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Annapolis President Pano Kanelos on Coronavirus and Online Seminars

April 27, 2020 | By Les Poling

Annapolis President Pano Kanelos

In early March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States, St. John’s College became one of the first institutions to act in both Maryland and New Mexico, suspending in-person classes and shifting the Program to remote learning. We spoke with Annapolis President Pano Kanelos about the state of the college; look for Santa Fe President Mark Roosevelt’s interview in the coming weeks.

At the beginning of the semester, the college was actively tracking COVID-19, but schools hadn’t started suspending in-person classes yet. Can you take me through your thought process as you monitored the quick escalation of the situation?

Essentially, things began to intensify when our Annapolis students were away on spring break. And it was during this time—really, during the transition from the first to the second week of spring break—that travel restrictions started being put in place for international travel, and discussion of the impact of travel and the spread of the disease was becoming more prominent in the news.

At this point, there were many states that didn’t have any cases. But it was evident that the disease was spreading exponentially. The movement of people from country to country, state to state, city to city was exacerbating the situation. We realized that we had students located all across the country and the world. We didn’t want to subject our students to conditions that might be hazardous by having them travel at that time. We had to make a decision in that second week of spring break about whether we wanted to reconvene the following Monday, and we saw the direction things were going.

So we moved to remote instruction. Because it was writing period, many students could focus on their essays, and we were able to start senior orals online. The initial hope was that we would be apart for two weeks, but by the midpoint of the following week—the first week we were “back” from spring break—the governor of Maryland ordered that all institutions begin offering exclusively distance learning. At that point, we knew that it would be best to remain online for the remainder of the semester.

Looking back on it, I can’t believe how quickly everything happened.

It did feel like we were leaping off a cliff, because we were acting before most institutions were. But even though it felt that way, we didn’t have much doubt that it was the right thing to do.

What has impressed you the most about the community’s response to the move to distance learning?

It is awe-inspiring to me how quickly and conscientiously the faculty have adapted to this new format, even though many members of the faculty have principled reservations about online learning. Yet every one of our tutors has exhibited profound care for our students and has given their best at this challenging time. I have been radically impressed by our faculty. They all concur that the most important thing, at this moment in time, is for our students to continue their progress through the Program unabated.

And so faculty—some of whom have never even sent an email, let alone taught an online course—have found themselves jumping into Microsoft Teams and Zoom. And although some were reticent to embrace technology, and while all of us agree that the Program is best conducted in person, everyone has embraced the need for our community to persist.

I have also been deeply moved by our students’ response to the crisis. Scattered far and wide, many facing unforeseen obstacles, Johnnies have faced the challenge of completing the semester remotely with courage and creativity. Although they feel a sense of loss and displacement, especially our seniors, they continue to remain committed to the Program and to one another. I miss them dearly and wait anxiously for the day that we can be together again.

A huge part of the Program and what draws people to St. John’s is the emphasis on dialogue and learning as a community. What has given you confidence that the St. John’s community can persevere and continue to get the most out of these texts during this unprecedented time?

We have developed remarkable habits as a community. We cultivate concentration, and we conduct close reading. When you’re in one of our seminars online, the students are there with open books, and they’re present and participating. And that’s making it as successful as it can be online. One of the great ironies of the present crisis is that St. John’s, the last school that ever wanted to do anything online, remains the most vigorous learning community in the country. I think that’s a testament to the strength of the underlying pedagogy and Program.

It would seem to be a lot harder to be checked out during a seminar than it is in an online lecture.

There’s a culture of honor around participation at St. John’s; students bear responsibility for the success of each class and don’t seek to offload that responsibility to a professor. So I think that, even as our tutors have embraced this new format for the sake of the students, the students have embraced it for the sake of one another. Their sense of shared responsibility and agency is one of the things that has lifted us up in these difficult times.

During the uncertainty that’s enveloped everything recently, what gives you the most hope looking towards the future of the college?

I would put it this way: We need St. John’s now more than ever.

The human race is facing a common trauma. And it is an experience that raises fundamental questions about what it means to be a human being, what it means to be in communities, what the right relationship of one person to another is, what our relationship is to larger questions. This is a moment when the big questions loom large. There’s no institution that asks these big questions with more vigor than St. John’s College, and no institution that equips human beings to address those questions better than St. John’s.

So what gives me hope is that in this time of big questions and existential anxiety, the work we do at St. John’s is more important than ever, and we will continue to carry that work on.

Last question: I’m sure you don’t have a ton of free time right now, but are there any books you’ve been reading or thinking about lately, or anything else you’ve been turning to for any kind of reassurance?

I’m rereading the Nicomachean Ethics right now. One of the things that I’m thinking most about is friendship—I dearly miss my friends—and how we carry on flourishing human relationships. Turning back to the Ethics, for me, is a place to engage those questions. I’m also reading—because we need some levity and because we all need long books—Don Quixote, which I find marvelously absurd in this particular time. And I’ve just received a copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. I can’t wait to crack it open.

At a personal level, I think the thing that has been most sustaining for me is the time I have been spending with my family and the rituals that have emerged during this period of suspended animation. Every single night, we come together to prepare a holiday meal. We think of the things we’ve always loved to eat and the things that we enjoy, and we pull it together as best we can. And our dinners and conversations, aglow with love, remind me how truly I have been blessed.

It seems like a lot of people have been turning to food—there are actually a lot of St. John’s students who have started baking or cooking pages on social media.

Yes, this sometimes seems like the Make America Bake Again crisis. And I have to say, one of the minor things that’s distressed me recently is the scarcity of yeast. We’ve been doing so much baking in our house that we’re running low on yeast, and you can’t find it in grocery stores anymore. So we’re slowly allotting our last few envelopes, making every loaf count [laughs].