“The Pivot,” a ground-level view of Duke University during the pandemic – Duke Today | Team Cansler

One of the first people readers will meet in Robert Bliwise’s new book about campus life in Duke during the pandemic is Valerie Williams, the manager of the East Campus Marketplace. Her job was to oversee a hub of freshman food during the pandemic and find ways to safely feed more than 1,500 students multiple meals a day, while generally maintaining the social connection that college student food normally provides distinguished, has been removed.

Williams, a 44-year veteran of Duke Dining, wore a mask and came to work almost every day during the pandemic, regularly screening the mental health of her staff and the students she served. Bliwise asked Williams what kept her going through the long, difficult days of the pandemic. “Seeing people happy,” she replied.

In The Pivot: One Pandemic, One University (Duke University Press), Bliwise places pandemic profiles such as Williams, bus driver Michael Eubanks, and numerous faculty members, staff, and administrators at the heart of the story of Duke’s trials during the crisis. While the university received national attention for how its testing program and safety protocols kept the campus community running during the crisis, Bliwise said he wanted to share the lesser-known stories of the local people who made it possible, from the Learning Innovation Team This guided faculty as courses moved to virtual space, from admissions officers working in an environment where recruitment visits were taboo to healthcare workers coping with all of the unknowns associated with COVID-19 are.

Their combined efforts showed, he said, that higher education, often described as slow-moving, can be flexible.

“I wanted to appeal to an audience outside of Duke,” said Bliwise, who recently retired after nearly 40 years as editor of the highly regarded Duke Magazine. “It occurred to me that if you told the story from the ground up, it would be a more authentic, compelling, and richer story. I was less interested in the political discussions than in how the policies played out and shaped campus life.

“It took me to places on campus that I didn’t typically write about in my old routine at the magazine. Spending several hours with Valerie Williams and seeing how caring she was and the pride she took in feeding the students and working in pandemic conditions made it clear just how important she and others were in keeping this place running. “

His reporting takes him to Zoom classes throughout the undergraduate curriculum, where some faculty that had previously banned computers from their classes have become accustomed to being taught through them. He explores student life from the isolation of quarantine to the challenges of sharing meals with friends from far away. And he checked in with employees responsible for making sure the security protocols work, such as: B. the C-Team running around campus to encourage students and warn those who are breaking the pandemic rules.

Bliwise said his reporting reinforces some long-held ideas, particularly the intrinsic value and necessity of personal education. While he cites numerous examples of how teachers are creatively designing online courses and using the experience to rethink the core of classroom learning, his conclusion is clear: “Nothing can replace the experience of face-to-face teaching,” he said. “Traditionally, online learning has struck me as a less than authentic way of enjoying life in the classroom, and if anything, that impression has become entrenched.”

But the pandemic also brought new lessons that will continue to shape undergraduate training at Duke. In his book, Bliwise pays close attention to the impact of the pandemic on mental health and efforts—both individual and institutional—to support emotional well-being. After hearing from many students who are struggling with isolation and online learning for the first time in their lives, he spends much of the book exploring what it means to care for students.

“One thing we’ve all learned through living online is that students are whole people, they’re not just learners in the classroom,” Bliwise said. “That seems intuitive, but the lesson became clear during the pandemic. Even faculty, who used to see their role as more traditionally professorial, have become more concerned with caring for their students and seeing their students not just as learners in the classroom, but as whole, complicated, and somewhat vulnerable individuals.”

Bliwise said his reporting also reinforces for him the importance of campus ritual in the student experience, from the traditional class photo for freshmen to the last day of class celebrations. The pandemic has reinforced that these events are not just frivolous campus customs, but an important part of the university experience.

“We all had some understanding that campus life is much more than the classroom. But the fact that the community has been denied these rituals for so long has made us confronted with just how embedded they are in campus life.

“They’re not just nice trivia of campus life. They are fundamental, elemental and essential to the shared feel of the campus, integrating people into a community and creating a special identity. “Campus community” is a term we use so often, but what this project has taught me is that the term has a lot of meaning and meaning and complexity.

“The class photo is a perfect example. At first glance, it may seem like a perfectly casual gesture, but after the isolation of the pandemic, you can see that the gathering that is part of the class photo is a serious aspect of community bonding. And when it goes away, it’s a real loss.”

Faced with the same pandemic isolation as the rest of us, Bliwise said he found the opportunity to write about this time “exhilarating” and an opportunity to spend the time pursuing his passion for long-form reporting on a story of interest to practice a readership beyond Duke.

“The project allowed me to add texture, depth and complexity with a range of characters and campus settings. I could reach for these qualities in Duke Magazine’s storytelling, of course with a necessarily tighter focus and a limited – if still generous – word count. This project was an extended playground for me. It allowed me to engage with a topical issue while drawing heavily on my own experiences and training my own voice. This really gets closer to one of my goals – to document a meaningful moment for higher education in a way that feels original, immediate and compelling.”

Bliwise isn’t quite done with the project yet. For the university’s Thompson Writing Program, he will teach a freshman seminar next semester called Decoding Duke, which will include reflections on campus during the pandemic.

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