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Education and Exile: COVID-19 and the Early Modern Experience

Kyle J. Dieleman
Trinity Christian College

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines exile as “the state or a period of forced absence from one’s country or home.” This means, of course, exile depends on one’s definition of home. For those of us in higher education, residential students who live “on campus” may very well consider their time at college as an experience of exile—forced from their home by parents, peer pressure, or broader economic systems. On the other hand, many students may find being away from campus its own type of exile. Gratefully, many of our students find a “home” at our colleges and universities. This is particularly true for students whose family life is tumultuous, tense, or even violent as well as for students who are, in the traditional use of the term, homeless. Thus, many students experience being forced away from campus and back to their homes and families as exile. Certainly, the experience of exile impacts how students participate in their education and should impact how faculty plan, structure, perform, and evaluate the educational experience during a time of COVID-19 restrictions.

In a similar fashion, the early modern world was one of exile. Scholarly work on the concept and reality of exile in the early modern world is abundant. In the area of religious history alone, one can find impressive overviews of the topic.1 More specific studies can easily be found for many various geographical areas.2 Not surprisingly, the prevalence of exile in the early modern world impacted individuals, communities, and broader society in virtually every aspect of culture—religion, education, economics, visual art, medicine, and so on.

Early modern experiences of exile, then, can help us navigate teaching and interacting with students who feel forced into a sort of exile by the COVID-19 pandemic. To that end, I offer two suggestions as to how that might be the case. My reflections focus on church history, though any number of disciplines studying the early modern period could offer their own, equally valid, insights. First, Reformed churches throughout Europe in the early modern period set out to establish order within their churches. Reformed churches sought to enact this order through a variety of means, including the establishment of discipline, education, and church orders. However, what the experience of exile makes clear is that these efforts at establishing order were often far more idealistic than exile ecclesiastical communities were willing or able to observe or enact in actual practice.3

The early modern world teaches us that living in exile requires a certain amount of flexibility. More plainly, expectations for the observation of detailed order need to be lowered. What might it “look like” for faculty to proactively allow exiled students flexibility within a class? The possibilities are quite endless. Perhaps most obvious is the practical matter of due dates. Many faculty members have long-demonstrated flexibility with due dates on assignments, typically in the manner of extensions for papers or projects. For students exiled to “home”—at times to places that feel anything but welcoming or conducive to intellectual growth—faculty would be well served to consider a greater amount of flexibility and even grace when approaching late work. Imagine the student who has set aside Friday to finish a research paper due on Saturday night only to be put in charge of childcare for siblings when a parent is called into work at the proverbial last minute.

Related to the issue of due dates is the overall pacing of a class. Classes on campus often function with a very specific pace—class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 AM with readings to be done before each class period, for example. Online classes even prior to the advent of the novel coronavirus operated in a more flexible manner, and faculty moving their classes online due to the pandemic would be wise to consider a similarly flexible approach to the pace at which course material needs to be completed. It might be unwise to allow students simply to work through material at their own pace; to what extent will a student actually process the material if he or she furiously charges through material in a matter of days that traditionally was covered in four weeks? However, requiring material to be completed on a particular day or even at a specific time each day is overly demanding for students who may be in different time zones or who have varied weekly schedules. Consider the student who has “kept up” with coursework throughout a week but on Thursday evening comes downstairs to a drunk parent who proceeds to physically abuse the student. Could or should we really expect he or she to complete all the coursework for the week by Saturday night at midnight? Given the reality of being exiled to one’s home a more flexible schedule that students know they can somehow easily access—perhaps a check box on the course web page that notes, without explanation, the need for more time—is not only appropriate, but even necessary.

Second, early modern religious experiences were indubitably impacted precisely because they were often religious experiences that took place in exile.4 John Calvin’s own work in Geneva is an obvious example in this regard as his own theology was formulated as an exile and often crafted for exile communities in Geneva and abroad.5 The experience of exile certainly impacted how English Catholics experienced their faith, such as how they related to saints and relics.6 Again, abundant evidence make it clear that experiences of exile impacted how people understood, articulated, and practiced their faith.

In my own experience of abruptly shifting a traditional Western Civilization course online in the context of the novel coronavirus, students have engaged the material itself much differently. For example, students reading primary sources from the Great War reflected on the experiences of European women who were asked to navigate difficult situations that were thrust upon them quickly and not by choice; while acknowledging the differences in severity, multiple students reflected on the parallels of those situations to what was being asked of them in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is unreasonable for faculty to rework courses so that they are “aimed” directly at whatever contemporary situation currently rules the day. On the other hand, it is wholly appropriate that contemporary experiences, including those of exile, impact class content. For example, teaching about religious minorities in early modern Europe to students who are sheltered-in-place might focus more on networking strategies when a particular faith community was forced “underground.” More broadly, course material might emphasize concepts like community, social responsibility, and international relations, all of which have taken on renewed importance in light of COVID-19. Whatever the case, current realities should prompt us to consider how class content might speak more directly to student experiences of COVID-19, including experiences of exile.

Hopefully sooner rather than later the COVID-19 pandemic will no longer exile students, faculty, and staff to their homes. Yet it has become abundantly clear that higher education will not simply return to a pre-virus status quo. The truth is that even in returning to campus many students and faculty will continue to feel exiled, whether in terms of place, relationships, or mental health. Tragically, students, faculty, and staff do not experience familial obligations, financial stresses, or abusive relationships only when a pandemic confines us to our homes. To consider the conceptual and practical implications of such realities we would be wise to turn again to the experiences of exile that were so pervasive in the early modern period. In doing so we might find, or even rediscover, ways to be attentive to the varied experiences, including those of exile, in which our students live and learn.

Kyle J. Dieleman is Assistant Professor of History at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. His research focuses on the Protestant Reformations in the Low Countries and in 2019 he published his first book, The Battle for the Sabbath in the Dutch Reformation: Devotion or Desecration?

1 Jesse Spohnholz and Gary K. Waite, Exile and Religious Identity: 1500–1800 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014); Nicholas Terpstra, Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Timothy Fehler, Religious Diaspora in Early Modern Europe: Strategies of Exile (London: Routledge, 2015).

2 Andrew Pettegree, Emden and the Dutch Revolt: Exile and the Development of Reformed Protestantism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Geert H. Janssen, The Dutch Revolt and Catholic Exile in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Ole Peter Grell, Brethren in Christ: A Calvinist Network in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

3 A number of examples can be found in Karen E. Spierling, Erik. A. de Boer, and R. Ward Holders, eds., Emancipating Calvin: Culture and Confessional Identity in Francophone Reformed Communities: Essays in Honor of Raymond A. Mentzer, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2018). See also, Jesse Spohnholz, The Tactics of Toleration: A Refugee Community in the Age of Religious Wars (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2011).

4 Violet Soen, Alexander Soetaert, Johan Verberckmoes, Wim François, eds., Transregional Reformations: Crossing Borders in Early Modern Europe (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019).

5 Bruce Gordon articulates this well in his Calvin biography, most explicitly in Chapter 4: Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2009); Kenneth J. Woo, Nicodemism and the English Calvin, 1544–1584 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

6 Liesbeth Corens, Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

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