Coronavirus 5: the pandemic university

This past Friday was the last day of classes at my university, though no one has set foot in a classroom here since March 13, when the University of Windsor Senate unanimously passed the Emergency Academic Plan. This waived a number of bylaw provisions that govern how faculty are supposed to teach classes, and we were instructed to move everything online. All classes were cancelled March 16 to 18, and we resumed instruction in the electronic ether on March 19. Since then the university’s Pandemic Planning Committee has met regularly and faculty, staff, and students have received numerous emails from administration detailing policy shifts, suggested ways of handling the move of courses and final exams online, and details about the university’s lockdown of the physical campus. Right now, the university is running with a skeleton crew of essential services personnel, the doors of all office and classroom buildings are locked throughout the day, the library and most other usual public meeting spots and study areas have closed, and the place is a virtual ghost town. A relatively small percentage of our students live in the residence halls on campus, many of them international students unable to easily get home, and so those remain open. Some food service locations on campus are still operating to accommodate them, though I imagine that will shut as soon as possible too, as the provincial government here in Ontario increasingly narrows the list of essential businesses and local authorities clamp down on the requirements of physical distancing.

The pandemic has thus ripped the classroom experience out from under all of us at what was a very late point in the semester here at Windsor, with just three weeks of class left and then final exams. There will be no convocation ceremony, all summer classes will move online, and the mode of delivery for fall semester courses remains an open question, though there’s been no real public discussion of that just yet. It is beyond clear that the university as a kind of institution is not made to weather a pandemic very easily, but then that’s true of most of our social institutions, which require face-to-face interaction, the trust of interpersonal communication conducted in close quarters, and groups of people congregating in one space to make decisions and collectively examine a shared set of materials. If we could do that easily, we would all be the University of Phoenix and MOOCs (massively open online courses) would have become the norm a few years ago. While the university here has done overall pretty well in dealing with this and inside the constraints it faces, the pivot to online learning and teaching in the space of a couple weeks is not easy, as we have all found out.

In this context then, I am, like almost everyone else teaching a university (or even a K-12 class) right now, working remotely. With widespread closures of university buildings  and classrooms, the online shift rapidly developed across the university sector in most places in Europe and North America. Existing ‘learning management systems’ suddenly became the academic lifeline keeping in-progress courses afloat and serving, for now at least, as a bulwark against mass cancellations of entire semesters going forward. Whether and how we at Windsor will handle the potential loss of tuition revenue in the fall semester when the very real possibility looms of losing hundreds of international students … well, I fear that’s the equivalent of a meteor strike coming for the dinosaurs. A friend and colleague shared this article a couple days ago about the threat to Canadian universities if the spigot of international student tuition dollars is suddenly but not irrevocably closed. The argument there is that universities should fall back on a variety of mechanisms that will allow them to continue recruiting and assisting international students, and to perhaps treat them as a separate cohort in the next couple of academic years in terms of program progress and course completion, which would require more online teaching and an increase in services for international students on campus and electronically. It might require doubling up on class sections taught, as well as bifurcating international and domestic students in terms of their roles on campus and in our budget models, and in the campus services and quality of instruction offered and accessible. It also means perhaps bending or breaking faculty rights and responsibilities with regard to course loads and research time, which has a direct impact on the kind of class you can teach and how you can do it. And finally, any such plan would require a lot of money, and where that is supposed to come from is entirely unclear. The model for university budgets in Ontario as elsewhere the last several years has been to place increasingly more of the burden of funding on student tuition and fees, while shoveling more and more money into fixed capital (such as new buildings) and ancillary services. Most public universities’ room for maneuver in an economic crisis is slim to none; without a massive injection of government money to prop things up until the pandemic ends and things begin to return to something resembling normal, the outlook is grim. That said, the bulk of what a university (my university, at least) spends its money on is salaries and benefits, and without people teaching classes and running the offices, you basically have a crappy park full of mostly empty buildings.

For my part, I am not holding my breath on that government money. A ‘return to normal’ for a university like the one where I work would be no great shakes. Higher education has become an industry buffeted by neoliberal cuts to public support and an erosion of the idea of higher education as a public good on one side, and driven by the imperative to grow, expand, build, and outcompete similar institutions on the other. Now we are caught in a bind of responding to a globally unprecedented social, economic, and political crisis on top of years of ‘budget realignment’ (a wonderful euphemism meaning cuts where you can make them and more work of less valuable sorts where you can’t). My own faculty unit (the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, or FAHSS) was already facing a roughly $11 to $12 million budget hole for the coming year; even without a pandemic that might as well be a billion dollars. There’s no viable way we could grow our way out of that by simply recruiting more students, nor is attrition of faculty to slow the growth of costs going to do it. Something like one-third of the permanent faculty members would have to retire or otherwise leave to make up such a gap. What the pandemic means for us in FAHSS is unclear, though my university’s Sciences, Engineering, and Business faculties might have an even tougher time given the higher proportion of international students in those programs. Time will tell if the Ontario provincial government has the foresight to make up pandemic-related gaps in funding or if the current crisis will be used to accelerate processes already underway, reshaping universities in line with the demands of bureaucrats, accountants, and private sector employers. Again, I am not hopeful – these are strongly ingrained processes at this point, and forces and movements that might counter them are weak, disorganized, and aimless.

But back to the classroom and the near horizon of how we are closing out this semester. If the university’s institutional crisis threatens over the long term, then it has its roots not only in the self-destructive political economy of the neoliberal university as described above, but also in the short term crises bearing down on each of us – faculty and students alike – in our courses. I have often told students the university is two things at once: it is the inhuman bureaucratic machine that takes their tuition, provides them a credential, and sees them as student enrollment units on an account ledger, and it is the academic relationship we build in the classroom that can go any number of directions to enrich our understanding, our critical sensibilities, and our sense of ourselves as social beings. It becomes extremely difficult to do the second half of that in these conditions. In fact, I have very little sense of how my students are dealing with any of this. I have taken a ‘less is enough’ approach to finishing up my two courses amid the pandemic. One class is a fourth-year/senior research thesis class, in which students are completing year-long independent research projects so we were already not meeting every week. For this one I had to cancel a symposium day of research presentations, but at least students were already each on their individual path toward completing the thesis, and I can oversee this remotely in a fairly straightforward way. For my large introductory lecture course though, which has approximately 90 students in it, I made detailed PowerPoint slides for the remaining material and placed them on the course Blackboard site. I had not been using any kind of slides to this point in the term, and often don’t even have detailed lecture notes for an intro course like this one (sometimes more disorganized than I intend, but it gives us the chance to improvise and keeps me from going too fast with the lecture), so this presented me with a great deal more work for the final three weeks of class. Many students also had been relying on two physical copies of the textbook on reserve at the university library, which are now inaccessible, but luckily I was able to arrange a free electronic version of the last few chapters for them instead. We had already had two midterm exams in this class totaling 65 percent of the grade, so I gave students the chance to opt-out of the final exam and take the grade they had with the two midterms re-weighted to account for 100 percent of the course. About half have taken this option, while the rest will be writing a two-question essay exam via Blackboard that they can submit anytime up through April 17.

Some students have started to demand this flexibility as an across-the-board policy, and there was even a petition from some of the key student organizations on campus to the university president and provost to adopt a ‘grade freeze’ option for all courses this semester, essentially a chance to opt out of scheduled final assessments and take the grade as it stands. I understand and sympathize with this sentiment, but it cannot be done and the university has said no. As it is, students can, after final course grades are submitted, keep their grade, take a pass/fail (so they get the credit but not the grade, reducing the impact on their gpa if the grade is not so good, or withdraw from the class (thereby losing the credit and their tuition money but prevent a failing grade from dragging down their GPA). This set of options is available at other universities as well it seems, and University Affairs has been reporting daily on pandemic response from the Canadian higher ed sector here, compiling details on many such changes. The emergency plan adopted here on March 13 enforces what we can call some negative freedoms – it simply waives the university rules that tell us what we can’t do in our classes (e.g., change the mode of delivery, or change the syllabus after the first two weeks of class); the University Senate cannot, on the other hand, easily tell us anything specific that we must do in our class related to assessment procedures (except for basic rules like there must be a final assessment, no graded assignments during the last week of classes, etc.). Doing so by insisting that all courses must include an opt-out option would potentially cause other problems as well, given the diversity of classes offered (my thesis class for example, would not be able to include an opt-out, as the final thesis paper, the culmination of two semesters’ of work, is 100 percent of the course grade). Same goes for performance classes in music, or courses where less than 60 percent of the grade had been covered before the shutdown. It is a difficult situation, as no one was really preparing for a pandemic when putting their courses together, and I am sympathetic to the students. To my colleagues, I say, hey, stop trying to prove you’re the world’s greatest everything by pumping heart and soul into three weeks of online material replete with videos you make and edit at home, synchronous exams and chats and lectures, and extra assignments to ‘help’ students. I would encourage everyone to read this highly valuable post by a professor in the US that filtered around social media a couple weeks ago; a big takeaway for me was this:

If you are getting sucked into the pedagogy of online learning or just now discovering that there are some pretty awesome tools out there to support students online, stop. Stop now. Ask yourself: Do I really care about this? (Probably not, or else you would have explored it earlier.) Or am I trying to prove that I’m a team player? (You are, and don’t let your university exploit that.) Or I am trying to soothe myself in the face of a pandemic by doing something that makes life feel normal? (If you are, stop and instead put your energy to better use, like by protesting in favor of eviction freezes or packing up sacks of groceries for kids who won’t get meals because public schools are closing.)

I have little time or patience for those who might suggest that students are using the pandemic to ‘get out of work’ or to extend deadlines. To this I say, OF COURSE THEY ARE, AND SO AM I. Trying is not the same as succeeding though, and I still have grading to complete, emails to answer (seemingly more than before), advising to do (which has been rendered much more difficult by social isolation compounding longstanding technological snafus in our advising system), and virtual meetings to attend (thankfully few and far between). I have quickly realized the amazing value that is daycare two or three days a week. While I have spent considerable time working remotely from home and/or in self-imposed isolation in the past, it was of course never like this. We have at least developed a bit of a routine in my house, as much as one can with a toddler that is missing daycare and cannot interact with any other children except by video chat, which only lasts about five seconds anyway because he’s two. Being under lockdown is, for lack of a better way of saying it, fucking hard for all of us. I have little idea how my students are coping except from a few short emails, and from these I can tell things can be really not easy. One got stuck on the other side of the US-Canada border with a grandparent, limited wifi, and a stay-at-home order. Another was able to get home to Korea but then any synchronous learning or timed exams mean they will potentially be struggling with a 12-hour time difference. Another is being deployed as a military reservist to assist with pandemic response and may be away for several weeks and unable to complete any final exams until then. Others may be taking care of relatives, still working or even working more if they are at an essential business, lacking reliable internet at home, sharing cramped work space with multiple people, or they could be sick themselves. There’s no way to know, and while this uncertainty is always there to some degree, during the lockdown demanded by the pandemic response it is heightened in some transformative and not usually positive ways.

How we all come out of this at the university will only be known over a very long period of time. Even though it seems it has been forever since the world turned on its side, in reality it has not even been four weeks for most of us in North America. Mathematical models are of course just models and not ironclad projections, working on a set of pre-given assumptions. Changing patterns of behavior and new assumptions mean that such models are dynamic, telling us probable and possible outcomes with varying levels of confidence and accuracy. But they have come to rule our lives in a very short time; ‘flattening the curve’ becomes a social imperative inherent in every individual action. Yet the social fabric created by, shaping of, and embedded in the many political, economic, and cultural institutions we inhabit and animate is frayed by the demands of isolation and some of them will not survive this. Maybe this will be a radicalizing moment for the university as a kind of institution, and those who work at and rely on it can seize the chance to remake it, at all levels, into something more democratic, less actuarial, and deeply responsive to the needs of its constituents. Again, I’ve seen enough of how the sausage is made to be less than hopeful about this, but it’s early days yet and all that is clear now is that any return to the status quo ante is going to be impossible.

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