Stuck on campus.
A Quaker Studies professor. An international student from the UK. One tiny college town and a lot of time to think.
Name: George Allan
Hometown: Bere Alston, England
Current Residence: Haverford, Pennsylvania
Living Situation: Alone, in a 13-person Haverford apartment
Occupation: Student, Haverford College
George was in his spring semester of freshman year at Haverford College when COVID struck. As an international student from a small village in England, George would likely lose his visa if he returned home. He also has an on-campus job that is an essential part of his financial aid package. For these reasons, George has remained on campus since lockdown began in mid-March with roughly 60 other students, most of whom he never sees.
Photo caption: Haverford College is set on a 200 acre arboretum campus, so there are many beautiful trails to take a walk on.
Living in a small college town during a pandemic, surrounded by just 60 students feels like an episode of Survivor! What’s it been like?
Yeah, it has kind of felt like that at some points.
For the past three months it has just been me in this 13-person apartment. Sometimes it feels like I’m just waiting for everyone to come back at the end of the day...and they never do. It’s weirdly quiet, which is a little bit insanity-provoking.
Although there are quite a few of us here, we aren’t really allowed to interact with each other. If we get caught breaking the rules we could lose our housing. Even though we’ve been isolating this whole time and I really want to see people, it’s just not worth it.
At the beginning of the lockdown, I was relieved that I had just done a whole load of shopping so that I had lots of dried and frozen foods. I put every bit of food I had on a sheet to ration out my meals going forward. I didn’t leave to go grocery shopping for nearly a month, subsisting off of what I had. There are things I never, ever want to eat again, like popcorn. My roommates had left so much of it so I would pop a bag every night. There are still probably twenty bags left in the apartment, but I can’t stand the thought of eating any more.
Photo caption: I’ll never eat popcorn again.
You’re from a tiny village in England. What do you miss about home right now?
I’ve always been really close to both of my parents, so it’s been difficult because I know that if I were at home I would be having a great time being in isolation with them. It’s hard not to be able to give my mom a hug and tell her that everything’s going to be okay.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy and sane?
For the first couple of months it was fine because I had school, although it was immensely difficult to concentrate on studying in the virtual format. I watched five seasons of Supernatural in seven days. I’m a big reader and I’ve got a Kindle, so I’ve been plowing my way through a load of books. Some of my favorites have been Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, which is about the AIDS epidemic, The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, that made me laugh a lot, and I also reread the entirety of the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, which was a book series that I read as a child, so it was kind of nostalgic and nice to revisit.
Where do you think your love of reading came from?
Growing up in the countryside was great, but once you’ve done all of the trails there really isn’t much to do. I loved books because I’ve always had a really good imagination, so they’re kind of another world to escape into. Because I was a gay kid growing up in a village in the middle of nowhere, it was good to read LGBTQ literature that made me feel a little bit more normal.
Prior to coming to the U.S., you weren’t interested in politics. That’s changed for you this past year. How come?
I feel like my whole view of politics has shifted since I came over here. In England it’s not as big of a thing to be really involved in politics like it is in the states. When I first moved to Pennsylvania I told people confidently, “Oh yeah, I don’t really get into politics. It’s not really my thing; I don’t really understand it.” But it wasn’t until I saw how important politics is to my friends at school that I realized that I didn’t have a choice to not be involved in politics. You can’t choose to just not be involved in things that are going to shape the future.
Is there something that you’ve realized about yourself during this that you’ll take with you?
I’ve always kind of been concerned that I could never live on my own, that I need company, that I was going to have to move back home so I wouldn’t have to find my own place. But I’ve realized that I actually kind of enjoy having my own space. It was kind of a “thrust me into the deep end” situation, but I realized that I really like my own company, and that when I don’t have any outside contact I can actually be pretty confident in who I am and what I look like and stuff like that. I was kind of close to that before, but it wasn’t until I took everything else out of the way that I became really comfortable with myself.
Photo caption: I’ve loved seeing everything come into bloom while I’ve been quarantined here.
What do you want to take to the other side of this?
The number one thing that I want to take is the knowledge that the world is way more connected than we realize. The fact that I could be FaceTiming my mum and dad all the time, as well as my friends all over the world, it made me realize that we have no excuse for not being more connected all of the time.
Name: David Harrington Watt
Hometown: I moved around a lot, but I mostly grew up in Alabama and California
Current Residence: Haverford, Pennsylvania
Living Situation: Apartment on Haverford‘s campus, with partner Laura Levitt, and a Newfoundland dog
Occupation: Professor of Quaker Studies, Haverford College
Photo caption: In my home office.
Quaker values, or testimonies, as they are called inside the faith, include equality as one of their central beliefs. Yet it was not uncommon for Quakers to own slaves. Can you talk about how you address these dualities in your class called “Quakers, War and Slavery, 1646-1723”?
I sometimes bend over backwards to make sure that I am not glossing over the more disturbing aspects of Quaker history. The classes I teach don’t “celebrate” Quaker history. They analyze it.
Quakers were one of the first white Christian groups to take a stand against slavery. And it is also true that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many members of the Religious Society of Friends, including William Penn, owned enslaved human beings. Historically, a good many Quakers have been committed to racial justice. That is a part of our history. But our history also includes a great deal of racism. Many Friends supported racial segregation. Many Quaker schools, including Haverford, had no African American students until the middle decades of the twentieth century.
I taught “Quakers, War and Slavery” in the spring of this year. It was the first time I had ever taught the class and I loved teaching it. The class was a small seminar. There was very little lecturing; there was a great deal of discussion. All seven students in the class said, and wrote, brilliant things. When the semester began, the students decided to trust one another, and also me. That didn’t change when the pandemic hit. It’s almost impossible to overstate how rewarding it was for me to work with those students.
Throughout the semester, I also worked with a “student consultant.” The consultant wasn’t a member of the class. But she attended meetings of the seminar and then spent a great deal of time helping me understand what was happening in the classroom. What was I doing right? What did I need to change?
The student consultant helped me think through what it means for someone like me -- an older, white, well-to-do Quaker -- to guide discussions about racist ideas and racist actions. If one is not very careful, reading about racist ideas can reinscribe racist ideas. The student consultant also helped me pay attention to what students were feeling -- as well as thinking -- when we were discussing difficult issues. That was extremely helpful.
Rachel has talked a lot lately about her struggle with acknowledging both the good and bad parts of history, and not holding them as mutually exclusive. I’m curious what you think about where the middle ground might be?
My family comes from Alabama and Virginia. I lived in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s; being from the South is essential to who I am. I’m keenly aware of how large a price America is still paying for the dishonest stories that have been told about the Civil War. (I still run into people who insist that the Civil War was about “states’ rights--not about slavery.)
When I go to visit my mother in Alabama, I drive on streets named after Confederate generals and drive by monuments to Confederate soldiers. Of course, I’m delighted that some Confederate statues are beginning to come down, but there’s a part of me that’s shocked and appalled that they were still there! Many white people in Alabama, it seems to me, want to deny parts of their past. In the 1930s, a terrible racial atrocity took place in the county where my family is from. I don’t think that I’ve ever met a white person in Alabama who knows what happened.
On one of my most recent trips to Alabama, I visited the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. I found that an incredibly powerful experience. The memorial feels like a sacred space. It is organized by county. The names of nearly all of the Alabama counties that figure in the memorial are quite familiar to me. But of course lynching was not an exclusively Southern phenomon. When I visited the memorial, a tour guide made a point of showing me a large rectangular piece of steel which lists the name of a man who was lynched near Philadelphia.
Why is being from the South essential to who you are?
Part of it is that there are a set of social rules in Alabama with which I’m deeply familiar. I like following some of those rules--for example, the ones that govern how respectfully you have to treat strangers, how you are supposed to talk about religion and how you can--cannot--make jokes. The fact that my maternal grandfather was a cotton farmer that couldn’t read or write and that my mother nevertheless managed to earn two advanced degrees is a fundamental fact of my life. I don’t want that fact to be hidden or erased.
As you know, a good many very intelligent white people have a difficult time seeing how deeply implicated they are in systemic racism. They’re unaware of how large a role that their whiteness has played in their being able to make a good life for themselves. But, in part because I grew up in Alabama, the thousands of advantages my whiteness gave me are quite obvious. For example: up until fourth grade, I attended segregated schools. The schools I went to weren’t well-funded, but they were funded far better than the schools that Black people in my county attended.
For several years, I lived near Birmingham. I didn’t know the men that bombed the Birmingham church in 1963, but I am quite sure that I must have known people who, on some level at least, approved of the bombing. I’ve never really been able to think of racism as something that happens elsewhere.
What has scholarship looked like for you while you’ve had to be at home?
For me using Zoom to teach and to talk about teaching and research has been extremely helpful. It’s not perfect, of course, but video-conferencing is usually far preferable to talking to someone when we are both wearing masks. When people are wearing masks, many of the signals they normally rely on in a conversation are, of course, missing. When you’re talking about difficult things (such as Quakers, war and slavery) it’s important to be able to see and respond to those signals.
The pandemic has been very difficult for many of my colleagues at Haverford. Lots of them are working, looking after older family members, and overseeing their children’s education. It’s extremely challenging. I’ve been awed by how well my colleagues have responded to those challenges. They’re amazing.
Next year I’m on leave. My plan was to visit Washington, DC, Indiana, and England to do archival research on Quakers’ responses to the Holocaust. At present, I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to do any of that. If I can’t, I’ll have to rely on printed texts and on archival material that is available online.
Photo caption: We have a nine year-old Newfoundland dog named Sam, and our entire life revolves around meeting Sam’s needs.
Is there something about this experience that you’d like to carry on to the other side of this?
Well, I’m in my sixties now. At this point in my life the thing I care about the most is creating and maintaining relationships. So, going forward, I would like to find lots of different ways to deepen my relationships with other human beings. And dogs, too, I guess. I don’t know exactly what that is going to look like for the next few years. Am I going to be talking to people face to face? Or will most of my relationships have to be maintained via videoconferencing? I hope not.
Although I enjoy participating in Quaker Meetings for Worship that are conducted via Zoom, I’m looking forward to one day participating in worship services in which Quakers are physically present for one another.
For a long time, I’ve cared about racial and economic justice. In recent years I’ve been increasingly interested in trying to push back against governmental leaders with authoritarian tendencies. In some ways dealing with authoritarianism, racial injustice, and economic oppression seems more urgent now that it did a few months ago.
I’ve been startled by how quickly some issues connected to racial justice have begun to move. To pick one small example: I never thought I’d live to see the day that Woodrow Wilson’s name was taken off of one of the schools at Princeton University. For much of my life I’ve had a sense that working for progress always has to be a long struggle as well as a hard one. But maybe things can change more quickly than I had assumed. Maybe I have been too patient. In any case, lots of great things are happening right now. I’m more optimistic now than I was in April.