Incessant coughing is bad. Coughing up blood is worse. Thanks to a serious bout of pneumonia last month, I can now attest to that.
An emergency room visit notwithstanding, I doubt I will ever know for sure if the illness and my difficulty breathing were the byproducts of COVID-19. When I visited the ER at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Riverside, Calif., on March 16, the doctor ordered a chest x-ray. When she returned with the results, she diagnosed me with pneumonia.
“Shit,” I said in response, with my raspy voice.
Prior to the x-ray, the doctor had relayed the frustratingly restrictive coronavirus testing guidelines. According to the guidelines, I was ineligible for a test because I had not come into direct contact with another person known to have contracted the coronavirus. They also asked if I had recently been outside the country. I had not. So no test. This despite the fact I had just attended a large gathering on UC Riverside campus – I was at a bargaining rally that I wrote about in a piece for the NAB blog – and had been in close quarters with people who had flown in from across California, meaning they were in airports where the virus could have been spread.
Shortly after that bargaining event at UCR, I came down with minor cold and flu-like symptoms. Within two to three days, I miraculously felt better. I even went on a short run. That, in retrospect, was not smart.
The day following my recovery run, I ended up walking around in the cold and rain for a while to get to and from places of work, and then I taught an Argumentation and Debate class at Riverside City College. It started at 6 p.m. By around 8 p.m., I was not feeling good. I started to get hoarse, and my lecturing became labored. A near-debilitating fatigue almost forced me to cancel class an hour early. The coughing and sneezing continued, albeit with more vigor. I was running a high fever, which I could tell without the formalities of temperature taking. By the time class finished shortly after 9 p.m., I was dreading the approximately 800 meter walk back to the car. Once I finally made it through the rain to my vehicle, I wanted to collapse in the driver’s seat. The chills I started experiencing that evening had all but rendered me incapacitated.
Later that night, the fever continued. It left me in a quasi-hallucinogenic state. I prepared myself to accept death – somewhat prematurely, it turned out. Though I will note that death can become an appealing alternative when you can barely breathe, as I started to discover.
As uncomfortable as all the influenza-resembling symptoms were, they paled in comparison to the pneumonia that settled in. Respiratory congestion provoked coughing fits and largely futile efforts to hack up the blockage. More often than not, the heavy coughing produced only blood-streaked mucus and sometimes just a tablespoon of that viscous, B positive substance. I am no medical doctor, but even I realized that blood was not supposed to be coming out of my mouth.
While the majority of flu-like symptoms subsided, the cough and congestion remained. It also became harder and harder to breathe. Depending upon my supine position in bed, I could feel what seemed like liquid bubbling up in my lungs when I tried to take a deep breath.
Before he died last January (2019), my dad suffered from severe COPD-type breathing problems. I think my pneumonia provided an unwanted window into the sort of life he endured those last few years. My symptoms hardly approached what many COVID-19 patients endure, but my condition still seemed cause for serious alarm.
To be clear, I have been sick with the flu before. Never had any influenza-caused illness progressed into pneumonia. It certainly never left me coughing uncontrollably and spitting up blood.
Thankfully, after visiting the ER and taking the antibiotics the doctor prescribed, I started to recover, slowly. I do not know if the antibiotics worked, or if I started to recover (slowly) anyway. I am also not sure if a viral infection, like COVID-19, and a bacterial infection are necessarily mutually exclusive, or if one can cause pneumonia while opening the door for the other to exacerbate it.
Regardless, I am all but back to normal health now. Yet, for some reason, the convalescence feels incomplete. I still experience respiratory irritation and some residual chest congestion. There is also a mild-yet-sharp pain in my chest when I, occasionally, cough.
I suppose I will never know if I caught the novel coronavirus, or if I should hold COVID-19 culpable for my difficulty breathing. Given the severity of my symptoms and the trajectory of the illness – with me getting superficially better before getting much worse, followed by me eventually coming down with pneumonia, all of which echoes the disease progression coincidentally described in early March by a British educator who worked at a school in Wuhan – I have my suspicions.
Yet, that lingering uncertainty coupled with the unpredictability of COVID-19, both in terms of how it manifests within an individual, and in terms of the vastly different ways the new coronavirus appears to affect its various human hosts, suggest a troubling metaphor for these uncertain, unpredictable and crisis-defined times.
Now, in addition to all the salient health concerns, there are other pressing matters to contend with too.
Soon after I got sick, society disappeared – sort of. Social distancing and self-isolation became the norm. Colleges and universities transitioned to all-online education.
I teach at Riverside City College, and when RCC made the shift, the school gave faculty about a week to figure things out. That bought me some recovery time. I recall my department chair calling when I was still ill to discuss the change. I probably coughed more than I managed to speak during that conversation.
At RCC, we use the online educational platform called Canvas. Since most of my courses there have long-been classified as “web-enhanced” – meaning there is an expectation that the instructor will incorporate some limited online education into the curriculum – the transition to full-blown remote instruction has not been as challenging as it otherwise might have been.
Just as I converted a public speaking class and an argumentation and debate class at the community college to the online environment, the spring quarter at UC Riverside started. The university first announced in March that spring quarter instruction would take place online through part of April. Then the university decided, rather last minute, that the entire spring quarter would occur remotely.
University of California President Janet Napolitano and 10 UC chancellors sent a message to UC faculty and staff on April 2 collectively declaring “that there will be no COVID-19 related layoffs for all career employees through the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2020.”
Despite noting that they remain “keenly aware of the health concerns and economic uncertainty weighing on the entire University community” – and despite their assertions intended to foster confidence, like: “Let us assure you: we are in this together” – the UC Office of the President acknowledged that the commitment to no layoffs through June 30 did not apply to lecturers or librarians. Never mind the obvious issue with only committing not to lay people off through June, which is really not much of a commitment at all.
“Our people are the heart of the University of California and allow UC to live up to our aspirations and values,” Napolitano and the 10 UC chancellors wrote without a touch of irony in that April 2 message. “As we face the personal and professional challenges of the day, we are committed to doing all we can to alleviate concerns about income or job stability during this time.”
A few days after UC faculty and staff received that message in an email, UC-AFT, the union representing lecturers and librarians across the UC system, succeeded in pressuring UCOP to extend their commitment to academic appointees, including contingent, non-Senate faculty and librarians.
Of course, the UC was not committed to that initially. Otherwise, there would have been no dithering or need to organize in response to UCOP’s selective employment protections.
“We’re all in this together” is the trending adage today. It is a nice sentiment. Insofar as it alludes to and encourages solidarity, mutual aid and community building, it serves a useful purpose.
Insofar as it functions ideologically to conceal the real divisions that exist in society, and in academia in particular, it becomes a far more insidious catch phrase.
I fear administrative PR operating in that vein might paper over the turmoil that will continue to rock the academic world. The claims of togetherness some colleges and universities are making might no doubt help hide the increased burdens faced by the most marginalized and vulnerable already hanging by a thread in institutions of higher learning.
As a related aside, this clever tweet satirizing some the heightened hypocrisy of higher ed institutions and their treatment of educators during this pandemic recently caught my eye:
Universities: “Go easy on the students during this trying time.”
Also universities: “You profs and adjuncts better keep this shit up and running. And quit your whining that you don’t know how to do this. We posted online workshops and tech support is available from 10 to 4.”
The framing of university messaging seemed about right to me.
Another personal anecdote here could further illustrate the different dimensions of an ongoing problem that could become far worse because of the pandemic.
During a virtual department meeting on Zoom, I recounted to other faculty the illness that brought me to the ER mid-March and touched on the ensuing challenges of moving to remote instruction while juggling classes at different campuses. A well-meaning full-time faculty member responded with a message about looking on the bright side. While I appreciated the attempt at uplift, the comment also seemed to reflect the obliviousness or neglect of contingent faculty conditions and concerns common among the more privileged parts of the professoriate.
I think it is safe to assume, then, that this crisis could exacerbate the pernicious consequences of higher education’s two-tier system. What is more, we certainly cannot assume the system of “faculty apartheid” will dismantle itself as a result of the pandemic or that tenured and tenure-line faculty will automatically stop contributing to the reproduction of that system just because we wish to believe that we’re all “in this together.”
Across the board, contingent faculty are already encountering bleak prospects. As Colleen Flaherty noted in her April 10 article, “Next-Level Precarity,” instructors off the tenure-track are unfortunately accustomed to short-term contracts and used to the real possibility of not having a job the following semester or quarter, but “the widespread hiring freezes announced during the pandemic present unprecedented uncertainty to these instructors, who make up the majority of teaching faculty. If one institution simply drops them due to a blanket hiring freeze, there may be nowhere else to apply for years. Even for a demographic used to precarity, this is next level.”
Moreover, top-down charitable initiatives implemented and celebrated by schools in the post-secondary education sphere – UC Riverside has promoted its own programs of similar bent – are wholly insufficient to adequately address the real needs of struggling students, faculty and staff.
That kind of charity can amount to what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire termed “false generosity,” given that the charitable giving is predicated upon the maintenance of class stratifications and hierarchies that make charity necessary in the first place. And all the while those orchestrating the charitable work can feel better about themselves for providing some semblance of assistance to those in need as they simultaneously reinforce their own affluence and advantages by determining who deserves help and who will have to do without.
As if the obvious required stating, those arrangements suffer from an inherent democratic deficit. That is, the culpable employing colleges and universities not only deprive the most desperate among us of truly decent material conditions. Those schools and their PR-driven programs also deny the academic underclass the opportunity to participate in the major institutional decisions affecting them. Whether in reference to determining the beneficiaries of purported charitable largesse, or in reference to deciding how many adjuncts get canned to save dwindling funds during the COVID-19 crisis, decision-making power concentrates at the top with upper-level administration.
Band-Aids to conceal and partially ameliorate such issues are not new, and we can expect administrations, regents and boards of trustees to apply them more assiduously if the status quo continues or conditions worsen.
To the point, the University of California, Santa Cruz offered to expand a housing stipend program for graduate students in response to the wildcat strike waged by academic student employees at UCSC as part of a larger – and still growing – COLA, or cost of living adjustment, campaign. The additional $2,500 per year to help those eligible pay for housing that the UCSC offered is hardly on par with the $1,412 more per month graduate students went on strike to get in order to achieve income parity with teaching assistants in places, like Riverside, where rent is cheaper, though still egregious.
In characteristic amoral fashion, the UC recently ramped up its firing of striking graduate students amidst this global pandemic when a paycheck might even mean the difference between life and death.
And yet, academic student employees are still withholding grades until they win a COLA. The movement embodies an antidote to despair. It also represents what we can call a critical “public pedagogy” that could teach contingent faculty and others important lessons as we try to navigate this crisis.
That sort of pedagogical movement might be just what is necessary for many of us – and for meaningful, transformative tertiary education – to survive the novel coronavirus era.
James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes in the Communication Studies Department at Riverside City College and in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. He also taught a class at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has worked as a freelance writer for several outlets.