As universities debate continuing remote instruction through the coming Fall, we should ask what parts of the pre-pandemic university are worth fighting for.
The sizeable effort required of faculty over the past two months distracts from the fact that faculty at most US schools lost control over their courses long ago — and not only over their courses, but over the whole of what many of us thought we were getting into when we chose to pursue academic careers. One result of what is called, much too simply, “the restructuring of education” has been the weakening of morale and job satisfaction for at least the last decade. And that, in turn, often results in something we don’t like to talk about, namely less-than-brilliant teaching.
In a widely-circulated critique of the move to remote instruction, Anna Kornbluth writes, “Face-to-face learning is irreplaceable — even in a virtualizing culture, even when classroom infrastructures are overcrowded and outmoded, even when administration has become the dominant sector in education.” This would be true if the teaching happening at universities were actually all high quality. The reality is that there are many classes that students would prefer to take remotely, often because there is no good reason to take them in person. Many courses have bad reputations among students, not because they’re hard, but because they’re too big, or taught by overloaded adjuncts or burned-out senior faculty. And often, these are courses in which faculty themselves have long since lost faith, buttressing entire curricula in which they have lost faith, and even canons or paradigms they no longer stand behind.
It is not the new platforms that are “exacerbating the existing crises of higher education,” as Kornbluth puts it, but the obvious impotence of higher education in the face of this public health emergency. The emergency is not to blame for the present contortions of higher education; on the contrary, it has simply put the latter spectacularly on display. The greatest harm of campus closures is not that students have had to leave campus, or that their courses were moved online. It’s that the courses they were sent back home to “continue” are not at all the courses they need. It’s no wonder the transition to remote instruction has been so disorienting.
The focus on tech- and communication protocol intelligence deepens the generational divides that preexist the “boomer remover” and have been particularly intense in the academy, where the job market is uniquely oversaturated and retirement is not mandatory (although the relationship here is not causal). But what underpins the murmurs that remote instruction will finally force some faculty into retirement is the larger, scarier fact that we have all been declared inessential workers. According to Žižek’s reading of the exhaustion that has accompanied the imperative to work from home, this is precisely the case: university teaching is no longer “meaningful work for the benefit of the community.” But the coronavirus is not to blame for this. It simply exposes what higher education has become.
The university is an enormous, intergenerational, international network of concentrations of educated people. There is nothing else like it. And yet, during this global emergency, university workers are not seen—and do not see ourselves—in the same light as health care workers or other on-call responders, for whom tackling this calamity is a professional responsibility. Students—with the exception of nursing students at some schools—are not seen as capable of anything beyond the occasional protest, grassroots organizing outside of school, and continuing their educations remotely so they may graduate “on time.”
As universities retreat into the shadows (not only physically, following social distancing measures, but in terms of their authority and power in the face of crisis), we see just how far we are from the dream of a public-facing, international network for collaborative research that we keep saying higher education is. In the present anti-intellectual climate, plans to transform college campuses into temporary medical facilities, crucial as this is, effectively contribute to a picture of bankrupt universities whose greatest contribution is their empty buildings. Those empty buildings bring to mind the eerie applause for Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzàles as they strike from school while working to address the crises their generation has inherited. But that generation will soon enter college. Will this continue to be the most radical intervention their professors can offer– to cheer while they demonstratively opt out of school?
The present calamity is an opportunity to invent new models for education, in which the university’s “public-facing,” “international,” and “collaborative” aspects move from the peripheries to the center and become its defining features. It also exposes how complexly intertwined and co-constituted these features are when taken seriously.
Currently, international education is limited to a business model that relies disproportionately on foreign students’ tuition, as well as short-term programs that send small groups of students abroad, usually without any concrete or carefully considered long-term goals of addressing complex problems of global significance. What if, for the first time in the history of the institution, universities invested in more robust internationalizing in order to better mitigate transnational crises (of which this virus is hardly the first or the last) and, perhaps even more pressingly, the ongoing crisis phenomena like poverty? Understood in this way, the internationalizing of education is public-facing at its heart, in contrast to the still grossly limited understanding of the latter term. Until now, public-facing education has referred primarily to student internships that claim to “connect” them to the community for a semester, again usually without any long-term vision. And the Covid-19 edition of the public-facing university seems to have nothing to do with education at all.
Remote versus in-person instruction is only one of many moving parts in planning out the future of the university “once this is all over.” These shifts must come on the level of the content that universities deliver, not just their infrastructure. Critiques of videoconferencing software, shows of solidarity with contingent faculty, calling for a government bailout—all of these are important. But we continue to avoid asking how the ways the academia is not working are related to the contents of what we are and are not teaching. As long as faculty blame the present contortions on administrative decisions, we are not taking responsibility for all the ways we—by insisting on our own version of business as usual in what we teach—continue to collude with a moribund and indeed inessential university system.
The world in which this semester began was a different world, one that’s not coming back. At the same time, however, as we turn toward planning for the next academic year, university teachers are in a position to do more than just urge each other to do less. Aisha Ahmad is right to criticize the scramble to productivity, but the real problem is not productivity itself. It is what the productivity of academics is producing at this moment, namely a competition for who has their finger on the pulse of the best critical apparatus for understanding what’s happening.
Who can see the calamity more fully, from a more woke perspective, in greater and more realistic detail, less in denial, while maintaining their cool in the face of fear (that calm that accompanies being right)?— this new cultural form, which I will lovingly name “quararrhea,” is understandable and forgivable, given our situation. And, to be clear, my objection to it is not a moral one, namely that it’s selfish or un-teacherly to be worried about one’s own career at such a time. On the contrary: as the crisis of higher education deepens, it makes perfect sense to dig in and protect one’s increasingly precarious job. But if the method of protection deepens the crisis, the answer lies elsewhere. And if doing the job exacerbates the precarity of the job, rather than telling each other “work less or you’ll make it worse,” we should be working on something else.
“The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed,” writes Ahmad. But rather than merely preparing to be changed, university teachers are facing an opportunity to become the agents of change. A faculty-led reform of higher education is not a transformation we can simply wait to happen to us.
Note: I am particularly indebted to several colleagues for conversations from which these thoughts have emerged: Chris de Ville, Lia Litosseliti, Christopher Schaberg, Ania Malinowska, and James Currie. Thank you.