Alissa's note: I struggle - like a lot of you, I suspect - with how to process the death of celebrities who both seem important to me and have nothing to do with me at all. How do we grieve in a social media age? So, I asked one of our regular critics, Ken Morefield, to give us his thoughts. Here's his answer.
The news came, as it so often does these days, via Facebook. Hannah (not her real name), a fierce, funny, former student—one of the few bright spots from my two year stint at a university where I just didn’t fit—had untreatable cancer.
She was not the first former student forced to grapple with her own mortality while my own day of reckoning still lay comfortably over what I hoped was a distant horizon. The truth is, professors face premature mortality a lot more often than I ever anticipated. Work at a university that is big enough (or at a smaller one long enough) and someone’s shortened life will be your inevitable hard reminder of the law of averages.
Responding to death in the public sphere is not a challenge unique to any generation or profession. But it certainly feels as though the changing times have affected how frequently the professorate and the fourth estate—two groups of which I am a long-standing member—are asked to meet that challenge. Weak ties that might previously have been updated once a year in an alumni newsletter or renewed years down the line at an academic reunion now proliferate through social media. Entertainment journalism increasingly means disseminating news about celebrities rather than merely reviewing their work. Plus we are raising a generation that has lived its entire life on Facebook and doesn’t know how to do anything—including ...