Bessie documents his experience teaching community college during the pandemic while going through treatment for brain cancer in Going Remote (Seven Stories and Censored Press, Mar.), a graphic memoir drawn by Peter Glanting.
How did this project take shape?
I immediately started writing about the first days of the pandemic because I knew it would be a complete shift in our reality. I drew a couple of cartoony images and emailed Peter Glanting—he’s great at drawing science fiction imagery. I wanted a Zoom window flying into outer space.
How did your relationship to teaching change over the course of the pandemic?
You can create some kind of community online, but it feels profoundly different. In a physical classroom, I felt like I was performing jazz with the students. When asynchronous, I felt this profound sense of alienation. Now my experience is much more hybridized.
I feel pulled between the cloud and the ground.
Our caseloads have gone up dramatically. We’re not just teaching content and skills. Sometimes it was trying to find someone housing. I’d hear horrible things people were coming through. It helped me to see the depth and complexity of challenges that students are bringing into the space. At the same time, class sizes have not gone down. Who is going to reinvent and reenvision? Corporations that are looking at efficiency and data collection and surveillance capitalism, or people on the front lines—or the students themselves?
By necessity the book ends on this note of uncertainty. How do you navigate uncertainty as a writer and as a person?
One thing I’ve learned from the process of being a cancer patient is that one of your main jobs is staying present with what’s happening. Every three months, I have to get a brain scan. Catastrophizing and coming up with horrible science fiction scenarios about what’s going to occur to me is wasted time. It takes work to be present. Writing in comics, especially, is one of the main tools to keep myself present.
This is a story about trying to separate our souls from our bodies in order to save our bodies, and the impact of that effort. Is a brain tumor a perfect horrible metaphor?
Living with a brain tumor, it certainly it feels like a divided self. I talk about Sontag’s idea of the Kingdom of the Ill. When one is really sick, whether you’re undergoing chemotherapy or going through the MRI process, you really feel separate from the overground world of the healthy. This book is about making all of that visible, because when you’re in the containment unit, in this quarantine, you’re cut off from community, and that is the deepest illness. During quarantine, we all felt what it was like to be a cancer patient, where you’re stuck and things are out of your control. The thing that is healing is community and visibility.