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viewpoint

An open letter to the University’s leadership

| Thursday, September 10, 2020

Dear Provost Miranda, Fr. Jenkins and others,

I am not an epidemiologist, and therefore am not writing to make an argument for or against remaining on campus. I pause, in the midst of planning for my return to in-person teaching, to make a simple request which could be granted at no cost to the University:

Please stop using war metaphors to describe our fall semester.

Fr. Jenkins set the tone, evidently, with his New York Times op-ed. Since then, the rhetoric of war, warriors, battle, victory, defeat, courage and sacrifice has been a more or less constant refrain in reopening letters, in town halls and in the administration’s communications. It appears that this is now a coordinated messaging effort. So I ask you: Please stop. It’s not helping. It actually makes it harder for me to do my job.

No matter how destructive it may be, a disease is not an “enemy.” As a cancer survivor, it was not helpful for me to imagine going to “war” against something that was part of my own body. I did not “beat” cancer; I survived it. In the same way, it is not helpful to me to think of a virus carried in the bodies of Notre Dame students, faculty and staff as a “wily foe” upon which we can turn the fury of our arsenal as we execute our revised “battle plan.” No matter what happens during this academic year, Notre Dame will not defeat the coronavirus. We will survive it. At a cost.

Now I am asked to view my students as soldiers in a campaign to eradicate not only the virus but a modern malaise which saps us of courage, moral fiber, grit, determination, endurance and all the other martial virtues. I was not hired to be an officer in whatever army this administration imagines itself to be mobilizing. Being a professor at Notre Dame means a lot of things, but I am pretty sure that it does not mean that I have the right or the duty to send my students into harm’s way. If I have to think of the classroom as a battlefield, that only makes it harder for me to ask my students to enter it. 

The University’s leadership also often asks us to be kind to each other and to our students. This is compatible with the mission of an educational institution and is something we all ought to be able to do. Why not lean into that, instead of exhorting us in this martial vein? Why not leave off this talk of “battle plans” and “enemies” and “war,” which only reminds me of all the ways in which the rhetoric of self-sacrifice has been mobilized time and again, before and during actual wars, in order to prepare its hearers to patiently accept news of suffering and death?

Waging war is a job I cannot do. Teaching is a job that I can do, and want to do. By asking you to invest in a different metaphor, I’m only asking you not to make it any harder to do my job than it already is. 

Sincerely,

Susan Cannon Harris

Professor of English and Irish studies

Sept. 4

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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