The Journal of American Studies recently invited me to be part of a roundtable on teaching in the age of COVID. The essay is available for a short time for free online. Here are some excerpts:
To insist that the risk of face-to-face courses during a pandemic is acceptable is to overvalue the parts of campus life that we commonly assume to be most important to relatively few, relatively privileged students while downplaying the risks that a physical reopening presents not just to the majority of students but to our most vulnerable ones. The most privileged students have the least to lose with a physical reopening and also with an online one, but catering to their (assumed) demands to physically reopen puts those already at risk at even greater risk. On one hand, we have the desires of the most powerful for the social networking that reproduces and reinforces their power,7 and, on the other, the life-or-death needs of the least powerful.
What is striking about this choice [between unsafe F2F reopening or online courses that can’t replicate “the college experience”] is that it preserves the cause of the problem that it is trying to avoid: the financial precarity of universities, which is caused, in part, by creating a unique (and expensive) “college experience” often advertised as nearly entirely social rather than intellectual (which is also social). This is frustrating for two reasons: first, the promised “college experience” is impossible this fall (as academic administrators well know and have known or should have known since midsummer) because that experience relies upon physical closeness that is too dangerous during the time of COVID, and, second, it prioritizes the losses that our most privileged students fear over the losses that our most vulnerable students face.
To justify face-to-face reopening as meeting the social needs of lower-risk students while ignoring the real risks such a reopening imposes upon students already at higher risk is an act of injustice. Face-to-face reopenings present a great danger to those most vulnerable in order to satisfy students who are both more likely to survive COVID and more likely to have the resources to learn online well anyway. That is, an online-only reopening presents relatively little harm to the college student who can learn from home with high-speed Internet, no children clamoring for attention or for help with their own remote schooling, no elders to care for, no essential job to juggle or lost income to make up for; at the same time, it still presents a much better alternative to risky face-to-face learning for students for whom COVID is more likely to result in death or disability.
It was a delight to work with editors Zalfa Feghali and Ben Offiler and appear with contributors Miguel Hernández (history, University of Exeter), Cassandra Clark (history, Salt Lake Community College), Kaisha Etsy (African American studies, Wesleyan University), Emma Battell Lowman (archeology and ancient history, University of Leicester), and Gavan Lennon (American literature and culture, Canterbury Christ Church University).
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