One of my vivid memories of graduate school is also one of the darkest. And I mean that literally. One day I showed up to discuss modern German history with my adviser and a few of my fellow students, only to find the lights off and the curtains dimmed. My professor was there, though, and ready to teach, even though she had such a ferocious migraine she couldn’t stand the light.
It’s not that German history, with its assorted atrocities, draws peculiarly hardened people to its study. Virtually every professor and instructor I’ve known has shown up for classes no matter how sick they were. A colleague of mine once taught while she had pneumonia. I’ve only missed one class in my years of teaching, and that was last winter, when I had to see a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic to rule out a ticking time-bomb in my brain possible cerebral vasculitis. I’ve taught through countless episodes of bronchitis, laryngitis, and all of this past year’s tribulations. I’m not saying this to claim I’m especially virtuous. I’m just a perfectly average college instructor.
Enter swine flu. Now, all of a sudden, if we get sick, we’re supposed to stay home. In terms of public health, this is absolutely the right course. I’ve altered my syllabi to encourage students to stay home if they’ve got a fever and cough – no biggie, since I’ve always relied mostly on an honor system for excusing absences.
But much of flu planning at universities ranges from utopian to delusional. The CDC recommends placing desks six feet apart. In one of my classrooms, the students are lucky if they can keep two feet away from their nearest neighbor. We’re packed like sardines and the air is accordingly (un)fresh. The CDC recommends isolation of sick students. Most of them share a dorm room with at least one roommate. The best idea I’ve heard is that sick students should go home to their parents if they’re within a few hours’ drive.
And then there’s the idea that technology will to keep instruction afloat, no matter how severe the pandemic. On September 1, just a week before classes started, my colleagues and I received an email from the provost urging us to make emergency preparations. It included this advice:
If it becomes necessary to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff, the university may need to suspend classes and other activities on some campuses. Consider how you might be able to use technology to help your students continue to master the material in your course. Duke University has a useful website on how to “Flu-Proof” courses. [my emphasis]
Um, yeah. I visited Duke’s website. It presupposes all kinds of technology that we don’t have at Ohio University. I can has Adobe Connect, pls? Videotaping lectures, as Duke suggests, would be marvelous – if only we had a small army of support personnel. Back here on Earth, though, one of my classrooms lacked Internet access until a more senior colleague went to the mat for me. Another was short five desks for our first class meeting. The third room is subject to random invasions by mathematicians – but that’s a whole ‘nother story. On Thursday one of my classes was disrupted by a nonfunctioning remote for the DVD player. Our tech people are supportive but understaffed. Tell me again, who’s gonna tape my classes?
The responsibility for essentially converting classes to an online format – with one week’s notice, in our case! – is falling squarely on the shoulders of faculty. And we’re being impugned in the national press if we’re not up to it. In late August, the New York Times reported:
And though talk of online classes is common, few universities are fully ready. Computer science professors are a lot readier than social science professors are, one administrator grumbled privately.
In what universe would this come as a shock? Many of us who teach in the humanities and social studies rely on discussion, not just lecture. We teach subjects that involve actual human beings, not just computers. Is it any surprise that our classes don’t translate as easily into an online format? Last spring I taught feminist theory online, and while my students seemed to judge the course a success (according to their evaluations), I knew how much they missed out on. I started the quarter determined to keep the difficult poststructuralist texts on the syllabus. By the end, I’d purged Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, and a few more.
And yet, just today, Inside Higher Education ran an article urging faculty to find ways to adapt their courses for online teaching. I appreciated its acknowledgment that many courses won’t transfer readily and that faculty may have to rely “stopgap” improvisations. But then it mentions a variety of online tools, and we’re back in Utopia. My university has just one of those tools: Blackboard.
If you’ve been a student or teacher in recent years, you might know Blackboard as the clunky software that allows instructors to post documents, assignments, and syllabi online. It has a discussion forum that’s fairly cumbersome to use, compared to most such forums on the web. My university just purchased a new version, Blackboard 7, which for an exorbitant price incorporates wiki and blogging tools far cruder than their free equivalents on the web.
So yeah, I could hold a discussion on Blackboard, but what we’d cover in two hours of in-class time would require six to ten hours with a lot less learning.
The idea that you can teach as effectively on Blackboard as in the classroom rests on a moronic assumption: that learning is a process whereby the instructor funnels information into students’ heads. You might call it the trepanation approach to teaching. Drill a hole in your students’ skulls, post some Powerpoint slides, and voila! The job is done. Never mind that for years, the university has touted “active learning.” In my experience, students are more passive online, yet the same silly assumptions undergird the pressure faculty are under to teach online courses. (A number of my colleagues have said they suspect that swine flu may be used as an excuse to put course content online and make faculty partially redundant. But that too is another story.)
My university’s recommendations only reinforce the idea that students are passive consumers. The email to faculty contained this advice:
As you may experience higher than normal absences, consider planning now for how you can best help students make up for lost time. [my emphasis]
Actually, students need to take responsibility themselves for getting notes from a classmate! It’s not as though swine flu is the first illness ever to strike humanity. I spent a few minutes on the first day of class having my students swap contact information with a few of their classmates. So far, this buddy system has worked beautifully.
The most fatal flaw in such planning, though, is the unspoken assumption that professors will remain healthy. Last I heard, the CDC only categorized students as high-risk enough to qualify for the first doses of flu vaccine; those of us who teach them are equally susceptible to the virus (assuming we’re not over age 60), but we’ll have to wait for the shot. (This is also an issue in K-12 education.) Heck, my university didn’t even get enough seasonal flu vaccine to cover nominally healthy employees and it won’t arrive until October, while our local Kroger and my gynecologists had it two weeks ago. The provost did urge us to figure out who would cover our courses if we couldn’t teach, and I’m pretty sure I could find someone to fill in for me. That’s not always possible, though. The idea of sitting at home with flu and tending to Blackboard with a high fever is enough to make me feel ill already. I’d rather just show up for class.
While we’re planning for an uncertain future, the swine flu isn’t waiting for us to transfer all of our course content to Blackboard. Even before school started, Miami University and Xavier University – both in Ohio, just a few hours away from me – reported outbreaks. My students rolled their eyes when I discussed swine flu contingencies on day one. They’re already not taking it seriously.
All this chatter about shifting courses online is equally unserious. It’s the higher ed equivalent to exhorting people to wash their hands, which – as Revere argues at Effect Measure – has little evidence to support it as effective against flu, but gives people the illusion of control over events that may prove completely uncontrollable.