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The message I sent to my seminar students today

Jenny Davidson
Mar 12 · 4 min read

It’s March 12, 2020, I’m a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and we’re all very late coming to understand the gravity of the situation with regard to the spread of covid-19. Here is the message I just sent to the students (a mix of undergraduates and MA/doctoral students) in my spring 2020 seminar, in which we read Samuel Richardson’s great million-word-long novel CLARISSA in its entirety.

(I note that I am in a position of great academic privilege — I’m a tenured faculty member, and my course load this semester is just two seminars, no lecture course . Many college instructors will not have the degree of leeway I do to make this kind of a commitment.)

Dear all:

I’m writing to say hello again and to let you know about some thoughts I have for us going forward. These are going to be very difficult weeks and months, and I hope you will consider me as well as your classmates a resource for consultation and consolation. We are all already feeling the very immediate loss of the joys of our regular school lives as well as anticipating tougher constraints and losses to come.

I am committed to reading Clarissa through to the end with each and all of you (and I think that reading a novel can be a real refuge when we are all too much glued to a 24-hour news cycle online), but we will keep very open minds about exactly what that will mean. To which end:

(1) I am ready to give an A to everyone in the class on the basis of the work you’ve all done so far. I don’t imagine academic worries are at the forefront of your mind, but even if you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to continue your involvement, your promise to finish reading the novel when you can will be sufficient for me to submit that roster for final grades.

(2) I am axing the final paper requirement. I will make two suggestions to replace it; completing one is strongly recommended, completing two would be great, but you will still get course credit if you can’t submit any written work.

(a) Suggestion 1: with the inspiration of Anna and Clarissa’s correspondence, begin writing a reading letter-journal to accompany your reading. Let’s have a bit of consultation about this, but I think it might work for me to put you into smaller groups (with me in each one as well perhaps, or not if you don’t want!) and do it by email. Alternately if you like writing by hand, you could keep your own reading journal in whatever style of notebook most suits you. Please email me your thoughts on both the logistics of this and on whether there’s someone you’d really like to be in a group with.

(b) Suggestion 2: for a final assignment, once you’ve finished reading, write a 5–7pp. personal essay on reading Clarissa in a time of mass quarantines.

I still absolutely want us to have our regular class sessions on Zoom — since I haven’t used it before, I don’t know that this will be the case, but if we can retain some sense of our personal and intellectual community around Richardson’s novel, it will be a very precious resource.

I know that easy internet access isn’t a given and that everyone’s individual situation is different. If you feel that it’s not going to be possible for you to join those conversations for whatever reason, including the simple factor of overwhelming anxiety, please just let me know and we’ll think about what we can do one-on-one, whether it’s a simple phone conversation, you writing something informal for me each week or indeed us just not worrying about it and letting it go!

I don’t usually do office hours over spring break, but due to the unusual current circumstances I am setting aside time on Tuesday and Wednesday next week from 2–4 for phone and Zoom appointments. You don’t have to have a specific academic concern in order to set up a time to talk — it will be helpful for me if I feel like I’m doing something mildly useful!

If you do have an easy off-campus home to go to and you’re not yet there, I urge you to pack all your books for the rest of the semester in case you decide at the end of the break that it’s more sensible to stay there (we’re not sure what Columbia will announce as policy, but my personal assessment is that you will only want to be in campus housing if you genuinely don’t have a decent other option).

If you don’t have an easy home to go to, or lack resources to get to the place you would prefer to be, please let me know immediately and we will see if there’s anything I can do to help. This is not limited to but could include me Paypalling you some dollars to buy a ticket — I know the advising deans are well-intentioned but the Columbia bureaucracy is unwieldy and I also feel that many people don’t understand what it means to be hampered by a true lack of financial resources.

Hope to hear from you in the next few days about our reading journal project, and please do let me know if you’d like to talk sooner about anything on your mind.

Take care, and all best wishes.


Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Author of eight books (four novels and four books of literary criticism).

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