In an earlier post I played with the analogy of Jaws and the online pivot. In that I concentrated on the second act of the film, but watching the return to campuses, I think there is resonance with the first act also. In that first act, which takes place on Amity Island, the tension is between Chief Brody who wants to close the beaches on safety grounds and Mayor Vaughn who wants to keep them open for the 4th July and the local economy. It is perhaps unfair to portray principals and Vice Chancellors who want to resume campus study as the Mayor Vaughns in this situation – they are dealing with complex issues for which there is no good solution. Rather it is likely the Brody-Vaughn dynamic is played out within each university and often within individuals themselves. I like to imagine them popping up on people’s shoulders like the old angel and devil depictions. That may sound as though I’m trivialising it, but thinking of students as swimmers and the virus as sharks may not be a bad way to consider what to do.
In the US we have seen campuses reopening only to shut again very soon after. We ought to be clear – the US is not the world, and they have dealt with the pandemic particularly poorly (although England is not much better, but Wales where I live, has been more successful). It is difficult to transfer outcomes from one context and set of behaviours to another. But is it inevitable when students get together on campus? This brought me back to Jaws.
University campuses are a perfect environment for viruses to spread, combining communal living, multiple intersecting social networks and people in close proximity. And as David Kernohan points out, with students travelling from all over the country, this presents a problem of viral spread beyond the campus. In Jaws, Hooper declares that a shark ‘is attracted to the exact kind of splashing and activity that occurs whenever human beings go in swimming. You cannot avoid it’. This is not true by the way, sharks tend to actively avoid people as McKeever argues in an excellent new book on sharks, but for our analogy it is akin to the way coronavirus is spread by exactly the actions undergraduates undertake – it’s unavoidable. Hooper suggests there are only two ways to defeat the shark: “You either gonna kill this animal or your gonna cut off its food supply.” With no vaccine, then seemingly the only option for the virus is to take away its food supply, ie close campuses.
But that might not be the case. Jim Dickinson has some useful suggestions on producing collaborative policy and agreement with students that might make the on-campus term feasible. Hooper’s binary choices of kill or remove food supply are too simplistic, even for dealing with sharks – you can encourage people to swim in areas where sharks don’t go, lure sharks elsewhere, even use shark nets (this last might equate to PPE in our analogy, but are bad practice in reality, so I’m not actually advocating them). But viruses are persistent. To paraphrase Hooper ‘what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine… It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is get transmitted, cause damage and make little viruses. And that’s all’. The beaches will be open, but some will be safer than others.