By Honor Brabazon
Universities’ move to ‘remote’ teaching in response to COVID-19 has been justified as an exceptional measure for unprecedented times. Faculty appreciate the privilege we have and are happy to do our part to keep students safe. However, as universities begin summer semesters entirely online and reveal their plans for fall, we must look more closely at the choices administrators are making, the assumptions that underpin these choices, and the neoliberal vision of the university they advance.
Neoliberalism is commonly understood as a market-oriented ideology associated with policies like privatization, free trade, deregulation, and public service cutbacks. However, it is also a way of reorganizing human interaction that Philip Mirowski points out is designed to maximize a particular conception of freedom as limited to individuals’ ability to make self-interested decisions through the market. Recognizing the neoliberal assumptions that underpin universities’ responses to COVID-19 clarifies the stakes of the move to remote teaching and the need for faculty to imagine alternatives that don’t put public research and education at risk.
Assumption 1: Faculty are ‘work-ready’ employees
In the neoliberal economy, the cost and responsibility for job-training fall increasingly on individual workers rather than employers, and workers are expected to be trained and ‘work-ready’ when hired.
The assumption that faculty are pre-trained (or self-trainable) underpins universities’ directive that faculty move classes online without proper time and resources. By calling this ‘remote’ rather than ‘online’ teaching, universities are sidestepping supports they normally provide to develop online courses — including, course releases, ample preparation time, and one-on-one help from staff specializing in online pedagogies.
Assumption 2: All faculty are equal
A guiding principle of neoliberal thought is that citizens should interact as formal equals, without regard for substantive inequalities. This image of formal equality hinders the articulation of needs that arise from historical or systemic injustices, as marginalized groups are seen merely as stakeholders equal to any other.
Universities assume that faculty are equally positioned to carry out remote teaching directives. However, the COVID crisis presents additional child care, elder care, mental health, and homeschooling responsibilities, among other challenges that disproportionately affect women (especially women of colour), differently-abled faculty, and contract faculty (who, at some institutions, are putting multiple summer courses online while learning their fall courses have been cancelled). ‘Dual delivery’ — in which faculty develop a hybrid course that teaches some students online and others in-person — is part of some universities’ fall plans, despite requiring vastly more work. Failing to accommodate faculty who are less well positioned to restructure their courses for remote teaching will exacerbate existing inequalities, marking a step backward for equity.
Assumption 3: Faculty are atomized individuals
Neoliberal democracy is characterized by competitive individualism centring on the advocacy of ostensibly equal individuals through their vote with no common political goals. Group identities and collective advocacy are delegitimized as undemocratic attempts to gain undue input, and social problems are framed as the personal failures of the individuals they affect.
In the neoliberal university, this logic is seen in the move away from the ideal (however often unrealized) of the university as a public sphere with collective goals of critical enquiry, equality, deliberation, and pursuit of knowledge.
In universities’ responses to COVID, this shift is visible in the circumvention of academic governance structures, the prioritization of revenue over the safety and pedagogical concerns of faculty, and the failure to consult faculty associations regarding workload, equity, and academic freedom provisions of collective agreements and memoranda of agreement.
Instead, it is incumbent upon individual faculty members to identify our needs and concerns, weighing the need to speak out against the potential perception that we are not ‘team players’ and are failing to ‘put students first’. Responsibilizing individual faculty members portrays structural barriers to remote teaching as technical or administrative problems that can be remedied through ‘self-care’ or more Zoom webinars.
Assumption 4: Education is merely ‘content delivery’
In the neoliberal worldview, self-interested decision making is considered more efficient and democratic when shaped only by individuals’ unadulterated, uninformed perceptions, which are then aggregated and processed by the unbiased market.
In this view, a transformative education, in which students develop and practise self-awareness, social consciousness, critical thought, and collective agency, is not necessary to sustain a democracy but is an undemocratic interference. Instead, education is merely an investment in skills and credentials that increase an individual’s ‘capital’ on the labour market. Students are reduced to customers and faculty to what Henry Giroux refers to as ‘the debased status of technicians ...’ who ‘administer’ a course or ‘deliver’ course material.
The notion that faculty can simply move courses online — or teach them simultaneously online and in person — reflects this assumption that educating involves merely delivering information to students. However, pedagogies rooted in understandings of education as a collective and empowering experience, through which students learn to deliberate, collaborate, and interrogate norms, cannot simply be transferred online. These pedagogies are not optional frills but reflect decades of research and vital commitments to equality and reconciliation.
In particular, the essential social and humanizing components of education are diminished, if not eliminated, when teaching is mediated through screens and students learn in isolation. Even a basic lecture may seem to merely deliver information that students consume individually, yet students learn not only from the lecturer but from others’ responses and from the reflection, discussion, and connection the lecture provokes. Giving a lecture is also a social experience, as lecturers learn from their audiences, adjusting material as they speak, which is impossible in pre-recorded formats.
Education is also a humanizing experience in that it involves questioning and altering one’s sense of self and relationship to others — a process requiring the trust, collectivity, and understanding that can only be fostered through regular ‘synchronous’ meetings in a shared physical space. Making these pedagogical methods impossible (for instance, when administrations neither provide a class schedule nor allow synchronous learning to be graded) clearly violates academic freedom.
The administrative push for asynchronous teaching, ‘dual delivery’, and flexible evaluation methods tailored to each student are justified as necessary to ensure students’ equitable access due to the (very real) limitations that COVID poses for them. However, there is a point at which we must ask what exactly students will be getting access to and if it is worthy of university credit and scholarly advancement, particularly if remote teaching continues for several semesters.
Moreover, when teaching is reduced to content delivery, intellectual property protections gain added importance. It is illegal to record and/or distribute lectures or other course materials without permission, but universities seem reluctant to confirm they will not have rights to use the content that faculty post online — including material posted by contract faculty who have since been laid off. Complicated copyright processes and the ease with which students can post online lectures on sites that shame critical faculty will result in courses becoming less critical and more generic, diminishing their educational value.
Yet, universities push on, insisting that students will receive the same quality of education they would in the classroom. This simply is not possible, and it is unsurprising that students have demanded tuition rebates.
Assumption 5: Research is expendable
In neoliberal thought, the role of the university in the (diminished) public sphere is unnecessary. Expert opinion and the principle that enquiry and debate are public goods regardless of their ‘outcome’ or ‘impact’ are devalued, and research is desirable only when it is considered ‘innovation’ that translates into private sector gains.
Universities have supported medical and other COVID-related research but have left everyone else with no choice but to drastically cut into our (already minimal) research time. Faculty have already spent weeks redesigning summer courses for remote teaching rather than doing research. Some calculations predict research productivity will decrease by 50-70 per cent. This drop will not affect faculty equally, with some journals already noticing fewer submissions from women.
The expectation that this is something faculty should simply accept diminishes the importance of research, suggesting it is a hobby we engage in only when we are finished teaching. Research is essential for understanding the human experience, the world we live in, and the nature of our existence within that world. The free and broad pursuit — and critique — of knowledge is even more important in times rapid social change.
Assumption 6: Faculty are expendable
The neoliberal worldview also allows for ‘losers’ as people are seen as commodities in competition with each other. That some are left behind is not a bad thing but the inevitable result of market competition. The culture of disposability this view fosters is apparent in the dramatic expansion of precarious labour, which can be reduced or expanded to protect profit.
As universities plan for possible lower enrolment in the fall, they are already dramatically cutting contracts for contract faculty, who are estimated to teach over half of Ontario university courses with few benefits and little pay. These are effectively layoffs, but contract faculty generally are not eligible for CERB.
The message these plans send to all faculty is that our expertise, societal role, and physical and mental health are expendable.
Assumption 7: There is no alternative
Policies that advance neoliberal ideals have long been justified using Margaret Thatcher’s famous line that ‘there is no alternative’. Yet, rather than accept universities’ presentation of these measures as an inevitable response to unfortunate circumstances, we should see this as but one approach rooted in a vision of the university that we need not support. Instead, we ought to have a broad discussion about what kind of university we want — much as others are doing in different fields of work.
Instead of discussing better Zoom techniques we can collectively ask what COVID-era teaching would look like if universities valued education and research as essential public goods. What would remote teaching look like if we acknowledged openly that it was not an adequate substitute for classroom teaching and we reduced both tuition and teaching and learning standards (as has effectively been done for K-12 teaching in Ontario)? This would alleviate pressure on both faculty and students and open conversations about the nature of education and the limitations of a tuition-based model.
Likewise, what would COVID-era teaching look like with proper supports for all faculty? It might include course releases and smaller course sections, creating additional contract faculty positions; more TA, tech, and online pedagogy support; postponement of courses with pedagogies that don’t work online; extra compensation, job security, and health benefits for contract faculty; strong protections for intellectual property, academic freedom, workload, and research; accommodation for faculty with additional challenges and responsibilities at home; and discussion of the additional support that many faculty members need — and the precarity many face — under normal circumstances.
Finally, what would COVID-era teaching look like if we rejected the premise that educational institutions should make decisions about teaching based on finance and not pedagogy? So far, we have been buying into the 1990s trope of scarcity and deficit-mongering, but even conservative politicians have shown in this crisis that there are always means of funding what we value. Research by Janet Morrill and Cameron Morrill has documented universities’ tendency to prioritize funding for capital projects, administration, and surpluses while claiming to have insufficient funds for their core mission of teaching and research. Most universities have healthy reserves they can draw on, and federal and provincial governments can provide emergency funds, particularly for universities, which are essential to the public sphere. It is not necessary for universities to sacrifice teaching and research — and then make overworked, overstressed faculty feel responsible for letting the core mission slide.
These are only basic ideas. The point is that faculty, students, and all university workers should be having a discussion in which we collectively imagine a better path forward than the one we have been given — one that is instead consistent with, and moves us toward, the kind of university we want for students’ education, for quality research, for everyone in the university community, and for a vibrant democracy.
Honor Brabazon is an assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Legal Studies, St. Jerome’s University.
You can read a longer version of this article on academicmatters.ca