“I’m trying to decide whether to finish grading this set of freshman comp essays or just kill myself,” I joked to my colleague a few days ago. But you actually did it. You killed yourself. Right in the middle of the semester.
As the Chair of the humanities program in which you taught, I was your boss. We’ve never met in person because I rarely meet the adjuncts; there are so many of you. I really did want to meet you, though, because you had a reputation. I’m new here, but everyone told me that you were the best. “Always give John courses if you can. He’s the best. The students love him, and he never flakes out.” Well.
I’m teaching your course now, because someone must. It’s an online course, so it’s no big deal — just swap one professor out and another one in. The curriculum is canned, anyone can teach it. Your students, though, seem to actually miss you. They keep asking me what happened. I say that you “passed away unexpectedly.”
I expected to find your course a disaster. You were, after all, at the end of your rope. But your online environment was immaculate. You were completely caught up on grading. You’d provided thorough and excellent feedback to your students. You’d posted clear and coherent messages every Sunday morning to shepherd your pupils through the course. There were all the telltale signs of the “above and beyond” adjunct — the one who truly loves his work — because God knows we weren’t paying you to do all this. Let alone offering you medical benefits, which you perhaps could have used.
You were teaching “Introduction to Humanities.” You were delivering (we use the word “delivering” when we talk about online teaching) a course specifically designed to open the discussion of what it means to be human, even as you were quietly shutting that particular door forever.
You posted this message to your students on your last Sunday morning: “Welcome to Week 6. This week we begin reading in the Identities text. Our subjects become more focused on the concepts that help us understand what it is to be human. We begin by thinking about the self.”
And then you killed your self. It may have been within minutes of that post, a couple of hours at the most.
A week and a half ago, you e-mailed to ask me if I cared whether students spelled Internet with a capital “I.” You were pretty sure that was proper, but you’d noticed students were beginning to drop the capital. You didn’t really care either way — it was easier to type without the capital, after all. A week or so before that you wrote to ask if I was aware of the new genderless pronoun “ze.” I am pretty sure I responded to both e-mails; I certainly hope that I did. And I’m left wondering how you were worried about capital I’s and genderless pronouns during a season of your life that you must have already decided was to be your last.
I feel like I should do something, something to honor you. Or at least be sadder. But such is the state of things in the way we do higher education these days. We’re all detached — from our students, our colleagues, even from the words we can now only see and not touch. “There are technologies,” we say, “there is blended/synchronous/hybrid/multi-modal learning.” It’s funny that before we had all these ways to connect we didn’t need so many words to convey connection. It smacks of desperation. Or denial.
And I don’t know whom to blame. Was it the working conditions, the isolation, too many students with too many essays? Was it financial stress? Were you sick? Did it have nothing at all do with your job? I find myself hoping that it did not, because I don’t want to be culpable. We just worked together; we didn’t know each other. There was no way I could have known.
In your profile picture, you were always smiling.