By Rob Jenkins
Like many faculty members, I am beginning to suspect that life on college campuses will never fully go back to “normal” — meaning exactly the way it was before the pandemic hit like a tsunami on a crowded beach. Simply put, the shoreline has been too drastically altered.
That is not entirely bad news. Much in academe needed to change, and many of those changes were never going to happen on their own — or they would have happened so slowly that few people would have noticed the differences and some who could have benefited from the positive shifts might not have. That includes, on a macro level, colleges’ revamping their admissions policies and, on a micro level, faculty curmudgeons like me learning to embrace technology in our teaching.
It’s also true that we have learned much in this difficult year about accommodating people with differing needs, whether having to do with health, geography, or lifestyle. We should carry those lessons forward, recognizing that in the past we might have had too much of a one-size-fits-all mentality. Now that we’ve become experts at providing other options — Zoom calls, virtual conferencing, asynchronous meetings — we should continue to make those available to students and faculty and staff members who need or desire them.
At the same time, I see some things about higher education from the “good old days” of February 2020 that must not change entirely. In fact, those things must resume — as much and as soon as possible — if we are to maintain our identity and integrity as institutions of higher learning, not to mention our human connections with students and one another. Here are six that occur to me:
Small-group work. “Workshop” groups of four to five students have been a staple of my writing courses for more than 30 years. On several class days each semester, students bring in a rough draft of an essay they’re working on and share it within their group. I’ve written about the advantages of this teaching strategy, but suffice to say, small-group work is an invaluable, time-tested tool and one that simply cannot be replicated online.
Sure, we can approximate it, in breakout groups, chat rooms, and discussion boards. But none of those are as effective as having students gather in small groups around the classroom, while I wander from group to group, eavesdropping on their conversations and occasionally chiming in or answering a question. Having witnessed over the years how important those sessions can be for emerging writers, I am saddened to know that my current students may never experience something like that. Whether or not they know it, they’re missing out, and we are all the poorer for it.
Office hours. Like everyone else, I have established “virtual” office hours to meet with students online. That has been extremely useful, in that I have been able to work with students even when I’m at home or traveling. Because I’m teaching several sections of “blended learning” (online courses with an in-person component), I have also met with many students face to face — or, should I say, mask to mask. We sit six to eight feet apart in a large, empty classroom. In many ways, those in-person sessions are similar to my Zoom meetings: I’m on my laptop, looking at a rough draft or something, while the students sit across the room from me and stare at their own screens. But at least there is some degree of human interaction.
Convenience aside, none of that is a substitute for students’ dropping by my office to discuss the class, their work, or life in general. Spontaneous interactions have produced some of the very best moments of my teaching career. They are simply not possible when every meeting must be rigorously scheduled, whether online or in person. And I suspect the loss is even greater for students than it is for me — even if many of them don’t know it because they haven’t yet experienced the normal professor-student relationship that is such an integral part of college life.
In-person faculty meetings. This one may have you wondering about my sanity. Look, I’ve never been a big meeting person, even when I was the one leading them. As a department chair and as an academic dean, I always tried to make my meetings as short as possible, assuming the faculty would appreciate it (and knowing that I would).
Who would have guessed that — a year into this pandemic, amid all our social-distancing and semi-shutdown protocols — I would actually miss faculty meetings?
Now we meet online, which has its advantages, such as not having to drive anywhere. We’ve made great strides in our use of technology to enable these productions to run smoothly, so kudos to those who have worked so hard to salvage some benefit from a less-than-ideal situation.
But it’s not the same. Notably missing are the friendly greetings among colleagues (many of whom rarely see one another outside of such meetings), the spirited but (usually) cordial debates over agenda items, the humorous interjections that break up the monotony. In short, the human element.
It’s probably true that, when it comes to checking off agenda items, we probably do get more done at our online meetings because we don’t have all of those asides and interruptions. But in ways that matter more, we’re getting less done: We’re less collegial, less unified, less connected. Less human.
In-person faculty workshops. Here is yet another component of faculty life that has all but disappeared. These workshops offer many of the same advantages as faculty meetings but with the added value of fostering professional development. They benefit not only the participants, who learn about some new idea or teaching strategy, but also the organizers. For years, leading a campus development workshop has been a staple of many a junior faculty member’s promotion bid.
Sure, we’ve held some of those workshops online during the pandemic, but, just as with the other activities I’ve mentioned, it’s not the same. That point was driven home to me recently when I ran my first on-campus workshop in almost a year. Before Covid-19 hit, I’d been doing 10 or 12 a year, for my institution and others, over most of the past decade. Nine people attended in person — in a room built for 200 — while five others dialed in via the internet.
Being in the physical room with those nine colleagues felt like finally coming up for air after seeing how many lengths of the pool I could swim under water (back when I was 12 years old). And based on their comments, the in-person participants agreed. Meanwhile, several of those who joined us online expressed regret that they couldn’t attend in person, although they said Zooming in was much better than not getting to participate at all.
In-person academic conferences. Everything I just said about small, campus-based workshops applies to large professional conferences, only more so. The last big conference I attended was in February 2020 — and it was wonderful. I enjoyed it at the time, but looking back I can see even more clearly what an incredible opportunity it was, both personally and professionally.
After all, we have so few perks in this profession. One of those few is traveling to a new city, meeting together for two or three days with hundreds of colleagues, learning new theories and practices, going out to dinner with friends old and new, taking early-morning walks or runs in the historic district — I could go on, but you all know what I mean. It is spiritually renewing, beyond whatever knowledge we gain (which is often considerable). It is also a large part of what binds us together as scholars and teachers — across campuses, across states, sometimes even across disciplines.
None of that — except perhaps the knowledge transfer — is reproducible online. I’m grateful to event organizers who have found ways to carry on virtually, enabling us to benefit from conference sessions professionally if not socially. But I can tell you this: I’m really looking forward to attending an in-person conference in the (I hope) not-too-distant future.
Live athletic events. OK, so now some readers might think I’ve really gone off the rails here, but what I’m talking about primarily is the life of the campus. And in that regard, few things create more unity, more communal spirit, than sports. Like it or not, they are an integral part of the glue that holds many campuses together.
As a sports fan, I’ve been grateful for televised college football and basketball, and especially to the players, coaches, and administrators who have been able to foster competition in relative safety.
However, watching on television is not the same as being there — and I’m not just talking about Saturday’s big football game or the standing-room-only basketball rivalry. If anything, I’ve found that watching the “smaller” sports — college baseball, softball, gymnastics — is more intimate and more fun, as well as a great way to support students who don’t usually grab the headlines. It’s another way of building those human connections with students, colleagues, and our campus. Heck, show up early at your college’s softball game, and you can probably get a seat right behind the backstop. When is that ever going to happen at a Major League ballpark?
But I digress. Mainly what I’ve learned during the pandemic is that much of what we do in higher education, technically, can be done online just as easily as in person and in some cases more efficiently and more accessibly. In areas where that is true, we should learn from our pandemic experiences and revise our policies, practices, and processes accordingly.
But on another level, the deep learning, the real personal growth — for faculty and staff members as well as for students — comes more from human interactions than from books or computers. Those connections cannot be fully duplicated online, and, in our rush to “reinvent” ourselves for the “post-pandemic campus” — and especially as we make those inevitable budget cuts — may we not forget that there are some things we just can’t afford to lose.
Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College who writes regularly for The Chronicle’s Advice pages. He is a senior fellow at the Academy for Academic Leadership, a health and higher-education consulting firm, and a leadership coach.