Transitioning to grad school online was harder than I thought. I’ve always been self-motivated, but I hadn’t considered how thoroughly intertwined the self is with one’s community until those ties were stretched with social distancing. I’m finishing my first year in a master’s program at Duke Divinity School and spending time reflecting on a coherent theology of the Bible and how much Greek grammar I’ve absorbed. But in this season, I’ve also been reflecting on what it means to identify with, participate in, and be formed by a community, particularly a community of learners.
Coming from a tiny liberal arts college, I worried that I would get lost among my classmates in a “big” 150-person lecture hall. But several weeks into my first semester, I felt surprisingly safe in the room full of people who, though representing a wide array of professional, racial, and political backgrounds, share my fundamental convictions about the importance of following Jesus and loving our neighbors. Through conversations in classes, over meals, and in the hallways, I learned to trust them to speak thoughtfully about biblical interpretation or the intersection of theology with other disciplines and to considerately solicit the viewpoints of others. We grew from a cohort of classmates to a community of co-learners.
I started the second semester with confidence, feeling comfortable learning with my classmates. Suddenly, on March 11, a chasm opened between us as we stopped meeting in person. For the final month of the semester, my three large lecture courses became recordings to watch asynchronously. The weekly “precept” group for each course as well as my Greek class moved into regular Zoom meetings where the only space we shared was my 13-inch laptop screen. Seeing my friends’ faces during Zoom discussion sessions brought me joy, but I struggled to feel present with them or engaged in the content of discussion. I was puzzled because I’ve used Zoom for years to keep up with friends and join Bible studies and I’ve always been amazed at how connected I do feel to the people on the other end of the call. This felt drastically different and I’m still trying to figure out exactly how. Despite my continued interest in the subject matter and care for the voices in discussion, my mind wandered frustratingly, and the few weeks remaining in the semester didn’t offer enough time to discover a solution. I pushed through the last month, but I feel disappointed that my thinking and writing feel more detached from the amalgam of ideas and people that come together in the classroom.
While I feel distant from my classmates, social distancing has brought blessings of slowing down and broadening my perspective on my schoolwork. Without places to go or people to see, weekends slide into a restful Sabbath rhythm and I enter a new week feeling refreshed to start writing papers and parsing Greek verbs again. I plan my hours meticulously to ensure a manageable volume of readings doesn’t sprawl over more time than necessary. Creating constraints on my work gives me time to take long walks and have life-giving conversations on the phone with friends from childhood and college. These friendships are refreshed by more time spent together virtually. When we talk about theology and exchange spiritual reflections I receive personal encouragement and a fresh perspective on my academic ponderings.
As we adapt to a drastically changing world, I ask God to help me count the cost of the decisions I have to make based on limited information. I consistently conclude that loyal-kindness — faithfully prioritizing love for the people in my community — comes before productivity. I left the last Zoom meeting for my Old Testament precept feeling guilty that I hadn’t been focused enough to come up with exciting new ideas for my paper, mostly because I’d decided to use the small group break-out time to ask my classmate how she was doing instead of discussing Ruth exegesis. But this past month, I have lived more attentively to the people I interact with and it has afforded me unexpected solidarity with Ruth, which not only helped me write my paper for class, but continues to help me understand how to navigate the current situation by loving family and neighbors. I hope God shows me more new ways to learn with my Duke classmates by loving them over distances, and I hope we are all willing to work with God and allow him to replace our vision of order with his own.