One of my advisees has a special talent for ignoring my emails. When it comes time to plan course schedules for the next semester, I send out a message reminding students to make an appointment with me. Most of them respond, but this particular student — an athlete and a first-generation college student — frequently doesn't.
When I don't hear back from him, I follow up with another email or two, which he also ignores. Most semesters this sequence of events concludes when I receive a panicked message from him the night before course selection is due, asking me to check the required online boxes that will allow him to register.
I do it, of course — otherwise, he would be locked out of his courses, and could fall behind in his progress toward a degree. And then I remind him that he was supposed to see me before the registration deadline, and that he really needs to read his emails and make advising appointments. He apologizes, and then this exact sequence repeats in the following semester.
But twice now, things have unfolded a little differently. He was in one of my courses in his first semester of college, and I got to know him pretty well. Despite his lack of attention to email, he's a very affable person, and we have some shared interests. So when I saw him walking across the quad, I usually stopped to chat. A couple of times, I ran into him during advising season. As we stood talking, I reminded him to make an appointment with me. Later that same day, he did. Both times, he showed up, we talked and planned, and we resolved one problem he was having and prevented another that he had no idea was on the horizon.
I was able to help this student because we walked into one another on the campus. Chance encounters between faculty members and students are regular occurrences at my institution — as they are everywhere in higher education, especially on residential campuses. I run into students in the library, in the cafeteria, in the hallways of academic buildings. Each encounter is an opportunity to check in with someone who is struggling in class, touch base with an advisee, or remind a student about a coming deadline.
Such personal encounters, both serendipitous and scheduled, are also frequent occurrences for members of the staff and administration who are devoted to the success of our most vulnerable students. I share an office suite with an administrative office devoted to student success on my campus, and a regular stream of students stops by.
All of those face-to-face meetings will be jeopardized in a fall semester that takes place entirely online. When I contemplate the prospect of an empty campus this fall, I worry the most about the loss of casual, in-person, everyday opportunities to support students with compassion. I worry about what that loss will mean especially for students who struggle the most in higher education, and to whom we owe the greatest possible attention.
Much like my advisee, many students are not as attuned as they should be to the electronic communications that are designed to keep them on track in college. It's understandable. They are often juggling hard and demanding lives outside of their studies: They are working full or part time, caring for relatives, dealing with food and housing insecurity, and more. Because they have so much else on their plates, they fail to attend to important communications from faculty members and advisers, and can easily fall behind in their classes or degree progress.
Those students tell me that they receive so many emails from various college accounts that they get in the habit of just ignoring them. An email from the registrar about key deadlines looks to them just like the one from student life advertising a comedian's campus show. And neither of those things are as important as visiting a grandmother in the hospital or covering a shift at work to pay the rent.
I have seen a similar dynamic play out in my courses. An assignment deadline will come and go without some students even realizing it. If I make an announcement about a course change in the learning-management system (LMS), some never notice it. Sometimes, when I want to flag a particular issue in an assigned reading, I will email students or post a message on the LMS. Invariably, some students will not see that message, no matter what form of communication I use.
Such experiences have taught me the value of using a little bit of class time to announce -- and reannounce -- essential information, especially anything related to course structure and assessments. But vulnerable students often need more help than that, like my advisee who needs more frequent, and direct, communication from me.
When those students miss a deadline or a class meeting, it's often because of some crisis in their personal lives. When they finally return to class, they are embarrassed by the lapse. The effects of that embarrassment can be compounded by feelings of academic inadequacy, which prevent them from approaching me to try to resolve the situation. They are not in the habit of talking to professors outside of class, and might view asking for help as a confirmation of their lack of belonging in college. So instead of seeking a resolution, they pick a chair at the back of the classroom and try to avoid me.
I see the mortification in their eyes when I stop them on the way out of the room, and ask if we can speak for a few minutes. In those conversations I learn about the burden they have been carrying and propose a plan to get them back on track. I'm not the most emotionally sensitive person in the world (as my wife can confirm), but I never feel more convinced of the purpose of higher education than in those moments of connection with students.
I see our mission clearly in such moments: It's to help those students take one step forward on their journey.
We can do everything in our power to reach out to vulnerable students electronically in an online-only semester — writing texts, emails, LMS announcements, and more. But that will never be enough. And those who tell themselves it will be enough are underestimating how overwhelmed many students will be by constant electronic communications, and how easy they will find it simply to step back and check out. A crisis will unfold at home, communications will be missed, and soon enough it will be easier just to let go and maybe try again another year.
I'm not arguing that it should be business as usual this fall, with full classes meeting in physical classrooms. I share the concerns I see expressed in The Chronicle and on academic Twitter about the dangers that this would pose to the health of students and to faculty and staff members. I don't want higher education to perpetuate the pandemic. On a personal level, I have a chronic illness, and occasionally have to take immunosuppressives to get it under control. I don't want to get sick.
But we could have students on campus without business as usual. We could be teaching partly online and holding discussion sessions or required weekly office hours for small groups of students. We could be on campus teaching fully online, and still thinking creatively about how to provide opportunities for face-to-face community building and intellectual engagement.
Arguments against having students on campus at all seem to own the ethical high ground right now. Those who make such arguments are painting the other side as greedy, naïve, or lacking in compassion. But like all ethical issues, the question of reopening in the fall involves balancing competing goods.
Those who advocate for an online semester see the greater good in the preservation of health in our communities, both on and around a campus. I acknowledge the validity of their concerns, and believe they are advocating in good faith.
But I believe likewise about those who are advocating for a return to campus in the fall. They, too, are pursuing a public good, one that I believe emerges directly from the core purpose of higher education: to change the lives of students for the better. If we are able to welcome students back to our campuses in the fall, we will be better able to sustain the academic progress of the ones who have the most to benefit from a higher education, and who most need our support.
Whatever we decide for the fall, and whatever arguments we make about that decision over the next few months, our most vulnerable students deserve a prominent place — perhaps the most prominent place — in our reckonings.
James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. His Twitter is @LangOnCourse.
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