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Janet Rose: 'An opportunity to think and learn'

Janet Rose with studentsProfessor Janet Rose has been impressed with how the journalism school and the university have responded to the pandemic. Rose felt like there was a learning curve when having to transition online and work from home since she typically travels with her work. As a writer, she looks at the pandemic as an interesting moment in history. On a positive note, the Agency is still going strong. They have been able to get some great clients; however, their typical meeting space has been closed due to the pandemic. Rose advises “to remember that these are great times to learn things and to make things and to create when we can create, but to certainly still try to be alive and alive to the world around us while things are going on.”

► Listen to the audio version here.

Brenna Dillon: This is Brenna Dillon. Today is Nov. 6, 2020. I'm interviewing Professor Janet Rose for the William Allen White School of Journalism Pandemic Oral History Project. Thank you for being here. So just to start going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Janet Rose: Well, I run a program in Italy in the summer called Creativity & Culture. Because of that, I am tuned in to Europe and international markets in general. When I began reading about Italy in December, China and Italy in December, and then saw it growing in Northern Italy in particular, I thought that it was just a matter of days before it's here. Then, of course, it was Britain and France and Spain and the rest of the world. It was all predictable.

The virus is very bad. Nobody knew what to do with, at that point, except to be in quarantine or to limit exposure, which is the only thing we really have going for us right now, including masking. You could see where this was going to go. It wasn’t a surprise that the university closed and the United States went into a set of measures to try to help people understand that they had to wear a mask and social distance. In spring 2020, people were also focused on surfaces, which now we know is not the primary way of infection. 

I am on a couple of arts boards, some with music involved. We were getting instructions from epidemiologists - at Stanford, for example - talking about how groups such as opera, choral groups or anything where you are in close proximity to others speaking, singing or projecting aerosols close to other people had to stop. That was at the 1st of March.

Brenna Dillon: Oh no -- How has this semester been different comparing from the spring semester with a pandemic to the fall semester with the pandemic?

Janet Rose: We all were more prepared for the fall, I think. I did decide to teach in-person. I teach a large class that's in a very new and very big spacious room near the engineering school. I also knew that I wanted to be flexible with students because, you know, how else are we all going to do this without being somewhat flexible? I've been reasonably pleased with how that's gone and with the participation by students. I had already made plans to try to use Microsoft Teams.

Brenna Dillon: We just want to receive like your perspective and kind of preserve how the J-School and professors within it have experienced it.

Janet Rose: I've been impressed with the university and what it's been able to do. All of the air systems and all of the buildings have been changed to not recirculate air. It's pretty impressive, a huge effort when you really stop to think about it, including of course, at the J-School in our beautiful new building.

Brenna Dillon: I know. What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Janet Rose: I would say the lack of national coordination at the United States level. We are a university with people from all over the world, but also many states and every state has a different approach to these things. So on top of everything else that we've been dealing with, one has this patchwork quilt of different measures and perceptions.

Brenna Dillon: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Janet Rose: It's interesting,, I've always traveled with my work. I've never been in one place for so long ever in my life.

In many ways, the workload has evolved. I don't know that I really thought about it. It was just a different sort of set of things. I’m in a lot of Zoom meetings. So there was a learning curve about that, about how one, how one really manages that because it's hard to sit in the chair and do Zoom meetings all day, you know?

Brenna Dillon: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Janet Rose: It changed over time, as it did for everyone. I would say that what's starting to become clear once again in March that this was an aerosol game. OK. It's been interesting just to watch and listen to how long it's taken to get through to people. You know, that this is about the air. It's been both fascinating and sobering to watch human beings in this environment. A part of what I work with, of course, is human behavior and perceptions - how we think, what we like, what we dream of, why we do what we do. So, this has been an interesting time.

It’s fascinating how people look at things. The pandemic continues to expose differences of access to services, information, and coping mechanisms. It laid bare even more the inequalities in our culture.

Brenna Dillon: How have you emotionally coped with it?

Janet Rose: So I would say that as strange as it's been, it's been, it's been a really interesting year.

Brenna Dillon: I guess, yeah or more or less there was change so how did you cope with the change?

Janet Rose: I just looked at it as an incredibly interesting moment in history, one that I certainly wouldn't have wanted or wished on any of us, but I just looked at it like an opportunity to think and learn. Plus, here at the J-School, we're in the center of the media world, one of the key if not primary movers in the perceptions of “reality” of the pandemic.

I want to be someone on whom nothing is lost. So, the idea that we're in this very, very useful historical moment tends to put an urgent spin on events and their interpretation.

Brenna Dillon: Yes, it's very fascinating.

Janet Rose: Yes, exactly so.

Brenna Dillon: How, how has the pandemic impacted the Agency?

Janet Rose: We are still going strong. We miss the face-to-face interaction, but we have been and continue to be very busy. It's a time when clients need to retool and rethink, which is good for us. 

Brenna Dillon: Good. What has it been like to cover the pandemic through these student organizations like the Agency?

Janet Rose: We still do a lot of our meetings on Zoom. That's been hard because it's so much better to meet in person let's face it, you know, but we've kind of made it work. Still, there is no substitute to being in a room with people, people talk differently, they share differently on Zoom. Everyone's kind of waiting for their turn. Well, you know, that's not the way humans really talk. Humans kind of talk in this multiple layer thing. Right. And what that does is it really inhibits them, people's ability to contribute or to share, or to add a different perspective or particularly in creative enterprises like this, you really need a healthy level of people not agreeing with each other.

You know, you would just be the most uncreative place in the world if everybody thought there and said, “Oh, OK, I like that. Great.” You know, that's not the way great ideas are for right. That's really hard to do.

Brenna Dillon: So how has the media's coverage of the university changed due to the pandemic?

Janet Rose: Of the university? I would say that I started hearing from people on both coasts during the summer who were hearing that Lawrence and KU were doing an exemplary job of handling the pandemic. Not sure if that’s so true today. I think there was conversation at the beginning of the semester about whether or not the university should open, but now that looks like a decision to open it.

We're still here and that's really important - to do it safely, but operating and thriving is great. A family member who’s a Cornell alumni -- Cornell has a great reputation at the moment because they were just very clear that nothing happened without the mask and everyone was tested every week. If this is the gold standard, we're doing OK. You know, we might not be at that gold standard, but there's a lot of colleges and universities that are much, much worse off than they are.

Brenna Dillon: So how do you feel about—Oh, no. That's okay. How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Janet Rose: It's been very good. Look at the art building that's been closed. We continued to do classes and I know a lot of people do hybrid classes or they do all online. Now I do have one upper-level class that I teach is very small and that group, some of them don't live here.

Brenna Dillon: How do you feel the pandemic has changed that William Allen White School of Journalism and KU as a whole?

Janet Rose: Well, for one thing, I think it makes us all appreciate what a wonderful thriving place it is to have a campus where people can come and be together and walk into someone's office and have interesting conversation like this one or something. It's a wonderful reminder of the soul of a great university. Hopefully it's enhanced, people's appreciation for the real meaning of a university, you know, which is learning and exploring and thinking and grappling with all sorts of problems and becoming bigger, stronger, and more interesting people because of it.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah to kind of go along with that. How, how do you think KU will be better from everything that has happened?

Janet Rose: Oh boy. Well for one thing, I think the university will now know what to do in case of the pandemic.

It's funny. I was just reading an article this morning about things like crisis communication, which typically has these strong sort of guidelines for what you do. But the article this morning was really interesting because it was saying that universities almost followed that too much by the book. They were trying not to scare people or they didn't want to cause panic. But social science and psychology people are now weighing in to say that is not how human behavior works. Human behavior will not change when it is not scary because it's all just rationalized away. I don't think anybody knows right now. I hope we can learn and grow from all of this and use it to really think about what we're doing and the curriculums that we offer and what our purposes is here.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah certainly. Last question here. What advice would you give someone 100 from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Janet Rose: I found myself reading the Decameron, Bocaccio’s great literature from the 4th century about the Black plague. It’s based on the premise that a small group of people in Florence depart to escape the plague, and each one tells a story every day as they wander around the countryside inhabiting different abandoned villas. And it became a great masterpiece of world literature.

If anything, 100 years from now, everybody should remember that these are great times to learn things, to make things. To create when we can create, and to be alive to the world around us while things are going on. And, to trust science, though flawed. It isn’t perfect, but it's all we have.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you again for your time.

Janet Rose: Thank you. Well, good luck with your project.

Brenna Dillon: Thank you. And this concludes the oral history.

Janet Rose: Great.

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