Believing in Our Students

Much more is happening on campuses than people chafing under COVID-inspired restrictions, writes Austin Sarat.

September 3, 2020
 
 
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Across the country, students are returning to campuses now coping with the fallout of COVID-19. They are eager to recapture as much of the college experience as they can and to reconnect with each other and the faculty members who teach them.

They want to talk about what they are feeling as they start this unusual academic year. At the small liberal arts college where I teach, the first days have been filled with many such conversations.

During one of those talks, a sophomore I had in class last year wanted to touch base and chat about the pandemic’s challenges and the way they are playing out for both of our families. She told me about doubts she felt over the summer about returning to campus and her worry that coming to school with all its new restrictions would be “odd and uncomfortable.”

Now, however, two weeks after her arrival, she reports that those concerns are mostly gone. She has come to terms with masked social interactions and the need to keep appropriate distances in and out of classes. One thing that she is no longer doubting is her decision to come back to college.

Soon after I finished talking with her, I connected with a senior student to discuss whether she should do an honors project in her major. Would it be too much work? Did she care enough about the topic to devote a full year to it? Quite an ordinary conversation for many college seniors.

As we moved toward the close of our Zoom call, I asked her how it felt to be back. Like the first student, she told me how happy she was to be on campus, living next door to one of her closest friends, being able to devote herself fully to the academic pursuits that she loves.

Such conversations suggest that, beneath the turmoil that COVID-19 has caused for colleges and universities, a vast number of students are tremendously glad to be back even as they have to cope with the new circumstances of college life pandemic-style. They are eager to take up the business of campus academic and social life. And they come back with a greater appreciation for both because their exile from campus last spring reminded them of the extraordinary value of those aspects of what college offers.

And what is true for students is also true for those of us who teach them. The sense of loss that we experienced last spring -- when we, too, were forced into exile from our classrooms and libraries and labs -- inspires gratitude for the chance to resume the daily work of pushing our students to think hard, write clearly and use their imaginations.

Teaching and learning feel more precious and more important than ever.

Yet you would not know that from reading the many articles about college reopenings in the local and national media. Last Saturday, for example, brought news of a COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Alabama in which more than 1,000 students have tested positive. And a recent Boston Globe front page headline read, “Welcome to college! Please stay in your room. Alone.”

But such inconveniences are not what students generally are concerned with, even if their connections will now be mediated by masks, six feet of empty space or even, yes, screens. They are glad to be back even if they have to put up with a quarantine period so they can be with their friends and share with them the experiences of college life.

COVID-19 has taxed friendships for people of all ages, but the weight of lost or interrupted relationships has been felt acutely by the young. They rightly want to re-experience what it is like to be part of a college community.

Indeed, friendship has long been one of the most important draws at residential colleges and one of their most important rewards. As a graduating senior at Harvard University noted in 2010, “There is something about taking a group of young people, putting them in the same place for four years (give or take a few), and telling them to work, live, and play together that facilitates connections unlike the relationships formed in any other parts of life. “

And we know that such friendships are also very important in fostering academic success.

Jolts of Energy

Of course, the picture is not 100 percent rosy. Students afforded the opportunity to return to campus are being asked to abide by strictures that run up against the hard-wired tendencies of college-aged people. And some will not be able to do so at every moment.

When they fail, we should not be so quick to blame them and send them on their way. They can succeed only when colleges and universities put in place clear and unequivocal protocols and when students are asked to join in the work of building a community under adversity. Institutions of higher education need to not only strictly enforce rules that limit the spread of COVID-19 but also enlist the idealism and commitment of their students.

And as friendships are renewed and communities are forged, learning will go on. For students on campus, classes will have a somewhat more familiar feel than for those enrolled in residential colleges but learning online.

Both will, from time to time, no doubt be distracted by crises in the world beyond the classroom -- whether it be brought on by COVID-19, the stubborn stain of anti-Black racism or a presidential election that threatens to further divide a dispirited nation.

But those crises will also raise the stakes and heighten the intensity of the work that is done in our classrooms. Those of us who taught during the Vietnam War, Watergate or Sept. 11 and its aftermath remember the way those events sent jolts of energy through college campuses. This semester, I can already see that kind of energy in a first-year seminar I have taught many times before.

The students in that class as well as others with whom I have connected know all too well that the learning that college offers them cannot be taken for granted. They also know that it is crucially important if they are to have a shot at fulfilling their personal ambitions and repairing the world we all inhabit.

Bio

Austin Sarat is associate provost, dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College.

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