This is the first article from our special series, Applied Sociologists and the Covid-19 Pandemic. Benjamin Drury works as a Resident Head, in the not-for-profit sector (service delivery), in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Writing in April 2020, Benjamin discusses how his role looking after the needs of students on campus has changed under lockdown, with much of his support moving online. He shows how training in qualitative research methods helps with his reporting duties, and how the works of C. Wright Mills, Emile Durkheim, W.I. Thomas, Talcott Parsons and Patricia Hill Collins have helped him think through the impact of COVID-19 and his work as a practitioner.
By: Benjamin Drury
During my time as an educator, and even today as I pursue my doctorate in Education, my applied sociology background – medical sociology specifically – expanded to include education as a key component of health and wellness. As I witnessed the extent to which the deck is stacked against certain populations (e.g. Black and Latinx students) I knew it was time for me to exit my role as tenured professor – which I found to be far too restricting – and moved back into the field of applied sociology.
Currently, I serve as Dean of Instruction at a vocational training school in Chicago, Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Education Advocacy Cooperative, and Resident Head at a residential college in the Midwest. Paired with 4 contingent faculty appointments, and a three-year-old son… I keep plenty busy. Presently, my role as Resident Head is particularly interesting.
Although I am currently an applied sociologist in a range of different fields, the role of Resident Head is, aside from fatherhood, the most challenging and rewarding role of my life. In this residential student services role, my family is tasked with the provision of a strong community for about 100 undergraduates, with whom we live, where members respect each other, themselves, and their community.
We make food. We make flyers. We wipe tears. We do it all.
Accordingly, prior to COVID-19 and today, as Resident Head, I am more of an applied sociologist practitioner. My expertise in sociological research methods does benefit me when designing assessments and collecting evidence of student experience and reporting that to my supervisors, as needed. Specifically, my work with rapport building in my qualitative methods class – shout out to Dr. Carrie Foote at Indiana University in Indianapolis – I am able to connect with our residents in a way that facilitates open and honest information sharing. I also am collecting information from residents and sharing that with authorities in our academic community who can use it to create support for our residents.
Resident Head is exactly what it sounds like. We live in the undergraduate dorms with our residents and work with an exceptionally talented team of folks at my institution who work tirelessly to provide us the support and information and guidance we need to best serve our students. We work to provide support, guidance, advice, and above all else, food, to just over 100 undergraduate students.
We are given funds to provide activities for our residents as a means to facilitate community building. Additionally, we are responsible for the safety and security of our residents. During the academic year we went to the hospital to support our residents through health scares. We also had to (reluctantly) break up a few parties that were at capacity for their living space.
On the other side of COVID-19, life is quite different in Chicago. Black “X”s dot the concrete outside of stores marking the social distancing protocol. Folks wander sidewalks grabbing food or fresh air wearing masks and maintaining 6-feet of separation. Prior unseen populations – bus drivers, food delivery, security staff – are becoming essential employees, and reverence for them abounds.
As Resident Heads, our role shifted into a more virtual format. We spend our days in ZOOMs, sending emails and texts, and generally checking up on our residents. We are triaging experiences manifesting in their new residence. The trauma of forced relocation lingers with our residents and is creating barriers to their progress as students and members of society. We are working to essentially digitise the student housing to our residents, and for me, using sociology as a guide has been invaluable. C. Wright Mills famously argued for sociologists to seek the strange in the familiar, and currently we are looking to restore the familiar to the strange for our displaced and disoriented residents.
Working today is curious. My wife and I work remotely now. We also attempt to parent when not stuck in a ZOOM fractal. We are confined to a 780 sq ft [237.7 metre] apartment and have been for the last 3-weeks…and next 60 days. Immediately as this situation unfolded, I thought about Emile Durkheim, paying attention to how people reacted to the increasingly urgent sense of anomie in society. Social cohesion, according to Durkheim, is critically important for one to develop a sense of belonging and to then become a functioning and contributing member of society. As a functionalist, he saw the world as a system of interworking social institutions. Watching education falter in their response to the pandemic caused me to re-evaluate most of what I thought to be my reality. After all, as W.I. Thomas argued, all situations that are defined as real are real in their consequences. Defining the changes to our new role was necessary for my family to begin to adapt to the challenges and potential benefits of remote residential management duties.
It is important to recognise role conflict and strain have encroached on my own life. Serving as an ambassador of an educational institution and ensuring the safety and well-being of residents is a tough enough job as it is. In the weeks since lockdown in Illinois, we have assumed the additional duties of friend, advocate, academic advisor, financial assistant, and private chef. We are also attempting to grieve the loss of a final quarter with our residents.
Using Talcott Parsons’ knowledge of role conflict and role strain, paired with the work of Patricia Hill Collins, I was able to develop a framework for communicating the need for our residents to take stock of the statuses and roles in their life and how they might have shifted as they transitioned home (and likely took on a few more) adding to their intersectional identity. With this wisdom I am able to triage and work to mitigate experiences of racial minority students during social isolation. The experiences of feeling like an imposter in their education, conceptualised as “imposter syndrome” in the literature, creates barriers to learning. Being aware of how the experience of feeling disconnected from an educational experience while on campus can be exacerbated with spatial distancing is a new dimension of my job that I never could have imagined.
On top of the expanded responsibilities of Resident Head, as previously mentioned, my wife and I are also parents; this experience has vastly grown my son’s vocabulary. Here in Chicago, we are all experiencing role exit and role confusion in ways I have never seen before. It is at times scary, and other times hilarious, like when we ZOOM meet with our residents.
The surveys and interviews and content analysis that will eventually manifest from this experience contribute to the discussions on how to change our society to prevent catastrophic and disproportionate impacts of our current and any future pandemics will have to wait.