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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

820 Miles: Caring the Risk Away During COVID-19

Will C. Kurlinkus

Keywords: risk, care, fear, gaslighting, university as family


Categories: Parenting and Possibility in Impossible Times; Teaching as Carework, Teaching as Dangerous Work; Academic Pressures (or Critiques of Neoliberal Horseshit Productivity Expectations, as suggested by Amy Vidali)


As I’m writing this, my two-year-old son, Grey, and my wife, Krista, have left our small town of Norman, OK, because it’s too dangerous to live here. The hospitals are full. The people are largely unmasked. Horse dewormer is out of stock, while untaken vaccines are plentiful. Grey’s daycare, which we started this summer, has had four COVID cases in the last two weeks. It’s Memorial Day, and Grey and Krista are driving to live with my parents, 820 miles away, in my small hometown in Illinois, where the COVID-19 rate is half that of Norman, despite the larger population. This move, we figured, was the best thing we could do right now. This is what care looks like right now. And, yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling—I’ve been taught to feel—that this move is too extreme. That I’m being duped by fear and need to care more for my university. After all, as one Twitter commenter wrote recently when I posted our decision to leave, “I suppose professor Will Kurlinkus doesnt let his child ride in a car, because youre more likely to get killed in a car wreck than by the covid virus. Stop fear mongering. Youre supposed to be an academic….PLEASE fire this guy. We don’t need that lack of intellect teaching students of our beloved University” (CrimsoninMo, 2021).

In some ways, I want to agree with this commenter. Statistically, it’s probably true that my son is more likely to die in a car accident than from COVID-19. Perhaps, it’s in part such hard data that led my university to go back to fully in-person classes, with no masks, with no social distancing, with no vaccine mandate or quarantine guidelines. OU’s president has asked (not mandated) students to wear masks and that, for him, mitigates the pandemic’s risk enough. But risk is more than statistics.

Risk is deeply intertwined with rhetorics of care and fear. Last semester, for example, the spring of 2021, was my first sabbatical as a newly tenured professor, and I had to weigh risk, fear, and care in asking: Do I send my son to daycare during the height of a pandemic where, I feared (despite low rates of infection for children) he would get COVID-19, so that I can begin to write my next project, which I promised my university I would do? Or do I risk being punished by my university and become his full-time caregiver? I had the privilege, unlike many of my colleagues, to choose the latter. It was exhausting but worth it.

In my graduate course this semester, we read philosopher of technology Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor. In it, Winner analyzes how we decide which new technologies are beneficial or detrimental to society—which new tech we embrace and which we deem not worth the risk. “Questions that had previously been talked about in such terms as the ‘environmental crisis,’ ‘dangerous side effects,’ ‘health hazards,’ and the like,” Winner writes, “were gradually redefined as questions of ‘risk’” (Winner, 1986, p. 142). Questions of technological danger, that is, used to be talked about much more explicitly—it’s obvious that we want to avoid environmental crises and health hazards. When we’re specific about hazards, we can do specific things to resolve them. If there’s a giant pit full of tigers next to a playground, we remove the tigers and fill the pit.

The rhetoric of risk is murkier though, often purposefully so—it welcomes innumerous possibilities and a weighing of pros and cons even when the danger (like tigers) is obvious. “What is the relative size of that risk, the change of harm? And what is the magnitude of the harm when it does take place? What methods are suited to measuring and analyzing” (Winner, 1986, p. 143). How many tigers? How likely would it be that a tiger actually kills a child versus simply injuring one? “The rhetorical possibilities of this puzzle are often seized upon by writers who assert that people’s confusion about risks discredits the claims of those who focus upon the change of harm from some particular source. Why should a person who drives an automobile, a notorious cause of injury and death, be worried about nuclear power or the level of air pollution?” (Winner, 1986, p. 146). The coincidence that Winner, writing in 1986, picks apart the same trolling used against me on Twitter thirty-five years later is not lost on me. Such rhetoric of risk takes a clear hazard, transforms it into a set of vague questions and statistics that must be weighed endlessly, and explains them away into the ether. In this way, the rhetoric of risk almost always upholds the status quo.

We see such rhetoric in the 2021 State of the University Address by my university’s president, Joe Harroz. Oklahoma has a rather flimsy statute (according to our own law faculty) banning mask and vaccine mandates. Despite this law, the university could move online and enforce social distancing. We could have a ramped-up testing program and improve our air filtration systems. But, during his address, when asked how bad the pandemic would have to get before such measures would go into effect, Harroz noted that we must weigh two equal risks: the human cost of deaths from the pandemic versus losing sight of our mission as an institution. “If we go fully online, then students will not come and continue their education. . . . we have to look at the risk to the individual not continuing their education, from the depression that attaches to that, from the lack of providing what we have committed our lives to, those of us that teach in-person” (00:53:57, 00:56:19). Equating death to a few students dropping out of school is, obviously, ridiculous. And that’s not taking into account that, according to Harroz, our mission also must include packed football games, tailgating, and other unmasked non-classroom events. When looked at closely, the rhetoric of risk usually falls apart in this way. And, indeed, Harroz began his speech by stating, in the middle of a pandemic with all local hospitals at capacity, “The state of the university is good with a trajectory that can get to great. But I also know that we’re anxious and that we’re tired. And there’s a good deal of reason for optimism” (00:08:38). Besides displaying an absurd enthusiasm, in his opening salvo, Harroz questions the decision-making capability of faculty and staff to appropriately measure risk because we are tired and anxious. He seemingly says, that is, I know you are worried, you and your family are going to die, but statistically, our enrollments are up, and our student body is more diverse than ever! Yes, there’s a pit of tigers, but removing it might damage this nice playground. If you respond to the risk of COVID-19 by trying to protect yourself and your loved ones, you don’t care about your students.

We’re back to care. Because, as Harroz’s concern with students dropping out demonstrates, the rhetoric of risk is constantly couched, like so many university messages, in the language of family and care. “It’s vital we all do our part to protect the #OUFamily,” Harroz says in a recent tweet asking students, staff, and faculty to wear masks (@OU_President, 2021). My job is my family, the university constantly tells me—our students are our family. A university is a different kind of employer because we care, and we must care about giving our students the best in-person education possible. If we don’t care, education won’t work. And this is true, but it’s true primarily because if we stop caring, we might demand more money and stop volunteering free labor, bringing donuts to class, serving on clubs and committees, paying to attend football games, and defining our lives through our jobs. My son, of course, doesn’t exist in the university’s ecology of care because he’s not a teacher or a student and, to wit, no OU message, state of the university, or video has included references to the thousands of university parents whose children cannot yet receive the vaccine. Some people are #OUfamily and some people aren’t—including my family.

In reality, my students, no matter how much I care for them, are not my family. And this is no better seen than the ways that faculty have been forced to beg for their lives from their students during the pandemic, trying to get them to care. Without a vaccine or mask mandate, for example, I started my first day of class by saying, “Please wear your masks and get vaccinated; I have a 2-year-old son who can’t get a vaccine yet.” Other colleagues disclosed disabilities to their students and even recent deaths in their families to beg for protection with varying levels of success. All my students masked up, but some colleagues’ students refused to wear masks, others reported them to HR because they felt pressured. “We offer up our vulnerable loved ones, our bereavements, or our own medical histories like sacrifices before fickle gods—gods who, it turns out, are mostly teenagers vested with powers divine by our administration,” my colleague, Amy Olberding, wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “We beg teenagers to think of our babies, to feel for our dead, and please not to kill us. Some of them oblige. Some do not—an alarming number do not. The university’s response so far amounts to: Beg better.”

Ultimately, then, maybe the most important lesson COVID-19 has taught me about care is that my university doesn’t. I entered this field because I know teaching my students about technology and democracy can change the world, because I love writing and researching, but also to a great extent because I thought the university was special, a different type of employer that co-governed with professors, that formed deep bonds, that cared. I thought it was family. It’s not. It’s just a job that I shouldn’t care about. But I still do.


Coda: It’s eight months later. In the end, Krista and Grey lived in Illinois for a little over a month, and a bit later, after reports of the virus slowed in Grey’s daycare, we were able to send him back. My story was reported on briefly in the Washington Post (Svrluga, 2021), and my online critiques of my university led them to ask me to remove several tweets (I was told they have been watching my Twitter feed for some time). At the start of the spring semester, OU decided that they could legally mandate masks—but only did so for the first two weeks, leaving many of us wondering where such an order was at the height of transmission. What once was fear for my son has darkened into a lingering anger at my university. I’m not sure how to rid myself of it.



@OU_President. (2021, August 29). It's vital we all do our part to protect the #OUFamily. This includes wearing a mask indoors, especially inside our classrooms. Watch my full message below and remember wearing a mask and getting vaccinated are our best tools to protect each other and stay #OUTogether [Tweet]. Twitter

@LKendrick66. (2021, August 27.) It says you really don't care about your students. Covid is a fake disease anyway [Tweet]. Twitter.

CrimsoninMo. (2021, September 3). OU employees resign, move families out of state due to health risks from lack of masking, social distancing mandates [comment]. Retrieved from Note: Comment originally on twitter but since removed. Duplicate found in the comments of the OUDaily.

Harroz, J. (2021, September 1). 2021 State of university address to the general faculty. University of Oklahoma, uploaded by FacultySenate.

Olberding, A. (2021, August 27). We’re begging students to save our lives: The university won’t require masks or vaccines, so faculty members must plead. The Chronicle of Higher Education

Svrluga, S. (2021, September 22). With students back on campus, many faculty members are worried about covid — and pushing back.” Washington Post.

Winner, L. (1986).The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. University of Chicago Press. 


Will Kurlinkus is an Associate Professor of English, Director of Rhetoric and Writing Studies, and Director of Technical Writing and Communication at the University of Oklahoma. His book Nostalgic Design: Rhetoric, Memory, and Democratizing Technology focuses on using nostalgia to learn from under-served populations to create inclusive designs. Among other venues, his work can be found in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, College English, and Computers and Composition.