At the start of the new academic year, many of us are experiencing a turbulent mix of emotions. In the Spring semester, we celebrated the triumph of science when multiple highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in record time across the globe. In the beginning of summer, we were delighted to watch the sharp decline in COVID-19 cases and, most importantly, deaths in our communities. Although not entirely without apprehension, we welcomed the University’s announcement about returning to in person teaching and research by the Fall semester. But now that the Fall semester is here, we are dismayed to find that not only we are still in the woods with the pandemic but the woods seem to be getting a bit denser. The masks are back and so are the anxiety and uncertainty. As we are about to set foot in the classroom, we are excited and weary. According to an article in the Forbes magazine, anxiety and excitement have an uncannily similar physiological signature – elevated heart rate, butterflies in your stomach, sweating – in short, your stress hormones are on the loose and you are ready for action. Now all we have to do is to decide what action it will be. I am hoping that GRACE (as in “courteous goodwill” rather than “NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment”) will be our guiding principle in interactions between students, faculty, and staff. We don’t know how much each of us has endured during this pandemic or what we are going through now. We don’t know what kind of loss we have experienced or what remaining emotional capacity each of us still has. I think one assumption we can safely make is that nobody is at their best after the nearly 2-year run of the pandemic. I am asking for your continued patience, kindness, and goodwill - and if the past year and a half are any indication, our community has those in spades.
When I think about it, I am truly amazed at how well we as a community have functioned during the pandemic. Most of our classes pivoted to the online environment without missing a beat. Many of us were surprised to discover that we were able to maintain stronger relationships with students in our classrooms compared to when we taught in person. We found that some components of online interactions are actually advantageous and they are here to stay even when we are returning to in person instruction. By and large, we met and exceeded expectations of our students in creating flexible and engaging learning environment in our online classes (yes, I have read course reviews). While doing all that, we have grown our research portfolio of external grants and have continued publishing in top peer-reviewed journals at a similar rate as pre-pandemic. Although we could no longer travel to conferences and science meetings, we presented our research findings to the national and international scientific and management communities quite possibly even more frequently since conference attendance no longer interfered with our teaching responsibilities and personal lives. We did miss fieldwork though (I know I did). When we emerged in the COVID-19 clearing at the end of the Spring semester, we were even stronger than when we started – few entities managed that. I have every reason to believe that when the pandemic is finally over, we will be stronger yet. And the External Reviewers seem to agree – they have shown a deep appreciation and admiration for our Department and helped us identify critical pathways for further growth.
During the pandemic, we did not go into the “survival” mode. We have put forward exciting bold agenda for the International GEO Center – a center for geospatial data science that will bring together CGIS and the RS Center of Excellence and link us to private industry. The proposal is navigating its way through the College and Campus review but it has been initially very well received. This Fall, Chris Justice will chair a Task Force which will continue development of the concept. Please keep in mind that all committee meetings in the Department are open to the public and everyone is welcome to attend and lend their expertise, energy, and enthusiasm to making our Department better.
We now have a new home in River Road! I personally would like to see the two buildings as “a house in the suburbs” and “a condo in the city” situation rather than a “split department”. It is true – the majority of faculty and students have their primary offices in one location or the other. But there is always room in both buildings for interactions, collaborations, and discussions. I will try very hard to keep the two communities connected and I am asking for your help in doing it.
We are starting the Fall semester excited and anxious but either way definitely ready for action. I am very grateful to the entire community for the support I have received in my new role as a Chair – it has been truly invaluable. Yes, I think I am definitely more excited than anxious at this point. Happy New Academic Year!