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Like educators across the country, my plan for the second half of the semester came to a screeching halt in March and left me dealing with unforeseen issues. Should I demand synchronous meetings or to give students the space and time to navigate our content independently? Which parts of the curriculum now seem superfluous under the circumstances? To what extent should I incorporate technology that I would not have otherwise used? How can I maintain at least some course integrity while remaining realistic about the pandemic’s impact on my -- and their -- responsibilities?

Those are only some of the questions that have narrated my approach to the latter half of the semester. A heavy daily dose of placing myself in my students’ shoes helped guide me toward the answers that I thought best suited my classroom.

As we moved forward, I did not demand synchronous meetings, I dropped several activities that seemed ill suited for online engagement (and reapplied the points elsewhere, to the students’ collective advantage), and -- based on nothing other than principle -- gave myself permission to forgo using technology that I would not have otherwise incorporated into my instruction. To my mind, I did well to adopt a student-first ethos for the remainder of our semester together, having made most of my decisions based on the metaphorical mile I walked in their shoes. After all, my online class was one of five or more courses that each of my students found themselves navigating from home. To assume that my curriculum and my expectations were among the most important would have been arrogant and unhelpful to both my students and my colleagues.

My Smartest Decision

What I could not have known in advance was that perhaps the smartest decision I made was to ask my students to respond to a journal during our final online session, which occurred during the last full week of April. It was a simple request:

Please drop me a comment about your course experience. I believe that we all did the best we possibly could under the circumstances, but I’d love to hear from you. Please respond with as short or as long of a response as you’d like.

Their responses ran the gamut. More than half of the students candidly thanked me for the asynchronous arrangement. Many highlighted their appreciation for the opportunity to complete the work on their own time, using the instructional videos that I posted to YouTube. Predictably, many students expressed being overwhelmed by what their professors were requiring of them during this transition, but they generally highlighted other classes as the culprit. I’m not patting myself on the back here. I’m simply rehashing their responses. (For the record, one student said that while he “loved” our face-to-face sessions, he found my videos deadly boring.)

What I could not have predicted was the sheer number of students who would discuss how their complicated home lives made their online navigation far more difficult than if they were able to remain on the campus. Nearly one-quarter of my roster cited having to navigate how toxic parents or siblings often distracted them from the work that needed to be done. Not one of my students own or rent their own homes; even my married students live with their families. All of my students are legal adults, and for better or for worse, each of them returned home to a long-standing family dynamic.

Perhaps as gut-wrenching as the allusions to toxicity, those same students apologized if their work wasn’t of the same quality as it was before the university closed. They were concerned not only about being able to complete their work while quarantined with problematic family members but also about my interpretation of their products.

For students with difficult home lives, the stress is layered and twofold. The dominant discourse about educational equity and access during the pandemic typically highlights socioeconomic differences across students. Discussions about equity and access pointing to gaps in psychological wellness -- those that might highlight the realities of how destructive family members hold the cards over a students’ capacity to complete their semester in one piece, if at all -- remain elusive.

It is because of my own experiences with generational abuse and childhood trauma that I know better than to chalk up my students’ concerns to run-of-the-mill, healthy family conflict. In truth, an overnight transition to online learning can impact more than the socioeconomically advantaged. If instructors take the time to investigate, this transition might reveal how online learning is made much harder for students returning to abusive family systems.

A View From the Inside

A toxic family system is aggressive and unstable. It’s punitive and sabotaging. The warfare, in my case, was psychological. Such a system might include a mother threatened by her daughter’s attention to her schoolwork. Perhaps the mother holds tuition over her child’s head as punishment for not meeting Mom’s emotional needs, as was the case during my college experience. Or it could be a sibling’s ceaseless refusal to cooperate with boundaries and parents who do not intervene. A toxic family system might include a father who enables Mom’s toxic behavior, or the other way around. Or perhaps Dad uses internet access as leverage with which to punish his adult children -- the same children who require it to pass their classes.

The literature on toxic family systems is robust and growing. While there is no singular framework for what a toxic family looks like, the outcomes are nearly universal. Students who return home to such families are anxious and stressed. Many of them are scared and deeply worried about when -- if -- they will have an opportunity to return to college. The news media has reported on the pandemic-related surge in domestic violence calls. The dynamics I describe here have earned a rightful place inside of those statistics, but the insidiousness of psychological abuse means that they are often not recognized or acknowledged by concerned media.

As I consider the multitudinous ways by which toxic family dynamics manifest -- particularly those where the abuse is psychological -- I am forced to come to terms with how completing a full-time online load would have been nigh impossible for me under the current circumstances. I can only hope that my professors of two decades ago would have demonstrated a bit of humanity.

What I know, as a professor and a survivor of childhood trauma, is that campus can be a safe place for students who do battle with familial abuse both in between and during semesters. Many campuses have robust psychological services that students can easily and confidentially access. The built-in friendships, relationships and social distractions are, for many students, a psychologically nurturing added bonus.

I also know that, while the campus provides something of a refuge, familial abuse does not magically stop at its gates. Whether with threats, ultimatums, outsize demands or unnecessarily distracting expectations, toxic families find ways to complicate their adult child’s educational experience whether or not their child is living at home. That is a reality with which I have firsthand experience.

I wouldn’t have minded an opportunity to get honest with my own professors about what it meant to be a first-generation college student from a toxic family. I realize now that I should not have waited until the 14th week of school to ask my students about the experience of their transition. Their responses provide a pedagogical tool that can -- and should -- be used year-round, regardless of whether a class is meeting in person.

In my future classes, I will ask students from the beginning whether they’d like me to know and understand anything about their ability to fully participate in our course together. Their recent responses have reminded me that they deserve instructors who care about their obstacles before a pandemic takes hold of the classroom. After all, if students are going to express concern over my interpretations of their products, the empathic response would be to express concern over their interpretations of mine.

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