Our Minds Aren’t Equipped for This Kind of Reopening

In summer 2020, communities all around the US were coming out of lockdown and making decisions about how, how much, and when to open up and resume (at least some) normal activities. Months later, the situation hasn’t changed too very much, despite the development and slow rollout of the vaccine, and we expect, sadly, that the pandemic and its conditions will be with us in some ways for a long time to come. Law and psychology professor Tess Wilkinson-Ryan wrote this analysis of risk assessment, shaming, and decision making for the July 2020 The Atlantic. Have things changed much since its publication? (We hope so.)

Read it here.


1. Wilkinson-Ryan strongly disapproves of the government’s responses and policies about the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly concerning reopenings after initial shutdowns of non-essential activities. Why is she critical? What connection does she draw between shaming and a lack of cohesive policy? How persuasively does she establish her argument? Why do you think so? Explain your thinking.

2. While Wilkinson-Ryan’s analysis of decision making is relatively straightforward, a lot of the evidence she presents as well as the terms that she uses—“psychophysical numbing” and “calculating exponents,” for example—are not likely a part of everyday knowledge for a general audience. Why might she have chosen to use such technical terms or concepts? Are her explanations of the evidence sufficient for supporting her analysis without having to go into more detail? Should she have given fuller definitions of the terms? Used simpler wording in order to avoid those terms? Explain the reasons for your assessment.

3. LET’S TALK. How do you calculate your own risk with regard to exposure to the coronavirus? What factors do you consider in deciding whether to engage in a particular activity or go to a specific place? How confident do you feel about the decisions you’re making? How much choice do you have about whether to attend or participate? Discuss your responses to these questions with a few classmates (remembering to listen and speak respectfully). How can you relate Wilkinson-Ryan’s ideas to what you and your classmates are saying? Does your conversation generally support her analysis? Why or why not? 

4. LET’S WRITE. Colleges and universities are struggling hard to balance health and safety concerns with budgetary and pedagogical considerations. How is your school doing? Are the policies clear? Do you have to take risks that you’d rather not take in order to do your coursework? How promptly are you given important information about changes and conditions? How effective and helpful is the technological and material support that the school provides? What would your school need to do in order to facilitate your safety and your academic progress? If your desired measures were implemented, what effect would they have on other members of the school community, such as faculty, staff, transportation workers, IT problem solvers, etc.? Based on your responses here, write a letter to your school’s top administrators (President, Provost, Dean, Director—whoever’s in charge) and evaluate the school from your own vantage point. Address the questions and any other factors you consider relevant. (When you’re finished, why not consider sending your evaluation to the administrators and/or your local newspaper?)

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