By Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.
Sayreville, NJ, USA

The spring semester officially began on Tuesday, January 21st, 2020, but I had taught classes throughout the winter term, so I can’t say that it felt like anything special or the start of something new. It was different, of course. There were more people around, more faculty and staff and students walking about campus.

My office has an enormous window that extends the length of an entire wall, and from this window I have a view of campus and beyond. I keep the blinds lifted at all times with an orchid on the sill. I’m fairly rubbish at furthering the life of a flower, but orchids don’t need much, just a large window with some good sun.

As I do every morning, that morning I would have petted the orchid’s thick green leaves that canopy out of its pot. I like to let it know when I’m back. Then, I’d have turned on my Keurig, opened up my laptop, and started the day: class prep, feedback, editing, emailing, writing, reading.

On that particular morning of January 21st, the New York Times sent an email summarizing their coverage on “President Trump’s Impeachment trial” and the fears over the spread of a “mysterious disease from China.”

On Tuesdays, I teach “Writing for the Digital Spaces.” My lesson for the first day of class includes collaboratively writing out a timeline of moments we feel important to or related to the field of the Digital Humanities, a term many of my students hear for the first time. That week, I’d teach this lesson twice. Once on Tuesdays; another, Thursday.

Abriana Jetté, Ph.D.

With student permission, we merge the timelines from the two classes. Together, their chronological history of the Digital Humanities connects the Computers for Humanities Conference at Yale (1965) with the start of Apple Inc. (1976) to the rise (and then decline) of Napster (1999), with many other pertinent social, political, and economic events (WWII, the Civil Rights movement, the creation of the NSA, for example), peppered in between. The timeline sets the tone for our conversations about privacy, technology, authorship, and pedagogy for the upcoming week.

The next week, on January 28, 2020, University Relations writes to confirm that there are no cases of the coronavirus on any of our campuses, whether internationally or here in the United States.

On February 8, 2020, The Diamond Princess, a British cruise ship, is forced to anchor mid-trip on the shores of Yokomoto, Japan due to an outbreak of the coronavirus. Over 705 passengers test positive during the boat’s quarantine.

The next day, February 9th, 2020, the Zeijiang Province, where my university has an international campus, is reported to be one of the most heavily impacted communities with illnesses related to COVID-19. By then, students should have already started to attend classes, but in light of the data surrounding the virus, my university’s administration decide to significantly delay the start of the semester.

That significant delay was a one-week grace period. One week during which professors, students, and administration collectively organized course materials to transition lessons to an online format. It was only one week’s worth of time, it was hardly any time at all, but it was enough for my colleagues to make it work.

Discussing this transition during a department meeting that week, the otherwise calm, diplomatic, almost even stoic executive director of my department remarked that the situation was turning out to be “a global emergency.”

From that point in early February, I start bringing hand sanitizer into my classrooms on a daily basis, disinfecting my desk, my computer, my phone, my door knobs. Students take a go at it and we all rub our hands together in a germaphobic-prayer before class begins.

Still I continued to loan books to students, collect student papers, spend time with students in my office, sit in circles with students to talk about Ovid’s Book of Love.

Though I did not know it would be the last day of the semester that we would see one another face to face, in the late afternoon of Friday, March 6th,  a group of students present on Tik-Tok’s glorification of hateful rhetoric and false information on the coronavirus.

This is all to say that somewhere deep inside, we all knew about the effects of COVID-19, but we went on living business as usual. For armor, we washed our hands. For sanity, I continued to teach, which means (for me) reading and writing and talking. In The White Album, Joan Didion describes a neighborhood that operates in “anticipation of imminent but not exactly immediate destruction.”

Classroom before the Pandemic

So things go on. As they did. As they do. Things went on even though we knew.

For example, during that last week of face to face discussion, on March 4, 2020, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) held their annual conference in San Antonio, Texas. By this time, COVID-19 had already travelled across China, South Korea, Italy, France, Germany, and, yes, of course, America. Many called for canceling or postponing the conference out of fear that it would only worsen the spread. It’s estimated that over 15,000 writers, publishers, graduate students, editors, and other contributors attend AWP on an annual basis. Certainly, that many people in one contained space couldn’t be helpful in flattening the curve.

AWP went on, but with reports that many vendors, panelists, and contributors cancelled. The day after their decision to continue on with the conference whilst knowing the risks of contamination, the former co-executive director of the program resigned.

I could keep going, week by week. You know the story. The closures, the lay-offs, the plunging markets, the kids at home.

I have been teaching from home for eight days and will continue to do so until the end of the semester. In so many ways, I go on as business as usual, albeit that my yoga studio, office, classrooms, and eight shelves of my books and notebooks are inaccessible. Albeit that instead of being able to see my mom and step-father twice a week, as I like to do, I chat with them via Facetime during dinner. Albeit that now, instead of being called Professor throughout the day, I am called Mommy.

Yesterday, during my daughter’s naptime, I recorded myself reading from Claudian’s Raptu de Proserpine to guide students in my “History of Rhetoric through Writing” class with varying references and images. A handful of my students will never have heard of Proserpine before.

Why should they care to know about her now, amidst all of this panic? How can I get them to pay attention to this myth when their lives have been turned upside down from a highly contagious, lung-gripping virus? Why, exactly, do I even think this matters?

The textbook we have been using, The Classical Roman Reader, edited by Kenneth J. Atchity, notes that Claudian is “the last noteworthy poet” of the Classical Latin tradition, and that this “unfinished mythological epic” might have been composed as an explanation for the “corn shortage of 395-7” (Atchity 339).

I tell my students that the myth is prismatic; each time one returns to it, something new appears. The narrative goes that Ceres, bereft, cares little about whether anyone lives or dies. She does not carry on business as usual. Ceres suffers. Her daughter, Proserpine, has been snatched from her, has been made inaccessible. So she shuts off her supply; ceases to nourish the earth. It is not enough for others to simply know of her suffering, when Ceres suffers, everyone must suffer, too. So the leaves fall. The grass browns. The ground grows colder.

I am mid-sentence when my daughter, rising early, sneaks behind the wall yelling “Got you!” Her hair is frazzled and her cheeks are pink. She has just woken up, is hungry, and I’m meant to feed her.

She and I do what we do, which varies: eating, building blocks, painting, dancing, whatever she dictates; but around 6:00 pm, we typically head out for a walk during which she will pick up sticks, dig some holes, run up some hills, run down some hills, sometimes falls, sometimes into the mud, and then find ourselves on a familiar path back to the house. She’ll remark that “outside is going to sleep”, so we will say goodnight to the trees and to the ants, to the grass, to the tulips, the flags, the bees, and the dirt, especially the tiny white pebbles deep in the dirt, her favorite.

Abriana's daughter in the garden

The previous owners of my home had green thumbs. In the back of the house they rooted two stunning blue and purple hydrangea bushes. In the front, according to my neighbor, rhododendrons. When we first moved in, I didn’t know what type of flower it was, I just knew it was beautiful and bloomed before any other flowers on the block.

On our way back from work, on the eighth day of social distancing, there they are those rhododendrons, brightening the entryway to our home before any other official notes of Spring begin. There they are, on a dreary, cloudy day in New Jersey, March 20, 2020, when the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 is 275, 741.

When I first started writing this piece, on March 18, 2020, that number was 217,003. As I edit it on Saturday, March 21, 2020, the total number of confirmed cases is 301, 630, over 25,000 cases overnight. Over 58,000 cases in two days, and that’s only relative to the amount of testing available.

When we saw the rhododendrons early that evening, we both reached our hands out to the petals, the same way I would to that orchid in my office, softly grazing the bright pink spuds. Blooming. Or, at least, starting to. Full bloom, soon.

Soon. Soon the weather will warm. Spirits will lift. Proserpine will return.

No matter what plagues our global community, we carry within us always this guttural desire to learn. History offers us facts; mythology, explanation. For the sake of my future, it’s essential that my students know this. Understanding the past serves as the only way to try to plan for the future.

My “Writing for Digital Spaces” students will now officially hold class in a digital space. Daily, they use our course Twitter account to consider ramifications and benefits of remote and virtual learning, post memes, and connect to followers from across the country. While I don’t know what sorts of changes we’ll start to encounter in higher education because of the impact of COVID-19. I do know that the next time my students and I create a timeline of moments that have influenced the Digital Humanities, we will undoubtedly include this moment, these weeks..

Their story is not so far-fetched from our reality, I record myself saying later on. Isolation. Abandonment. Betrayal. The depleting supply. The desire to connect. Forbidden acts. Mothers, daughters, lovers. As Claudian would have intended, the story of Ceres, Proserpine, and Hades, can always be used as an explanation.

Even in the digital realm, I still get to explain these things to my students. Our ancestors’ words live on Blackboard and in Google Classroom. For this we are lucky.

Who knows what will happen over the next few weeks. I only know that today, even though the sky wears a griever’s gray, I will take an evening walk with my daughter on which we will say hello to the trees and to the ants, to the tulips and to the dirt, especially those tiny white pebbles.

I do know that orchid sitting on the sill in my office will be in desperate need of water when I return, but I know that it will survive. All it needs is a large window and some good sun.


Abriana Jetté is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling women's poetry anthology 50 Whispers
Her newest poetry anthology, Stay Thirsty Poets - Vol. I, was released in February 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.