Students Return to Campus mid-Pandemic: A Horror Movie Unfolds

Is there anything more perverse than being attracted to bad horror movies? My friends and I loved classics like “Friday the 13th” and “Chopping Mall” because they were terrible. We’d sit near the back eating junior mints, groaning each time the hapless protagonist did the opposite of what any halfway intelligent, sort of awake, person would do. There’s a crazed axe murderer in the woods? Let’s go foraging for mushrooms! Shark-infested waters? Why not go for a romantic skinny dip with your hunky boyfriend? It’s only entertaining, of course, because we know it’s a dystopian dreamscape that will end. The lights come up, we brush the popcorn dust off our laps, and go merrily on our way. It’s a controlled and contained form of horror and terror, precisely the opposite of the mayhem we are watching unfold on campuses right now in the midst of the pandemic.

There can be little doubt that many universities are in a terrible spot. In a nation that has long turned its back on higher education as a public good, administrators have been scrambling to keep their ships afloat long enough to weather this who-knows-how-long disaster. The promise of a face-to-face Fall semester emerged from this cauldron of desperation and not, one presumes, from indifference or greed. And months ago, before the current surge in infections and deaths began, it was still possible to suspend disbelief about the disaster that an on campus Fall would represent. Sure, the epidemiological experts predicted the increase in morbidity and death, given the nature of the virus and the national government’s apparent determination to make the situation ever worse, but a few months ago one could, perhaps, still plausibly imagine inviting students to return to a relatively safe campus.

At some point, such pie-in-the sky hopes transformed into something like delusion. And now we watch as our college-town streets fill with students’ cars — usually an exhilarating time for us university folks — and are filled with sick dread. The image of fresh-faced youngsters streaming in from around the region are indelibly juxtaposed with the news from Alabama, UNC, and Michigan State. We read our university presidents’ pre-blaming stern messages about student responsibility as we clean up the plastic beer cups from our front yards and recall our own carpe diem college attitudes. We professors and staff have been turned away from our own campus offices — not safe! — even as students haul dorm fridges and box fans into the residence halls next to our buildings. It’s not just that it’s unlikely that this experiment can be pulled off safely, but that, given the obvious realities of communal life, how could anyone even believe it would be possible?

In its innocent and productive mode, the sheer optimism of wishful thinking can be energizing. That plucky little train made it up the hill because it thought it could despite evidence to the contrary and defeatist naysayers. It is precisely the whiff of unreason in wishful thinking that makes it so irresistible in dark times, whether one is facing a terminal disease or expecting a good grade on an exam for which one is utterly unprepared. That it is, in fact, true that we can’t, strictly speaking, KNOW what the future will bring can also sometimes provide a level of deniability that mitigates our moral responsibility when our decisions bring others to harm. In short, the line between productive hope and willful ignorance can sometimes be thin.

What’s happening on many university campuses right now, though, pushes wishful thinking to an exaggerated level that would be comical if it were not so tragic. And we campus citizens aren’t merely watching the horror movie, we are also living it, at once the hapless teenagers bumbling their way through the dark woods and the omniscient viewers. We see, not an unknown future, but a script that has already played itself out at institutions around the world.

Some are even placing bets: In how many days will students be sent back home again? How long before campus leaders and marketers stop pretending that they truly believe what they’re saying? And how long before the rest of us withdraw our conspiratorial silence as university logo face masks are distributed along with dad-like lectures about student responsibility? It’s a situation made even worse by the fact that it occurs at the same time we are urged by unscrupulous national leaders to deny the evidence of our own eyes. Ignore trusted experts and common sense, they tell us, and place your faith in our optimism and authority instead.

Three Resolutions for More Mindful Teaching

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Anyone who’s tried mindfulness strategies knows that, though though they are trendy, they aren’t very sexy or dramatic when actually practiced. Whatever benefits accrue are usually small and cumulative, revealing themselves like tree buds opening in an unusually cool spring. If life is a roller coaster ride, then mindfulness practices help us notice the feel of the cold steel safety bars across our laps, and the whiff of nervousness and cotton candy in the air. Through mindfulness practice we learn to pay non-judgmental attention to the buzz of expectation in the creaking, ratcheted climb, and to become as curious as we are terrified at the dropping sensation in our guts as the free fall begins.

When it comes to enhancing our lives, mindfulness turns out to be as useful as zippers, can openers, and sturdy boots. If we merely fetishize the idea of mindfulness, though — devouring articles about it and praising it from afar — it sits on the shelf like a curio. As a longtime student of mindfulness who is easily distracted by the abstract, I’ve resolved to more explicitly link basic mindfulness practices to my upcoming semester of teaching. More specifically, the three simple resolutions I describe below are meant to support my attention to some basic inputs and experiences — feelings, really — as they move through me, instead of fast forwarding to habitual conclusions and reactions. Introducing even this tiny gap of attention could lead to teaching that is a little wiser, more effective and creative. But, at the very least, I will be a a little more awake during the journey.

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Resolution #1 expresses my plan to pay better attention to how particular teaching activities impact my mood. Over the years, I’ve tended to accept that certain tasks are intrinsically grueling and must simply be powered through. Grading online discussions falls into this category for me. In fact, my dread of it leads me to try to push through it as quickly and numbly as I responsibly can. This coming semester, though, I plan to pay precise attention to the negative feelings as they arise before my reactivity and avoidance kick in. Is it a bodily tightness? A sense of being trapped? Boredom?

The investigation might not lead me to make any changes, of course. I might simply conclude that grading discussions is a misery to be endured and keep trying to ease the pain; I’m fine taking a little Novocain if that’s the best I can do. But if I can rouse my curiosity about my animus toward this loathsome task, there may be something to discover. It occurs to me, for example, that the poor quality of many of these discussions makes me feel like a failure, a sensation I would definitely prefer to ignore.

Resolution #2 is to notice my feeling responses to informal student feedback, for example, in critical or affirming emails to me or asides made to other students during group work. For most of us much of the time, the leap from a perceived criticism to the arising of defensiveness can seem automatic. For example, I’m sometimes moved to what feels like instant irritation and the need to self-justify when students complain about the reading assignments. Can my feelings point to my implicit, perhaps false, assumptions about what their complaints mean? Am I taking them personally? Why? My goal isn’t to pander to students’ superficial gripes but to be open to real information that can help me either adjust or feel more confident about staying the course. In any case, clues are wasted if I zip blithely past them, supplying my own habitual rationalization as soon as I feel threatened by criticism or puffed up by praise.

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Resolution #3 involves reflecting on my feelings about my teaching work as a whole, about how it fits into my overall ethos, values and life goals. Because I’m a professor of gender and women’s studies, my work is explicitly tied to social justice. But for me too the risk of nihilism and complacency is real, and at times I’ve been unable to see my work making a dent or, alternatively, been a little smug about its significance. My commitment this semester is to better notice the sensations of excitement or flatness that arise when questions of larger purpose arise. For example, in recent months, I felt nervously hopeful at the media emphasis on fake news. Taking my incipient excitement seriously led me to explicitly connect some upcoming course activities to the critical skills our country is clamoring for. The changes, while not dramatic, have been motivated by my awareness and acknowledgement of my own feelings. Whether or not such awareness typically leads to visible changes, being honest about feelings of guilt, pride, and purpose in our work can certainly lead to greater sense of intentionality about it.

When I take the sometimes invisible step of noticing, then meaningful improvement and appreciation become possible. For busy teachers, offering the same classes over and over again, the entire semester can become as routinized as a morning commute. We’re suddenly at the destination without knowing quite how we arrived. And, of course, this isn’t the worst of it. The current hunger for all things mindfulness attests to our fear of passing through the whole of our lives on autopilot. As tempting as sexy, dramatic quick fixes are at the new year, what I describe is both more banal and important, a practice of being genuinely present to ourselves. When all is said and done, I will have piled up a startling number of hours grading student work. If this is how I am to use my life, then, at the very least, I want to take responsibility for having done so, even if I ultimately choose to sleep through some of the most tedious parts.

Pedagogy decluttered: On becoming a more minimalist teacher

I’ve decluttered the hell out of my house. Those ratty socks, unloved shirts, and broken lawn chairs are gone, gone, and gone. Though my simplifying journey is still underway, the benefits of doing more with less, of streamlining both the stuff and processes of my life couldn’t be clearer. Naturally, then, I’ve turned my minimalist eye to teaching, creating, I hope, more air and space for what is most essential in my work with students.

The actual practices I describe here aren’t new or innovative, but I hadn’t previous framed them in minimalist terms. Considering them this way — as a sort of pedagogical application of the Kon Mari method — helps me to make sense of, and better integrate, my teaching values with those shaping the rest of my life. As a North American woman in her fifth decade, I am perhaps typical of my demographic in my desire to free up space — both literally and figuratively — rather than to fill it, to seek experiences rather than stuff, and to do more with less. It is an impulse that, for me, at any rate, is ethical and spiritual, as well as aesthetic and practical, and so it’s no surprise that it has leaked into my thinking about teaching.

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I notice, for example, that I’m increasingly eager to impose an order and structure on coursework and course design up front that severely reduces the need for daily decision-making along the way. Like wearing a sort of uniform each day — which I also do — having the class details laid out in advance saves me from having to fuss, dither, and scramble on a daily basis. My online class, in particular, is set up to run like clockwork, so that, barring catastrophes, I know precisely what I and my students should be doing each day. And our work occurs in a repetitive cycle that creates a breath-like rhythm that (I hope) allows us to focus on substance rather than the minutiae of instructions for clever, new assignments or changes in the order of readings.

I also see that I spend less and less time churning out expansive written feedback on individual student work. Rather than scribbling out detailed paragraphs on exams or essays, my process is increasingly spare and stylized. So, for example, I rely more on thoughtful rubrics or grading worksheets that include specific criteria, forcing me to be clearer about expectations up front. And, of course, thought it requires work in advance, it saves me time and grief during the busy flow of the semester. Though I’ve used rubrics for a while, aware of both their limitations and perks, I now see them as analogous to a capsule wardrobe. This practice of creating a painstakingly curated small collection of clothes, rather than limiting our choices, can, it seems, help free us up to focus on higher priority matters.

My final observation arises as I continue to minimize paper usage in terms of the number of handouts I supply, work to be submitted, and physical texts I assign. This is partly an influence of my online teaching, in which physical paper plays almost no role, and also resonates with my efforts at home to eliminate messy paper subscriptions, bills, receipts, etc. Some of my satisfaction results from the supposed environmental and money-saving aspects, of course, but minimizing paper also fits better with an aesthetic in which unnecessary props and accessories are cleared away. And, of course, the practical benefit of being able to access class texts or student assignments without schlepping a heavy backpack, is magical.

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I know that such streamlining practices come with a cost. Adhering to a cyclical schedule of assignments entails a loss of spontaneity, and relying on stylized feedback structures like rubrics can feel impersonal. Having a structured, planned living situation, too, has its disadvantages. I find myself eating a lot of boiled eggs and wearing just a couple of black shirts because of my commitment to routine. Though it’s not for everyone, for me, adding such bits of structure creates flexibility in other areas. As the famously routinized Kant argued, imposing form and discipline can, paradoxically, increase the quality of one’s freedom. In the time I’m not fiddling with my clothes, I can walk, rather than drive, to work. Because I wasn’t up half the night scrawling comments on term papers, I am well rested when I connect with students, rather than resentful and grumpy.

Still, I am not proselytizing — I don’t think minimalism offers the best framework for teaching (or living) — nor do I think there’s one right way to be minimalist. Some of my fondest memories as a college student include explosively spontaneous professors who seemed barely affected by clocks, calendars, and no smoking signs. What I can report with confidence, though, is that minimalism is doing for my teaching what it does for my life. As my hiding places are cleared away, I am encouraged to be more honest with myself about how I spend my time and energy. With fewer opportunities for the seductive, distracting busywork that claims our hours, our days, and our lives, I occasionally get a glimpse of something that might really and truly matter.

Professors in the pandemic: Universities’ quiet betrayal of working-class students

Many of today’s U.S. professors exist only because, decades ago, a new emphasis on acquiring “research intensive” status transformed lots of humble land grant normal schools into “real” universities. At far flung institutions, in cornfields, river valleys, and deserts across the nation, first-generation college students like me drifted into the classrooms of inspiring poets, passionate sociologists, and dedicated chemists. Some of us followed them into their labs and creative processes, eventually becoming professors too. We, in turn, landed back at these former regional comprehensives now eager to market themselves as “serious” research institutions. The drive to populate U.S. universities with world-class researchers, productive intellectuals, and cutting-edge creatives was never wholehearted, and many professors like me have spent much energy over the years battling perceptions that we are a drain on the institution. It should come as no surprise then, that in these panicked Covid times, some of these same universities are quietly morphing back into undergraduate, teaching-focused institutions, while still touting their research and grad student missions, and still charging research-intensive university tuition.

I sprang from a struggling, white working-class family that had skepticism about elitist intellectual types bred into its bones, so none of this suspicion about scholars is new or strange to me. But as with lots of blue collar families, my parents valued education and the landscape of my earliest childhood included books. Through my own reading and writing skills, I earned approving pats on the head at school year after year. And at the humble midwestern university I was privileged to attend, I stumbled into the classrooms of professors whose teaching prowess was organically rooted in their own experiments, creations, and investigations. Their passion for original, creative scholarship was contagious, and it showed some of us for the first time that we too could be creators, and not just consumers, of knowledge and art. Ultimately, through some combination of race privilege, inertia, good fortune, and hard work, I ended up with a PhD in my 20s and got my first professor job just a few months later. Now in my 50s, I clearly see that my relatively successful career is the result of a historical accident, a consequence of once vocationally oriented colleges having embraced research-intensive identities in a period of optimism for higher education.

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As a liberal arts professor, I have had opportunities to simultaneously teach and engage in explorations, solving problems and indulging curiosities together with my students. I feel honored by the scholars who’ve been in dialogue with my writing and by the zillions of students I’ve worked with over the decades, especially those for whom education has been a lifeline. But the toxic fog that has been creeping across humble public university campuses like mine has intensified and thickened in this current crisis. Amid the pandemic, our institutions’ betrayal of an affordable, accessible public higher education rooted in original research, scholarship, and creativity is well underway. The body counts are impressive: new PhDs unable to find decent positions, mercilessly exploited adjuncts, furloughed and terminated staff colleagues, and students pushed so far into debt that even a bachelor’s degree from a no-label four-year college feels like a frivolous luxury. Starved of public monies, hobbled by diffuse and leaky missions that vaguely prioritize the university “brand” (e.g. football) over academics, and refusing to address administrative bloat, once accessible research-intensive regional public universities now languish like beached whales.

I am no superstar scholar, but I was hired, in part, because my consistent, active intellectual engagement has fueled my capacity and enthusiasm for teaching. It is jarring, then, to have heard from administrators in recent months that the scholarly engagement of liberal arts professors like me is suddenly irrelevant. In past years, we professors of English, Political Science, Sociology, Economics, and History had been threatened with the “punishment” of additional teaching if our scholarly production failed to rise to some unclear, arbitrarily enforced administrative standard. But this at least made some kind of sense. After all, my university explicitly leverages its research-intensive status to attract students, explaining to families that they must expect to pay more for an education facilitated by research-active faculty. Under the murky cover of the current emergency, however, the internal message has suddenly shifted: Faculty must teach as many students as possible as cheaply as possible and original scholarly exploration has suddenly become a luxury. But are universities’ marketing departments being asked to rebrand these schools to honestly acknowledge the vanishing commitment to supporting faculty research?

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As an utterly unlikely professor, someone whose life was transformed by the democratizing trend in higher ed, I find the bait and switch being offered to working-class families especially noxious. Elite institutions will emerge from the pandemic with their research missions and brain trusts intact, but for other sectors of public higher education, the democratization of the professoriate seems to be over. Some universities, especially, for example, those with directional modifiers in their names— “eastern,” “western,” “central,” “northern” — are quietly retreating from commitments to students about working with active researchers or personal attention from “engaged scholars.” Some of these institutions are now violating policy and practices in a race to close academic programs and fire professors and staff. It isn’t, of course, that administrators suddenly doubt the power of students working with knowledge-creators, but that such human investments have been deemed too expensive, even as athletics and administrative budgets may remain comparatively intact.

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Again, despite this shift in priorities, no university is likely to come clean about its abandonment of research pretensions, at least not until forced to do so. For example, despite recent deprecating language from administrators about the value of research in communications with faculty, my university still boasts publicly about its research prowess, desperate to distinguish itself from the nearby community colleges and four-year schools nipping at its heels. Instead, the shift away from research-intensive missions is happening quietly, incrementally, behind the scenes, driven by the gradual, often unilateral, decisions of individual administrators rather than by transparent, collaborative decision-making about the collective identity of the institution. Universities cutting corners this way are relying on the fact that working-class families like the one I came from, those struggling to send a child to a “real” college for the first time, won’t notice or care about the false advertising.

None of this is to minimize the power or impact of four-year schools focused solely on undergraduate education. In fact, maybe it is time to pull the plug on some of the research-intensive universities in the out-of-the-way corners of our nation’s higher ed map. Maybe my own university should be first among those to abandon its research ambitions. Without an open conversation about this, including the voices of students and their families in the region we serve, I couldn’t say. But I am appalled by the sleight of hand underway as university administrators quietly turn their backs on what they shamelessly continue to tout as their “world-class research missions” even as they stand firm in their commitment to unprofitable Division I athletics. If a university has decided that it will no longer invest its Carnegie classification, then it needs to come clean about that and figure out an honest way to attract new students. As it is now, schools like mine seem to be betting that prospective working-class students and their families will be too ignorant to notice that they’re still being expected to pay research university tuition even as the scholars necessary to fulfill such promises are being picked off one by one.

May the devil’s advocate go back to hell: The dangerous appeal of “both sidesyness” in the classroom

For about five minutes in high school, I was on the debate team, having been identified as verbal and assertive by a teacher who urged me to give it a try. I hated it. It wasn’t that I lacked aptitude. The teacher was right: my vocabulary and reasoning skills were decent, and I could stand in front of grown ups and say things without bursting into tears. But I loathed researching issues I hadn’t been drawn to, and could muster no enthusiasm for championing positions I didn’t actually believe in or care about.

It was a disconnect that left me stranded miles away from the smart debate kids whose passion for argument seemed genuine. For me, it felt like being on the school softball and basketball teams all over again. I wanted to win, sure, but unlike my teammates, I wasn’t rendered heartbroken by losses or elated by wins. While I enjoyed athletics for the sheer sake of moving my body and perfecting skill, though, I couldn’t relate to argument as if it were a satisfying sport. This wasn’t, I think, because I undervalued it but because I took moral and political persuasion so seriously. I dismissed the debate ethos as a schtick, as a self righteous preacher scorns ministers she thinks are in it for cynical reasons.

Enter the current crisis of objectivity, what Samantha Bee calls “both sidesyness.” This is the inclination to situate urgently important issues in pro-con terms and draw false equivalences between polarized views about them, regardless of how absurd or disingenuously offered. It’s a pseudo objective posture that grants time and space to positions and players that may have done nothing to earn that privilege. At the same time, it erodes the status of reasonable, well founded views. The best, most dramatic, example may be how climate change science has long been framed as locked in debate with climate change denial. It’s almost as if the most fanatical debate kids grew up and founded news outlets. As if the fate of the planet were not about the urgent truth of the matter, but about performing argument.

To be fair, I’ve probably suffered more than most from “bothsidesyness,” having endured the debate ethos in my philosophy classrooms — and frequently with other philosophers — for decades. This has nearly always been in the form of young white men, some of whom were so enamored of their own argumentative prowess that they threatened to deplete the room’s oxygen. When, instead of sparring, I asked these fellas if they actually believed what they were advocating, or even found it plausible, they tended to look surprised. Didn’t I know that that was beside the point? “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” they’d tell me, confident I’d never heard of such a thing. Mastering this skill, they painstakingly explained, was what it meant to be a good critical thinker.

Unfortunately, lots of instructors, too, seem to implicitly agree that the capacity to quickly produce well polished arguments and hurl them at one’s opponent is indeed what it means to exhibit higher order thinking skills. Too often, the ego-focused performance of playing the devil’s advocate in a pro-con arena supersedes thoughtful, holistically logical thinking. Students are rewarded for their cleverness, for a facile ability to backfill with rationalizations, rather than for thoughtfulness, empathy, or capacity for nuance. I know first-hand about such rewards because I relied on them during my razor’s edge walk through graduate school in an overwhelmingly male program. Cleverness, counterfactuals, and contrarianism became some of my very best friends.

To be clear, then, I’m aware that sophisticated rhetoric and reasoning skills are important and grant that debate-like expositions may be one effective means of developing them. I benefitted from such training and am among those who believe that the Sophists got a bad rap. And as an analytically trained philosopher, I didn’t just grudgingly learn to dissect arguments, I came to enjoy it. But the inveterate devil’s advocate — that guy (and, yeah, it’s still nearly always a guy) who argues for the sake of argument, has drifted so far from the relevant social and political context, so far from the argument’s existential moorings, that there is often a kind of cruelty to it. If you’re a woman who’s ever faced a devil’s advocate eager to argue with you about rape, you’ll probably know exactly what I mean.

Exacerbating the problem is that we instructors are often so grateful for students who show any inclination whatsoever to give reasons that we may be reluctant to discourage or assertively redirect the cheaply performative devil’s advocate. Sometimes we’re so desperate for students to talk — say anything at all, please! — that we actual welcome his clever repartee. And, besides, even if the performance doesn’t really deepen anyone’s understanding of the issue, it can provide an excuse for showing off our own logical acumen, right? And, as PhDs who have run the full gauntlet of higher education, who is better prepared than we are to defend the devil himself?

Covid 19 and the university: Professors are not Dorothy and the administration is not our Oz

Though the university is frequently characterized as a liberal hotbed, professors have always had to fight, sometimes even within our own ranks, for our right to speak up. This is especially so during times of national or global crisis when, predictably, efforts to silence supposed disgrunts may reach a fever pitch. Even at universities, and even within the professoriate, our habitual pleas for academic freedom and the need to be robust critical thinkers may fade. What’s more, it’s not unusual for those asking difficult questions to be scolded, smoothing the way for administrative overreach and excess.

Critics should expect to encounter efforts to silence them — both subtle and gross — culminating in accusations of disloyalty, to the institution, to the nation, even to humanity itself. These may begin as a gentle form of ostracism where the critic is simply ignored, even by those who suspect, or know, that the warning is more than just someone crying wolf. This passive strategy of shunning may escalate into more overt shaming, with squeaky wheels being called out for betrayal of the common good. Perhaps because I am a gender studies professor, I can never hear such admonishments outside the framework of the silencing politics of sexual violence. Keep it to yourself, the victim may be urged, or the police will come and take daddy away.

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Even basic questions of leadership competence and accountability may be automatically turned back on the critic, dismissed as potentially treasonous. When commanded to jump by a president, provost, or dean — some of whom until very recently were mere mortals, just professors like ourselves — otherwise staunch faculty advocates may now reflexive reply, “How high?” Obviously, this creates the perfect conditions for the most egregious forms of administrative overreach, especially when rumors are unleashed that employees will be lucky to have jobs come Fall. In the blink of an eye, proudly empowered members of the professoriate may be reduced to begging for scraps, perhaps volunteering to give back their salaries with no idea of what the financial exigencies actually are.

Too often, as a distraction during crisis times, difficult nuts and bolts conversations are bypassed, and, instead, we are urged by leaders “take deep breaths,” and “be grateful for what we’ve got.” In the service of compassion, privileged, tenure-line faculty who have relative job security, especially, may be urged to make “sacrifices.” Such humanistic values are, of course, well and good, but quickly turn sour when used to paint those who persist in demanding institutional accountability, or even rudimentary shared governance, as crass or unspiritual.

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Not incidentally, vague calls for sacrifice and compassion from the professoriate distract from the obvious and egregious economic disparities that we have long known exist between elite administrators and almost everyone else. Against this backdrop, the critically outspoken professor may still be painted as too privileged, naive, or narcissistic to appreciate the gravity of the situation. It is as if the horror of the fact that people are dying around the world — and that we all have a moral imperative to respond — somehow erases, rather than intensifies, our ongoing duty to think for ourselves and insist that our institution to live up to its basic commitments, including to campus employees far more vulnerable than most professors.

Professors’ special responsibility to be critical thinkers and outspoken members of our campus communities — including on behalf of our staff employee colleagues — surely doesn’t end because we are in the midst of crisis, regardless of what paternalistic higher ups or even terrorized colleagues may imply. If anything, the need for brave, questioning professorial voices is more urgent than ever and we must resist the temptation to glorify the authority or magical abilities of administrative colleagues as if we had suddenly been transformed into Dorothy and Toto, wandering haplessly in an unknown world.

As usual, there is a practical benefit to our continuing to behave as the flexible intellectuals, incisive social critics, and responsible, skeptical adults that we are. If we permit our fear to overtake us, and start behaving like dazed, frightened children, then we are inviting our presidents and provosts to function as decisive authoritarians, no matter how much (as is evidently the case) they may be flailing. Only with a collegial relationship based on mutual respect and fierce accountability can we both meet this crisis and also make it more likely that, together — faculty, students, staff, and administration — we will thrive in the aftermath.

Lazy professors, “junior” faculty, and the sexism of calls for shared sacrifice

As we all know, some universities are beating the bushes in search of cash. For example, my university offered eligible faculty one month to sign on to a pretty darn decent retirement incentive. Retirement-eligible colleagues could elect to move on, encouraged to believe they were freeing up resources to help forestall future staff and faculty layoffs. Unfortunately, if predictably, the retirement initiative got tainted early on by a swirl of pre-existing ageist and anti-professor stereotypes: “Senior” professors are dead weight, impeding the futures of vibrant “junior” faculty. Oldsters and middle-agers have not just been presented with an attractive exit strategy, then, but some are effectively feeling nudged and cajoled into it both by threats of inequitably increased teaching loads and unsubtle shaming tactics: Professors are to blame for our institutions’ money woes and we are selfish if we refuse to fling ourselves overboard to save others. Though such calls for sacrifice may not feel at all coercive to the most empowered faculty members, the very notion of institutional sacrifice is shaped by sex and race, making it more likely that women faculty, especially women of color, will feel called to bear the brunt of the pain.

The ageist aspects of this may be readily visible, i.e., the notion that the careers and livelihoods of older people should somehow matter less, simply because, well, they are older. It’s a view mirrored in society at large every time it’s suggested that the death of an adult, especially an elder, matters less than that of young person. At universities, ageist and anti-professor stereotypes combine with the familiar trope that tenured professors are complacent layabouts. Because of this stereotype, it is easier to get people to believe that it is aging professors, and not millionaire administrators or elite football programs, that are draining the institutional coffers. The notion that “older” faculty can and should solve university budget crises by sacrificing themselves could only emerge at the intersection of offensive stereotypes about both older people and professors. And this idea gathers force in a university environment that already leverages the disproportionately well developed sense of social responsibility felt by women, perhaps most especially, women of color.

Part of what makes the current “sacrifice the tenured professor” rhetoric so problematic is that it exploits structural inequities marked by sexist and racist inflected expectations of self-sacrifice. For example, partly because of many universities’ chronic failure to retain and properly advance faculty of color (women and men) or white women, a disproportionate number of untenured faculty are likely to be people of color, both women and men, and white women. A likely racist and sexist impact of layoffs that target the “last hired,” then, is that women and men faculty of color, and white women will more likely feel the pain of these budget cuts. Such threats may include opportunistically increased teaching loads — making it harder to ever earn the security of tenure — as well as job loss itself. Provosts, deans, and chairs know, of course, that it is a particularly precious group they have chosen to focus on when they implicitly invoke the vulnerability of these untenured colleagues. It is a strategy that mirrors what’s been happening so frequently in Washington with a president who routinely targets vulnerable groups in order to extort funding from bleeding heart liberals in order to then “save” these same vulnerable people.

Based on ample past experience, administrators could predict that those who feel compelled to leap to the rescue will be more likely to emerge from a particular subset of senior faculty. These are the usual suspects, the reliable contingent of women, especially women of color, who have been counted upon year after year to to perform the institution’s “caring labor,” e.g., unpaid advising, mentoring, and endless diversity work meant to improve the optics of universities’ handling of racial and gender “issues.” The provost, dean, or chair announces with a heavy heart that untenured colleagues may be made to suffer unless “senior” faculty are willing to accept unjustifiably large teaching loads. But who can reasonably be most expected to step up to the plate? It is surely not the most privileged, best paid white male professors, those who likely feel the most entitled to their positions, salaries and ample time for research. Isn’t it more likely to be those who are already underpaid and overextended, those who’ve long been expected to prioritize others’ needs before their own? In this crisis, as before, women’s socialization towards caring, service, and sacrifice will be used against them. Further, faculty members who may already have the most reason to doubt their value and belonging in the ivory tower will likely answer calls for sacrifice that more entitled colleagues may be able to tune out entirely.

Underlying all of this is a disingenousness that deserves to be highlighted. My university, for example, continues to employ the usual cadre of exorbitantly priced administrators (and unprofitable, mindblowingly expensive Division I athletics). And it is these same administrators who now summarily lay off poorly paid staff employees and exhort “lazy faculty” to “tighten your belts” and “do more with less.” Despite their positions of extraordinary power, privilege, and wealth, such administrators depict faculty as responsible for forestalling the supposedly otherwise inevitable tragedy facing “junior” colleagues. The temerity of variously named presidents, provosts, and deans, some of them rich as Croesus, implying that tenured faculty are the problem — many of us earning quite humble salaries — and not they themselves, is stunning when you think about it.

In this essay, I’ve used the term “junior faculty” reluctantly. Untenured colleagues are not, after all, children, and continuing to speak about them this way, as if they had no adult agency or voices of their own, further disempowers them. Also, they are a heterogeneous group just as tenured professors are, some with far more privilege than others. In the end, though, any university’s decision to expect tenured faculty to save “junior” faculty is a classic divide-and-conquer management trick meant to bring the professoriate to its knees. So long as universities continue to prioritize elite administrators (and Division I athletics), why should anyone believe that the sacrifices of tenured faculty would actually be redirected to faculty or staff central to the academic mission? At my university, faculty have been absent from substantive budget deliberations for so long it would be unforgivably naive to trust administrators to make good on such supposedly humanitarian bargains. In any case, the practice of taking aim at a group of vulnerable people, whomever they are, in order to force concessions from caring others is very nasty politics. It is a tactic appropriate to bullies and demogogues, but, one imagines, far beneath the dignity of enlightened university leaders.

Pandemic 2020: The danger of making online classes too convenient

Famous quotes remind us that education is an almost sacred endeavor meant to transform individuals and society, and not merely to reproduce the status quo. When we teachers sit in classrooms generating sparks and watching fires take hold, it’s easy enough to believe in education’s awesome power. Maybe we also get to overhear a student’s conversation about their internship at the youth center, or see “end campus rape” buttons on their tattered backpack. In person, there may be lots of signs demonstrating a student’s commitment to the life, culture and values associated with higher education. Is it possible that online classes are inherently less transformative precisely because of how neatly they fit into students’ lives even as the pandemic has made them more necessary than ever?

I’m sure that college redrew the lines of my own life largely because of how it disrupted me, intellectually, psychologically, and physically. When my eighteenth summer ended, I packed up my underwear, tennis racket, and paperback thesaurus, and headed off to a new life. The ostensible locus of the move was, of course, books and classes, and many of my courses were excellent, but it was being uprooted and tenuously replanted that rocked my world. If, instead, I had taken Intermediate French at my hometown community college, would I have become friends with a biracial Algerian? And what if I’d taken the class online instead, from the privacy of my suburban Midwestern home? Though I did not, as it happened, study French for long, my love of language and my cultural curiosity took deep root in my college years.

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Of course, even before the pandemic, online classes became so wildly popular precisely because they fit within students’ existing lives and habits. And this creates access for critical populations, employed parents, those charged with elder care, hungry minds in prisons or on military bases. On the other hand, this seamless fit into students’ lives softens education’s potential to shake things up, to provide students not merely with credits or certificates, but to crack open their very worldview. In this respect, then, online ed skews conservative, which is, perhaps why so many political conservatives are enamored of it. After all, how often does an online class result in Junior hanging out with her new hippie friends on the quad? Instead, she may well remain plugged into a full-time job, tapping out online discussion posts in hermetic isolation. She “makes time” for the class as best she can, squeezing it into the few remaining nooks and crannies of an already structured life. How will the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement be impacted by an upcoming school year that is all, or mostly, online?

Obviously, the right online course at the right time can point a student in a new direction. But I think online classes are more likely to really matter if we actively cultivate their disruptive potential in some ways even as we dutifully supply convenience in others. For example, why not foreground the advantages and disadvantages of online ed in our syllabi, early lectures, discussions, or other material? What if we help students ponder the price they may be paying for convenient learning and in very particular terms with respect to this precious moment of social upheaval? This will be anathema in institutions that are defensive about the legitimacy of online ed, but if we are confident in its value, and confident in young peoples’ passion for social justice, as I am, then we can be forthright about its weaknesses.

And what if we also refuse to make classes too convenient? One of my new students shared her decision to take all online classes this term because she knew she would be out camping for several weeks. I explained that, while my class is asynchronous, it is not self-paced. It is, rather, “a loosely choreographed group experience,” not so very different from a face-to-face class in terms of its requirement for consistent “attendance.” In short, I resisted her assumption that online education is meant to be squeezed into one’s schedule as an elective afterthought. Even asynchronous online classes, which are generally preferable for lots of reasons, can require students to commit to a consistent learning practice, rather than become tempted by a more binge approach.

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Like many contemporary college students — especially those with demanding work lives — some see education as a discrete experience to be molded around an existing life rather than as a journey meant to upend it. For lots of good and bad reasons, college classes are often seen as a mere credential, or as a luxury, to be pursued in one’s leisure. My student’s pushback about regular group deadlines helped me articulate how and why I value shared group learning. For example, in discussions, students must grapple with the same issues at a similar place in their developing intellectual arc. And my many communications with students as a single group reinforces the notion that we are connected and accountable to real others, helping to create a subtle sense of community so necessary in these times of social distancing.

In a way, then, though I appreciate online ed’s convenience, I also aim to cultivate reasonable inconvenience. We often come to value something, after all, by carving out an honored spot for it in our lives. This is a premise of spiritual practice, of course, and helps explain why there are temples and mosques and churches. And it’s why I keep a tidy writing desk and work regular hours even when I am directly accountable to no one. The value work has in my life, then, is established and maintained partly through the space and time I create for it. It is like the difference between thoughtfully cooking dinner at home or grabbing fast food at the last minute and gobbling it down in the car. Can we, I wonder, even in this Covid-19 era, acknowledge and respect our students’ need for safety and convenience without becoming McTeachers?

The dirty work of academia: Why do so many university administrators refuse to teach?

At some point, lots of deans, provosts and presidents stopped identifying primarily as faculty colleagues focused on supporting academics and embraced the role of elite business manager. This shift is, of course, reflected in the astonishing CEO-like salaries commanded by many of these folks as well as the increasing distance they place between themselves and the hands-in-the-soil work of being a professor: research and teaching. Many university administrators have come to function like distant factory bosses who emerge from air conditioned offices from time to time to stroll between the machines, awkwardly quipping with workers, and then summarily issuing orders to speed up the production line. That these specialized academic managers and foremen might dirty their own hands by descending into classrooms, labs or library archives is such an absurdity that my recent proposal to administrators at my institution that they might help teach in this tempestuous coming school year fell on deaf ears. It was, I guess, as if I’d suggested that the CEO of Disney consider cleaning up the vomit on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

My proposal was simple enough, meant both to help shore up instruction in the wake of layoffs and to address the growing crisis in faculty morale, including a sense that admin is increasingly out of touch. If we are to take seriously both the spirit of shared sacrifice and the imperative to provide students with the best possible classroom experience, I wrote, shouldn’t we do more than simply push additional labor onto already beleaguered faculty (as seems to be the plan right now). With so much campus activity suspended by the pandemic, many, perhaps most, of the usual campus events and responsibilities that occupy administrators’ time are unlikely to take place in the coming year. Why not refocus their energy back into the classroom? Since the university may, in fact, be able to promise students nothing more than an academic experience this coming year — with athletics, cultural events, and other activities indefinitely sidelined — shouldn’t each of us be prioritizing academic teaching and research?

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Sadly, none of the administrators to whom I directly addressed my proposal even acknowledged receiving it, though scores of faculty members with whom I also shared it responded with great enthusiasm. Several faculty colleagues even called it a “a great idea” underscoring how radical the notion of being a teacher-administrator has become. Apparently, many administrators have so fully embraced the notion that their role is to stand on the sidelines, scrutinizing and judging faculty research and teaching without, you know, actually doing it themselves, that my proposal seems utterly preposterous. With some important exceptions, it seems, public university higher administration has evolved into its own separate professional class, which, like its corporate role model, comes with its own MBA-inspired uniforms, silly jargon, and the imperative to maintain distance from working grunts. That is, of course, unless rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi is part of a scripted performance of noblesse oblige. The sheer fact that many administrators wax so poetically about student-centeredness and vibrant intellectual engagement, while having forever turned their backs on their own classrooms and research labs, speaks volumes. At some point along the way, the academic labor of teaching and research seems to have become menial dirty work — no wonder so much teaching has been dumped onto poorly paid part-time instructors — with the increasingly corporatized script of today’s elite administrators specifying that they keep their hands squeaky clean.

Just in case anyone assumes that my proposal was such a disingenuous howler that it did not even deserve a reading, I’ve included it below. And in my narrative I also anticipated some likely objections to it, for example, the trusty truism that administrators are SO VERY, VERY BUSY, you know, unlike the rest of us. I suggested that foisting more teaching onto faculty, while the teaching skill and energy of administrators languishes, would subvert instructors’ attempts to prepare for the as yet unknowns and ongoing upheavals of Fall and Spring teaching. Further, because many students are disoriented by the pandemic, they will need even closer faculty attention. Finally, as noted above, many of administrators’ usual responsibilities will dissolve if, as is almost certainly the case, most campus activities are prohibited or restricted. If our university’s true goal is to enhance instructional quality and student experience, I concluded, then my proposal should be taken seriously. However, if the true aim of administrators were, even in part, to punish faculty perceived to be “lazy” by speeding up the teaching credit production line, then my proposal should be summarily rejected.

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As I said, though the administrators to whom it was addressed did not reply, my proposal resonated with lots of faculty. This is not surprising, especially when I consider how the idea of getting administrators back into the classroom occurred to me in the first place: As I worried about how my own department might deal with quite specific threats of a workload speed up in the fall, it dawned on me that one of the very few people on campus who might be able to retool to teach a popular, but specialized, course that I developed and teach is the professor-dean of my college. Given her strong background in, and publicly expressed commitment to gender equity, diversity, and science, combined with her reputation as an effective teacher, it occurred to me she might even be eager to return to the classroom this Fall in the spirit of pulling together to prioritize academics. I concluded by offering that “I would be happy to help her prepare to teach ‘Race, Gender, and Science,’ and also hear her suggestions for improving the course.”

The response? Crickets. Not only are some administrators too busy-and-important to directly participate in their universities’ purportedly core academic missions, some are, apparently, too busy to even entertain the possibility that they might do so. This would probably be far less troubling to me, and many other faculty, if we hadn’t already been nursing suspicions and misgivings about this whole elite administrator schtick. I mean, if our universities are transformed into ghost towns as this pandemic lingers, students and professors having been driven into exile by “sensible budget cuts,” don’t you half expect this cadre of VIPs to still be wandering around in suits and ties hawking their strategic plans? Let’s tell the truth: Politicized and corporatized bosses, managers, and football coaches elbowed academics off stage years ago. The fact that, in 2020, so many administrators refuse to do the very same work that they harangue faculty to do more and more of, the very work, mind you, that they too trained to do, should surprise no one. After all, how many fast-food CEOs will ever touch, let alone consume, the greasy burgers their workers are paid a pittance to churn out?

 
The proposal in a nutshell: WMU’s Students First Teacher-Administrator Initiative

Slogan: “At Western Michigan University, faculty, staff and administrators join forces to guarantee student access to the academic expertise and attention they deserve!”

Summary: For both the fall and spring terms of AY 20-21, all presidents, provosts, deans, and chairs (including vice presidents, vice provosts, and associate or assistant deans) will prepare and teach no less than one course for the department(s) that can best make use of their particular instructional expertise. Further, no regular faculty member shall be subject to having their regular teaching loads raised until the untapped teaching labor of administrators has been distributed. Administrators who, for objectively compelling reasons, are unable to contribute their teaching labor, will take temporary pay cuts or voluntary furloughs to free up funds to compensate term or part-time instructors who can responsibly provide course coverage in their place.

Pandemic 2020: Are universities treating the disease but killing the patient?

The virus in our midst is especially deadly for those with existing underlying health risks, though most of us who develop symptoms will eventually emerge relatively unscathed. So too, though nearly all U.S. colleges and universities are being touched by the pandemic, only some have already died or are languishing on life support. And while financial ruin may be what actually kills some, for far too many others, the true cause of death will be their failure to respond ethically and sustainably to the crisis rather than the crisis itself. Predictably, universities built on a genuine foundation of equity, respect, and sustainability are likely to survive and, eventually, to thrive, while those infused with hierarchy, secrecy, and reactivity began to teeter and crumble almost the very day that stay-at-home orders went into effect.

To take one example, my university has been at the national forefront with respect to cutting personnel and planning radical restructuring schemes, changes that may permanently reshape the university’s instructional and research capability, despite the unknown long term impact of the crisis. It was as if, one day, an abstract budget target number appeared in the sky, like the bat signal, with provosts and deans rushing to create and implement slash and burn plans that have included little or no substantive input from faculty, staff, or students. Whether my institution, Western Michigan University, is actually financially worse off than universities that have taken a more measured, holistic, stakeholder-based approach, I cannot say. As is (not incidentally) the case with many large, hierarchically run organizations, budgets are often so complicated and opaque that it can be impossible to separate fact from fiction, accuracy from exaggeration.

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Though the actual underlying rational for the budget targets may be murky, the impact on our campus community has been clear: early layoffs of hundreds, with, we are told, many more to come soon. In addition, we are seeing the early signs of marginalization, merger, or elimination of academic departments, according to factors that seem to have nothing to do with metrics of productivity or cost-benefit analyses. For example, my university has also been among the first in the nation to take steps to merge or eliminate its successful and cheap Gender and Women’s Studies Department (my tenure home) which focuses on LGBTQ youth, students of color, women, and sexual assault survivors. It is the sort of move that, though sadly unsurprising to those who do diversity work, has recently earned the condemnation of the National Women’s Studies Association for its apparent opportunism. NWSA chides universities “that are using the crisis to implement cuts they have been unable to make in the past because of faculty and student opposition and organizing.”

The true devastation of top-down ad hoc slash and burn policies isn’t primarily the intrinsic suffering they cause to campus constituents, especially to students, but the fact that this suffering is inflicted from above, for arbitrary or implausible reasons, and that it falls so disproportionately on the most vulnerable. Though, to be sure, elite administrators have agreed to symbolic cuts to their sometimes jaw-droppingly high salaries, their lives and livelihoods remain largely untouched. It is as if there had been a treaty signed by administrators from the outset that, whatever cuts and restructuring might occur, the university’s existing salary inequities, power structures, and habitual priorities must remain unchallenged. Rather than serving as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitments to compassion and equity, at too many organizations, this crisis is being leveraged to further erode such values.

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It is not higher education’s financial crisis alone that will ultimately determine which universities will live and which will languish and eventually die. Consider, for example, two equally resourced families of equal size, faced with the same dire economic news. The patriarchal head of the first family sighs regretfully and immediately drowns two of his children in the well. Problem solved! Fewer mouths to feed! The second family, though, sits down together to study the situation. Are these numbers accurate? Is there any way to challenge the apparent facts of the new reality? If not, are there parts of the family budget that can be trimmed to free up more money for necessities? Because this second family’s approach is values-based, participatory, and deliberate, they are better off even if, ultimately, their shared suffering is great. For one thing, their children, though skinnier, will probably still be alive to help harvest the fields when, one day, the corn grows again. But also, having remained true to their core values, the heart and soul of this family remain intact.

Those who rush to drown their children, or otherwise sell their souls to the devil to address a crisis — no matter how apparently grave — have already lost the war against this latest scourge. When the dust clears, we may celebrate the buildings and privileged employees still left standing, but we will also speculate about what transpired behind closed doors and secret meetings in exchange for such physical survival. In the long aftermath of catastrophe, we will ask: Who collaborated and who resisted? Who stood by and watched while others were pitched into the well? Such a climate of suspicion and resentment will stain our universities well into the future, undermining our will to inspire students or give our best to our disciplines or institutions. The problem universities are facing right now, then, is a financial one, to be sure, but it is just as much an ethical one. We are in the midst of a moral trial that invites us to peek behind the facade of classrooms, cafeterias and football stadiums to find out who we really are. And it does us not one bit of good, if, in a frenzy to keep the patient’s body alive, we kill the very thing that makes that life worth preserving in the first place.