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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

We Are Too Tired to Give This a Title

Ashton Ray, Ally Whiting, Emily Wieman, Lilith Osburn-Cole,

Shelby Ramsey, and Cindy Tekobbe

Table of Contents

Keywords: graduate school, anti-vax politics, collaboration, institutional critique

Categories: Reflecting on Academic (Over)work and/or Precarity; Somewhere in Between: Grad Student Perspectives; 
Forging Communal Ties Through Collaborative Writing

Content warning: anti-vax politics

Introduction: Our Context

We are the colleagues of our graduate seminar in Feminist Rhetorics in the Department of English, at the University of Alabama for the Fall semester of 2021. The context and narratives in this article describe how our semester began with too little or vague information about Covid-19 safety policies and inconsistent administrative messaging about doing our jobs during the pandemic. The pages here demonstrate how institutional hierarchies and whiteness further complicate teaching and studying in our department. They tell of the story of how graduate students responded to these problems, and how frustration, anger, and trauma play out in a Covid classroom, in university public spaces, and in our email every day.

I am Cindy, it is August 23, the first day of my Fall classes, and my email is daunting - filled with administrative reminders and last-minute instructions. In addition to these routine notices, I also have emails from three students explaining why they will not attend class today due to having Covid-19, being exposed to Covid-19, or feeling sick like they might have Covid-19. To my great privilege, as a teacher, I only have 22 students this semester, divided between a senior undergraduate seminar and a graduate seminar. My institution tells me that we have 3-5% positive Covid-19 cases on campus, but 3 out of 22 students is not 3-5%. I am not the only teacher here with this story. Anecdotally, around 15% of undergraduates in classes taught by the Graduate Teaching Associates in our program are out with Covid-19-related health issues. Health Department data for our town describes a 19% infection rate. Something does not add up. And I wonder if anyone else is noticing this mismatch

It is a Friday, August 27, 2021, and our chair sends out an apologist email to the department looking for an upside to the lack of a mask mandate in our hallways, lobbies, and stairwells. This purported upside is that we will be spared from confrontations with students in these crowded public spaces where they pass unmasked every day. One of our Graduate Teaching Associates responds to the email asking that they not be gaslit by the institution while they are already dealing with being multiply-marginalized[1] and working with Covid in the classroom. They are tone-policed by a graduate student defending the administration, and the communications in the email list break down quickly as more responses come in either on the side of vulnerable students or on the side of the institution. I send an email to the students in our graduate seminar telling them I support them and that we will discuss this in class on Monday. Then there is more email list tone policing that quickly devolves into white fragility and settler nonsense. None of our faculty, including me, intervenes in the email chain. A few of the students asking for help respond to the list that they are done with the institution, and they fall silent. Finally a dean, who is a woman of color, responds asking for reflection and de-escalation. She also asks why she is the only faculty to respond. The harassment continues a few hours later. There is still no department or faculty response to the email list. The next week, I work on restorative justice with graduate students, listening as they share their anger, frustration, and trauma. We generate a few ideas for pushing back against the neoliberal university with its settler, white supremacist narratives.

I make a concentrated effort to not refer to graduate students as “my students” because they do not belong to me. It may seem minor, but included as part of a decolonial mentoring method, it is an important step in helping students realize themselves and their own scholarly identity outside of the traditional settler-academic framework. I don’t colonize students. So, as a practice, I use their names or pronouns or say something like “the colleagues in my seminar…”. These pandemic circumstances, however, have me making an exception to this policy against claiming because I am frustrated, angry, and scared for them. I want to claim them. Especially my students of color and my immunocompromised students because they are, and the listserv is one example of this, bearing the brunt of this pandemic. To put it bluntly, my graduate students and your graduate students are in among the most precarious positions on campus. Ours make $15,120 per year, they have access to only student health insurance, they teach two classes a semester with 15-22 students in each of those classes, and they have no ability to move their own classes online if they have self-reported, infected students. They are charged with policing masks in their classrooms and in public indoor spaces. In short, my students make poverty wages, they teach in front of compliance-resistance students, and they have no agency in the decision-making processes of the department and the college. And they have to deal with a neoliberal, settler institution rooted in white supremacy discourses and practices. I want to protect them, and I want them to feel supported as they protect themselves.This article, and making public all we are dealing with right now as the pandemic burns around us, is one of those ideas we had for pushing back.


Responsibility Without Power: Our Narratives

Shelby Ramsey

Over the past year and a half, I think that the whole world seems to have changed for the worse, and I’m struggling to cope with that. When I applied to graduate school in the fall of 2019, I never thought that I would feel how I do today as both a student and a teacher. My feelings now often include frustration – lots of frustration, discouragement that no amount of support and confidence can fix, and even hopelessness at many points during what my day-to-day routine has become.

Frustration: I never thought that graduate school would be easy as far as workload, but nothing could have prepared me for the long hours on zoom, the constant screen time, and the soul-crushing loneliness of starting a graduate program during a pandemic. I thought things would get better after the first year. A vaccine had been developed and things were looking like they could be in person again. After the improved conditions of summer 2021, we did go back to in-person, but things did not turn out as many had hoped. Due to a populist political stance against vaccination causing vaccine resistance, many students and even faculty are left unvaccinated, and spread COVID throughout the halls of the university. Now, my frustration has shifted to the conditions in which I am teaching. I cannot just teach English or the lessons I spend so much time planning. I am forced to show up for class in person to police my students who resist the mask mandate and beg them all to get vaccinated – I am lucky if I ever get to the lesson in First-Year Writing.  Is this part of my job as an educator? No! But nonetheless, the burden falls to me.

Discouragement: How can I possibly write a simple reflection on a reading for my graduate class or teach my own class about something as trivial as writing a memoir when the world is in a state of chaos outside of the supposed bubble of the classroom? Please note: my classroom nor anyone else’s is really the bubble that the university administration thinks it is. I don’t think anyone is learning anything – we are all too busy surviving. How can I teach my students such arbitrary things? I consider that I am doing nothing important right now. Loved ones are dying, my students are sick, and I am teaching a reading that I know no one will read.

Hopelessness: These burdens that I face daily are not unique to me; we all have been impacted by the pandemic in some way or another. But why do I feel like it’s just me who has these built-up emotions? Other people feel like it’s just them too. I talk to my colleagues and friends and they each explain that they are barely holding their heads above water in their professional and personal lives right now. My students all feel these feelings too; they are overwhelmed and confused, but they come to me individually as if they are the only one having issues in the world we are living in right now. We are all isolated with our emotions of struggle and despair. But why? Is it because it feels as if everyone is working against us by not taking the pandemic seriously? Is it because it feels like administration downplays the dangerous and stressful conditions we are under? Is it because many people lack regard for human life? The possibilities seem endless, and we are all left hopeless.


Ashton Ray

When I signed my Graduate Teaching Assistant contract last spring, I trusted both the English Department and the university. Though I signed it in the midst of the pandemic, I was confident that the university would do what is best for their students and instructors when it came to on-campus safety protocols. This trust allowed me to be excited about what was ahead.

That excitement has now been replaced with fear.

Putting my life at risk was never supposed to be a part of the job.

Administration, at both the university and departmental level, has thrown that trust back in my face. Rather than actually making sure we are safe, they put their effort towards gaslighting us into believing that we are safe. We are not so naive. We are the ones who have yet to have full classes because someone is always sick. We are the ones charged with policing a performative mask policy. We are the ones watching as students who reported they were sick return to class, mask out of place, just days later. We are the ones they refuse to protect, the ones seemingly sent out into the classroom to die.

Administration holds all the power, but they have put our lives in the hands of teenagers. While I think my students are brilliant, I do not want my life in their hands. It shouldn’t be there in the first place. And yet, the Administration will continue to send their emails while they sit in their private offices where those same students that they trust so much cannot reach them. They, the ones with power, are safe. My graduate colleagues and I, who are not even granted a living wage or viable health insurance, are not. It is a heinous abuse of power on display, and I just hope none of us lose our lives because of it.  


Emily Wieman

How many times does someone have to pull down their mask to talk before you point it out? I have decided three times. Once is a mistake. Two is annoying. Three is when I say, “Would you mind not pulling down your mask?” The mask will still find its way below the nose. At this point, I give up because I fear my request to fix their mask again will end in a confrontation, and let’s be honest I have no authority. This is the new normal. I find myself missing what school used to be. I miss just being a student. I miss just being a tutor. I miss the days when someone sneezed and I just said, “bless you” instead of trying to determine if this is when I get sick. I miss a lot of things I guess.

I desperately wanted to return to school this fall. After a year of sitting in front of a computer screen at a corporate job, I knew that I wanted to continue my education and return to working with students in a writing center environment. I guess I should have questioned things more than I did when I received my graduate school offer.

The pandemic felt over then. With the vaccine released, I had felt safer than I had all year. I was going out for dinner again, was comfortable seeing my immunocompromised parents again, and was finally reaching out to everyone I had missed after such a long time in isolation. I thought everyone would become vaccinated. I thought we could return to some kind of pre-pandemic “normal.” A “normal” where I could walk down the hall and not think. I wouldn’t have to look at all of the improperly worn masks or notice people entering into my personal space, and I could instead focus on just being. I could finally just be after a year of holding my breath. I should have realized this was short-sighted.

We are facing a new situation whether in the classroom as students or teachers or in my case in the writing center. The pandemic is rampant, and in the writing center, our sessions no longer function as they used to. We are disjointed. Separated from what I knew the writing center process to be. We look over separate drafts, and if we get too close to each other, I sometimes have to ask to keep a few feet of distance between us. Mostly, I have to remind them to keep their mask up during the session and to not pull down their mask to ask a question or to comment on part of the essay. Every time I feel that they resent me. And I hate to say this, but sometimes I am too tired or anxious to correct them at all.


Lilith Osburn-Cole

I couldn’t hesitate, but I thought about it. After having the conversation about the listserv occurrences in my Feminist Rhetoric class, I decided to make the decision to move my classes to virtual synchronous, or Zoom. It was an easy decision to justify, but I knew I had to “CYA” as my mom would say. Cover your ass because losing your job won’t help to make the change that’s necessary; she frequently reminds me. I am now two weeks into my decision to move my class instruction to Zoom, and lots has happened.

The date is Sept. 9. Time, 6:50 PM. The Departmental Town hall just ended. A meeting was held to discuss the experiences of teaching while COVID-19 is spreading throughout the student population. Several instructors have shared their covid positive cases on a departmental survey. Yet, no precautions have been implemented to halt the spread in our classrooms.

I felt like I was definitely going to puke after the department town hall. I said my piece, but as passionate or sure of myself as I think I came off, I was terrified. The medical authority who came to reassure all of us that our fears are misled, the covid cases are going down, we’re doing just fine was quite convincing at the start of the meeting. I was scared that the effort of graduate students and the Campus workers union would become “obsolete.” Yes, that’s the exact word I used in an email I drafted to a professor during the meeting. I needed reassurance. Our petition demands weren’t too out of the box, I kept saying to myself.

  • We want a reasonable contact tracing procedure put in place.
  • Let instructors move classes to Zoom if you (admin) are too cowardly to push back against these red state politics.
  • Treat essential workers like their lives are valuable

I may have changed the rhetoric a bit from the official petition demands, but you get the idea. They say a lot and feel so innocent. Why must we plead for safety? This past weekend was the 20th anniversary of  9/11, and, coincidentally, the first Alabama football home-game… 


Sept. 11, 2001.

I was three. No recollection, but I do remember learning about how much everyone who did remember felt about it. I have vivid memories of watching documentaries in my classes all throughout middle school. I remember feeling extremely emotional at the sight of the collapsing buildings, as if it was happening at that moment. My mom frequently brings up the way the country “came together” after that event. She recalled a memory from that day where she went and bought gas and water bottles not an hour after learning the news of what crashed into the North Tower.

She says as she was pumping gas at the Brookshires on the Southside of Nacogdoches, TX. Right next to the Tobacco Barn and the Donna Panchos taco shack. She locked eyes with a man who was also pumping gas. She tells me that no one else was there, and they did not speak a word to each other. They didn’t have too. They both just knew.


Sept. 11, 2021.

So, how come we all just don’t know? The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged this world in every community. Why is it that people who live in the same country as I do, probably hear the same news, have people they love, have a place of work, etc –– why don’t they know that this pandemic is just as terrifying, just as deadly, as a burning building? And more. Is it privilege? Lack of imagination? Lack of empathy? Anti-intellectualism? I could go on. But I think maybe the answer could be as simple as, where’s the burning building? Because 660,000 deaths in isolation aren’t as petrifying as a collapsing, monstrous building on fire. I beg to differ.


Ally Whiting

My First-Year Writing classroom has 19 students, one instructor, and one virus. When I take roll in my First-Year Writing classroom, I mark my 19 students as Present or Absent, and then I mark the virus as Always Present. COVID-19 needs to be counted in attendance because it is an active agent constantly at work in my classroom. The virus dictates who comes to my class, where my students sit, how I walk up and down the aisles, what masks we wear, what facial expressions we interpret our fellow students to have. We have changed everything for the sake of a virus running rampant through our world, through our country, through our schools.

Having an invisible agent in the class has turned the room into a battlefield. Now, students align themselves as defending against the virus, attacking with it, or seeking some nonexistent middle ground. Some students view the simple task of covering one’s nose and mouth with a mask as a way of dictating who rebels against authority and who succumbs to fear; in other words, who is cool and who isn’t. As an instructor, I’m forced to situate myself either as a general or an ignorant bystander, both of which harm the classroom.

I want to stop recognizing the virus as a character in my classrooms. I want my primary position as instructor to be relational, a position I cannot find with COVID-19 lingering over every shoulder. Ignoring the virus won’t make it go away. Trusting students to wear masks and instructors to enforce that won’t make it go away. I can’t claim to know what measures would make the virus go away. I can only claim that our current position toward COVID-19 as an institution does not work on a pedagogical level. We need to take things more seriously, acknowledging the virus for what it is –– an unavoidable, omnipresent agent at work on every part of our campus.


Conclusion: We’re So Tired

There are a lot of reflective pieces about Covid-19 on the internet, and we know ours is another to add to the pile. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? We could have said, like many cohorts of graduate students have said before us, that economic precarity is part of the job. We could have kept working while our white settler institutions commodify us and their white narratives oppress us. We could have said that conflict makes us uncomfortable, and so we will hold our tongues, endure this crisis and just keep going. We could have done what we always do. But, all of these institutional infrastructures of racism, classism, sexism, social and economic inequities are showing under the strain of the pandemic. They’re out in the open, and so we decided to be out in the open too. This is not a hopeful essay, nor is it a redemption story. It is our story though. And we’re telling it.


[1] I normally do not use the word “marginalized” because it suggests that there is some way to bring people into existing excluded spaces. But that will not work until the spaces are remade inclusive from the ground up. In this case, I am using it because it is the common and widely understood phrase that describes their situation.



Ashton Ray

Ashton Ray is a doctoral student at the University of Alabama in the Composition, Rhetoric, and English Studies program. Her research focuses on embodiment, feminist theory, and internet rhetoric, but particularly the intersection of all three. She lives in Birmingham, AL.


Ally Whiting

Ally Whiting is a technical writer for a software company. She received her master’s in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of Alabama, and has taught First-Year Writing courses. Her research focuses on the intersection of kairotic spaces and digital classrooms.


Emily Weiman

Emily Wieman is a Master's student in the Composition, Rhetoric, and English studies program at The University of Alabama. She teaches first-year composition in the writing program at UA and works as an Assistant Director at the university's Writing Center. Her current research interest centers on digital rhetoric, including algorithms and the implication of privacy/security practices on digital platforms.


Lilith Osburn Cole

Lilith Osburn Cole recently graduated with her masters in English and is now a union organizer for United Campus Workers. She received her Bachelor's in Anthropology and English from Texas State University. She is looking forward to spending the next few years fighting for fairer working conditions for all workers in higher education.


Shelby Ramsey

Shelby Ramsey is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric and Composition program at Florida State University. She teaches first-year rhetoric and writing courses at FSU. Her current research interests include composition pedagogy, digital rhetorics, feminist rhetorics, and decolonization.


Cindy Tekobbe

Cindy Tekobbe is Assistant Professor of Critical Feminist Science & Technology at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). Her work investigates the digital lives, identities, and activism practices of traditionally underserved and erased peoples and communities. Her book, forthcoming from the University Press of Colorado, is titled Indigenous Voices in Digital Spaces. 

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