The following essay by President Laurie Patton first appeared in Inside Higher Ed. on Monday, December 7, 2020.

Questions abound about the state of liberal arts and sciences colleges post-pandemic. Will they survive? Will they thrive? Will remote learning, now firmly part of our educational tool kit, remain a fixed part of the liberal arts and sciences landscape? Or will it lapse back into the background when in-person learning is again possible? Will faculty, staff and students continue to innovate in digital pedagogies or, in the long run, will necessity have failed to prove itself the mother of invention?

Even as the semester winds to an end, and we are still learning and thinking in the worst of the pandemic, some things are clear. This semester, rural liberal arts and sciences colleges seem to have generally done better than their large urban counterparts. As Kelly Field has recently written in The Christian Science Monitor, the deck is stacked for us: we can isolate our campuses more easily from the surrounding community. We can utilize the outdoors more readily for physically distant recreation and socializing. We have more control over our student population because it is smaller and we can communicate more efficiently. We can take more advantage of creative thinking in small groups, which have a larger effect on the college climate. And we have more personal connections with organizations in our surrounding communities.

But there is one overarching sensibility to all of these conditions that affect small rural colleges and large universities alike: a powerful sense of place that permeates our campuses and our lives. Counterintuitively to some, the post- pandemic campus, wherever it is, will have a renewed, more dynamic sense of place, not a diminished one.

Four Ways of Learning About Place

As I have studied the books, articles and blog posts in the burgeoning field on “place” in the last two decades, I discovered a student-centered essay in Peggy Barlett and Geoffrey Chase’s now classic 2004 volume, Sustainability on Campus. In their essay “Place as the Nexus for a Sustainable Future: A Course for all of Us,” Laura B. DeLind and Terry Link of Michigan State University give us a blueprint for a relationship between place and sustainability. They describe their course, Our Place on Earth, as designed “to provide multiple opportunities [for students] to consider their relationship to place and the world around them in new, and sometimes uncomfortable ways.” While DeLind and Link launched their course in the mid-2000s on a large university campus, its goals and learning outcomes are still deeply relevant for us today, no matter what our campus size, and have particular applicability to COVID lessons learned for a post-COVID world.

First, the course makes a distinction between “discovery” and “discovering.” Discovery is where students learn a hard and fast truth about a place — a truth they can use as they move on to the next discovery. Discovering is the realization that we know so little about our surroundings — the simultaneous effect of being “humbled and awestruck” and “suspending, for a while at least, our need to judge and control.”

COVID has been a great accelerator of the “discovering,” not the “discovery,” of place. We learned that lesson again and again in our seemingly endless decision making about COVID. COVID was everywhere and nowhere. As an airborne and aerosol disease, COVID transcended space and yet forced us to redefine space wherever we went.

Suddenly, the paths across our campus and hallways in our buildings did not just lead from point A to point B; we had to ask, does this path accommodate enough people? Is this classroom building capacious enough for people to talk seriously to each other while at a distance far greater than usual? We were both awestruck at and humbled by the disease’s lethal power, and by the new lens in which we had to interpret all of our surroundings. Suddenly, our utilitarian occupational safety officer Jen Kazmierczak played a pastoral role — indeed, a luminous one — in helping people to understand and redesign our campus, chair by chair, window by window, exit by exit, street by street.

Second, DeLind and Link also wanted their course to remind students of the connections that bind them, not only to one another, but “to all places and life forms.” Those bindings and boundaries, in their view, are “far from being fixed,” but are “permeable, fluid, forever being reconfigured and negotiated.” That was deeply true of our experience of learning. When in-person classes finished, making sure the chairs were all in physically distant rows for the next class was no longer perfunctory, it was a deeply social act. Many gestures like those became ones of caring for the people whom the students and professors in one class probably would not see but knew were on their way to the same space to continue the work (now newly configured) of learning in person.

During our COVID semester, learning in person meant constant negotiation of space; it was our existential situation and our common commitment. Depending upon what phase we were in, our social configurations shifted constantly in response to the spaces we were in. Early on, in the strictest phase of entry, students could gather in some rooms but not others. They could walk in the open spaces on campus but not in the town. Discerning those boundaries was difficult, even for those of us who had drawn them.

Later, the slightly more relaxed gathering rules meant that students, faculty and staff had to constantly think about the spaces they were dwelling in, the occupancy regulations they were following and whether a crowd size, inside and out, had increased to an untenable point. Even political life, active on all college campuses this fall, was different. Students planned protests and rallies during election season, and in response to the racial climate in the country, in meticulous tandem with townspeople who wanted to do the same, so that physical distancing and crowd size could be respected and maintained.

Third, DeLind and Link wanted to provide students with a sense of engagement and empowerment at home, where “daily life is not a backdrop to education, but education itself.” That was absolutely the reality during our COVID semester. While they struggled with isolation in new ways, students still provided videos on how they navigated going to the sink to brush their teeth in their dorm, what a conversation with their roommates looked like, how they fulfilled their obligations to keep the town safe. They did this not only because they wanted to educate others, but also because they were living a historic situation that they wanted to share and narrate. This, in turn, led students to think of themselves as “placed.” As Scott Russell Sanders put it, students become “intimate with [their] home region, to know the territory as well as [they] can, and understand [their] life as woven into the local life.”

Students, faculty and staff alike were newly “placed” in a number of important ways. For example, the relationships between one state and another became paramount. What did it mean for students to come into Vermont, a state with a low COVID rate? What was the sense of place, and people in that place, that contributed to that low growth rate? And how were we responsible for those places in Vermont that experienced outbreaks; what was our obligation to them as neighbors? Students became newly aware of things like the neighborhoods and neighbors who had the biggest concerns, the local hospital capacities they should be tracking, and the needs of local business owners they needed to meet once they were allowed into town. As Rebecca Kneale Gould, an environmental writer and Middlebury professor of environmental studies, put it recently, “Community engagement became a necessary way of life for everyone.”

Contrary to the ivory tower stereotype, those of us in academic communities are often highly aware of the network of social relations in which we live. We are “placed” in both liberating and challenging senses. COVID placed us more. Because many colleges and universities are the larger (and sometimes the largest) employers in the region, its citizens frequently have a greater sense of community responsibility. This can translate into an ethos of care — both on the campus and off. Just as students were arriving on campus in the midst of some highly vocal neighborhood concern, one Middlebury student wrote about their responsibility to protect the town. Our early student survey suggested that students were more concerned about infecting others than they were themselves. As one student put it, “When you live in a small community, you don’t just interact with people and move on.”

Finally, DeLind and Link hoped that their students could bring their newly deepened sense of place out into other places in the world, “to take their place-based affections, sensibilities, and responsibilities with them to new locations.” Indeed, they, like many other theorists of place, see a direct connection between students’ appreciation of a local reality and their ability to appreciate another local reality, one that may be deeply different from their own. My colleague Rebecca Gould again: “They learn what noticing a place and caring about a place means. And because it is an embodied practice, it sticks. Once it sticks, it also transfers.”

Many colleges and universities have recently sent their students home for Thanksgiving to finish their semester remotely, and they’ve left with just that sensibility. One student leaving for France has become newly aware of Paris’s COVID rules, and that some neighborhoods with more outdoor cafe seating can sustain themselves economically better than others. Another, driving just an hour up to Burlington, has recognized the differences between two adjoining counties, their populations and their COVID configurations. Our COVID sensibilities are intensely local; we know counties, we know streets, we know houses differently than we ever did before.

A Desire for Place

Perhaps most significantly, COVID has demonstrated a longing for place in our students. It is not, as some have surmised, simply the relentlessly social nature of 18- to 22-year-olds. It is also the yearning to dwell together in a particular landscape. We hear and see these ideas in the reasons they give us for coming in such large numbers to learn on campus. Some first-year students came to Middlebury even though they had only online classes, because they wanted to be here, in this place, with other new students. Other colleges and universities report similar student decisions.

This sense of learning in a place together was true in other important ways for remote learners not on our campus. In addition to seeing the value of in-person learning once they were deprived of it, remote learners had to find ways of creating community and a new sense of place in that format. Those students learning in China, for example, formed learning groups that deepened their sense of being there during the pandemic, and not on our campus.

To put it even more strongly, remote learning has in fact created a longing for being together in a shared environment. The primary driver for students returning next semester is whether there are in-person classes on our campus. Far from being a substitute for place, remote learning has deepened our students’ place-based sensibility. As we read the predictions of those who see the disappearance of place in the advent of remote learning, we see its opposite.

Students, faculty and staff are also rethinking race in the same semester as COVID. They are using this renewed sensibility of place to ask again, “Whose stories, which took place here, have not been told?” An awareness of the darker side of place is part of this dynamism. Colleges and universities around the country are now using their own archives, deeply place-based documents, to reimagine a realistic sense of place and tell a more humane story of our local worlds. Here, social injustices occurred and should not disappear from the record. Here, citizens built social equity, and their work should continue to teach us.

In a post-COVID world, it is certain that remote learning will be more widespread than ever before. Yet in fall 2020, we have also seen that it can never substitute for learning together in a specific landscape, whether urban or rural. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the sense of mobility that remote learning has introduced, we are in fact more keenly aware of the particularities of place.

This year, we have been humbled and awestruck in the face of a disease we must respect. We are newly cognizant of the constant negotiation of boundaries it requires. We have a greater sense of empowerment and ethical engagement at home on campus and in the communities that both need and worry about college students. Going remote has only increased the possibilities for contemplation of the particularities of local landscapes. This state of mind, heart and body has not resulted in parochialism, but its opposite: a more sophisticated and humane sense of how we travel, and the ways we build, cross, draw and dissolve borders.

We are more dynamically placed: a counterintuitive but welcome result we bring into the post-COVID world.