Sunday, August 22, 2021

Canary in a Coal Mine

It was fall 1980-something and I had just purchased an album that I was certain was going to change my world (spoiler: it did a little): Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police. I felt very hip catching the reference to Lolita in Don’t Stand So Close to Me and hummed Do do do do all around J.H.S. 141[1] where, sadly, none of my teachers reminded me of Sting. But there was another catchy little song on that album that was an earworm for us: Canary in a Coal Mine. In the song, someone is accused of being so overly cautious that they are not really living their life in a meaningful way. It was a song in favor of YOLO before YOLO was a thing. But if you were a canary living in a coal mine, you were being the opposite of cautious-you were essentially putting yourself on the line to be a warning to others coming after you.

In reality, until 1986, canaries were used to detect the presence of carbon monoxide (or other toxic gasses) in coal mines[2]. The idea was that because canaries were sensitive to airborne toxins, if the canary got sick or died then the miners knew to vacate immediately. While the carbon monoxide detector in my house isn’t nearly as cute, it also doesn’t need to die to let me know if trouble is brewing.

I think I know how the (real, not song) canary felt.  Last week, I taught in-person (everyone masked) in a room with about 100 people for hours of orientation. I also oriented a smaller group of students in an equally full and smaller room for a bunch more hours between those sessions. Each room was at its intended pre-pandemic capacity. The second room had been the COVID testing site in our building last year. Everyone in both rooms had been cleared as vaccinated or having a good reason why they were not. And yet, I was, and am, frightened that I may have been the canary in the coal mine.

As Academic Support professionals, at least at my school, we are the first line of academic related teaching most students encounter. We teach the court system, case briefing, reading, IRAC and a host of other things before classes begin and even do an early assessment to see students’ baselines when they come to law school. Doctrinal professors and legal writing faculty do not usually teach during orientation. So, if anything was going to go wrong in the midst of this new surge in COVID, ASP faculty[3] would be the harbingers of that bad news.

Here’s the rub though, ASP faculty tend to be non-tenured, non-tenure track and at best, may have presumptively renewable contracts. We are more often women. We have no power to turn down this orientation assignment-we do not volunteer as tribute, we are scheduled to be there. Don’t get me wrong: I do not, for even a minute, think that my institution was intentionally using us as canaries and perhaps the power dynamic is more nuanced than I see it, but I just felt we had no real power to refuse without some consequences to our job security. Everyone else standing in front of the crowd had a different status than we did. They were not asking academic support faculty to do anything they weren’t willing to do themselves. They are compensated accordingly.

In all honestly, I’m not even sure I would have refused given the option, because it was exhilarating teaching in person to a big crowd again. Even masked, the energy of live teaching is irrefutable. It was  liberating to use my whole body to teach. Truly. Yet, today, six days later, I am wishing that the testing room was still open, not because I don’t feel well, but because I would like to be officially told that I am well. I wish (gratuitous Police reference) people had not stood so close to me.

The fact that canaries were used in coal mines until 1986 was surprising to me-I was almost certain that the practice had died out at least a hundred years before that, but I am pretty sure that if mining companies had caged miners and used them as a warning system for toxic gasses back in the day, mine safety would have been far better, far sooner.

(Liz Stillman)


[1] New York City elementary and middle schools have numbers, not names. Yes, my kids think that is hilarious.


[3] And our amazing Deans and Associate Deans.

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