My friend Brian Fitzpatrick, a Law School Professor at Vanderbilt, is trying to figure out Life in the Time of Corona, like the rest of us. He’s wondering what – exactly – comes next, and when. (Like the rest of us.) He thinks about how we’ll be changed. It’s a relief that some things stay the same…
What’s it like teaching at Vanderbilt Law right now? What does your daily life look like?
Well, like pretty much every other university, we are teaching remotely. It is far from ideal. We use Zoom and sometimes the video is too slow and we have to turn it off and go audio only. In addition, it is much more difficult to elicit class participation. Thankfully, I only teach one class this semester. My biggest fear is that we have to do this again in the fall because things won’t be back to normal yet.
I have been spending a lot of time reading. Mostly catching up on things for work, but a few pleasure reads (see below).
How are your students doing?
They have been better. There will be no graduation ceremony this year. It is unclear what will happen to the jobs they have lined up. The Dean decided to make all their classes pass-fail this semester in part to ease their anxiety.
What has not changed at all in the Time of Corona?
The first two hours of my day are still exactly the same: in front of the fire or on the porch with tea (Paris from Harney & Sons), the New York Times, and NPR!
Jennifer: I start my day with my dog Pepper, the Wall Street Journal, Apple News, and Irish Breakfast tea. I can’t believe the WSJ is not on your list. Is it really not on your list?
It should be on my list! I have never been that interested in business news so the New York Times—as frustrating as it can be sometimes!—has been a more natural fit. In law school, students have to decide whether they want to pursue legal transactions like mergers and acquisitions or litigation where they will go to court. One of the ways I suggest they can make this choice is by asking what part of the newspaper they like the best: the front pages or the business pages. If you pick the front pages, you are more likely to enjoy litigation; the business pages, more likely to enjoy transactions. Needless to say, I was a litigator!
But I do realize from time to time that I am missing important original journalism by not scanning the WSJ. I am going to add it to my routine starting now!
Jennifer: I can’t believe I’m lecturing you on what to read in the morning. LMAO!
Some people are feeling busier than ever in the Time of Corona. Are you?
No. I think the fact that I am not happy at all with the situation has sapped my will to work somewhat. Hopefully that will turn around now that the weather is getting nicer; that always puts me in a better mood.
Possibly the most important question in this interview. And not fair, and you don’t have to answer, but I’m interested in your thoughts. How do you see this playing out, near-term and longer term?
I am sure long-term we will be fine. But it looks like it is going to take a lot longer than I had thought to get there. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs and the federal debt is going to go through the roof while we wait all of this out. I don’t know what the right public policy answer was to this crisis, but I have a hard time believing this was it.
Jennifer: Democracy is messy. And America is often slow to get things right. And then we often do. What do you believe is the right path forward?
If we had enough tests, I would have asked the elderly and people with underlying conditions to stay at home and aggressively tested the rest of us, asking anyone who tested positive to quarantine. Perhaps then we could have kept the economy running. I don’t think we had enough tests a month ago to do this but maybe we do now. It would be interesting to see one major city try it to see if it works. If it does, maybe the rest of us could follow course.
The reality is most of us will get the virus at some point no matter what we do. All we are trying to do is slow the pace so we have enough hospital beds and ventilators for the people who will need them. It is hard for me to believe shutting down the economy is the only way to do that.
Jennifer: This all makes sense to me.
You’re a big reader. What are you reading right now? What have you read in the last year or so that you would recommend?
I am reading a biography of Ted Shawn (Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances). Ted Shawn was a famous modern dancer and choreographer who started a performing arts campus and dance festival in the Berkshires called Jacob’s Pillow. He was gay but in the closet and he married a famous female dancer, Ruth St. Denis. The book is as much about changing sexual norms in America as it is about the history of modern dance. The book was written by an academic, so it is a little dense. (Although not all academic books are dense, please see below!)
When I need a break, I turn to the sequel to Call Me By Your Name – Find Me. Thus far, it is just as fun as Call Me By Your Name. I have never read ANYONE who captures sexual tension better than Andre Aciman!
Has life in your neighborhood changed?
Things here were already a bit off because Germantown got hit hard by the tornado. But there has been a dramatic difference since the stay-at-home order. I like to read on my porch if the weather is nice. It used to be somewhat lonely; now, my street is full of people all the time. I have enjoyed chatting with strangers and neighbors alike as they walk and jog past.
What is your state of mind? Does it change a lot, day to day, or do you feel like you’ve settled in and adjusted?
I’ve settled in, but I don’t like it one bit!
What are you secretly or not so secretly enjoying about Life in the Time of Corona?
I have had the opportunity to watch TV and catch up on movies. I rarely watch television, but I have been pleasantly surprised: there are some pretty good shows these days!
What’s the biggest hardship? What do you miss most?
I miss seeing my friends (except for Zoom chats), all the performing arts – including the ballet! – traveling, and eating out. I am worried it is going to be a long time before we can go to big gatherings again.
What are you watching?
My most guilty pleasure is Elite on Netflix. (Don’t print that!) (Ok, you can print that.) It is very, very guilty.
Please tell us about your new book, The Conservative Case for Class Actions...
Unlike most academic books, this one is not dense! I promise! I argue that political conservatives like myself should stop worrying and start loving plaintiffs’ lawyers. If we didn’t have private lawyers representing private citizens to hold companies accountable when they do something wrong, do you know what we would have? More government regulation. I’d rather cast my lot with the private sector solution than with more government.
The book is doing pretty well. I was in the midst of a book tour that had brought me to dozens of cities when the coronavirus hit. Hopefully the tour will pick back up again once things settle down.
What are you most looking forward to when we return to “normal”?
To be able to go back to my apartment in New York City. I haven’t been able to return for a month, and I am afraid of how many more months we have ahead of us!
How do you think we will change as a society as a result of Covid-19?
We will be well stocked up on face masks and ventilators for decades to come!
On a more serious note, I think the most lasting effect of this will be that we will appreciate many of the things we have been taking for granted. Having coworkers around. Being able to see our friends. Being able to go out to eat. To go to a concert. We have better lives than 99.99999% of the people that have ever lived on planet Earth. But we often forget that. Maybe if there is a silver lining to this, it will be that we start remembering again.
* * *
I loved the time with you today, Brian! Thank you! Xoxo