Three weeks from today, I’ll be in a classroom across from my office, launching a Cold War history course that I’ve taught regularly since coming to Bethel University. But this semester promises to be unlike the thirty-two that have preceded it in my Bethel career. Like thousands of other colleges and universities in the United States, Bethel is attempting to bring students back to campus in the middle of a global pandemic.
I always spend the first days of any semester trying to help students transition back into academic life, to orient them to what we’ll be trying to accomplish in each class. But this particular fall, I feel like I need to do more in advance to help them enter the uncharted waters we’re going to navigate together. I don’t want to give them too much to think about too soon, but if I do send them a note, it will probably say something like what follows…
1. We’re excited to see you.
I’ll never complain about having summers free to spend time with my family, read books — and sometimes research and write them — and generally decompress. But by August, even the most introverted college professor can’t wait to get back on campus and start forming and reforming relationships with students.
You all energize us. Whether your face is new or familiar, I can’t wait to see it filled with wonder, confusion, joy, anger, laughter, sorrow, determination, and all the other feelings sparked by the adventure of learning. I can’t wait to challenge, equip, and encourage you to make your faith your own, to seek both God’s glory and your neighbors’ good through your studies, and to help you hear God call you to that place where your distinctive gladness and the world’s deepest needs meet.
Like Paul praying for his friends in Philippi, I pray that “your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (1:8). But like him, I also “long for all of you with the compassion of Jesus Christ” (v 9). We can teach at a distance — like we did last April and May — but it’s not the same as being present with and for each other.
2. Just know that you’re not going to get college as you’ve anticipated or experienced it.
So I believe the surveys: most of you hate the idea of spending the fall online and are as eager as me to get back to campus. Sitting in front of a computer in your parents’ house is not your idea of college.
But this fall is going to be nobody’s idea of college either. Whether your vision of that experience is shaped by memory or anticipation, a COVID-shaped college semester will look very different.
Yes, you’ll be in classrooms… wearing masks, sitting at (and cleaning) socially distanced desks to which you’re assigned for the semester, while I stand in one spot up front wearing a face shield. Oh, and I’ll simultaneously be trying to teach to those of you who aren’t in the classroom, but are watching on Zoom — either because the class is too big for the reorganized classroom and it’s not your turn to be there, or because you woke up feeling sick and are asked to stay home. Or you might have no symptoms at all, but you’re in isolation after testing positive for COVID or being exposed to someone who was.
You’ll have no more than one roommate. And that’s the person you get to spend isolation with.
Dining services will be circumscribed. Chapel will be shorter, and delivered online for most of us. You won’t be going to football games or volleyball tournaments.
As the semester wears on and Minnesota winter sets in, you won’t be able to look forward to spending J-term in Spain, Belize, or New Zealand; those trips — like semesters abroad — have already been canceled.
And you might end up back in your parents’ house anyway, if Bethel decides that it’s no longer safe to throw thousands of people together in one place. Or if the state of Minnesota decides that for us.
3. This is a semester to think more intentionally about why you’re in college.
But if this fall does overturn your expectations about college, that’s not a bad thing. At this point in American history, the expensive act of attending college has become so routine that you can glide into it without much sense of why you’re there. And once you’re into your college career, it’s easy to forget what a remarkable privilege it is — still out of reach of most of the world’s population — to spend four of your most formative years devoting yourself to learning.
So welcome the disruption. Let this semester awaken you from gauzy dreams about lakeside campuses and football games and force you to pay more attention to why you’re there. Look at all the convoluted work that has been done to make it possible for you to be in classes and your dorm, and ask why it’s worth it.
Let this experience prompt you to ask at least two questions that you might not have asked yourself before:
Why did you choose a Christian liberal arts college?
If you’re in class with me this semester, you’re participating in our general education curriculum. That’s certainly true of my two first-year gen ed courses, where I might not see a single History major. But even if you’re a junior or senior in Cold War, only a third of you are there to work towards a History or Political Science degree (minors included). Most of you are at Bethel to prepare for a profession in business, education, healthcare, social work, or STEM.
So why do so at a place that requires you to take classes like mine? Why pay tuition high enough to help fund the teaching of fields as unpopular as history, music, English, art, and philosophy?
Oddly, it might be easier to answer that question in the middle of a pandemic.
First, you may have watched the effects of COVID on the economy and wondered if it’s actually all that wise to spend four expensive years of college focused narrowly on preparing for work in a sector that might suddenly collapse. Even if you’ve been trained to think of college primarily as an economic transaction — you pay tuition; we give you professional training and a credential that opens doors to careers — you might find it advantageous to take classes that equip you with broader knowledge and skills that translate across multiple industries and serve you well in multiple professions.
Second, and more importantly… even if you haven’t suffered the symptoms of COVID-19 yourself, you’ve experienced some of its economic, social, and cultural effects and have watched it become an object of intense debate. You’ve probably been asking yourself some profound questions:
- What is true? How can I know whom to believe or what to expect?
- Why is this pandemic affecting America as it is — and why does it afflict some Americans more than others?
- How do we balance competing priorities, as individuals and as citizens? Am I behaving ethically? Can human beings flourish under these circumstances?
- Have we been through this before, and can we learn anything from past crises?
- Where is God in all of this, and what does a pandemic mean for the church and its mission?
As it happens, those are precisely the kinds of questions that the Christian liberal arts are meant to answer. At a place like Bethel, classes like mine don’t just give you names and dates about the Cold War and don’t just equip you with marketable skills like research and writing. They free you from ignorance and assumption, to seek what is true. They free you from selfishness and bias, to do what is just. And they help you live in the tensions produced by such complicated and contested concepts.
At least, they do if we all do our part of the work.
For me, that means modeling the curiosity, humility, vulnerability, faith, hope, and love that are part of the calling of the Christian scholar. It means planning and facilitating conversations — between past and present, among divergent points of view — that help you become scholars yourselves.
For you… well, it means asking yourself one more question.
What is your role in college?
To answer this question, you first need to ignore all the voices telling you that you come to college as a consumer, someone who shopped for an experience customized to meet your preferences and now deserves to receive the services for which you paid. That kind of attitude will not only make you resent the limits being imposed on you this fall, but divert your attention from your actual role.
For you all come to Bethel as members of a Christian learning community, bound together by shared affection for Jesus and a common commitment to the mission that he entrusted to no individual, but an interdependent body of believers. When better than in the middle of a crisis to think seriously about our responsibilities to each other?
That starts with your responsibility to be prudent and conscientious. It’s not fearful or faithless to keep your distance, wear a mask, clean your desk, or stay home when you’re sick — or when you’re asymptomatic but shedding a virus for which there’s no vaccine. It’s a way of loving neighbors whose lives matter.
But for all the time people like me have put into thinking about how to safely structure our physical and virtual learning spaces, I also want you to pay close attention to a sentence that should appear in every syllabus you get at Bethel:
“Expect to work at least two hours outside of class for every hour you spend in class.”
That’s right: most of your learning is meant to happen when I’m not even there. Even if you’re taking a typical first-year load of just 13-14 credit hours, that means that you need to think about “college student” as a full-time, 40-hour-a-week occupation. An honest-to-goodness job that requires you to review, read, research, and write, usually when no supervisor is looking.
Because, again, the learning we’re after won’t happen if you put in the minimum required to get a piece of paper that boosts you into a higher salary range. It’s not about feeding you the right answers to regurgitate to us. It’s about asking fundamental questions that will suddenly come back to mind while you’re eating, jogging, praying, or sleeping. It’s about honing skills that you’ll need when you’re no longer spending any time in class. It’s about your calling as a Christian — which others can help you hear, but you need to follow yourself.
Most years at Bethel start with such pious niceties, to be heard once and quickly forgotten. This semester, though, I think you owe it to us, and — much more importantly — to yourselves, to take these words seriously. All summer, people have moved heaven and earth to let our community gather safely and fulfill its mission, for the sake of the church God established and the good of the world God loves.
Now, it’s your turn.
4. You can do this.
I know it sounds like I’m asking a lot. The impossible, even.
For even as I write about the importance of what you’re going to do outside of class, I realize again how little I see of most of your life. I don’t know how much anxiety you’re carrying about health or finances, how much you need to work to pay for college, what kind of a support system or even internet connection you have.
So if nothing else, we need to be kind and patient with each other — this semester more than any other. I know we want to act like this fall will go more smoothly than the spring, when teachers and students alike understood that the abruptness of the transition online demanded grace all around. But even though we’ve had more time to prepare for the fall, we’re bound to make mistakes, get frustrated, and generally feel like we’re not doing the best we can.
But among the many other things it is, college is a place to fail, to have your reach exceed your grasp. That’s not just true of using technology, managing time, and remembering to wear a mask, but of the things that really matter: you’ll ask life’s most important questions and struggle to find answers; you’ll listen keenly for God’s call and hear noise, or nothing.
But if you can persevere through those moments, let alone a bad quiz or subpar paper, college will also reveal itself to be a place to grow. A place where you don’t just question your own assumptions, but you make me question mine. A place where you discover abilities that even your parents and favorite teacher didn’t recognize in you. A place where you encounter God in new ways and learn to see the world in new ways, with all the compassion and hope of his Son.
Christians have experienced such learning in the midst of persecution and revolution and warfare. It will happen in the midst of COVID, too.
With God’s grace and a little help and encouragement from people like me, you can totally do this.