Messy, Beloved Community

What’s needed to make a campus safe now is at odds with the experiences people crave, argues Deborah J. Cohan, and institutions are making decisions about the fall based on magical thinking.

June 2, 2020
 
 
istock.com/prostock-studio

College administrators are in the unenviable position of determining what the campus experience will look like come fall. Most are waiting for more information and gauging what other institutions are doing. Some have already declared that they will be delivering face-to-face instruction in the fall.

Declarations that classes will be face-to-face are not maverick moves but rather slapdash attempts to lure students and parents who are understandably desperate for some semblance of normalcy and are prey to the promise of what they’ve long hungered and planned for -- to have the quintessential campus experience.

The problem is it can’t happen. What’s needed to make a campus safe right now is completely at odds with the iconic experience that people crave.

When the demand by administrators is to charge ahead with “acceptable risk,” this is about politics, profit and arrogance; it’s as though they think they can outsmart the virus and science. Shouldn’t institutions of higher education be modeling for students the importance of ethical, careful decision making based on scientific inquiry rather than on magical thinking?

The thing about college is it’s intimate and messy. There are the emotional, intellectual, political, creative and sexual messes. I’ve lived the better part of my life on college campuses -- first as a student and later as a professor for almost a quarter of a century. The most exhilarating, memorable moments have been the grittiest ones.

I remember as a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison sitting shoulder to shoulder at the union listening to music; or the time I, and other students, covered up art with black cloth all over campus as part of “A Day Without Art” to commemorate World AIDS Day; or piling on beds with friends to drink and hang out; or attending numerous protests and campus lectures; or having sex for the first time; or studying with my friend Laura in the tiniest room until all hours of the morning, sharing food and giggling; or my boyfriend making the most amazing homemade spaghetti as we both licked the ladle to taste it in my apartment, where he spent nearly every day.

As an educator, I remember the first class I taught, to which I invited a homeless person who sold the newspaper Spare Change in Boston, and we literally and figuratively broke bread with him -- sharing dinner, demystifying stereotypes and conveying our deepest hopes and fears. I’ll also never forget the Take Back the Night rallies with the heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault, or getting on the filthy floor to meditate and do yoga in my Sociology of the Body class. Then there was the time I hugged and consoled a student who had just lost her father to a heart attack and her friend to suicide, and wiped away her tears with my bare hand.

These memories reveal one thing above all: transformational teaching and learning happens in messy community, amid spontaneity and risk taking. A hyper-engineered college environment that tries to be no touch by requiring people to wear masks and to walk hallways spaced apart at timed intervals in one direction only, by confining students to small cohorts to move through their classes so they are not meeting more people, and by limiting gatherings hardly sounds like college to me. Instead it sounds like a recipe for exacerbating the loneliness, anxiety and depression that are already all too common on college campuses.

I tell my students so much of their learning happens outside the classroom -- at campus events, on the field, in residence halls, at the gym, in cafeterias and at parties. It’s in those settings that they learn even more about decision making, risk taking, collaboration, competition, boundaries, an ethic of care for their peers, peer mentoring, leadership, love, self-care and the world beyond themselves.

Some campus administrators insist we count on students to uphold the myriad and necessary precautions and police their peers to do the same. It’s not just that I think that is totally unrealistic; it’s also that it’s not even necessarily desirable. College is the time for the intimacy of community, hedonism, experimentation, risk taking, some measure of defiance and even failure. I don’t want those things taken away from students. Developmentally, they need all that to grow.

Few Realistic Appraisals

In the meantime, nationwide, we have not heard from administrators about how their proclamations can actually be fully operationalized in the fall. In reviewing communications sent out by numerous institutions across the country, as well as scouring college websites for this information, it is clear that certain patterns are emerging. First, too many colleges and universities are either approaching the fall guided by the principle of acceptable risk or declaring an intention to open with no real promises, yet in both cases the announcements are accompanied with nothing very substantive. Second, institutions are overemphasizing personal responsibility as the solution so as to avoid liability. And third, when related to the classroom, administrations are implicitly relying on faculty policing without attention to faculty safety or choice.

It strikes me as reprehensible for higher education institutions to base decisions on mathematical modeling that tolerates risk such that at a very large university, the tipping point from acceptable to unacceptable risk could be a few thousand people. I am refreshed by bold leaders like Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, who wrote in The Atlantic, “We must ask ourselves: What would make leaders gamble with human life this way? The answer is twofold: fear and acquiescence -- both of which, when left unchecked, lead down a path to moral damnation … if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.”

For well over a decade, I worked with domestic violence offenders, some of whom tried to kill their partners, yet nothing has scared me about a work environment as much as this current situation. Simply put, you cannot do good work, teach and mentor if you are forced to operate from a position of fear, threat and silence.

Few if any realistic appraisals and concrete plans have been set forth that anyone can bank on because, the truth is, no one really knows what will happen. Just two and a half months ago, colleges made promises that many of us knew they could never keep about resuming later in spring 2020 or having commencement ceremonies in person. Given the failure rate of those predictions, how confident can we be about how they are planning for three to seven months from now? It seems entirely likely that the plans will need to change again -- and again.

At the same time, we hear that students across campuses may get to choose the modality in which they take their classes. We are also hearing that faculty members at some colleges can choose to not teach face-to-face. This is just one of many fundamentally incompatible ideas floating around right now. When we read between the lines, we see that face-to-face instruction more likely means hybrid formats, but administrators are not coming clean with students and parents about that for fear of losing enrollment and money. Faculty and staff members, and their health and well-being, are being used as pawns in a game played by the administration to secure housing and dining money while purporting to be student centered. Colleges that are simply stating now that they will be online are being far more honest and allowing families to plan accordingly.

It is profoundly revealing to see that, for years, some of the same higher education institutions that have been pushing the hardest for more students to go online to save or make money now want to insist on face-to-face education in the midst of a health and humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. In and of itself, this rich irony should cause us to question motives. It is nothing short of institutional gaslighting.

Other questions need to be asked also. University systems like mine are canceling fall break, assuming that will minimize travel. In fact, the vast majority of students at impoverished institutions use fall break to work extra hours and catch up on schoolwork. At colleges with a high percentage of students who regularly commute, not to mention those with many faculty and staff couples in long-distance relationships and marriages, it is terribly unrealistic to suggest that people curtail their travel.

If you’ve taught long enough, you’re also aware there’s a time right around midterms that you might know as the week of the dying grandparents, when numerous students all report fictitious deaths that keep them from meeting deadlines. This fall, the tragedy might be that reckless happenings on the campus will, after students return home and visit older relatives, make such an excuse all too real.

The sage on the stage who became the guide on the side now fixes her scene on the screen in the latest episode of the emperor’s new clothes. In this land of make-believe, do professors fly in to teach on magic carpets? Or do they zoom in from their homes while televised across big screens for students gathering in actual classrooms while calling this face-to-face, since, well, the students can then be with each other and see our faces?

But isn’t there something deceptive about that linguistic shift that is more about marketing face-to-face to vulnerable students and their families? In other schemes being considered, are faculty members, who probably represent more vulnerability in greater proportion, really supposed to endure triple the risk of students in the plans that suggest big classes be split into smaller groups such that students come once a week for face-to-face while professors come three times a week?

The most effective, meaningful, and memorable teaching and learning is about removing the metaphorical masks, rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty, getting up close and personal, being embodied and coming to a place where we don’t fear the stranger in our midst. What makes teaching the most magical is the act of tender, curious and open surrender -- both by the teacher and the student. It’s from the chaos, the mess and the community that order, answers and hope show up.

My ultimate wish for students is that they get to do college in messy, beloved community so they can gain much-needed practice for inhabiting the various communities of their future lives -- but not until it is truly safe to do so.

Bio

Deborah J. Cohan is associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption (Rutgers 2020).

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

 
Back to Top