(An essay by the “virtual pedagogue” published on the AAUP’s Academe Blog this past Friday)
I was sitting in my high school French class the first time I got called to the principal’s office. I don’t recall what the “controversial” newspaper story was about, but we student journalists explored issues such as drunk driving, race relations, and graduation requirements. I don’t even remember if I had actually written the offending article, but I was the editor, so off I went to absorb the principal’s stern warning to stick with more “appropriate” subjects. Some months later I was called to the district superintendent’s office across town and offered the same “friendly advice.” Fortunately, my high school newspaper advisor had taught us a lesson I’d already learned from watching my father all my young life: sometimes speaking out was not just my right but my duty. The lesson applied, too, when, a few years later, the Kansas City ACLU asked me to testify on behalf of a new cadre of student journalists at my alma mater facing ever more assertive administrative crackdowns.
The verdicts about Fall 2020 are rolling in: rising infection rates, sporadically attended face-to-face classes and ongoing pressure for faculty to support students too stressed out or sick to stay on track. For both professors and students, uncertainty is deforming every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including fundamental pedagogies and general possibilities for engaging with one another. Given this historically unprecedented pressure on learning itself, why do some universities’ budget cutting priorities actually seem to be focused on dismantling, rather than strengthening, structures guaranteed to enhance academic quality and student experience? And with ad hoc budget cuts aimed squarely at the solar plexus of teaching and learning, why should universities expect students to stick around or return in the future?
For example, at my institution (the one I know best), in addition to early retirement carrots and sticks that have peeled away some of our most accomplished content experts and talented teachers, budgets for part-time instructors — many of whom are, themselves, fully credentialed and experienced instructors — are being decimated. Of course, at universities that have long been dependent on such “temporary” instructors, the direct and indirect impact on students is utterly predictable: In a 20-21 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic and ever-shifting, many faculty have been assigned higher course loads, not lower ones. An obvious consequence, which few seem to be talking about, is that students will be expected to settle for a much smaller slice of their instructor’s time and energy precisely when they most need that focused attention. There is also the devastation of part-time instructors’ livelihoods, some of whom have been unstinting in their loyalty to exploitive institutions that now promise to abandon them to coax more teaching out of already beleaguered faculty.
And let’s be clear about the impacts that reactionary budget cuts to academics is having on students in this chaotic year: Overloaded faculty must choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to neglect students. Given that, for many faculty, scholarly projects are time sensitive, research cannot simply be postponed until (or if) the university decides to reinvest in academics. Further, though some requirements and deadlines have been temporarily adapted, interruptions to the research momentum of grant funded, or untenured faculty will irreparably damage some careers. In addition, much of the service faculty will jettison to make room for higher teaching loads directly impacts students, including, for example, letters of recommendation, independent studies, thesis advising, and urgent curricular overhaul. As usual, this burden will fall most heavily on already vulnerable faculty and students, including faculty and students of color, international faculty and students, and LGBTQ people, precisely when they most need to be able to create and rely upon such community. And for some such vulnerable students, close contact with instructors can mean the difference not only between success and failure, but between life and death.
To take a simple example, having been assigned increases to my 20-21 teaching load, I am, for the first time in my decades of teaching, declining to work independently with graduate students who have specifically requested my expertise. Like most faculty, I take my responsibility to student learning deadly seriously and so it has been wrenching for me to inform them that the university would no longer support my ability to do such “extra” work. Ultimately, of course, though some such activities can surely be postponed, faculty simply cannot abandon all of our many other service and research responsibilities to divert full energy to the classroom and, as is plain for all to see, students will pay the price. Following the no-blood-from-a-turnip rule, even professors gamely determined to do our best will be forced to cut corners and dilute our offerings. And some professors’ morale is so badly shattered by elite administrators who demand sacrifices from faculty that they stubbornly refuse to make themselves, they will be unable to marshal their usual enthusiasm for students. This is, of course, the very same energy that makes their classes attractive to students in the first place.
As universities continue to prioritize exorbitant administrative salaries and jaw-droppingly expensive athletic programs in the midst of this crisis, they become ever more unrecognizable to dedicated teacher-scholars for whom student learning is utterly precious. We can’t help but ask ourselves: “If I were going to build a new university from scratch in Covid times, in a blisteringly competitive enrollment environment, where would I start? What would I invest in first and most?” It would, of course, be high quality student learning and the faculty research and scholarship, advising, and library support necessary to sustain it. As the pandemic strips away layer after layer of expendable university offerings and extras, the core academic mission — the excitement of cutting-edge knowledge, research opportunities and close work with faculty experts — should loom larger on universities’ radar than ever. Instead, however, at some universities, it is academics that is being treated as a luxury item in an unfocused frenzy to “trim the fat” even though, at universities like mine, the unfolding budget reality is much better than the doomsday scenario that had been predicted.
And what a lost opportunity! Rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to recommit to it. There may well be “fat to be trimmed,” including within academics, but some panicked universities — addicted to coffer-draining Division I sports and exorbitant administrative salaries — are electing to make budget cuts that hit academics first, hardest, and longest. This is despite the fact that much “extracurricular” and bureaucratic programming, such as college athletics and all sorts of ceremonial events, is either offline or has been radically curtailed. What do universities have to offer students that could possibly be more important than academics? It is a terrible insult to the students and families now placing such extraordinary faith in universities to get it right that the academic mission seems to be falling so low on the budget priority list.
When instructors were suddenly pushed into online teaching last Spring, many online education experts predicted that the long term impact on online education as a whole would not be pretty. Some instructors who had never engaged in systematic online course development — either by choice or circumstances — suddenly discovered that they could, in a pinch, shift their face-to-face classes into video mode without changing a great deal about the course. As the pandemic rages on, many universities now offer a mishmash of wildly different course styles unceremoniously glommed together and offered to students as “online.” Because thoughtful, best practice online education had not yet been widely understood, practiced or respected before the pandemic — many administrators and instructors still assume it’s a faded copy of the “real thing” — the latest flood of online courses is haphazard, uneven and rife for abuse by administrators desperate to produce cheap credit hours.
The situation is looking grim enough at my institution, Western Michigan University, that, after years of making my living and pedagogical reputation from thoughtful online teaching — including in this blog — I am feeling nudged back into the classroom at what may be the worst possible time. This is because courses I have developed and facilitated in collaboration with my university’s capable online experts according to best practice online pedagogical standards — necessitating modest course caps — have suddenly been threatened with a 60% course cap increase. My carefully designed, fully elaborated asynchronous courses — providing both ample daily feedback and a significant writing component — were never designed to be an imitation of face-to-face classes, but to explore and express the rich possibilities distinctive of thoughtful online pedagogy. Anyone who has done this sort of online teaching work understands the extraordinary challenge of creating and calibrating high precision courses that maximize student flexibility while amplifying engagement. No one serious about online pedagogy thinks it is easier than teaching face-to-face.
Unfortunately, administrators who never understood or appreciated the distinctive promises and challenges of online education in the first place have few qualms about increasing teaching loads in the midst of the pandemic. In fact, unrestricted by constraints of classroom size and availability, it is evident that some now see online classes with dollar signs in their eyes, a bottomless opportunity to generate cheap credit hours. The new head of my department, for example, openly disdains the notion that online pedagogy should be a factor in the determination of course caps. She has suggested that she feels no particular ethical, pedagogical or practical constraint with respect to the determination of online class size. And she is not alone. For many administrators — who may have never created fully elaborated online learning opportunities themselves — online education is not a modality with its own logic, integrity and distinctive challenges, but merely a more convenient, generic, and tepid version of the “real thing.” That being the case, what difference should it make if the names of 20, 40, 60 or 100 student names appear in one’s online class roster? Besides, shouldn’t professors like me expect to pay a price for the convenience of sitting around all day in our pajamas?
What an odd sensation to be sitting in my home office in the midst of this raging pandemic increasingly persuaded that it’s time for me to get out of online teaching and back into the classroom. The irony is, as I have explained in various essays here on the Virtual Pedagogue, I was never an online education fan. Until about six years ago, I too believed it couldn’t be more than an inferior version of my face-to-face classes. Ultimately, though, I embraced the challenge of this new modality both because it felt like an important contribution I could make to my department and because my university’s online education experts persuaded me that I could do it without losing my pedagogical credibility and integrity. Without the assurance of a reasonable online teaching load — including modest course caps — I would never have made the leap. I had heard enough about online mega-classes built around poor quality video lectures and objective exams to know I wanted nothing to do with that. Though I can certainly understand that it may not be possible for some emergency versions of online classes to aspire to creative pedagogical heights — there is surely a place right now for “video courses” — it is a terrible mistake for universities to abandon distinctively online pedagogical values because “emergency.”
In fact, the perverse twist of the situation is not lost on anyone in the online education world. Just when higher ed most needs to embrace the reality that online education is a complicated endeavor that deserves time, energy, investment and respect, some universities may actually be regressing. Just as our sick and struggling students most need and deserve a variety of high quality, engaging online experiences, some schools are making that newly difficult. If, as appears to be the case, my university is willing to embrace a mass production model of online education, I want nothing to do with it. And if administrators expect to maintain student enrollments while offering such inferior products, they should remember that our students and their families are savvy consumers with zillions of options to feed their hunger for higher education. How long do we expect them to pay sit-down restaurant prices for drive-thru window fare?
Imagine starting out at the trailhead of a thousand-mile backpacking journey and making a pact with a companion to share burdens, concerns, and to treat one another as respected partners. You set out knowing that if one of you runs short on water, the other will share; if one sprains an ankle, the other will slow their pace too. If the snows come early you will huddle together despite the tedious misery of frozen toes and unwashed bodies. You set out confident that, no matter how bad it gets, decisions will be made collaboratively. In fact, the power and promise of this initial pact is rooted precisely in the presumption that, at some point, things may get very bad indeed. Ethically mature individuals know that such commitments are fully realized, not in times of ease, but when tested by frayed nerves, supply shortages, and danger.
This analogy helps explain the heartbreak many of us feel as some universities have stopped collaborating with faculty, staff, and students in the midst of the pandemic. We have not only been left scrambling to deal with budget secrecy, top-down program “restructuring,” and devastating layoffs, but also to absorb the stunning disappointment of discovering that what we thought were respectful partnerships with university administrators were an illusion. At some universities, shared governance now stands revealed as a managerial ploy to increase compliance and good will, made at a time of relative prosperity, when such promises cost little.
And so we watch open-mouthed as decades-long policies and practices are swept aside under cover of “emergency.” We wait in nail-biting silence as deans rush to compile lists of “expendable” employees and “unnecessary” academic programs, according to criteria that they need not share, debate, or even plausibly explain to the campus community. Even life and death decisions, such as whether or not to invite students and employees back to campus, seem to emerge as if from the royal chamber. All those decades of managerial sweet talk about the value of student, staff, and faculty input are erased as a paternalistic frenzy sweeps through the ivory tower.
The worst of it may well be not just that well-paid administrators have been prepared to throw others overboard in a panicked attempt to deal with the crisis, but that they are enabled by well-placed apologists, including some faculty members, who urge the rest of us to stop complaining. Shared governance, they explain, echoing administration’s self-serving definition, doesn’t mean what we think. A university is a businesses, after all, and its presidents, provost, deans, and chairs are the CEOs and managers charged with making the trains run on time. We were out of place to have ever expected collaborative decision-making to be a real thing. When it comes right down to it, some frightened coworkers now tell us, universities are like fast food joints: If the manager orders you to scrub out the deep fryer, you should do it without question, suggestion, or complaint. And be grateful you’ve still got a job.
But the majority of us are not ready to concede that shared governance can so easily be tossed aside. We watch as administrators close rank, as university public relations and marketing machines go into overtime, as critical financial information is withheld. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with students, staff, and faculty colleagues and refuse to accept this grim corporatism as the new normal. For one thing, at institutions like mine, faculty have contractually guaranteed rights to participate in many aspects of decision-making. So long as we are willing to assert ourselves, rather than accept belated scraps of consideration, we will turn the tide. What a colossal institutional failure, though, for loyal employees to be forced into legalistic squabbles to have these long relationships accorded a modicum of basic respect. After all, formal policies and legal contracts are meant to underwrite and guarantee healthy professional engagement, not to stand in for basic personal and professional ethics.
Even though we can — and must— fight contractual battles, then, much damage will have been done. To many employees, those decades of assurances about the value of their expertise and feedback now seem like a smarmy come-on. With the shallowness of ethical commitments to shared governance now out in the open, it is not only the future of faculty and staff that is at risk, then, but our past as well. Our very sense of what our careers have meant — these professions and universities we have poured our lives into — threatens to collapse in the midst of institutional dissemblance and betrayal.
Though we are disappointed, hopefully we have learned a lesson. As cynical as it sounds, we must accept that our most reliable companions on this winding, treacherous trail, are not the well-heeled, glib-tongued leaders who have promised to go the distance by our side. Our true allies are, instead, whatever policies and procedures we have at our disposal and the potential power of collective action to enforce them. If we have learned nothing else, let us have learned this: To get it in writing and hold feet to the fire as soon as pretty promises and ceremony — including neutered “task forces,” “action teams,” or other committees — replace actual shared decision-making.
Some will say that this cynical conclusion is unfair to administrators who, after all, are doing the best they can. But having the determination to enforce the legal and ethical aspects of shared governance is good for the entire campus, including, in an important sense, for administrators. Shared governance helps preserve a balance of power that discourages any of us from being as selfish, greedy, or shortsighted as we might otherwise be. We do others no favors by permitting them treat us dismissively even if times are tough and they are desperate, frightened, and well-meaning. It is, in fact, in the very midst of this conflagration of uncertainty and fear that collaborative partnerships matter most. There is, then, nothing more hopeful, respectful or constructive — or more in keeping with deepest values that define “university” — than for faculty, staff, and students to demand the immediate restoration of authentic shared governance.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a number of the symbolic trappings of higher education have come to a screeching halt — including convocations and graduation ceremonies — the value of many high-level administrators is increasingly unclear. With ivory towers and ivy-covered walls long out of reach for many students in any case, universities are now being confirmed as symbols not only of contagion, but of excess and elitism. In some cases, the move to virtual communication has breathed new life into a question that’s been smoldering for years: How many of the expensive administrators populating our campuses are actually necessary? Though they may be taking great pains to continue to publicly perform their roles, so-called virtual dialogues — “town halls,” “forums,” and the like — place them under the microscope of traumatized constituents who also happen to be visually savvy consumers. Not surprisingly, faculty, staff, and students are demanding much more from these astonishingly well-paid leaders than the usual feel-good claptrap.
In the past, presidents, provosts and deans (together with their “vice,” “assistant,” and “associate” versions) have often served as a reassuring presence on campus, especially in difficult times, even if we didn’t always know how they could possibly be earning their exorbitant keep. When we see them up close through webcams, though, in these volatile times, struggling to stay on script in a format that invites and demands authenticity and responsiveness, some are revealed to be poorly performing politicians rather than competent leaders. These glimpses of our elite administrators — some of whom, like Nixon in 1960, seem to be shifting and fidgeting before the camera’s gaze — help peel away remaining illusions about the glory of public higher education. Campus talking points are revealed not just to be idealistic, but, in some respects, a downright lie, especially with respect to fundamental values such as “we’re all in this together.” Assured that the royal “we” will permanently be transformed by the COVID catastrophe, the actual “we” bearing most of the suffering reflects racial and gender inequity, and a basic lack of parity across employee groups.
Many have been aware of the astonishing gap between rhetoric and action on the part of university officials for years. There is, for example, the shameful open secret of many universities’ failure to attract and retain faculty and staff of color (in direct contrast to their high flown, self-congratulatory diversity rhetoric). There are the entrenched patterns of salary inequities between women and men, as well as between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” academic disciplines. There are the whole segments of poorly paid gendered staff labor according to which women may be treated as disposable. There are the appalling labor conditions imposed upon legions of adjunct instructors on whom most universities have long been dependent. At the same time, there has been the creation of an elite administrative class of variously titled (e.g., vice, associate, assistant) deans, provosts, presidents and the like with salaries that have come to rival those of greedy corporate fat cats. The hype about universities as hotbeds of liberalism or radicalism notwithstanding, most campuses have been quite content to mirror the stunning inequities of the corporate world.
The pandemic crisis is not itself responsible for shattering the support beams of our public universities. It is, rather, laying bare some fundamental rottenness, and some of this is occurring before the watchful eye of our teeny tiny computer cameras. To take just one example, high level administrators at my university recently participated in an eight-person panel discussion on diversity that appears to have included only one non-white participant. Even though the national call for Black voices, and the outcry against white obliviousness, has perhaps never been louder, it appears not to have occurred to these white administrators to have raised their privileged voices to help proactively create a genuinely multicultural, inclusive event. Though these administrators were almost certainly well-meaning, a resulting impression is that they care more about performing their own racial virtuousness than about facilitating an authentically self-reflective moment for themselves and for higher education. Would such a colossal miscalculation of racial optics have occurred if the event had been of the usual face-to-face variety? Would it have been as visible to so many people?
As I watch some of these “televised” appearances of university spokespersons desperate to manage the growing discontent of faculty and staff, I am reminded of a caricature of the most decadent years of the French monarchy. Here, nobles attempt to make good will gestures towards the starving masses but end up inadvertently flaunting their privilege and aloofness instead. They aim to appease the masses in the usual ways, but woefully underestimate the discontent, and also fail to appreciate how closely they are being watched. Of course, the populist uprisings that marked the end of this system were, literally, revolutionary, with global reverberations. There is, it seems, only so much people will tolerate once they’ve become hungry enough, and glaring inequalities and obliviousness have been revealed to their frustrated eyes. How might things have played out if French peasants had been able to scrutinize kings and courtiers up close through their own personal webcams, capable of seeing each nuanced facial gesture and of hearing every word of rationalization and excuse?
Despite the new democratizing power and pressure of webcams, the wealthiest and most privileged universities will, of course, continue to be able to hold out, resisting the inexorable forces that are ravaging and rewriting the rest of higher ed. We might recall how some social elites in England continued to enjoy the anachronistic comforts of the Victorian era well into the 20th century. They did not regard them as luxuries, of course, but as utterly necessary to the natural order of things. This is very much to the point as we consider the leveling forces that will continue to sweep through higher ed as the national political tide turns (please!), as demands for racial justice remain urgent, and as more of “university life” is pushed online, much of it permanently. The elite administrative cadres that have come to operate at some universities like aristocrats, strolling across campus in a perfumed cloud of noblesse oblige, are suddenly revealed as obsolete. Exposed before a merciless camera in virtual “forums” that reveal them dancing from one trusty cliche to another, whatever mystique they once projected is being unceremoniously stripped away.
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.
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.
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?