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Commentary / A modest proposal for our times

Commentary / A modest proposal for our times

[iStock.com / svetikd]

By Robin Vose

Pandemic-related questions are causing many of us to lose sleep these days. “What will happen in the Fall? What if students can’t, or won’t, come back in sufficient numbers? How will I do my academic work properly if the lockdown continues?”

Answers will of course depend on all kinds of factors that are currently unknowable and beyond our control. And they will vary at each different college or university. In some situations shifting to online teaching could work very well, and in others a temporary dip in enrolments might do no serious harm.

But in small, under-resourced, tuition-dependent liberal arts schools like mine, it would be a mistake to assume that our only alternatives are either to count on the immediate re-appearance of most campus-based students, or attempt a sudden transition to online pedagogy — or, if neither of these work, to start laying off staff and retreating into self-destructive spirals of austerity. There are other options available if we are willing to think creatively; and I suspect that, just as in many other sectors of the economy, it will be creative enterprises that are best able to re-invent themselves and not only survive but actually thrive in the new realities of a post-pandemic world.

Let’s not kid ourselves. There is a real possibility that enrolments will be down significantly for many of us in the Fall, even if campuses are allowed to reopen. Yet universal online teaching may not be a real solution either. Quality online courses normally take years to develop, often with teams of specialists. But unless your institution is very different from mine, current plans to prepare for online teaching likely rely on everyone simply devoting their “free time” over the next few weeks to self-training (assuming you aren’t parenting locked-down children!) with whatever software options they manage to get their hands on — perhaps guided by a small cadre of harried IT staff.

Nor should we make assumptions about our students. Digital natives though many of them may be, this does not ensure that they can (or will) learn to effectively use the wide range of online course platforms their professors may choose to run. Some will not have reliable internet. Some will not have decent computers. Some will not have safe spaces in which to access and interact with their e-lectures. And experience has shown that vulnerable students will often not admit to their situation. They will suffer in silence.

If this is the best we can do, we should not pretend that it is real education. At least, not the sort of education our students deserve, expect, and go deeply into debt to obtain. Pretending that we can suddenly teach them like this, on an institutional scale and with full academic integrity, is at best a well-intentioned stop-gap measure; at worst nothing but a sham to keep revenues flowing.

So what IS to be done in a pandemic? Again there is no simple formula, but for universities like mine I would like to suggest a radical yet fundamentally academic option: take a SABBATICAL (this is also biblical btw, if that helps sell the idea to your admin or provincial government; see Leviticus 25).

What if we simply accepted that most of our normal activities are indeed impossible at this time, that our students for the most part can’t yet come back and we can’t provide many of them with truly viable online options? What if we chose instead to dedicate our energies to other pressing matters? Whether closing down our teaching activities altogether for a term, or offering only a reduced number of online courses —but NOT laying off faculty — this could open up a whole realm of possibilities for turning current challenges into opportunities for long-overdue growth, development, and modernization.

Like airlines, and many other essential industries, Canadian universities and colleges will not be allowed to fail as a result of COVID-19. Guided by CAUT and its allies, federal and provincial governments will come to some sort of arrangement that permits us to ride out this storm one way or another. Things will no doubt be bumpy at times. But universities and colleges will be needed more than ever when this is all over. Higher education isn’t going anywhere.

So the real question is not whether we can survive another semester or two of being prevented from teaching students in person. It is how we do so. It would be foolish to simply sit on our hands during any enforced “sabbatical” period and wait for everything to return to status quo. Almost as foolish as over-hastily trying to replicate the academic world online.

Here’s my modest proposal for how a school like mine might best ride out a more-or-less student-free academic term.

  1. Accept that lost revenues and planned deficits will be a fact of life for a while. These are justifiable given the extraordinary circumstances, and current very cheap borrowing terms — not to mention the likelihood of government assistance for those who need it. Such assistance should be all the more forthcoming for institutions who have creative plans for how to use it as an investment in the future.
  2. Cultivate broad faculty buy-in to develop ambitious, academically-focused plans for dealing with foreseeable challenges of the next decade or so — not just 2020-2021. This should include strategic expansion of the permanent regular faculty complement, building on existing strengths and identifying community needs, as well as thoroughly updating curricula wherever possible. We may never find a better opportunity, for example, than a campus-wide “sabbatical” term to finally start paying more than lipservice to the importance of teaching Indigenous experiences, knowledge, and languages.
  3. Allocate serious investment to online resources & skills development. Use faculty and staff down time to do it properly. Online teaching is worth doing well, and it will undoubtedly be part of the future of higher education, whether or not we ever experience new pandemic threats.

All this could be done while keeping everyone fully employed during a slack enrollment year, or if whole teaching terms are lost. No need for austerity — on the contrary, this should be our time to build a new and improved post-secondary education system that will better serve our students and the community at large for many years to come.

If our students don't immediately return in sufficient numbers this fall, we should absolutely use the resulting quiet time to dedicate ourselves to improvement rather than cutting back, shriveling up in fear, and losing some of our most valuable colleagues to layoffs. It must be a time of well-resourced thinking, building and training for all available faculty. Any university that fails to figure this out risks becoming irrelevant in the post-COVID world.

__________________________________
Robin Vose is past-president of FAUST (St. Thomas University Faculty Association).

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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