A dark year of sickness, reckoning, loss — and periodic bits of light

Scholars tell of muddling through, insights gained, small wins, and a rescue pup named RBG.

Like countless others, members of the Harvard faculty have been finding their way through the difficult days of 2020, planning Zoom wedding receptions, socially distancing from family and friends, tending to patients suffering with COVID-19, learning to teach students remotely, and trying to make sense of a year defined by a deadly pandemic, a reckoning with racial, social, and economic inequities, recession, and political upheaval. As December winds to a close, the Gazette asked faculty from across the University for their thoughts on how history, and they themselves, will remember the tumultuous past 12 months.

Annette Gordon-Reed

Carl M. Loeb University Professor

I had such high hopes for 2020. Just the name of the year itself — 2020, the repeated number, the association with good vision. Of course, 2020 would be great, I vowed as I stood with family members as the clock struck midnight. I could not have predicted one of the two calamitous events that have defined the year: the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from the 2020 presidential election. Had I been told that I’d be doing classes from my NYC apartment for most of the academic year, on a platform — Zoom — that I had been on only once before, I would have thought the pronouncement crazy. As for the election, given that one candidate had signaled his unwillingness to leave office, even before he was elected, indicating that it would be impossible for him to lose without there having been fraud, what has happened since Nov. 3, though massively disconcerting, is less surprising. I’ll reflect on 2020 as the year that people the world over were reminded of how vulnerable we humans are to the microorganisms with which we share the Earth, and as the year that Americans were shown how vulnerable to bad acting our republic really is.

Ashley Whillans

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

ost years pass without clear demarcation. However, there is no doubt that 2020 will serve as a break, boundary, or transition that will likely shape the trajectory of our entire lives. Maybe we lost a job or a parent, took on a new hobby, home-schooled our kids, or reconnected with acquaintances. Perhaps we figured out innovative ways of working and coping or learned how to be more OK with not coping at all. Personally, this was the year I threw away any “perfect” plans. I taught students and completed research experiments virtually and am holding my wedding reception over Zoom. I caught and recovered from COVID, worried about my (ER physician) fiancé’s health, and celebrated my parents’ 60th and 70th birthdays with both tears of joy and consternation. What I have felt deeply in my own life (and have seen in my data) is that 2020 has awakened many of us into remembering that time is our most valuable resource and that none of us knows how much of it we have left. As our global community continues to face climate change and social unrest, this moment has awakened all of us — startled us — hopefully toward action. As I have been so often reminded this year, there is no better time than the present to start spending our days with intentionality, presence, and purpose — one moment at a time.

Imoigele Aisiku

Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live during a historic time, and if I would appreciate the significance of it in real time. Twenty-twenty has been a historic year, and I’m not sure I can grasp the impact of all that has happened. As the year comes to an end, I can’t help but reflect. My first son turned 1 last week. Three months after we welcomed him into the world, I returned from paternity leave to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s COVID special pathogens unit, a two-story triage tent outside 75 Francis St., and to wearing a mask everywhere. I work in the emergency department and the intensive care unit (ICU) and couldn’t have been more excited to be part of the team, versus watching the pandemic unfold on TV. However, the fear of bringing COVID home to my 3-month-old frightened me at the same time. Juggling being a responsible first-time father and a devoted clinician is difficult. COVID brought challenges to us all in too numerous ways to count and many more stories far more difficult than my own. As we were coming to grasp that our lives may be changed forever, that life as we have known it may not return to normal any time soon or ever, the year was still barely halfway done. Just as the virus was teaching us that minorities were particularly vulnerable, the country, in an amazingly unified way, taught us about systemic racism, police brutality, and health disparities. Protests across the country opened our eyes to a different type of virus, and the combination of COVID and racism was unimaginable and unprecedented. Today, I serve as the vice chair for diversity in the hospital’s department of emergency medicine as and the director of the hospital’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice (IDEaS) in addition to my clinical duties. As 2020 comes to a close, I’m proud of how we have come together to fight COVID and racism. As a father, a clinician, and a Black man, I will remember 2020 as an epic year. Joy, sadness, fear, and enthusiasm are some of the emotions I have felt this year, but with greater passion. I am amazed and proud to have lived during this pandemic, and hopefully through it.

Stephen Greenblatt

John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities

I began 2020 on sabbatical in Rome. Early in January, when my wife and I read in the Italian newspapers about a strange illness in Hunan, we felt both commiseration and relief that it was on the other side of the globe. But then it showed up, with a vengeance, in the north of Italy. We felt the same mix of feelings, this time telling ourselves that the disease was in the north of the country, on the other side of the Apennines. Of course, it did not long remain there, but began its relentless march down the peninsula. At the beginning of March we packed our bags and returned to Cambridge, not because we believed a word of the absurd reassurances that the U.S. president was spouting, but because we thought it would be better to hunker down at home. I will long remember the eerie sight of a completely empty Munich airport, where we changed planes on our flight home. And I will remember too, the customs official at Logan who, when we tried to tell him that we were coming from virus-ravaged Italy, asked us only if we had been in China and then, on our replying, “No,” cheerfully waved us through without another word.

But in the long run when I look back at 2020, I will remember something more positive. This past semester I taught Hum 10, a 90-student intensive humanities course for first-years. The course was entirely remote; the students, though on campus, were what Shakespeare calls “cabined, cribbed, and confined”; and I felt great sadness for young people who were fated to have such a weird initiation into their College career. But ultimately, I was deeply moved by their fantastic resilience and inventiveness. Week after week they rose to the occasion, using the Chat function, the Slack channels, the Breakout Rooms, and all the other bells and whistles to create a genuine learning community. In seminar meetings, in regular office hours, and in evening sessions that lasted until 10 p.m. and later, they exchanged ideas, told each other stories, learned about their interests and their challenges. In spite of everything, the students managed to fashion a collective College experience for themselves, and in doing so they succeeded in bringing me out of my own experience of isolation and into a vital, shared world.

Colleen Walsh – Read more on harvard.edu


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