It’s 3 May 2020 in the United States. People say we are past the peak coronavirus surge, but it remains a slow-moving disaster. And at a time when academia should be demonstrating the value of thinking through COVID-19, higher education seems shackled to normalcy.
As a professor struggling to teach anthropology at a small college just a few hours drive from the greater New York City coronavirus epicenter, I’ve been very unsure of how to respond. We closed the campus, and sent most of our students “home.” Many were sent directly closer to the NYC coronavirus epicenter. And as a professor, what have I done? Well, I graded Intro-to-Anthro essays and Cultural Ecology papers. Like many other Anthropology Courses, I attempted to do a mid-semester pivot to some kind of remote format (and thanks to HRAF for including my blog in their list of resources). I Zoomed into faculty meetings, did tenure reviews, prepared department plans for fall 2020.
And now it is nearing time for final exams. Another few weeks of student evaluations, final classes, exams, grading, negotiating, report-writing. Yup. In company with most of academia, the predominant approach has been to try and “stay the course” or “maintain normalcy.”
Normalcy during coronavirus?
When the historians look back on the COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic, I bet they will catalog US academia’s general attitude of “stay the course” as a big blunder. Academics are fond of thumping on Trump and the people protesting stay-at-home orders, but by and large we acted in a similar fashion. For small residential colleges, we’ve often sent our students into coronavirus epicenters, while mandating a pivot to online learning.
To be fair, colleges and universities have attempted to respond. Hartwick College has dedicated residence halls to first responders, graduated nursing students, and donated PPE. In this way we are basically leading on the suggestions in Colleges Can Help Win the War Against COVID-19.
COVID-19 & Academic Alternatives
I keep thinking that there were better alternatives. In particular, this tweet:
Universities and colleges may as well end the charade of switching to online courses; liberate their faculty and students; provide instead a Pass/Fail grade option based on work done so far since it is already mid-semester; and begin classes again next Fall or whenever.
— Carole Boyce Davies (@Ca_Rule) March 12, 2020
That was 12 March 2020. I still believe we should have given most students at this mid-semester point the option of either taking their earned grade or a Pass/Fail. We might have been able to design a system of community service in exchange for academic credit, with plenty of exceptions for all the students who needed to replace the income of family members, or fight their own illnesses, or take care of siblings who are out of school. We then might have allowed both faculty and students to actually turn their attention to tackling the immediate issues. Biologists could have pivoted to research instead of making herculean efforts to film their labs for online viewing. Anthropologists might have mobilized all those lessons from medical anthropology and social inequality rather than Zoom sessions and grading essays.
Instead we got:
Had one of these last week https://t.co/La23XwQzdB
— Carole Boyce Davies (@Ca_Rule) April 14, 2020
Whither Academia in Coronavirus?
In all of my scanning of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside HigherEd, I’ve only found one article that advocated something like the approach suggested above, and it did not appear until mid-April: Cancel This Semester. Adopt a Coronavirus Student Bill Instead. “This is not the first time that the education of young adults has been disrupted. World War II caused massive disruption for several years. The policies adopted then may work well now. Instead of trying to fruitlessly move countless classes online, we should adapt the GI Bill to a Coronavirus Student Bill.”
While I agree with a lot of what Amihai Glazer writes, there were a number of issues. First, it was already too late. April 15 was in some cases a mere two weeks away from the end of the semester. Second, simply canceling the semester-in-progress without any provision of academic credit would have been crazy, especially for seniors. Finally, the idea of a fall 2020 full-pay semester may indeed be the only way to save small colleges–but it is now clear that many will be struggling to reopen and will still face enormous challenges. Simply starting fall 2020 by sending an equal number (or more) tuition-paid students straight into existing college infrastructure is basically inviting a second wave of COVID-19.
So now we’re at a point of talking about 15 Fall Scenarios. But still, almost all of the scenarios are imagining a continued push-through until we get back to normalcy. It won’t be a big shock when the public decides instead to shut down academia–what good is academe if it can’t at least provide useful thinking of how the world should be reimagined?
Yo pisaré las calles nuevamente
Academia needs to be thinking about more radical possibilities. As Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla wrote in Deprovincializing Trump, decolonizing diversity, and unsettling anthropology:
Instead of focusing on defending the “traditions” of US democracy, we should ask what alternative political and economic orders are possible, indeed necessary. What populations and communities have long been imagining and enacting these alternatives, and how might we take our cue from them? From creating local parallel institutions to reimagining alternatives to the nation-state, what alter-political possibilities might we consider (Hage 2015)?
In the spirit of imagining more radical possibilities–plus I don’t want to end too pessimistically–check out the strangely relevant lyrics of Pablo Milanes, “Yo pisaré las calles nuevamente” a song written in 1974 about Salvador Allende and Chile.
- See The Impoverishment of the COVID Future by anthropologist Sam Collins at All Tomorrow’s Cultures. Collins writes that indeed our current scenario planning are not really about a possible future, but an extension of dystopia. Instead:
We can look to alternatives that acknowledge pandemic realities but also sketch alternatives to capitalism, to the bourgeois rentier class, to precarious employment. We can sketch alternatives to a digital divide education where people with a fast broadband and the latest laptop get access, and everyone else survives on asynchronous, canned powerpoints. . . . As anthropologists, we need to elaborate those alternative futures, to engage in a “futuring” that will spell the end of a fait accompli modernity.
- See some thoughts at the end of spring semester 2020 at Museum Fatigue. The author is more hopeful about what happened in the second half of spring semester, and I hope to talk more about resilience and imagination in a follow-up post. But still: “Instead of seeing summer as a time to read and research and prepare for the fall, it is just an ambiguous terrain stretching off to the unknown. It’s going to be lonely, I fear.”
As is often the case, conversations about writing rarely occurs in the comment sections anymore, so here are some places I’ve seen comments: