Building on The Humanities Institute’s long-running Questions that Matter events and course programming, we invite you to consider Questions that Matter in the Time of Pandemic. Through this series of reflections we ask how the stories of this pandemic and Humanistic inquiry into questions of science, leadership, education, racial disparity, and global cultural understanding can shape solutions to the COVID-19 crisis.
In this week’s reflection, UC Santa Cruz Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Jody Greene reflects on the potential and possibilities for teaching and learning in the pandemic and post-pandemic era. Greene asks what kind of future we consign ourselves to if we refuse to engage in acts of “aspiration, imagination, and hope”—a quality that is critical to “any educational endeavor and specifically to the practice of teaching-learning.” Greene advocates for poiesis, for making together, as a way forward.
Jody Greene is joined by Lois Kazakoff (Cowell, ‘76) in our next virtual Humanities Happy Hour event: Teaching and Learning in the Time of Pandemic on Thursday, May 21st, 5:30pm. Advanced registration is required: sign up to attend here.
Imagining the Post-Pandemic University: A Homework Assignment
Whatever the perspective through which we appreciate authentic educational practice—its process implies hope.
When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus on resolution, we take away hope.
A year ago this week, on May 10, 2019, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a much-discussed essay by Andrew Kay called “Academe’s Extinction Event: Failure, Whiskey, and Professional Collapse at the MLA.” Among the many surreal dimensions of rereading this in the time of the pandemic is the moment when Kay reconvenes with his cohort from graduate school, now scattered across the country and all working in the precariat or in non-academic jobs, on what he describes, presumably because readers may not be familiar with it, as “an app called Zoom.” That both Zoom and the imminent extinction of the Humanities were newsworthy in the Higher Ed press exactly a year ago strikes me as the clearest proof to date that we now live on the other side of an irreversible epistemological rupture: pre- and post-pandemic. Even when engaged in forecasting its own imminent demise, the pre-pandemic Humanities scene feels, from the present moment, like an age of innocence.
It’s weird to encounter an argument for interpreting something as an extinction event when you’re actually living through one. While we don’t know what will happen to most colleges and universities after the pandemic, in at least one sense, an extinction of sorts has already taken place, as rereading Kay’s piece makes clear. When the ex-academic reminisces about the world he has left, the verbs he associates with what he loved about academic life are “gather,” “assemble,” and “mingle.” When he wants to describe academia “at its best,” his examples are not scholarly practices or intellectual endeavors but physical spaces where people convene to teach to and learn from each other: “classroom, conference, seminar.” I suspect few of us understood quite what a critical role embodiment played in American intellectual and academic life until the possibility of face-to-face interaction went away.
I suspect few of us understood quite what a critical role embodiment played in American intellectual and academic life until the possibility of face-to-face interaction went away.
The world Kay remembers so vividly and longs for so keenly disappeared in a matter of hours from most US campuses two months ago, and the strong likelihood is that that exact world will not return, soon or ever. Don’t panic: that doesn’t mean we’re heading to some fully virtual future for all of academic life. It means that some of the habits and practices we were accustomed to and immersed in pre-pandemic may not and probably should not return.
Let me give an example. A lot of the discussion on campus “recovery planning” committees involves imagining how to bring students back to campus for in-person instruction while using appropriate social distancing measures to keep them safe from infecting each other and the rest of us who live and work here. What has surprised me as both a participant (locally) and an observer (nationally) in these discussions is the extent to which nearly all take for granted that the format of the courses and classrooms to which we will return will be the same as those pre-pandemic.
Don’t panic: [this] doesn’t mean we’re heading to some fully virtual future for all of academic life. It means that some of the habits and practices we were accustomed to and immersed in pre-pandemic may not and probably should not return.
To take the lowest of the low hanging fruit, why would we deliberately plan toward a future in which we still have lecture classes with hundreds of students? We know that they are ineffective at promoting learning and, even at their most successful, enhance existing equity gaps for our least privileged students. Suddenly forgotten in all the outcry about how much students miss in-person classes and how hard it is to engage them remotely are the number of students who did not show up to in-person lectures and the percentage who were asleep, online shopping, or looking at their phones when they did. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad to watch us wax sentimental about the large and increasingly larger lecture halls many of us have been trying to eliminate in building plans and campus growth initiatives. What if we don’t bake into our planning scenarios a return to classroom experiences that didn’t work well for most (if not all) of our students? What if, instead, we spend time imagining more effective, interesting, and engaging ways to teach large numbers of students at a time, perhaps through hybrid models developed specifically to support student learning?
Of course, the idea that we need to reform our approach to lecture classes is hardly new. And yet the Higher Ed and national press are full of visual images right now of a post-pandemic university in which students sit in lecture halls spaced out for social distancing. It’s as though our capacity to think a different future is temporarily hamstrung by the existing stock photo and design template archive. Given that we have a forced opportunity, a gift to us from the viral realm, to rethink some dimensions of the university–particularly those related to teaching and learning– why not allow ourselves a little freedom to imagine otherwise?
Suddenly forgotten in all the outcry about how much students miss in-person classes and how hard it is to engage them remotely are the number of students who did not show up to in-person lectures and the percentage who were asleep, online shopping, or looking at their phones when they did.
When Cathy Davidson visited UCSC in 2018 as a guest of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning and what is now The Humanities Institute, in the wake of the publication of her groundbreaking book The New Education, she spoke about the urgent need for a revolution in higher education teaching and learning. Among the failed and outdated practices she traced to the nineteenth century’s manufacturing and productivity ethos were grading, credit hours, standardized tests, and multiple choice examinations. Within weeks of the onset of the pandemic, all of these familiar features of higher education as we knew it have come under review, been rethought, and in some cases been eliminated altogether. Who would have predicted or even allowed themselves to dream such a thing?
For those of us who run teaching centers or conduct research on teaching and learning in the residential university in particular, these are strange times indeed.The pandemic has required every educator in the world, with very few exceptions, to focus attention not only on what but on how we teach. While there are many lamentable features associated with emergency remote instruction, our colleagues are also trying techniques that experts have long advocated but that many instructors have hesitated to try due to pressing workloads, the ongoing demands of research and service, or a desire not to be told what to do in our teaching by experts. These include #ungrading, recording lectures so students can review them as many times as they need, and moving away from timed, high-stakes exams, especially for those who want to avoid the ethical quagmire of remote proctoring, to more creative and, frankly, interesting forms of assessing whether and which students are learning in our classes.
What if… we spend time imagining more effective, interesting, and engaging ways to teach large numbers of students at a time, perhaps through hybrid models developed specifically to support student learning?
Students now face a wide range of barriers including variable access to technology, personal illness, taking care of family members, and the psychological effects of trauma. Instructors are showing care and great commitment as they figure out how best to support students who may not be able to complete all elements of the course at the same pace. Their creative pedagogical responses include adaptive strategies so students can have some control over the pacing, trauma-informed approaches, and many of the techniques associated with Universal Design for Learning–strategies instructors deliberately choose because they are designed to make educational environments more hospitable and less tyrannical.
Yet these same barriers existed before the pandemic and will exist after it. The only reason we’ve been able to provide solutions with such alacrity is because these tools for compassionate and effective pedagogy had been available to us, and to our students, all along.
Recently at UC Santa Cruz the Academic Senate Committee on Teaching surveyed faculty about challenges they had encountered in the shift to remote teaching and solutions they had found. One of the comments that struck me most forcefully was this: “Honestly, it has, for me, catalyzed and forced implementation of teaching practices I’ve long desired to do.” If the post-pandemic university incorporates even some of these long-known and well-researched techniques for better supporting students and their learning, something will have been salvaged from this unprecedentedly disastrous time.
The only reason we’ve been able to provide solutions with such alacrity is because these tools for compassionate and effective pedagogy had been available to us, and to our students, all along.
Should we hold out for even bolder imaginings than these? The world of the university as we knew it has been interrupted, and will likely remain so for a long time. Notwithstanding the pervasive language of “getting back to normal” and “returning to campus,” it seems clear that the break will not allow for any going back. There’s plenty of predictions of what the university might look like on the other side of the pandemic rupture, and nearly all of them fall somewhere on the spectrum from dire to dystopian.
I wonder what kind of future we consign ourselves to if we refuse to engage in acts of aspiration, imagination, and hope–that quality identified by both Paolo Freire and bell hooks as critical to any educational endeavor and specifically to the practice of teaching-learning. Over the past weeks, I’ve been slowly and deliberately rereading philosopher Jonathan Lear’s remarkable book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear chronicles the conditions under which a culture—here, the Crow nation—can orient to the future when the world as they have known and lived it ceases to exist. The time the book is most interested in is the interlude between when one way of life collapses and another has not yet begun to emerge—a time that we find ourselves in. Criticism will not help us, because there is no longer any need to unmake, nor any possibility of re-making. The impulse to tear down, too much a feature of some pre-pandemic pedagogy in the Humanities, will not serve us in this situation. The antidote to devastation is not complaint but creativity.
The impulse to tear down, too much a feature of some pre-pandemic pedagogy in the Humanities, will not serve us in this situation. The antidote to devastation is not complaint but creativity.
For Lear, the remedy for despair and the proper activity for this intermediate time is poiesis, or imaginative world-making. When we have neither the practical conditions nor the necessary knowledge to move forward, he writes, our time is best spent in “the creation of a new field of possibilities” (51):
Things are going to change in ways beyond which we can currently imagine. We certainly do know that we cannot face the future in the same way that we have been doing…. We must do what we can to open our imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities. (93)
As Humanists, as thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak and Jacques Derrida have long argued, we may be uniquely situated to play a leading role in acts of imaginative world-making. Poiesis is what we do in the Humanities. We know both the power and the value of the capacity to dream-while-waking that will be necessary if we are not to be condemned to repeat the worst features of the university and the wider world as we knew them. In this mean time, we must find ways to gather, with or without the whiskey, to imagine the university we most want to be a part of, and to dream the “authentic educational practice” that cannot have gone extinct because it never fully existed.
As Virginia Woolf challenged us in A Room of One’s Own, in her own poetic sketching of a not quite imaginable future in which all students might have what they need to learn and to create, “I maintain that she would come if we worked for her.”
Jody Greene is Associate Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is also the Founding Director of UCSC’s Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning. In 2005, she published, The Trouble with Ownership: Intellectual Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730 (University of Pennsylvania Press). A new volume, Human Rights after Corporate Personhood, co-edited with Sharif Youssef, is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press in Fall 2020. Greene has edited special issues of GLQ and Eighteenth-Century Studies, and has published articles in journals such as PMLA, Critical Inquiry, and The Eighteenth Century. Her most recent writing has appeared in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Featured image: street art mural in Los Angeles, California, by Corie Mattie.