Back to the Future

The first semester face-to-face after we left campus on March 12, 2020 has finally ended. And the pandemic has claimed yet another victim:  higher education. It was good to be back in the classroom after more than a year of zooming, but the return wasn’t as seamless as university administrators would have many believe. I teach at a private university. Despite Greg Abbott, the president had the option to mandate vaccines and masks. He did not. We’re in Texas, after all.

I required masks and was able to enforce social distancing because I had lucked out and was assigned larger classrooms. The first week of class, ten of my students contracted COVID. Throughout the semester, others got sick and many, especially athletes, had to quarantine after having been exposed to someone who had tested positive. The daily stress level increased exponentially as the semester progressed. I dreaded reading morning emails from students informing me of their status. Their mantra, “it would be irresponsible of me to expose you and my classmates to COVID. May I please have our zoom invitation.”

One of the advantages of COVID funding to education was the technology that was installed and the many tutoring sessions we received on how to use it. This way, no one missed class. One young man could never attend in person because his mother is in failing health. He zoomed with us, and on the rare occasion that he was absent, he received a recording of the class. Another student zoomed from her hospital bed after emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Now that’s commitment! She has definitely raised the bar for every student hereafter.  It quickly became second nature to talk to the students sitting in front of me and then swing around and address the big screen behind me.

Nevertheless, being back wasn’t without its pedagogical problems. We all knew that teaching remotely was not the optimal way to learn, that students were not getting everything out of their courses, that there was a serious decline in their attention and motivation. But the assumption was that once we were face-to-face again, things would quickly return to normal. Everyone would be so happy to be in the classroom that learning would resume with a renewed vigor and intensity. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. It took time and serious metaphorical hand-holding to get them back on track. I revised my syllabi several times, eliminating a few assignments, simplifying others. I even curved grades, which I’ve never done before.  And these were the upper-classmen, who had been in college for two years before the shutdown so they knew what to expect when we returned to campus.

The incoming freshmen faced different challenges. After close to two years of isolation and endless work sheets, their academic and emotional growth was severely stunted. Many universities suspended ACT and SAT requirements. Though standardized tests aren’t perfect, they are useful benchmarks of student reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic levels. Without those numbers, college admissions officers – and, by extension – professors were flying blind. Students who would have probably been better served by community colleges were calculating algebraic equations and reading and writing about The Iliad and The Inferno, Aristotle and Aquinas. Their grades reflected their woeful lack of preparation. They were blindsided by the intensity of college-level work. They did not expect long and detailed assignments, even on the weekends. They were shocked by Bs and Cs where they had received As just for showing up. This is really hard. What do you mean there’s no extra credit?

Many of them were so caught off guard by the coursework that they didn’t have time to participate in extra-curricular activities. They had missed out on so much in high school because of COVID, and now they were missing out in college because of schoolwork. Who knew? They wanted to make friends, join clubs, assume leadership positions, but they were busy reading 100 pages a night and writing five-page papers. Others focused so much on the college social experience that they fell behind in their courses and their grades suffered.

Either way, they have much to learn, and it isn’t all from books.

I’m not certain that anyone considered the ramifications for learning that having been disconnected for close to two years created. It feels like the administration believed that once students and faculty returned to campus, everything would fall into place. Learning would resume as if it had never been interrupted by disease, death, fear, dislocation, and overwhelming fatigue. Pool parties, basketball games, pumpkin carving contests, an occasional paper and exam, Homecoming, and Christmas lights would make things normal.

We have a long way to go before things are anywhere near normal.


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