facing the fall with empathy

The following is a guest post by Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana.

In March, universities across the country shifted to online learning and adopted policies to account for students’ lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Many administrators asked professors to consider students’ circumstances and to teach with compassion. My university advised that “Our students’ lives are already complex, and shifting instructional modes in the middle of the semester will increase complications. Some students may also, unfortunately, become ill. Be prepared to provide more flexibility than usual.” While there were debates about what that should look like, the message was universally one of empathy and compassion. Yet the tone around decisions about the fall has been business as usual. Instead of compassion, the implicit message became one of returning to normalcy. As one university President stated of the decision to go online in the fall, “we will focus our attention on perfecting remote learning, teaching and working. It will not be the same, but it will be good.” This despite that it seems unlikely that anything about the fall will be normal for students or any other university employees for that matter. We can all hope for normal operations by September, but it is imperative to enter the fall with the same compassion with which we finished out the spring. COVID continues to affect Americans’ lives and the frustration and anger of recent BLM protests remains unaddressed.

This spring, parents and caretakers – including students, faculty, administrators, and staff – were thrown into 24-7 care and home-schooling. Students returned to their family’s homes where they competed for internet access and often worked in less than ideal conditions. The essential workers among our family, friends, and students saw their hours increase and their work conditions become dangerous. Some of us got sick. Some of us lost loved ones. Most of us became increasingly anxious and concerned. Amidst these abnormal conditions, the viral video of the murder of George Floyd circulated, which prompted many Americans to take to the streets in protest to express their anger and frustration with the continuing abuse of police authority and violence towards Black Americans.

Higher education instructors generally tried to account for these abnormal and less than ideal conditions for teaching and learning. They shifted to online learning and adjusted their course delivery. They adjusted their course expectations and grading to accommodate the range of circumstances they and their students were experiencing. They even updated their course content to cover issues of racism, COVID, and police brutality. The approaches accounted for the circumstances of our time and the conditions in which students and instructors were currently living. But the message around courses in the fall is to prepare rigorous courses, particularly for those who are teaching online for the first time.

My concern is that for many of us, the situation will still be the same. The kids will still be home. Friends and relatives will still be getting sick. Some won’t make it through their illness. We will still be grieving the loss of victims of COVID and police brutality. We will still be distracted by our kids and parents. Distracted by the world exploding around us. Frustrated by our ability to do nothing but watch. Emboldened by the call to march for justice. Nothing about these conditions are normal. It is unreasonable to expect rigor and normalcy under these conditions.

Instead of these insensitive and unrealistic expectations, we should be sending messages of empathy and compassion for our students, our faculty, and our staff. Just as many faculty adjusted their expectations and demands to teach under the stressful conditions of this spring, we must continue to assess and reinvent higher education as students and professors continue to face isolation, illness, death, and social unrest. Opening colleges in the fall may take students, faculty, staff, and administrators out of their homes and out of protests to bring them back to campus, but it does not change what is happening in the world around them. We all need to approach the university reopening with empathy and compassion.

Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana is Assistant Professor of Sociology at SUNY-Albany. She blogs at Practical PhD and tweets @zra_research.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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