My department spent part of a meeting this week talking about the "common book" some of us chose to work with this past semester, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. (I've blogged about it before.)
One of my colleagues said that she'd hoped she'd get a sense of community from teaching a common book, and that she really hadn't. People in general agreed with her, expressing disappointment.
During the part of the semester when we were generally teaching the common book, we were reeling from the E's death. But I felt like there was an elephant in the room, and we needed to acknowledge the unique (I hope) effect of the departmental experience because in a normal semester, I might chat about a book when I run into a colleague in the lunch room, but this semester, almost every conversation I had in there for weeks was about whether someone had visited, or was planning to, about what we could do to help or be supportive.
So, I sort of said that about the missing sense of community, and then I felt bad because no one wanted to be reminded; almost everyone looked found the floor more interesting than before. But I looked over at the colleague I think was closest to E in our department, and he caught my eye and nodded.
It's been maybe 2 months, and what overwhelmed us around here has mostly disappeared from our daily conversation. It's not that we've forgotten, but the busy-ness of our teaching has made E fade from day to day talk; and we've healed. The echoing silences in the hallways are back to normal footbeats and voices.
I hope we'll do a common book again, because I think the potential of better community remains, and we'll be able to develop that way if we want to and make the effort. But it doesn't happen without conscious effort, and it doesn't happen when we're all busy dealing with the extraordinary situation of this semester.