How to Study and Succeed in School: Part 1: Organization & Communication

Rivet has his pencil and paper ready for school (or for a snack).

In school and college, we assume that students know how to succeed. Yet, as a parent and a professor, I’ve come to realize that many students have never been taught the preparation and study skills that have little to do with intelligence or the actual subject: proper organization, note-taking, group work, communication, and test preparation. These components make up the “rules of the game,” so to speak. While teachers and instructors have their own styles, preferences, and pet peeves, these general tips will set you up for success overall (or your kids, if you are a parent). For part 1, I will discuss preparation, organization, and communication.

Even before Day 1, you can get a head start. Gather the materials and organize them in a systematic way recommended by the school/what works for you. Have a place to write down due dates and assigned tasks (i.e. a calendar with space to list out “things to do” or a digital calendar). Buy notebooks or binders with blank, lined paper and writing utensils. Label your stuff with both the class and your name. Bring these items to class.

Acquire the book (unless the instructor advises that you wait). If you have the syllabus, read it, jotting down the dates of assignments and exams in your calendar. Do any preliminary work that the teacher/instructor assigns.

Check the online platform for the class, if there is one. Become familiar with the content, announcements, boards, and other important features.

Staying Organized
It’s easy to start somewhat organized. It’s harder to maintain it. Keep papers divided by subject/class, placing graded items in binders or folders. Never throw out graded papers. You can learn from your mistakes and need them as documentation for grades. If you are in middle or high school, bring all materials home. Do not just shove papers in your lockers and forget about them.

Check your school/university email at least twice daily during the week, if not more. Also check the platform site (D2L, Teams, etc.) throughout the day.

Build a professional relationship with your teacher/instructor. College students, email or stop by the offices of your instructors just to introduce yourselves. You don’t have to write much or stay long, but a friendly “Hi! I’m ________ and in your _______ class. I just wanted to introduce myself” goes a long way.

Throughout your semester, ask questions if something confuses you, let your teacher/instructor know if you will be absent, and be polite in your communication. If there’s a problem, address it immediately, rather than letting weeks pass. Familiarize yourself with the instructor’s class policies, especially in regards to make-up assignments. Across levels, students should email first before parents get involved (which they can’t in college at all).

Elements of a good email to a teacher/instructor:

  • A subject line that specifies the class/section and the specific need
  • A greeting that includes the appropriate title (“Hi Dr. Foss, . . . .”)
  • A brief explanation of the problem or issue (“I will be absent on Wed. for marching band”).
  • The request or solution (“May I please take the scheduled exam early?”).
  • A closing (“Thank you”)
  • Your name

Avoid accusations and generalizations and go for the more polite and neutral phrasing (i.e. “Why haven’t you . . .,” instead of “Could you please. . . .?”). If you do not get a response within 6-12 hours for something pressing (like an impending exam) or 24 hours for an issue less urgent, follow up with another email. If you are in middle or high school, this is also an appropriate time for a parent to email the teacher.

The trick here is to stay on top of communication with teachers/instructors. Alert them about absences before classes are missed (when possible). Find out and submit work a.s.a.p. It is your responsibility to communicate with your teachers/instructors.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Taking Notes and Navigating Group Work.

How We Became Dog People

We went from no dogs to two — plus the occasional fosters.

I’ll start off by stating that I’ve never disliked dogs in general. I usually had a favorite at my Uncle Dave and Cathy’s house of dogs. Other than that, I didn’t have much experience and didn’t know much about them.

In 2017, a neighbor’s incessantly barking dogs prompted us to look for a new house. Our new yard included a fenced-in area and plenty of space so we decided to get a puppy. (Yep, that’s right. We moved because of dogs and then bought a dog).

Our Springer Spaniel, Roosevelt “Rosie” Foss at 4 months old

We cuddled with Rosie, taught her many tricks, and enjoyed her puppy stage. She quickly became my shadow. Then 18 months later, we added a tiny French Brittany pup.

Rivet was so little when we brought him home.

By the time we brought Rivet home, we had definitely become those people — the ones who dote on and talk about their pets. Or at least I am.

I’ve learned that dogs, like people, have their own personalities and quirks. Rosie never steals food or toys, yet she is a crankypants after 7 p.m. Rivet will tolerate costumes and pretend play, but is terrified of new people, animals, and experiences. Both doggies prefer to be near us (or on our feet) and do not like to be outside alone.

We’ve discovered the benefits of being a dog family. Our pups always give us a royal homecoming, even if we’ve only been away for an hour. And they provide a nice distraction from outside worries — so much so that we started fostering over Christmas 2020.

Frosty and Snow kept us plenty busy for our pandemic Christmas.

Over the summer, we fostered again, embracing chaos for July.

With school returning, we’re taking a little break from fostering. We still have our two canine family members though.

And while the kids enjoy our pets, I’ll admit that I am the most into them. After all, they make the best writing partners.

5 Tips to Overcoming the Jitters to Give Your Best Presentation

This presentation was for middle schoolers. You better believe I was a little nervous.

Most people become nervous right before giving their presentations. Even seasoned scholars feel a bit of a rush right before it’s time to be “on.” In other words, the butterflies are a natural indication that you care about what you’re about to do. Here are a few tips to transform nervous energy into productive energy so that the jitters don’t overtake you and hinder your presentation (none of which is picturing the audience naked).

  1. Practice your presentation out loud before the big moment. Reflect on your practice presentations. What is flowing well? What feels choppy? Add a bullet point, slide, or segue to help guide your delivery. How are you doing for time? When in doubt, slow down your pace. If this change-up makes you exceed the time, your presentation needs to be cut down. Preparation helps to build confidence.
Pets make great audience members for your first run-through.

2. In addition to practicing the actual presentation, informally tell another person about the subject for your presentation. Talking about your topic in a conversation is the best way to a). Make sure you understand it. and b). Make sure other people understand what you are saying. This practice will bring out what words need to be defined, concepts that may need more background, and/or points that need to be addressed more clearly. (Also a great tool for doing job presentations or book pitches).

3. Check out your settings beforehand. If this presentation is over Zoom, open a Zoom room to practice, making sure that the lighting and camera angle work well to highlight you. For in-person gigs, look at the space before you give the presentation, trying out your technology. You will feel less nervous if you know what your presentation in the actual setting will be like.

Presenting in Zoom to yourself may seem awkward, but it’s important to practice.

4. Use the time right before your presentation to get ready. If you are in person, arrive early to set up your technology. Check your notecards (if you use them). Have a spill-proof (trust me) bottle of water handy.
For virtual presentations, open your Power Point ahead of time. You can have a few notes out, but DON’T read just read your paper. You’ll have more energy and audience engagement if you speak extemporaneously.

No one wants to stare at you reading on Zoom.

5. Okay, it’s SHOWTIME! How can you calm your notes in the moment? I recommend focusing on the info that you are about to deliver. What will you tell others? Why does it matter? Think about the presentation as a teaching experience. You have the knowledge that the audience would like to attain. Take a breath. Try to slow down. If you stumble, it’s okay. Just move on to the next point.
Remember that most people are not there to judge you or critique what you are doing or saying. They are rooting for you!

Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow in Pollyanna (1960).

Whew, we made it! End of the (Pandemic) School Year

Left: 1st day of school
Middle & Right: Last day of 6th and 4th grade

Tuesday, May 25th was the last day of school for us, not counting the weird 2-hour optional day on Thursday. The kiddos finished 6th and 4th grade. I was absolutely elated for them to be done, much more than in a “regular” May. In my role as an educator, I found this year to be tough. That said, I found that parenting school-age children was even more difficult.

Our school district provided two options for each quarter of the 2020-2021 school year: attend in-person with masks and distancing or participate virtually. Having experienced the struggle of working/parenting/monitoring the children during last March-May, we decided to send them in-person, stocked with a backpack of reusable and disposable face coverings.

August through October went fairly smoothly. Both of my kids were happy to be back. The new norm did consist of pockets of classmates out for quarantine due to a single-case exposure, but no secondary outbreaks. Tennis — the perfect pandemic sport — became a hit for my tween, and both adapted to the additional COVID measures surprisingly well. My kids never made a single negative remark about wearing masks. This was surprising, given that they typically complain about everything.

In November, the learning interruptions began. Since that point, we rarely had a full week without at least one child at home. First, a surge of cases prompted the elementary school to close as a precaution for two weeks. Then the superintendent called off Thanksgiving. Asynchronous days were added to the calendar. Less than two weeks after Thanksgiving, we were notified (on day 7 after exposure!!!) that tween was in quarantine. Four days after she went back to school, the district abruptly and understandably shut down in-person learning until mid-January.

Once the kids returned in person, the remainder of the year was choppy. We were grateful for the DL mode when tween’s health issues kept her out of school from mid-February through spring break. She returned to school only to have five scheduled asynchronous days for standardized testing from April 23rd to May 3rd. With one week left, the middle school called us on May 17th about a possible COVID exposure. Tween finished the year on quarantine, joining Zooms to watch her peers celebrate the end of school, but thankfully, never got sick. It certainly was a pandemic ending to a pandemic year. Meanwhile, little sis finished in-person and was thrilled to go to a nearby park for the year’s only field trip.

Completing school this year felt monumental. I’m sure the teachers and staff agree. I fully understand the challenge of quickly learning new technology and teaching hybrid courses, while worrying about the risk of transmission — the difficulty magnified because of the pandemic context. I applaud the teachers for having to create their multi-modal forms of instruction.

As a parent, this year has been a struggle. In-person, then online on Zoom, then online, but asynchronous, then one in-person, one online: repeat, repeat, repeat. The mix of asynchronous and synchronous days brought confusion, as I tried to help my kids navigate the numerous made-up-sounding platforms, programs, and forms of communication (7 teachers for 6th grade, 4 for 4th grade). The gamification of education only made everything more tricky to decipher.

Of course, we were among the lucky households. In the last year, the pandemic-induced approaches to schooling nationally and internationally have magnified inequalities. Success in the virtual/hybrid model wasn’t about student responsibility for “buckling down” and focusing. Instead, what was often lost was the foundation that enables learning in such an environment. Even if a device was provided, not every student has access to consistent WiFi and functioning printer.

And (this is a big one), not every kid has an adult available who can monitor and assist with distance-learning. Some might argue that “kids have to be responsible for keeping track of their schoolwork.” I would somewhat agree with this statement in a regular, in-person environment, in which assignments are distributed, completed, and then returned. However, virtual learning during a pandemic is a far-cry from the conventional setting. When students and teachers are not physically at school, it is so much more difficult to identify deadlines, find assignments, know how to turn them in, have the technology to turn them in, and ask questions. Plus, virtual learning strips away the support of classmates. My kids are pretty motivated learners who love technology, yet they often needed my help to decipher the system.

We’ve all had to make-do, push through, try our best, etc. and can hopefully look forward to better times (hopefully, soon) in which all kids can get vaccinated. But I do worry about overly optimistic articles that claim that this year’s educational approaches were somehow superior to an in-person experience. Yes, there are a few positive takeaways. It is fantastic to have so many amazing online talks, seminars, and tours. Online classes also have a place in education (I’m teaching one now). As is, a hybrid model doesn’t work in general, though, especially without resolving the many additional obstacles that block or hinder learning. This experience has hopefully made me a better instructor. At the very least, I am more mindful of students’ access and outside challenges that impact their achievements.

Pandemic education has shown us the value of regular school. It is so much more than acquiring repositories of facts, memorizing equations, or producing worksheets. School isn’t just a building or a set of objectives. What we are celebrating isn’t simply an end to a challenging year, but an optimistic return to a predictable learning community. For now, we’ll enjoy summer.

Returning to Normal: Lessons from the “Spanish Flu”

Published on December 14, 1918 in The Lima Times-Democrat

With the eased CDC guidelines on mask-wearing for those vaccinated, the lifting of mandates and safety restrictions have varied significantly. Public health authorities and individuals have speculated on the timeline for a “return to normal” and what that entails: how to reopen, the adjustment to social situations, and overall experiences for this transition. Much like this moment, people in 1918-19 faced similar questions as the influenza/pneumonia crisis subsided.

From 1918 through 1919, influenza infected at least one-third of the world, causing more than fifty million deaths, with over 675,000 in the U.S. Despite its name, “Spanish Flu” likely emerged in Haskell County, Kansas in March 1918. This deadly influenza and pneumonia combination first appeared at Camp Funston and the nearby Haskell Institute – a boarding high school for indigenous students. As war raged on in Europe, domestic outbreaks of the virus continued throughout April and May, receiving very little media coverage. To most Americans, the “Spanish Flu” seemed to begin in the summer, as newspapers told of rising cases in Asia, Germany, Spain, England, and other countries. When the flu returned to U.S. soil in September, notably at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, it was perceived as the first American wave. As outbreaks spread across cities and states, its news coverage competed with and sometimes paralleled the overseas battles.

Surgeon General Rupert Blue and the U.S. Public Health Service periodically put out information and guidelines on influenza – distributed through local and national newspapers. Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, approaches and restrictions varied geographically.With only print media, content was limited to the broad scope of the national papers or nearby outbreaks in local newspapers. In other words, people knew little about what was going on outside of their own communities.

As cases rose, most towns and cities closed theaters, pool halls, and other businesses, banned dances, concerts and gatherings, and discouraged crowding in public spaces. But even this was inconsistent. Minneapolis, Minnesota closed down. Across the river, the city of St. Paul stayed open. Responses across schools also diverged, as school boards held special meetings, debating the best way to proceed. According to Alexandra Stern, Martin Cetron, and Howard Markel, most schools closed for periods up to fifteen weeks. However, Chicago, New York, and New Haven were among the cities that remained open, using medical inspection and individual quarantine to reduce transmission. Businesses that remained open marketed their adherence to safety protocol. At the end of October in 1918, Seattle’s Bon Marché department store took out full-page ads to lay out precautions taken against influenza, which included masks on the salon employees, the removal of chairs in restrooms, and a trained nurse on staff in the infants’ department “advising mothers how to protect their families from influenza.”

An ad from Seattle’s Bon Marché department store, laying out precautions taken against influenza, which included masks on the salon employees, the removal of chairs in restrooms, and a trained nurse on staff in the infants’ department. Published on October 26, 1918 in The Seattle Star.

After the Surgeon General recommended mask-wearing in September 1918, Red Cross volunteers across the country produced identical gauze face coverings. Mask requirements were inconsistent by town. Boulder Springs, Colorado fined $100 to “any one caught not wearing a facial adornment in the form of a mask” as reported in The Anaconda Standard local newspaper. Yet in an Indiana town, children at school were exempt from mask-wearing. Private businesses also mandated masks. For example, Lima, Ohio’s Hotel Norval Domino Room advertised music and dancing in the local paper, stating, “Flu masks required.” While most hospitals required masks, Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital banned employees from wearing them, even when cases rose among its nurses and doctors. 

Published on October 10, 1918 in the Des Moines Tribune

Concerns about transmission for mass transportation prompted epidemic rules for streetcars. Seattle staggered business hours to prevent overcrowding on streetcars required one-third of the windows to be open, enforced by police surveillance. In Portland, all streetcar windows had to be removed for additional ventilation. Children were altogether prohibited from riding on streetcars in Topeka, Kansas until the ban was lifted in February 1919. At Camp Gordon, Georgia, roads were sprayed with “a special antiseptic oil” to reduce the spread of germs through dust. Other rules addressed the sick and dying. New York City passed a law requiring landlords to provide heat of at least 68 degrees. Upstate, influenza victims had to be buried within twenty-four hours of death.

The reopening of society and lifting of restrictions was just as varied and confusing as it is now, if not more so. No effective vaccine existed to slow the spread, cases were inconsistently tracked, and the influx of soldiers from overseas complicated quarantine orders. “Returning to normal” in 1919 meant the reopening of society: schools, businesses, gathering places, taking part in dances and other activities that had been postponed, and gradual dissipation of fear. At the same time, for life to truly feel “normal,” soldiers had to return home and adjust to post-war life. It didn’t happen overnight.

While May 2021 does not directly parallel early 1919, the transition out of the influenza pandemic can provide insight and reassurance as to this moment. Reopening occurred over months. Just as most cities were beginning to close, Boston and others that had been hit earlier, started reopening as the end of October, with modified Halloween activities to acknowledge the somber post-epidemic tone. Across the United States, though, restrictions were temporarily halted on November, 11, 1918, as parades erupted to celebrate Armistice.

“Impromptu Allentown Armistice Day Parade,” November 11, 1918
Allentown Morning Call Newspapers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many towns then resumed restrictions, relaxing them toward the end of December or in early January, taking different approaches. News coverage on the pandemic turned optimistic before the crisis subsided. On New Year’s Day, a writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader observed, “Life is getting back into normal again, the influenza ban is about to be entirely lifted and school work to be resumed.” There’s never been uniform agreement about what to do during a pandemic or how to reopen. Public health authorities and regular people disagreed in the past and continue to do so now, with questions that resonate now: Are masks still necessary? When can sporting events resume? Will spectators be permitted? Are children safe at school? Town leaders took different approaches to relaxing quarantine and mask rules – some opening everything at once, with others easing up gradually.

In the first months of 1919, stories of enjoying the first dance after restrictions were lifted appeared next to announcements of illness and deaths. Likewise, news and social media in 2021 have juxtaposed vaccinated reunions with COVID tragedies, especially for countries that have struggled with the vaccine rollout. As society reopens, there needs to be public physical and digital spaces for remembering and mourning, and preparation for the inevitable outbreaks that will continue. Months after Seattle lifted its restrictions, the 1919 Stanley Cup Final had to be canceled on April 1st after multiple players and a team manager developed influenza, ending the series in a 2-2 tie. Assuming the Tokyo Olympics go forward, similar disruptions are likely for unvaccinated athletes and teams. Until global vaccination rates consistently high and cases decrease significantly, we too will continue to experience outbreaksand deaths.

The biggest takeaway from the “Spanish Flu” is the light at the end of the tunnel. While we need to grieve lives lost, the world has pushed through before and will do so again. Disease outbreaks have and can produce some positive changes, from improved waterways and sanitation to emergency preparedness plans. Remote learning and working, access to technology, and innovation in education are among the significant improvements that will hopefully continue forward. Lastly, the last fifteen months have sparked new interest in the history of epidemics and pandemics. The experiences and moments of COVID need to be preserved and disseminated for future generations to remember this crisis.

The Doable Thesis

Leisurely streaming a show or coming up with a thesis idea?

How do you figure out the topic for your thesis, dissertation, or creative project? Obviously, you want to be passionate about your area of study. At the same time, you need to choose something you can realistically tackle. Here’s the deal: your thesis or dissertation will not be the groundbreaking discovery of the century. That’s okay. Don’t perceive it as such. You want to produce quality work that you can complete not a 5-10 year research agenda that goes unfinished because it was too hard and too big from the beginning.

Factors shaping area of focus, leading to pinpointing your topic:

  • What is your program? Our grad program is Media Communication. All theses/projects therefore must be connected to some form of media.
  • What has your coursework prepared you to study? I would not recommend introducing an entirely new area/theory/method at the thesis stage.
  • Who is your advisor? What input has this person given you?
  • What piques your interest? You need to have passion for your topic, especially at the beginning. Don’t pick something just because it’s trendy, your advisor’s interest, etc.
  • What is your timeline? Your method and sample need to reflect how much time you have before you want to graduate.

Let’s start out discussing what’s not going to work. For a master’s thesis (at least in our program), you do not have time to do an ethnography or to travel for your research. You probably don’t have time to conduct an experiment or series of focus groups. (I can think of a few exceptions, but in general, not the most feasible approaches). In other words, samples that require IRB approval and then recruitment require additional months.

For the traditional thesis, studies of existing data sets or media content are much more doable. Narrowing it down further, choose samples that you can easily and cheaply access. For textual research, identify the parameters of the study, making sure that (once again) the sample is something you can realistically analyze.

3 approaches to Picking Your Topic
Once you have your broad area of focus and an idea of the method, you can take the next steps to narrow it down.

  1. Approach 1: Lightning Strikes
    An “AHA!” moment may spark the overarching concept of the thesis. During my first year of grad school, I saw the movie Daredevil and found the depiction of Journalist Ben Urich fascinating. This interest prompted my thesis on representations of journalists and the press in comic book films, which I revised and published 14 years later as this article. [Note: I am linking my thesis as an example of idea–>concept–>operationalization–>done thesis, NOT BECAUSE I THINK IT’S A GREAT THESIS. To my students reading this, I can provide better examples of a completed thesis].

2. The Question Path
If you don’t have the idea spark, no worries. You can also start broad and then narrow down the topic by asking yourself a series of questions (or your advisor/professor may ask you), such as. . .

  • In your coursework, what papers related to your broad topic have you written? What did you enjoy about those topics? What didn’t you enjoy? Is there a project that you’d like to expand for your thesis?
  • Do you want to do a historical study or examine a current issue? If current, do you want it to be related to the pandemic?
  • Within your area of focus, what interests you more specifically?
  • What methodological approach would you like to take (qualitative, quantitative, mixed)?
  • Do you want to study content, effects, or both? (Specific to media)
  • What type of sample interests you?
  • Have you checked out existing literature (see #3)?

3. Going to the Literature Approach
If you don’t have the idea spark, no worries. Take your area of interest to Google Scholar and do a little reading. What’s been done before on your topic? With what sample? What timeframe? Using what theories and approaches? Identify the gaps in the literature and figure out what interests you.

The next step is to meet with your advisor/potential advisor. This person can help you figure out what is doable and what is not. Seasoned instructors can also help, but it is very important that your advisor is on board from the beginning.

Do ThisNot That
Analysis of 8 films on a topicInterview 20 film producers
Secondary data set on voter beliefsSurvey of 20,000 voters
Twitter scrape to assess vaccine misinformationEthnographic study at medical offices
Narrative analysis of children’s cartoonsFocus groups with children
Content analysis of Olympic coverage in mainstream newsParticipant-observation at the 2021 Olympics
Realistic plans (at least for a Master’s Thesis)

Do you see a common theme here? DOABLE. Set yourself up for success from the beginning of the writing process. If your topic isn’t working, talk to your advisor immediately about shifting the plan or making a new one. Remember, the goal isn’t to become a star from your magnificent piece of research, but to move from student to graduate.

Free Beer or Campus Mandate: Addressing the Reluctant

Others’ vaccination status affects all of us.
Me after my first dose.

As of April 27, 2021, 141 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine and 95.9 million are fully vaccinated, according to The Washington Post. These rates differ greatly by state and demographic.

We are witnessing a growing number of people who fit in a gray space of immunization, in which they aren’t against getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and yet, they haven’t received their first shots. Clumped into this group are also those who did get the first dose, but have lagged for the second.

The largest two clusters of unvaccinated people: conservative, rural white people that believe that any COVID precautions (including the vaccine) infringe on their freedom and people of color, whose hesitancy stems from a history of medical betrayal. While these groups (especially the latter) certainly warrant attention, I’d like to focus on a different population: those who are not opposed, but aren’t very motivated to get vaccinated. College students, twentysomethings, and additional folks that fit this description feel that they don’t have enough of a reason to make a vaccine appointment and then take time from work/school/life to go to an immunization site and get the shot. I say “shot” and not “shots” because these people need the one-dose. If it’s hard to prompt someone to get a first dose, the second dose is unlikely (helping to explain the drop-off of 2nd-dose recipients).

With the current widespread availability of vaccines in the U.S. for ages 16 and over, most people who were eager and willing have already been immunized. The vaccine-reluctant, then, need to be targeted, with their carrots identified. History is repeating itself on this one. In the late 1950s, this same age group held out on getting the polio vaccine, believing they weren’t susceptible enough to the virus to make it worth the shots. As I wrote about in my article for The Washington Post, the Ad Council initiated a mass public health campaign addressing this hole in the herd immunity.

How do we motivate the vaccine-reluctant during our current pandemic? We need a combination of targeted campaigns with messages that appeal to this age group, combined with incentives. Creative motivators have already sprung up: free donuts from Krispy Kreme, beer from Sam Adams and a number of breweries in New Jersey, on-campus vaccine site raffles, and employer-specific bonuses of vacation time or cash, to name a few. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has promised savings bonds of $100 for those 18-35 who get the vaccine. In D.C., the organization Marijuana Justice gave out free joints at vaccination centers on April 20th, much like the Michigan-based “Pots for Shots” campaign. Such incentives have and will help close the gap of the vaccine-reluctant.

However, it’s not enough. What we need are vaccine requirements for various activities and places. To be pandemic-responsible, concerts, music festivals, and other large-gathering attendees should have to provide proof of vaccination — a notion that is being considered for Burning Man and other events scheduled for later this year. Additionally, college campuses need to mandate COVID vaccines for students, faculty, and staff. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 209 colleges will mandate vaccines. Most of these institutions are private and located in blue states. Mandatory COVID vaccination fits with existing immunization requirements (MMR, varicella, meningitis) and still allows for religious exemptions. Widespread college and university COVID vaccine mandates will (obviously) incentivize the difficult-to-reach population, normalizing this immunization for young adults. This approach also reinforces the necessity of mass vaccination as vital to public health — not as a person choice.

We need drastic action to even begin to dream of herd immunity, if that is a possibility. Motivating the super-spreader group to get vaccinated should be a top priority. Since emotional appeals may not reach the vaccine-reluctant, it’s time to create incentives and requirements that push them to get vaccinated. A free beer and the return to campus life?

On Our Need for People

I got a taste of Maslow’s third stage and now I can’t get enough.
(, via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been dreaming about the world of people since March 2020. As an extrovert, I crave social interaction. I’m not talking about big parties or dance clubs (never my deal). Rather, I’ve missed the conversations that make up everyday life — with employees at a store, colleagues in the copy room, students in the hallway, parents at kids’ activities — casual, unplanned encounters, along with scheduled coffee and lunches with friends.

My second dose of Moderna gave me the freedom to start planning again. To clarify, I am far from ready to whip off my mask and attend an indoor wedding or stroll into a casino. I’m talking about outdoor exchanges with fellow vaccinated friends.

These little tastes of socialization have reminded me of what makes life really good. Yes, Zoom has worked for the last year. But video chats are not the same. The virtual platform just cannot naturally convey the ease of small talk.

We have been disconnected from each other, our community, and the world. My few recent encounters over the last couple of weeks (two coffee meetings outside, some hallway chitchat, and speaking with three fellow parents on separate occasions), have reminded me of just how much we need to socialize. Even if we just speak of the mundane — no innovation, nothing is moved forward or seemingly “accomplished” — value exists in the interaction itself. Our current collective awkwardness at doing so demonstrates the necessity of connecting with other people.

While I regularly consume social media platforms, they are not a substitute for in-person conversation. Facebook and Twitter are great for sharing personal news, observations of the mundane, and pics of cute things. These virtual spaces do not allow for elaboration of that news or in-depth discussions. Our reliance on these platforms as socialization substitutes has been inevitable, yet faulty, as we are reduced to “likes,” hearts, celebratory phrases, and emotional abbreviations. Or even worse, social media sometimes reveals the raw hatred of humanity, with posts voicing thoughts so nasty that you would never say them in public (prompting me to click “Unfollow”).

Connection only through technology is a distant second to in-person interaction. Nothing can replace a smile, a laugh, or a sympathetic head nod (or a hug — once we get there). We need other people. The last few weeks have reminded me that life is so much more enjoyable when you can share your thoughts and experiences, while listening to those of a fellow human. And now that I’ve had a little interaction, I WANT MORE. (Friends, I promise to dial it back if we get together so I don’t scare you away).

From Inoculation to COVID Vaccination: The Wonder of It All

Me after dose #1 of the Moderna vaccine, outside of my car.

Skip this post if you detest emotionally-charged posts because that’s what it’s going to be.

From March 4th: I got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today, jumpstarting my immune system to protect me against COVID-19. How, you might ask? I volunteered at our campus vaccine clinic. At the end of the shift, they had extra doses to distribute to the volunteers. I got lucky. Of course, we (as in the faculty) should have been included anyway. But that is (and was) another post.

Instead, I want to revel in what a true miracle this is. My use of this word should not convey surprise or lack of scientific rigor. Rather, it refers to, as I say above in the title, my absolute amazement that we have come to this point. For the world to have multiple effective vaccines against a strain of coronavirus that is little more than a year old, is almost inconceivable to me, a layperson who has never worked in a lab.

This happened because of the ability to build upon what others have done to move up a few steps. To capture knowledge, distribute it, and then preserve the content for future innovators. Our moment now occurred because of thousands of experiments that produced nothing, failed to support the hypothesis, or protect the test subjects from becoming infected.

Salk’s vaccine emerged decades after the first scientist prematurely promised a vaccine (40 years, to be exact). But we also need to consider what was not known when that initial declaration was made in 1912.

I am so incredulously grateful that we can be at this moment. We have never had a point in time in which an outbreak grew into a pandemic and while it was still ravaging society, scientists successfully developed a vaccine. In 1918, some scientists claimed to have a vaccine and injected soldiers with vials of something. However, since they didn’t even know that influenza was a virus, it did little to protect anyone.

How can anyone doubt such innovation? Why would a person question such an amazing gift? Even stranger are the conspiracy theories about the vaccine. How would a microchip fit inside the syringe? Wouldn’t you see it floating around? How would it fit through the needle?

What had to come together for this moment? It’s not just about what’s in the syringe. We had to have the technology to create the vials that contain the vaccine, the syringes themselves, and the needles. Take a step back and add the freezers that can store the vaccine, gloves and an understanding to protect those administering the vaccine. Lister and the process of antisepsis to prevent infection from dirty needles. I could go on and on.
Instead I am going to eat some cheesecake and watch TV. Because I can.

Written on April 3rd: I received my 2nd dose on the morning of April 1st. I’ve waited until the side effects have subsided to write out my thoughts.

Once again, I felt equally amazed as the needle went into my arm. It only lasted a second and it barely hurt. I felt like king of the world as I strutted out of there, beaming under my mask. Ten hours later, I started to feel the effects — first tired and then achy all over. Around 2:30 a.m., I woke up with chills, more aches, a headache, and some nausea. Fortunately, the latter two subsided by morning. Friday was a Netflix day, referring to the only thing I felt like doing, especially when fever set in during the early afternoon. By evening, though, I felt much better. And today (Saturday), I am 100% myself. Totally worth it for protection against COVID-19.

For this round, I’ve been thinking more about inoculation than 20th century vaccinations. It is unclear exactly when inoculation first started in Turkey, India, and China. We only know when it was brought to Europe and Colonial America. An enslaved person, Onesimus, first conveyed to Reverend Cotton Mather that intentionally infecting oneself with smallpox could ward off a deadlier version of the disease. Inoculation, also known as variolation, had already been practiced in India, Turkey and China. When smallpox broke out in Boston in 1721, Mather encouraged local physicians to try inoculation. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the only doctor willing to attempt the dangerous practice and did so with success. Even with early 18th century record-keeping, it was clear that those who were inoculated with smallpox were significantly less likely to die of the disease. (For more on this story, read my book).

Unlike vaccination, inoculation produces an infection of smallpox. Therefore, it wasn’t practiced unless there was an outbreak of the disease. Following 1721, inoculation became more common and refined with each epidemic, playing a crucial role in protecting soldiers during the Revolutionary War against the disease. At the turn of the 19th century, Dr. Edward Jenner’s work led to vaccination as a replacement for inoculation, sparking immunity without having to suffer from an infection of the disease itself.

So many brilliant people have come together to make the COVID-19 vaccines happen. But we can’t forget where the ideas originated. Like I said on March 4th, this feels like a miracle, NOT because the process was rushed (it wasn’t), but because of all of the components that had to come together over hundreds of years for us to have this moment. It is truly amazing.

Me after dose 2 in the 15-minute waiting period

The Opaque Lens of Nostalgia

We tend to think fondly of the content we enjoyed as a child. I remember when my dad introduced the movie Cat Ballou to my sister and me. He touted it as the funniest movie ever, falsely predicting that we would laugh and laugh. Instead, in full teen fashion, we rolled our eyes at the corny jokes and struggled to stay awake. Yet a generation later, I’ve had similar experiences with my own kids. Sometimes they like the older films and shows that I’m excited to show them. Back to the Future, Freaky Friday, and Sister Sister were all hits. However, we also have the “groan” moments. Case in point, my children found Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles boring, thought Karate Kid had too much romance, and snoozed during the dialogue of Sound of Music.

The recent criticism over reducing hurtful messages of older cultural products brings up questions of this nostalgic drape that clouds our perceptions of the things we loved as children. Of course, I am not advocating that we keep playing Dumbo and Song of the South for new generations. Rather, I am wondering if the opposition to changing products of the past stems from an emotional attachment to products that brought us joy in our younger years.

If this is the case, how can we inject a critical lens into the protected space of nostalgia?

Assuming that those attached to these distorted views want to change, how could this be accomplished? First, we need nostalgic people to take a step back, aiming to more objectively looking at the pop culture products that they treasure from their childhood. If they were initially introduced to these products now, what would they think of [insert specific scene, character, song, or storyline]? What could be problematic if that message were repeated and repeated, with few contrasting messages? How would people feel if they were part of that group? If nostalgic person was a part of that group? These kinds of questions help get at the roots of stereotyping and perspective.

Next, we address why we can’t keep introducing these products to new generations. Children have little awareness of a product’s original cultural moment, its contextualization. All they see and experience is the toy/book/show/film as if it were just created for them. As such, these products shape the world views of children, including the reinforcement of stereotypes, conveying broad, skewed negative generalizations. As parents/teachers/adults/consumers/humans, it is our job to present a diverse array of content that encourages unlimited ways of understanding roles, relationships, family dynamics, and intersectionality. Pigeon-holing any group for children narrows perspectives on what they can be and can’t be. Not to mention the most obviously glaring issue: The insensitivity of perpetuating stereotypes of marginalized groups for children, who are either part of those groups or future friends, family members, coworkers, and fellow humans.

Lastly, I’ll state what is already apparent to everyone who openly agrees that Song of the South should be kept in the vault or that no one should rewatch the “Censored 11” racist cartoons, full of black face and anti-Japanese imagery. Toys and media content that is racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic have no place in society. They never have. It’s not “cancel culture” to eliminate toxic cultural products any more than it is to tear down buildings with asbestos. Neither have a place in society and it takes a lot of work to clean up what is left behind. In other words, if you are currently mourning the erasure of Speedy Gonzales, buck up and reevaluate your own attachment. Shift your nostalgic lens to your own personal sentimental objects and be thankful that contemporary audiences won’t have to explain the chromosomes of Mr. Potato Head. (Or just watch Amber Ruffin’s satire on vegetable gender identity, 48 seconds in).