It goes without saying that this was a strange year. Covid-19 affected me less than most — I thankfully didn’t lose anyone to covid, I don’t have childcare to contend with, and both My Esteemed Partner and I were able to continue our jobs working from home — but even in the best case, a combination of sheltering-in-place, nationwide protest punctuated by a brief quasi-military occupation of Chicago, and the mounting horror of a botched pandemic response produced a low- (and often high-) level background anxiety that colored everything. I also lost my mentor and friend Ted Jennings in March (to complications from a stroke), which still often feels like a fresh wound — particularly as the pandemic prevented a normal funeral or any of the usual ways of sharing grief with friends and chosen family.
Nevertheless, there were some good things that happened this year. The first is a major teaching milestone — namely, teaching a Natural Sciences course in the Shimer program. It was a course I had taken from a more experienced instructor as part of my training, but the history of chemistry is still far outside my usual wheelhouse. It was fun but stressful to work with very different types of texts and to implement (and sometimes design or redesign) lab activities to mimic historical experiments. (Thankfully, we were able to finish our last major in-person experiment before the pandemic forced us online.) The milestone was doubly meaningful for me as a Great Books generalist, in that I was teaching in all three major areas of the Shimer curriculum at the same time (Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences). There is still the long-term goal of teaching every course in the curriculum, but the spring semester really made me feel like I had “arrived” in a sense as a Shimer faculty member. (Though it is the least of anyone’s worries, one of my regrets is that the pandemic disrupted precisely this decisive semester — it felt symbolic somehow.)
I was also able to do some writing. My primary work was on a new essay collection, entitled What is Theology? Christian Thought and Contemporary Life. It includes some previously published essays, but over half the material is new. Much of the new material reflects my ongoing research into Black Studies, which took up the majority of my reading time this year. The manuscript passed the final peer review and editorial board approval late this year and is scheduled to be published by Fordham University Press in Fall 2021. I was also able to write a well-received cri de coeur on academia’s active self-destruction, as well as opinion pieces on how a capitalist approach to the pandemic will kill us all and how the two-party system thwarts democracy.
Aside from the book, the biggest things I did amounted to slow and steady routine work. After completing my textbook on Qur’anic Arabic shortly before the pandemic struck, I took advantage of my lack of a commute to study at least a page a day of the Qur’an in Arabic most days — allowing me to get through roughly one-fourth of the total text (Surahs 1-4 and 10-13, for those keeping score at home). I also joined a reading group on Hegel’s Science of Logic with two close friends, which has been incredibly rewarding. We are currently about halfway through the Doctrine of Essence. I suspect that these two long-term projects, which currently have no immediate relation to my research, will have a profound impact on my thinking and writing in the long term.
None of this is “worth it,” of course. It’s all a hollow consolation prize for a year that was — even for the lucky ones, like me — essentially stolen from us by malicious, incompetent, and at best simply unimaginative leadership. I will never stop being furious for all we have lost.