Apologies for the Fog

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I haven’t posted a blog for several weeks now, despite scheduled deadlines. I apologize.

A year ago this week, my university gave faculty and students an additional week off following spring break, and then we returned—virtually—to complete the semester online. Two of the four classes I was teaching were already online, so for me, the initial impact of the pandemic may have been muted somewhat, at least in terms of instruction. And while I recorded mini-lectures and redesigned assignments for the online space, I learned to manage multiple trips to stores to find toilet paper or ground beef or yeast or buttermilk, to handle committee work and conferences via Zoom, to coordinate schedules with my 16-year-old son and my husband, and to refrain from the headache of trying to police conspiracy theories on social media. And I revamped my calendar.

For April 2020, I created a calendar in a Word document, and each Sunday afternoon, I would map out what had to be done the following week, adding bullet points to designate each day’s t0-do list. Each morning, I settled on the couch with a cup of coffee and my open laptop, and I tackled the list. At the end of the day, I used the strikethrough command to cross off each completed item. Whatever remained undone was cut and pasted onto the next day’s list:

  • Create works cited handout for 1102
  • Answer emails
  • Submit book orders
  • Write a blog post

The process was efficient, and when several items were crossed off, satisfying. But as I added rows for weeks into May and June, and my document expanded into the summer and fall semesters, I noticed some items never quite got done—I would cut and paste for the next day’s list, for the next week, for the next month. The pre-tenure review materials had a firm deadline, so the blog post could wait. I would pen a quick apology for whatever I had missed and promise myself to catch up and do better soon. 

Our fall semester was hybrid: I had a small group of students one day and a separate group another. About half of the assigned work occurred in asynchronous online spaces. I recorded in-person classes via screen capture, kept my distance when on campus, and strained to make my voice clear from behind the layers of my mask. Once home again, I washed my hands, checked the to-do calendar, and rested my voice, sipping hot tea. But my mind reeled. When I needed to read, the words on the page seemed to blur, and the annotations I had jotted the night before were unfamiliar. Blank pages where blog posts should have appeared remained empty; words and sentences did not arise from the fog in my mind, despite all the tricks that would (as I had once confidently assured my students) demolish writer’s block. I cut the bullet points from the day’s list yet again, posted them on the calendar a few days later, and drafted yet another apology.

According to a recent article in the Atlantic, prolonged stress—such as the past few months of the pandemic—can induce this brain weariness (“mild cognitive impairment”). As winter turns to spring, I am still teaching in hybrid mode, and here in Georgia, university faculty are not yet eligible for vaccination. I still cut and paste unfinished to-do items from one week to the next, and as I remind myself that summer is coming, I try to focus on what is essential—including at least two weekly reminder/update emails to students, along with encouragement to press on.

And they send their apologies to me: “Dr. Moore, I am sorry I missed the conference. My internet was out.” “I’m so sorry about that discussion post—I just forgot.” “I’m sorry I didn’t get this to you on Friday. I had to be out of my old apartment by Saturday.” “I was exposed to Covid, so I cannot make it. I’m sorry.” “I apologize for being out of it during class—my doctor switched my anxiety meds and I’m in a fog.” “I missed my meeting with the writing fellows—could you help me reschedule?” “I’m taking my dog to the vet this morning.” “Could you record class for me—I need to babysit my little sister.” “I know it’s not an excuse, but I can’t seem to get started on this paper. It’s like my brain is in a fog. Does that even make sense?” 

Why yes, yes, it does. 

In responding to these apologies this semester, I’ve found myself much more willing to adjust, to cut the due date and paste it into the calendar a few days later, giving the students (and myself) a little more time to breathe. And for some students, the best option has been withdrawal—cutting the entire course and pasting it into next semester. A composition course in conjunction with the chaos in their lives right now is just too much—family, health, or work takes precedence. When they make that decision, I remind them that no apology is necessary. 

If you have struggled with brain fog, anxiety, malaise, or acedia created by pandemic teaching and would be willing to share your coping strategies, I would love to hear from you.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.