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November 1, 2020

It’s Easy to Sink Into Apathy During the Pandemic. Don’t.

Amidst the isolation of a mostly-remote quarter, we need to make a conscious effort to engage with the UChicago community.

You probably did not vote in the College Council elections. You may not have even known they were taking place. Don’t worry, this column isn’t about voting, or a more important upcoming election. This column is about apathy and dissociation. It’s about trying to construct a community in our little pods of isolation. But before I get to that, I want to tell you about the College Council election. This story is relevant, trust me, but it’s also funny and a little sad and it will put you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the argument.

In case you didn’t know, College Council is a part of Student Government and held elections earlier this quarter. At some point, results were announced. I saw a Facebook post with a little congratulations message for all the candidates but nothing else about it. Later, while procrastinating, I found the email prompting me to vote in the elections. It was from Max Freedman, a fellow student, and was sent on Friday, October 9. I had indeed voted, although I admit it was an uninformed choice. What I had not done before was click the link to the Student Government website to learn about the race and candidates. After ignoring a message from Firefox telling me that my connection was not secure, I arrived at a page listing the results from the 2020-21 Student Government Elections.

After some cursory navigation through the Student Government website, which, by the way, is unnerving and a little hostile with its jet-black background and monolithic white text, I learned absolutely nothing about what College Council might do. I discovered the results of the 2020-21 College Council elections. For the Class of 2022, which I happen to be a part of through no fault of my own, four representatives had been elected: Zebeeb Nuguse with 90 votes, Dinesh Das Gupta with 84 votes, John Fuentes with 67 votes, and Harry Gardner with 4 votes. A quick pause here to note that there are 1,814 students in the Class of 2022. You could probably work out some fairly amusing turnout percentages from that. Six people abstained from voting, an admirable display of democratic protest, which managed to outnumber the votes received by one of the victorious representatives. I learned from the website that Zebeeb became chair of the council following the College Council election, which for some reason required her to vacate her seat. Her position on the College Council for the Class of 2022 then passed down to the person who had come in fifth. Here, a problem presented itself. There was a tie. Evita Duffy and Allen Abbot had both received 2 votes. College Council, I was told, would break this tie on October 20.

This situation I think, is beyond parody. 2 votes. By the way, Allen won.

College Council, or C.C. as it refers to itself, in an act of abbreviation characteristic of arcane bureaucracies, probably does something. In fact, it seems to have done good things in the past. This piece is not about C.C., or the Kafkaesque Student Government website or even our “Undergraduate Liaison to the Board of Trustees.” Like I said up top, this column is about apathy and dissociation.

Before discovering that the results for the C.C. elections were fairly amusing, I did not care about them at all. I barely remembered that I had voted. A few days ago, I realised I had forgotten the names of the buildings on the quad. Perhaps you have, too. I live off campus, and the University of Chicago increasingly feels like an abstract concept, a descriptor appearing on the various pages I have to log into. I watch recorded lectures at 2x speed (which makes my professors sound like Ben Shapiro), and I know the names of around half the people in my discussion classes. My friends and I are no longer united by our role as fellow students. We’re just people who live near each other.

No wonder so few people voted in the C.C. elections. The pixelated, lagging, legless images who occupy my Zoom meetings for a few hours a week don’t seem part of my community. We are all remote. If you saw a person in your zoom class on the street, if you walked directly by them on the quad, would you nod? Would you exchange a few words about your homework? Or would you continue walking, unsure if you had actually recognized them beneath their mask?

Quarantine and isolation disintegrate community. The indefinable, oddly comforting feeling of leaving your class onto a quad full of people leaving their classes. The feeling of being in a crowd of people who all share something with you, who all know what it is like to be in the Reg or write their first Hum essay. This is a community wider than friends and acquaintances. It’s a community of people you might only see in passing, but who nevertheless understand something about your life just as you understand something about theirs. This loss is inevitable in the reality of quarantine, and it results in feeling dissociated from the University and apathetic about all its peripheral concerns. There’s no real cure for it, but perhaps there’s a way to alleviate it.

Start by refamiliarizing yourself with the quad, trying to strike up friendships with people in your Zoom class, or even engaging with the barrage of University emails you receive daily. Yes, that’s right, I’m telling you to vote in Student Government elections. That way, at some point you can look at the people in your class, all at their various desks with variously poor cameras, and know that they too opened the link to the weird voting website. That they too scrolled through all the candidates before inevitably clicking the people at the top of the list and calling it a day. Maybe you could even join some remote RSOs or attend one of the endless zoom lectures hosted by the University. These actions might feel artificial, and they are. In the absence of normality, community must be fabricated. The feeling of the organic community cannot be replicated, but it can be imitated, like how they make food in advertisements with shaving cream and paint. In front of you, that burger would look nothing like the real thing, but viewed remotely, through a screen, it will do. To regain that sense of inhabiting the vast, diverse, sometimes infuriating, often fascinating community that is the University of Chicago, you must perform it. Accept the reality, but act out, perhaps self-consciously, the strange, stilted interactions of the online university. The RSO meetings, the masked interactions, and reaching out to strangers in your class will eventually seem natural, as, with an impressive sleight of hand, you trick yourself into forming a community.

It’s not watching people slip all over the quad on winter mornings, but at least it’s something.

Andrew Farry is a third year in the College

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