The Cicada Phenomenon and COVID-19: Reflections for Higher Education
In 1859, Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with these memorable lines:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
More than a century and a half later, these words still resonate. In a year marked by the COVID-19 global pandemic, hope and despair have once again intermingled with economic prosperity and civil unrest, a turbulent presidential election and senseless racial violence, and a return to community gatherings and significant business closure. Most importantly, hope that the worst is over intertwines with sadness for the loss of beloved family members and friends.
In the midst of these tumultuous and confusing times, this year saw the arrival of the cicadas of Brood X as they emerged from a 17-year incubation period underground. The themes of resurrection and transformation presented by Dickens in 1859 were thus oddly echoed in yet another way through these often irritating yet fascinating creatures. The more unpleasant effects of these periodic visitors predominated, to be sure, and as the summer is ending all are likely pleased that this 2021 cycle has all but disappeared. An indisputable truth that accompanied the Brood X cicada phenomenon was that the noise and deceased remains that ubiquitously littered our communities and empty campuses created an annoying nuisance!
While there is relief in closing a “Brood X chapter” for another 17 years, an unsought relief of another kind accompanied this annoyance. The inconvenience created by the presence of millions in swarms paradoxically served as a welcomed distraction from the constant anxiety experienced by the majority of Americans over the past 18-some months.. Our attention was diverted, albeit temporarily, from our isolation and loneliness to a more lighthearted common bonding over the suboptimal outdoor conditions.
From a higher education perspective, the cicadas have sparked a great deal of curiosity and research. The science and evolution of the life cycle of these insects and their place in our natural world have been the basis of countless studies. Despite having an extraordinarily long lifespan—greater than that of most other insects—only a short period of their lives is spent above ground (Fox, 2021). There is also a plethora of literature examining their cycles, trends, effects on tree roots, foliage, and mating habits, as well as the interactions with humans and other insect species—and even their nutritional protein value if ingested by humans and pets.
Not surprisingly, the intriguing nature of the phenomenon has also inspired the liberal arts dimension of all levels of education as well as the performing arts. Brood, as a term, offers an interesting range of life perspectives. This brood of cicadas represents the beginning of a life continuum and subsequent contribution to the environmental life cycle. To brood is to mourn losses or a demise in life quality or to worry or feel nervous about something.
Ogden Nash authored his reflections on the subject in “Locust-lovers, attention” in 1936 and later included these thoughts in his book I’m a Stranger Here Myself:
Overhead, underfoot, they abound
And they have been seventeen years in the ground.
For seventeen years they were immune to politics and class war
and capital taunts and labor taunts,
And now they have come out like billions of insect debutantes
Bob Dylan was inspired by the buzzing noise elicited from mating cicadas to write a song, particularly appropriate for this year’s graduates, called “Day of the Locusts”:
As I stepped to the stage to pick up my degree
And the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang and they were singing for me
These verses illustrate how cicadas touch our lives in numerous ways before disappearing, to be forgotten until their reemergence at another stage of the human story.
What will the next cycle likely hold in 2038? Will we still be living in Dickens’s best and worst of times, with both triumphs and tribulations a part of the human experience? Perhaps. Suffering and joy are both likely to remain a part of our condition as long as we are here, and each generation brings its own failures and victories. But just as some things may well remain constant, other elements of life will most likely see radical changes. Technology seems to be the primary agent of change for humans, and perhaps it is there that we should look for the greatest differences. During the last Brood X influx in 2004, the Motorola RAZR V3 phone was a rage; the iPhone was introduced in 2007. YouTube launched in 2005. The Yellow Pages were still being used to locate contact information about most businesses, and consumer phone directories were still a part of everyday life.
And what about higher education 17 years from now? Has the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the need for transformative change? Futurologists posit that rapid and continuous change, challenges, and uncertainty require intentional strategic planning to transform higher education. William Locke (2021) of the University of Melbourne reports that some management consultants predict what is likely a horrifying scenario for academicians and staff. He proposes that the future academic workforce could be more “professionalized’ and “specialized”—characterized by “agility” and “flexibility,” with academics becoming “freelance workers operating across several higher education institutions and knowledge businesses.” Amy Webb’s book The Signals Are Talking suggests that higher education leaders acknowledge the dangers of ignoring the future and embark on bold planning and modeling (Kim, 2018). Her assertion is that a formalized assessment and planning methodology can ameliorate deleterious outcomes of demise from the challenges that leaders in higher education face. Kim (2018) reports on a systematic process that includes using an artificial pre-mortemdate (actually 2038 in the book) as an initial premise. The exercise, tailored to individual institutions’ situations and context, examines why failure is likely to have occurred. The process concludes with recommended strategies that can help leaders identify rootcauses to mitigate against unintended decline or closure.
A disruptive 2021 draws to a close with despair for reflections left unresolved and conspicuous tasks that remain incomplete, as well as hope for more promising paths along which higher education might travel during the dormition of “Brood 2038.” The sacrifices endured by higher education staff this year may pave a trail that perhaps matures in concert with the hibernating cicadas. To invoke the final passage of Dickens’s novel, we hope the academy to which we’ve given our lives will be “peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.” The “far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known” could describe the 17-year slumber of cicadas.
Fox, A. (2021, March 31). 14 fun facts about cicadas: Amazing details about the buzzing insects set to storm the United States this spring. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-cicadas-180977361
Kim, J. (2018, May 13). “The signals are talking” and the future of higher ed: Will today’s postsecondary fringe be tomorrow’s mainstream? Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/signals-are-talking-and-future-higher-ed
Locke, W. (2021, January 13). The future of universities should be evidence-based. University World News. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20210115123736954
John D. Rudnick Jr. served as professor for Thomas More University when this article was initiated. He recently retired and serves St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida, as a visiting professor, graduate healthcare program coordinator, and military veteran services liaison.
Harry S. Cole is a senior English major and history minor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, where he actively serves as an academic writing tutor and musical vocalist. He plans to pursue PhD graduate studies with a focus in early modern literature.