American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Reflections from a Sabbatical during COVID-19

Timothy Pippert, Augsburg University, writing from Inver Grove Heights, MN

In January, I started a sabbatical. My only objective was to write about the social impacts of the boom-bust cycle on residents of northwestern North Dakota. Quickly realizing that my project was too large for a one-semester research leave, I reacted by self-isolating before I knew that was a term. I would work at my computer for hours, only stopping to take daily walks with our new puppy. By the time public life in Minnesota began to shut down, I had already been out of the mainstream for two months.

For my family, impacts have been meaningful, although minor by comparison to many others. My youngest daughter had to return home from her second semester at Luther College. My oldest daughter will start her PhD in political science in the fall, but must now choose a graduate program through virtual visits. My partner, a political scientist and department chair at the University of St. Thomas, is trying to support her students and colleagues, teach online, and advise over 50 students virtually. My siblings and my wife’s face financial challenges as social distancing measures continue. My parents and in-laws, all approaching or in their 80s, seem more agitated being “safe at home” than my children. The fact that they live hundreds of miles away makes it nearly impossible to offer any real help in navigating this slow-moving disaster.

Like many, I am angered, but not surprised, that the financial toll of the pandemic is being paid disproportionally, and I am thinking about what we might do as sociologists. We can reach out to our students to let them know that we have time to listen to their concerns, and we can help those students who are struggling. For our colleagues who have been laid off or furloughed, we can offer to provide substantive letters of support to future employers. We can also provide guidance to the media, elected officials, and the general public to understand the importance of the sociological perspective.  Among all these priorities, it is our duty as sociologists to work to change the public narrative to acknowledge that the social and economic inequalities that define our system make it predictable that the pandemic will leave some unscathed while others face devastation. Once the narrative is changed, it will be easier to work toward a system in which risks, as well as rewards, are shared more equally.