Brent Steele By: Brent Steele
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
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23 Apr 2020 : Reflective Essay for my Intro to IR class

Note: I assigned an optional reflective essay to my POLS 2100 Intro to International Relations course here at the University of Utah this Spring once the pandemic turned our class to an online format. It asked students to consider International Relations in light of the pandemic. Before the students had to start their essays, I thought it was useful to do one myself, to give them a sense of how they could approach the assignment. Here is the essay I posted:


Managing the Covid-19 Pandemic as a son, administrator, scholar, instructor, a son and Dad


Prelude: Son


Leading up to the pandemic’s spread across the US, I spent a lot of time and energy lobbying my Boomer parents to stop doing the things they like to do in their (semi-)retirement back in Iowa (where I’m from). They are both in the high-risk categories and both tend to like to do things that put them more at-risk: Dad is a valet at a hospital in Cedar Rapids, not really (or not only) for the money but more for meeting people and chatting with his co-workers. My mom likes to shop at places around Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. They both like to go to casinos on Sunday mornings for breakfast. They resisted my inquiries about stopping these types of activities throughout early March, and Iowa generally wasn’t, and in some ways still isn’t, taking the pandemic as seriously as other states (like Utah, let alone Washington or California). The first weekend of our U of U Spring Break, after my daughter saw on her ‘find my’ app that her Grandpa was at a casino 60 miles away from home, I texted my Dad the following:


Dad, I know you and mom enjoy the casino and other stuff. But you really really need to be more careful during this time. Again I’m giving you my 2 cents and you can do with it what you will but this virus is pervasive in the community and Mom especially is being exposed to this virus and she in particular has been susceptible to bad infections in the past. Cases are exponentially growing and we aren’t even testing widely yet. If you don’t believe me just ask your doctor or Curt. Ok, I love you, please just be careful.


‘Curt’ is my college buddy, Curt Collins, who I remain friends with to this day. He has a Pharm D and we published a study together in 2009 on the 1918 Pandemic and WWI. He lives in Michigan and works for a hospital network that has been overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients. I had been texting him since February about the pandemic and he was basically sounding the alarm bells from the start. My parents, like those of many first-gen academics, don’t really understand what I do and study, but they do listen to my friends from college who are now professionals in their own right. Shortly after sending this text my Pop contacted Curt who told him to take a leave from his work and to stay home and do social distancing. They have ever since, and they are healthy and safe (and likely bored) at home. And they were some of the first Iowans to do that.


Act I: Administrator


I took over as the Chair of the Department of Political Science last summer. I only did so because nobody else really wanted it in our department, or were in a good place to serve in that role just yet. I am not a good administrator. I do not like strategic plans and mission statements and budgeting narratives and the kinds of things that are vitally necessary to keep departments or units or a university moving. I don’t begrudge anyone that is into those things, and in fact I appreciate those people because they are a lot better at roles like this than I am. But I agreed to serve because I care about my department, my colleagues, our graduate students and our undergrads, and I also think this is a vitally urgent time for our discipline of political science (even before the pandemic). Needless to say, I didn’t think I’d have to serve in this role during a pandemic, but here we are.


It was obvious to me by the beginning of Spring Break (~16 March) that the U was likely going to go fully online, and that the break would provide the opportunity to transition. It was the limbo, however, that made for some sleepless nights. To be prepared, just in case, for the move to online, I worked with our Director of Graduate Studies, Jim Curry, who is awesome, about how to match up some of our tech-savvy grad students with our not-so-tech-savvy faculty to help with the transition. It’s worked fairly well, including in my own class where we have one of our best PhD students, Seth Wright, who is also awesome, helping out in our full-transition to Canvas. We were also as a department able to get physically transitioned out of the Gardner Commons fairly smoothly. As far as I know, and most importantly, our staff, graduate students, and faculty remain healthy and safe.


But overall, I’d say this role remains a great source of anxiety for me. The pandemic is not just a health issue, it’s impacting the economy in ways more stark and severe than the Global Financial Crisis did. Over 10 million people (and counting) have experienced this directly, and tragically. The GFC decimated higher education – tuition went up in many state schools, hiring freezes were the norm, furloughs happened, new tenure track jobs dried up, research funds evaporated. It’s one of the ironies of global events like this pandemic – the time for and necessity of higher education is precisely during global crises such as war, recessions, or pandemics (especially in the fields of political science and International Relations), and yet those crises also negatively impact higher education directly, and severely. I hope this time is different.


Act II: Dad


Towards the end of the U’s Spring Break (~19 March), while primary schools were still in session, the Utah Schools announced they too would switch to online the following week. I’m the one in our family with the (semi-) flexible schedule, I usually do the drop-offs and pickups. So I knew once their transition also happened I’d have my head on a swivel, helping my son with his synchronous learning, and checking in on my daughter with her Canvas subjects for her high school subjects throughout the day. This has been a challenge, but as in most times of uncertainty which require some form of routine, it’s provided a healthy routine to get by and structure their (and my) days. Their teachers have been absolutely heroic, as have teachers across this country. I hope we appreciate teachers more when this is finished.


What’s been additionally more difficult is explaining to my children why this is all necessary. My son misses his friends at school and his own weekly routines, like going to mass with me and his sister, then going out to eat afterwards; or heading to the ‘kids club’ at my gym. When he asks what it was like to have coronavirus when I was a kid I have no explanation for him, since this is something I never experienced. He keeps asking when coronavirus will be ‘done’, and keeps telling me he hates it. I tell him I don’t know, and that I agree. My daughter is way more social than I ever was, she misses seeing her friends. Once school is over she is trying to find ways to see her neighborhood gang in a socially distant manner. She has cabin fever. I don’t blame her. And both of them had their birthdays here at home, without a party, without friends. All of this sucks for them.


Act III: Professor (instructor)


I’ve never taught an online course before. Once we got the news we were switching online, I wrote a note to my Intro to IR students that we would make the best of it, and that the addendum syllabus hopefully provided enough flexibility for any of them no matter their situation. Perhaps this is the biggest irony – and the second one of the pandemic I’m noting in this essay. It has cemented International Relations, and politics, as urgent (even necessary) topics of study at the precise time when I’m teaching those topics I’ve studied and researched and taught for two decades. That’s energizing. Like other critical periods of time when I’ve taught very ‘on-topic’ courses (like US Foreign Policy, International Ethics and Intro to IR during the first five years of Operation Iraqi Freedom), I am more animated than ever to translate ongoing events in a way that will hopefully impart the importance of IR to undergraduate students. And yet, I am forced by the crisis to do so in a format I’ve never done before, hence the irony. I find myself frustrated by this. I have always loved teaching this course, and getting to know the students who take it in person, before, during, after and outside of class. I was just getting to know this cohort of students leading up to Spring Break. I know that many have so many questions about this pandemic and its global implications. While the online format enables me to engage in those questions and discussions with our class, it is still far more limiting than the in-person conversations I’ve always enjoyed as an instructor.


That said, POLS 2100 has provided me another helpful, rhytmic, routine, especially once we were able to use Zoom and do the live online format. I found myself looking forward to chatting with my students during those times, or during the ‘Thursday wraps’ which have proven useful even as a way to distinguish ‘Thursday’ from the other days of the week (which otherwise tend to blur together in this pandemic). Answering student questions about all kinds of things – the topics we have covered, the readings, the lectures or even more parochial and transactional questions about their grades – have also been grounding and helpful because they are the kinds of things one does as an instructor in more ‘normal’ times.


And I had such a dynamic, curious, thoughtful and collegial group of students this semester. This has been the case even with how dislocating the pandemic has been for many of them, and their families and friends. I was a bit of a wannabe dude-bro in college, not particularly mature or driven, and I doubt I would have handled such a transformation with the same amount of maturity and resilience as my students have. I’m a crusty Gen Xer, not prone to much emotion, and yet I’ve been inspired by them. They’ve kept me going, kept me smiling, kept me thinking. I hope they’ll always be interested in IR and politics regardless of their majors or their careers in the years and decades to come. My sandwich generation (folks taking care of their own parents, and their own children, at the same time), I suspect, won’t have much gas in the tank when this is done. This is a crunch that’s happening worldwide, too, in speaking to my contemporary academic friends via twitter and zoom. The world will need citizens like my students to be an integral part of our societies, to put them back together, once this is all over.


Act IV: Professor (scholar)


It’s hard to study International Relations during a pandemic and not immediately start thinking about all the research topics it will (and already has) generated. The fields of global public health and international political economy will be fixated on this pandemic and its effects for decades, and rightly so. Inequality and power related to how the pandemic, and its effects on the economy, was/were handled will be a central focus (and, again, rightly so). As for me, I study ontological security in International Relations – which is a convoluted way of saying I study how individuals, groups, states, and societies ‘secure’ their sense of identity through time and space. Anxiety is something that always pops up in late modernity as a problem for such agents, uncertain times and places that call into question who agents are or what they wish to be. So agents seek out practices to manage this insecurity. One of these practices is narratives or discourses, another is through routines. Politics is involved in all the stages of these forms of management (ie: a narrative that develops on who is to blame for the virus, or whether it’s a big deal or not, or even who we are or what we’ve become in the process).  I know there will be loads of work focusing on how the ‘critical situation’ of the pandemic upended those previous routines and how, in inspiring or just mundane ways (or both), agents throughout the world generated new routines to create a new kind of ‘normal’.


My own work with my old buddy Curt is already proving useful as a stepping stone for another project related to this pandemic. We are going to look at how different countries, and different (US) states, managed this pandemic much like we explored in the context of the 1918 Influenza pandemic. Pivoting from Jeremy Youde’s work, we are now going to look at how epistemic communities did (or did not), impact the ways in which certain countries or states confronted this Covid-19 pandemic, and why. How did public health experts shape the policy decisions of particular political communities? There are so many outliers – Sweden, the UK, and Italy on the one hand, South Korea, Norway, Australia on the other. Also important in Youde’s work is the development of a ‘counter’ epistemic community. And those are popping up too, with economists and other business leaders weighing in on whether the public health advice of some experts is overblown, or whether even if it is based on sound science, it needs to be ‘balanced’ with some considerations of the economic devastation social distancing measures have generated. This is the essence of politics.


I’m also interested in how the US has responded from a variety of angles. As I mentioned on our POLS 2100 discussion board on one occasion, the lack of systemic and comprehensive testing by the US likely relates to some sectors’ unwillingness to work with the WHO in the interim, and inter-agency rivalries in the US between CDC, FDA, FEMA and HHS, among others. The pandemic in a way reminds me a lot of the widespread problems that occurred in the run-up and early stages of OIF (2002-2003) that have proven to be key research foci for my generation of IR scholars. As I did then, I think the early mistakes in confronting the pandemic go beyond in the US just one or two individuals to broader society (just like the run-up to Iraq did), to instead the broader interests that are at work at a core level of identity for so many US Americans (religion, economics, health, family). Further, just like that war was a formative experience for late Gen Xers and early Millennials, will the pandemic be a formative experience for the Zoomers? Or might they quickly forget this pandemic much like the 1918 one was forgotten?


I have two more research interests implicated by the pandemic that I suspect I’ll develop in the coming years. First, I’ve been thinking a lot about restraint (and why it’s so difficult), a topic I covered in a book published last year with Cambridge University Press.  In many ways, staying at home, sheltering in place, along with all kinds of practices like physical distancing, are all forms of restraint. They are necessary for our health and the health of others in society. But how long will such restraint be effectively practiced? Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of ‘psychic energy’ is one that assumes we can restrain ourselves and others for only so long. Our energy ‘builds up’, like water behind a dam, and must seek an outlet without the dam breaking. We’re getting by in finding these outlets in safe ways – Facetime chats with family, social media with friends, Zoom ‘happy hours’ with our colleagues and buddies. But we are also already seeing signs, barely a month into this widespread sheltering-in-place, of psychic energic buildup. This buildup is not only social – people wanting to see other people, wanting to go to bars, restaurants, churches, and so on. It is also urgently economic – how long can this many people in society go, survive, manage, without having a job? I suspect, having examined the overwhelming of restraint at different junctures, and places, throughout the history of international politics, that there will be conflict, perhaps even violent, on this very issue, and very likely well before a vaccine is in place, and well before there is widespread testing, and tracing, available at the level necessary to safely enable this ‘breakout’ from our sheltering-in-place. This, too, is the essence of politics.


Second, I am interested to see how the ‘war’ metaphor being so regularly deployed plays out. My IR colleagues in the academy, like Eric Van Rythoven, have pointed out with persuasive effect the problems with this metaphor, the unintended and/or pernicious effects securitizing health can have (and always have had).  I also, going back to my work with Jelena Subotic on Moral Injury and US ontological insecurity over ‘losing’ wars, wonder how well a war on a virus can be won. But the US likes to celebrate victories, and I suspect there will be celebrations over the development of a vaccine a year or so from now, along with a veneration of the doctors and scientists who did it. Perhaps there should be. The US also likes to ‘honor’ warriors – think of all the practices the US has to do so: from Memorial Day, to Veterans Day, to Flag Day, the National Anthem before sporting events, to the reunions that were put back into the spotlight during the State of the Union this year, to the ‘Honor Flights’, to the phrase ‘Thank you for your service’. Will such reverence be extended to those who have shown similar selflessness and sacrifice, like our health care workers who have gone back to work everyday, treating Covid patients, often times without the proper protective equipment they need to safely do their jobs (one is reminded of the soldiers who went into OIF without proper equipment as well, like armored Humvees)? I hope so. It might be one of the silver linings of the US fixation on war, honor, and sacrifice (and thus, the ‘war metaphor’) in the context of this pandemic crisis.




I should close by mentioning that even with the pandemic’s dislocation, I remain very lucky and fortunate to still have a job (at a time when over 22 million US Americans, and counting, have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks), and that I still have my health and more importantly that my family, including my children, and my extended family and friends, all remain healthy and safe. I have my dog who also provides companionship during this time. I remain privileged and lucky that the pandemic hasn’t impacted me as fiercely as it has millions of others throughout the world. I hope I can, and will, do my best to help others who are less fortunate, and further that I remember this fortune as I write, explore, and teach this pandemic in my vocation in the coming years. 



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