A Close Reading of Stephanie Spangler’s August 19th Email

Design by Alina Susani

Fall Semester COVID-19 Guidance: Healthy Yale

I took the liberty of including the above text in bold so that you might actually read it. I for one failed to do so when I received the fall update email; I tend to delete the endless automated Yale briefs before reading the subject line. However, following two of my suitemates’ COVID diagnoses a week ago, I decided to revisit Dr. Spangler’s sterling isolation guidance for my next steps. As I read and reread the email more carefully than ever before, I felt the need to dive deeper into the text, as I could not believe my initial impression. Yale wanted me to…do nothing? After years of mandated testing and a continued (comprehensive and sensical) masking policy, the thought of going about my daily business unphased by living in close quarters with two newly infected bastions of disease was incredulous. There had to be more there. Hence, I decided it was time to do a close reading.

The first thing I noticed was the waffling rhetoric that’s been surrounding COVID guidance for the last six months. The opening includes a list of the explicit advances made since March 2020—the vaccinations, the therapeutics, and the increased knowledge of the virus’s transmission—juxtaposed with the platitudinal recognition that “the pandemic is not over,” whatever that means (Spangler 1). This kind of doublespeak, simultaneously playing up all the reasons why COVID is less of a concern today while insisting that it is still a concern, feels intentionally ambiguous. It is what I do when I am unsure of an argumentative claim, softening the blow with a concession that misses its intended goal of nuance and settles for ambiguity. Yale seems to be covering its bases, knowing it has an assignment deadline to meet but unwilling or unable to put forth something substantive. The result of such ambiguity is apathy, but maybe the prettily laid out bullet points that follow promise reprieve to my confusion. 

The guidelines seem to suggest action one may take if one feels like doing something. “Guidelines” is a strong term: they read with the passivity with which I approach a Thursday 9 a.m. lecture. ENGL 114 TFs would have an aneurysm before they got through the passive voice in the first section alone. Regarding testing, students are “required” to submit an entry test (properly swabbed or otherwise) with questionable urgency. Positive test reporting is “expected,” not mandated. This language is somewhat surprising considering the multitudes of university employees who would inspect each swab to ensure proper reporting. Today, Yale has opted for a toothless honor system that rewards dishonesty.

Next is the point I was most concerned with: the isolation and quarantine guidelines (suggestions?). What Yale did not include says more than what they did. The instructions for what to do when one tests positive are hidden behind a hyperlink as if they are secret gnosis, unfit for general consumption. The decision to tuck the guidelines—unsuitable for our inboxes—away in a website does not scream transparency. Sure enough, Yale’s isolation housing has already reached capacity, and my suitemates, myself, and my roommate were “expected” to—you guessed it—do nothing. 

Indeed, this is an exceptionally trivial enterprise. These emails are not works of literature and are informational, not artistic. Still, the writing is revealing; the stylistic decisions say more about Yale’s new attitude toward COVID than the words do. 

Luckily, my suitemates were conscious enough and able to travel home to Long Island for the duration of their quarantine, but that is a luxury reserved for a small few. If they had not, the situation would have been untenable. The onus would have been on the uninfected to seek out housing at the Omni or elsewhere, lest we share our cramped common room until a negative antigen test freed us from our worries. The approach was shockingly hands-off; the shortage of urgency in the university response left us to our own devices to simply figure it out. 

Administration policy may be intentionally soft-spoken, as an otherwise dramatic shift to normalcy would cause an uproar. However, I am left confused and annoyed with the idiosyncrasies of a policy that mandates mask-wearing solely in class settings yet offers little to no reprieve to students and their roommates honest enough to report a positive test. 

The result is a policy reflecting the syntactic structure of its email—one with a ceremonial tone, pretty formatting, an inspirational quote, and a cutesy sketch of Handsome Dan wearing a mask to boot. Unfortunately, it is not particularly useful when navigating a pandemic that “is not over.”

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