Making Remote Learning Relevant

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“It started more slowly than they thought it would,” the video begins in classic disaster-genre fashion, but “gradually we all knew that life would never be the same.” Columbia University English professor Denise Cruz sent this video to the 115 students enrolled in her remote Asian American Literature course this fall.

Partway through, the scene, images and text take a more upbeat tone: “This is the premise of Chang-rae Lee’s 2014 novel On Such a Full Sea, a book about a health crisis, labor and how an individual and a community try to imagine a way out.” The subtitles describe other aspects of the online course before concluding, “This beginning may not be easy, but it’s an important opportunity for us to reimagine what it means to read and learn not just as individuals but also as a community. This will be a fall like no other. We’re ready. We can’t wait to meet you.”

Sign us up! “Reading and learning as a community …” Who wouldn’t want to be welcomed into such a class, even — and perhaps especially — remotely. As colleges and universities across the country continue to rapidly reconfigure almost everything they do in response to the global pandemic, giving students agency and knowledge, connection and community, may be the best antidotes to the gap-year advice being offered to students who are already feeling stalled and waiting out the summer in their parents’ basement.

For very real reasons, higher education has far too often seemed to be in panic mode since March, when most institutions sent their students home. Amid the proposals for Zoom and Plexiglas have been some apparently callous public statements, making educators seem more concerned about the bottom line than students’ welfare. We are suggesting a different narrative.

We believe we can’t offer simply business as usual in college and university classrooms this fall. If ever there were a time to throw out the conventional pedagogical and curricular playbook, this is it. In the process, higher education may reap as many benefits as those that accrue to students. In particular, we see this as an opportunity to draw students back to humanities and arts courses by showing them in no uncertain terms how the content of those courses is essential for understanding three interconnected forces currently shaping their lives: the global pandemic, the ongoing struggles for social justice and racial equity, and the fight for our democracy.

Consider this modest proposal: What if college and university presidents saw this September not only as a campus emergency of epic proportions but also as an astonishing educational opportunity — a fall like no other, but in a good way? What if several announced, for example, that in 2020-21 they would focus on something inspiring if necessarily general — say, community and care?

While individual faculty members and programs all across the country are taking up the educational challenge of this historic moment, what if an informal coalition of colleges and universities pledged to ensure higher education’s contribution in the loftiest ways?

Administrators might offer some form of recognition to faculty members willing to dedicate a week or more of the courses they teach this fall to serious, collective thinking with their students about this historic moment. They could ask students — purposively — to reflect on the ways their classroom experiences relate to their lives and to the larger world and possibly offer students the opportunity to propose engaged, productive alternatives to traditional exams and research papers.

Why not incentivize courses, or segments of courses, taught by teams of instructors from multiple departments, demonstrating for students the value of collaboration and the benefits that accrue when perspectives from the humanities, arts, social sciences, business and STEM are all brought to bear on the grand challenge topics of our time?

The challenges we face now are not solvable by any single discipline alone. Creating opportunities for students and faculty to think through enormous problems together can be intellectually transformative for everyone involved. We challenge anyone to come up with a field that isn’t relevant now. Teaching ancient Mesopotamian literature? Gilgamesh’s search for the secret of immortality after his friend’s death is certainly poignant and powerful as 150,000 die and students are being treated like test dummies. Introduction to African American Studies? We need students to be thinking about health disparities and race and learning about the historical forces and socioeconomic structures that generate those disparities, if we are going to come out of this pandemic not just alive but also determined to address the literally murderous racism of our society.

If you are a prof who isn’t sure your own course is pertinent, make it a class challenge to find the connections — itself a profound pedagogical activity. Chemistry? Calculus? Computer science? Data visualization? Engineering? Art history? Theater? Dance? Sociology? Finance? Suddenly college looks as relevant and as urgent as it should be, every day of the year.

Calls for culturally relevant pedagogy are hardly new, nor is faculty resistance to it. Faculty members have sometimes worried that calls for relevancy in the classroom amount to a capitulation to neoliberal shifts in the academy that would require all work across higher education to serve a translational (read: profitable) purpose. But let us be clear: As institutions struggle with the financial ramifications of the pandemic, which follow decades of disregard and — for public colleges and universities — defunding, what better case can higher education and all of the disciplines it encompasses make for their importance and relevance than by … being relevant and important?

We academics are trained as specialists and sometimes neglect the meta of what we teach. At the same time, in the march to earn good grades and do well on exams in order to get into college, students are trained to focus on the requirements of education. There is no SAT section on what learning actually means for one’s life. Often our syllabi are so packed with content we do not leave time for that crucial, final, collective reflection on what it all means. What better time than now, in this overwhelming and soul-crushing historical moment, to think along with our students about education’s highest calling?

Colleges and universities exist for many purposes, but they are singularly capable of rapidly marshalling the brilliance of diverse perspectives and disciplines for problem solving. In order to rebuild once the pandemic ends, we will need to harness the extraordinary intellectual and creative potential that resides on every campus, in every classroom, whether remote or in person, of every instructor and every student, and from all disciplines. From this horrific catastrophe, there are lessons that higher education can learn from itself and that our society can learn from the role higher education has played in this crisis. This will be a fall like no other. Let’s make the most of it.

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