Amy Patterson By: Amy Patterson
Professor of Politics
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11 Aug 2020 : Just keep your head down!

A few weeks ago I had to have a minor eye surgery. The choice was surgery in a pandemic or no vision, so being someone who has to read a lot, I took a chance and opted for the former. Anyway, after the surgery, I was told to keep my head down for 24 hours. “Just look down at the floor as much as you can.” The 24 hours then became about 4 days, and I really got the sense about how little one perceives with one’s “head down.” Even being in the same room with my kids and husband, I did not feel present. My perception of family dynamics at mealtimes, for example, was highly skewed.

The phrase—“just keep your head down”—made me think. I remember when I was a pre-tenured faculty member in my first academic post. A colleague told me to “just keep my head down and write.” He meant that I shouldn’t do anything controversial or say anything that could challenge the old guard. In short, just keep working. Probably good advice. But I’m struck that we have a lot of “keeping your head down” going on in this country at this point in regards to the virus.  

It’s mid-August and this pandemic isn’t ending soon. The USA has dealt with the virus for over 6 months. Schools that hoped to reopen in August are shifting online or going to staggered classes. My university has some in-person teaching (and most students have returned to campus), though about 40% of faculty chose to teach online. Hospitalizations, cases, and sadly, deaths, particularly in states with limited lockdowns and few mask requirements like my state of Tennessee, continue to rise.

And the leaders? They continue to ignore, deflect, downplay, and refuse to act—the metaphorical “keeping your head down.” Sure, it keeps you out of trouble, but it also means that problems don’t get addressed. Here I don’t just mean leaders at the top-top (ie, the president). Instead, what about leaders lower down the governance chain who, because of the US federal system, have significant sway? What about governors, mayors, county officials, school superintendents? Some are looking around, understanding the bigger picture, making hard decisions.  But others clearly aren’t. As an example, on August 10, Nashville Public Radio reported that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee says that he wears a mask and practices social distancing whenever he can. If he can’t do that, then he doesn’t attend an event. This statement was in response to a journalist who asked why the Republican governor did not attend a Republican fundraiser in early August. It was reported that most attendees were mask-less even though the county in which the event was held has a mask order. The governor also has refused to issue a mask order for the state, leaving it up to mayors—who may have limited means to enforce a directive--to do so.  

On one hand, that’s good that the governor knows when to stay home so that he won’t get the coronavirus. And the metaphorical “keeping your head down” is politically safe, since some Republican officials continue to say that masks don’t help or that they are an encroachment on freedom.  But on the other hand, what message does the governor’s self-isolation send? Shouldn’t a leader look up and not just avoid controversy?  He could act and use studies that show that Tennessee counties with mask directives have fewer hospitalizations as a reason for his actions. But that would mean looking at the science. It would mean looking up. 

It isn’t just leaders who can have their heads down. Yesterday the provost at my institution reminded us faculty members that not everyone has the opportunity to work remotely, including the people serving food to the 100s of students who are returning. Do we faculty have our heads down too? She ask us to model good mask wearing and social distancing. And she asked us to gently but firmly remind students and parents about the university’s health protection expectations. (My town of Sewanee --which is really just the university--has a mandatory mask requirement, and signs at both entrances into the community announce the requirement in flashing orange lights.) In the rural South where social hierarchies live on, staff members may not feel empowered to correct students and particularly, their parents. Faculty must play a role. 

Can we all lift our heads up?  A challenge for us all.

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