, because she has to hit the contact tracing headquarters (all socially distanced, tested, and vaccinated, of course) first thing in the morning.  I am so proud of her doing this crucial work, right in the teeth of the crisis. Meanwhile, the cats are taking turns sitting on me, staring at me in order to remind me of my obvious duties to their species.

I don’t know if this post made sense or adds anything to what you know and see, dear readers. I try to cudgel my brains into finding an overarching idea or several inspirations from the personal experience of 2020, and the results don’t fully satisfy.

One is that we saw a series of screwups, snafus, heinous acts, and outright crimes as humanity grappled with the pandemic and with racism.  “The history of 2020 should be written in crayon,” muttered a character in Death to 2020, and I see that. I’ve said before that I’m sure we’ll actually remember this year very much. We suppressed the 1918 pandemic quite thoroughly, and the national if not global shudder of horror and release greeting 2020’s end makes me think of a species-wide drive to move on. But I hope we think hard about the screwups, snafus, heinous acts, and outright crimes. I hope we learn from them. I hope we improve thereby.

Another is that we saw resilience.  Lots of resilience, vast libraries of examples of resilience. I don’t mean that in that corporate buzzword sense. What I’m thinking of instead is human beings being confronted with something they didn’t want to see, exercising their imaginations, trying out actions, and then learning from what transpired.  I saw that at scale: in institutions, in cities, in cultures. But I also saw that with individual people. My students working at the syllabus, while trying to move house during a pandemic, or deciding if they should risk infection by going to a protest.  Student athletes grappling with changes made to the crucial few years of their higher ed career. People inventing new ways of teaching, new technologies, new practices.

And I think of my family, hunkered down and living in history. How they put up with my long hours and strange dishes. How they learned and worked hard all year, each of them. How they made stuff, from videos to comics to costumes. How they grew and thought and told stories and looked to the future.

That’s enough for now. I told you I was awkward at this, and the cats are most insistent that I get to bed where I belong before the year becomes 2021. Thank you for reading this far.  Be safe, each of you.  Best wishes for the new year upon us all.

(thanks to Doug Belshaw and Terri Givens)

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16 Responses to 2020 and me: personal reflections

  1. Leigh Marthe says:

    Bryan,

    Thank you for this reflection on 2020. I have come to count on your honest voice and perspective and appreciate your wisdom and willingness to stretch towards the truth and to others to find possibilities.

    Happy New Year. May we all find good health, peace, and ways to move compassionately in the world.

  2. Garth says:

    Nice reflection, Doc, was my first read in 2021 after reading some messages from my family in Hollandia.
    Quite a journey you and yours have behind you and settling in these circumstances is a lecture in itself I think.
    Happy new year and all the best for you and the family!
    Stay negative with positiv thoughts and keep kickin, Garth

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, my friend Garthster.
      I look forward to traveling to Swissyland in the future and seeing you in person!

  3. Michael Haggans says:

    Bryan,
    …exactly what Leigh wrote above… Thank you. Particularly “your honest voice” and ability to connect so many dots. Be well.

  4. Happy new year, Bryan! Thank you for making the world more interesting, and giving us so much to think about!

  5. Terri Givens says:

    Bryan – thanks so much for sharing, I draw comfort from the fact that I’m not the only one who was working so much harder during the last year then ever before – it shows in my output, but the books I had planned to read during the shutdown are still sitting next to my bed, mostly untouched. I did a lot of reading, including your book, and others that were relevant for my books and research, but pleasure reading went mostly by the wayside. There is so much more work to do…I’m still processing the year, and I expect

  6. Terri Givens says:

    Sorry – didn’t complete that thought – I expect that we will be seeing more intersections in our work.

  7. Eric Likness says:

    I want to personally thank you for being the collection point for that “status spreadsheet” in those dark days of February/March as the dark clouds were gathering. I used it, shared it to the higher ups where I work, hoping it might have helped at least knowing the “trends” other schools (peer institutions or not) were following. And as for writing something something about yourself, I understand the drive/desire to maintain that critical distance. But I would add this year is so exceptional even the likes of Scientific America could not keep their critical distance and advocated for a Presidential candidate for the first time in their esteemed history. That’s how bad this year has been. So thanks for sharing, it really helps to know what happened. And I like you hope some bit of future archeology recovers this article and uses it to avoid the same mistakes (willful or unforced as the case may be, fingers crossed).

  8. Amanda E Major says:

    Bryan, thanks for sharing your personal reflection of 2020. I enjoyed reading about your transition and compared it a bit to my own.

  9. Sara E Schoen says:

    Bryan, FWIW from a periodic reader (who always enjoys when I make time to read) – I really enjoyed this personal perspective on the year (and am quite curious about your vegan journey and also re-read your post about that too).
    Thank you for posting (and didn’t think it any more awkward than anything else we’ve experienced lately). 😉

  10. Brent Anders says:

    Great article Bryan, this also serves as a nice historical account of 2020. Thank you for accomplishing so much and helping academia and beyond.

    What are your thoughts for 2021? I wrote an article “Top 7 Higher Education Trends (Predictions) for 2021” https://sovorelpublishing.com/index.php/2021/01/04/top-7-higher-education-trends-predictions-for-2021/ and would love to get your reactions to it. Thank you.

  11. Nathan Lind says:

    Hi Bryan! Would love to see a list of your 30+ vegan recipes!

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