Just to be clear: I’m not a silver-lining guy. I’ve been known to bring down whole birthday parties with a single dour observation. I can find the lone cloud in a clear blue sky. My friends once gave me T-shirt bearing a picture of Eeyore. This was not, I soon learned, because I am a fan of House at Pooh Corner.
I’m also -- again to be very clear -- not about to pretend we’re not going through something awful. We are. As I write this, COVID-19 deaths in the United States have topped 50,000. Our students’ lives are being disrupted in terrible ways. As are ours.
Nonetheless -- and I recognize that two short paragraphs might be too few to justify a shift to “nonetheless,” but I’m going to, anyway, if for no other reason than I need to cling to something. So: nonetheless. We are teachers. What drives us is the desire to see our students grow, to rise into their best selves, to achieve a sense of their capacity to enter the world as agents of thoughtful, ethical, meaningful change. And that in mind? Yes. Perhaps there’s something of a silver lining here.
Consider: for too long, our educational system has been structured in a manner that fails to parallel the flux and flow of life after graduation. There is something artificial about how universities approach disciplines and their work: students choose majors formed around 10 to 15 carefully constructed courses, each of which covers a list of committee-approved topics frequently contained in lowest-common-denominator textbooks -- many of which include at least some of the answers to life’s rich problems at the end of each chapter.
Further, in the academy, students generally have a clear sense of where they are and what rules apply at any given moment: 9:15 means PSYC and its discipline-approved methodologies; 10:45 is when we do CHEM; ENGL occurs Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 1:00. POLI is a three-hour lecture on Tuesday nights. Occasionally disciplines and fields bump into each other in that messy world called gen ed. But otherwise? Each to its own little box. And every box is reinforced by almost every dimension of institutional rhetoric, from the opening question we ask students when they first walk on campus -- “What’s your major?” -- to the closing design of the college transcript, with its clear disciplinary designations.
In contrast, the world is a messy place. I’ve written elsewhere of the contrast between the static university and a dynamic world filled with “wicked” problems. Arising from city planning before being adopted in engineering, the concept of the wicked problem refers to challenges that are dynamic and changing, resistant to simple solutions -- even solutions that may have been effective in the past. Think poverty. Think addiction. Think the 2016 election, where fake news, social media, automation and a changing economy created a swirl of misinformation and toxic political dysfunction.
So, first silver lining: if nothing else, the global pandemic is breaking the boundary between static university learning and the wicked fluidity of the world. Students in the sciences now understand that science is helpless without sound public policy. Students studying religion now see the interaction between theology, politics, sociology, economics and health playing out in real time. Ethicists are already exploring the decision-making processes at the national and local levels; poets, painters, photographers and novelists are seeing their words, images and ideas shared as an anxious public seeks both comfort and the capacity to understand the unfolding complexities of daily life. Indeed, were we to design a course proposing solutions to problems related to COVID 19, it would involve every field in the academy, from biology to economics to film to physical education.
If we’re wise, we’ll use this moment to help our students better understand the complexity of the world beyond the walls of academe, the ways in which our various fields and disciplines not only overlap but also influence and shape and reshape each other in substantive ways. If we’re smart, we’ll use this moment to foreground those messy interactions, asking students to explore such interrelations, to parse cause and effect, to unfold how data influences poetry and how poetry can shape our ability to give meaning to data.
If we’re smart, we’ll find ways to ensure that, when things return to “normal,” we rethink our curricula, our project assignments, our day-to-day lectures and conversations in the classroom to ensure that our students understand that the major is a historical construct. And that, further, majors have minimal bearing on where they will go with their lives, the sorts of problems they’ll be asked to solve, the sorts of skills and ways of thinking they’ll need to bring to the conversation to address problems in ways that are constructive, ethical and equitable.
Yes, fields matter. Yes, content matters. But only to a point. Finally, our college graduates need to be intellectually nimble, capable of pivoting quickly to different methodologies, different ways of thinking, different concepts and modes of problem solving.
Second, this awful moment in time may provide an opportunity for us to help students move beyond a mentality of simple answers. Certainly, at this particular moment in time there are answers that are more right than others -- wash your hands, for God’s sake! -- but the idea of certainty itself, of an answer at the back of the book that simply needs to be memorized, has been shattered. We’re on a long, curving road. Our understanding of what’s ahead of us is changing daily, sometimes hourly. Before all of this happened, a colleague in biochem explained that what he wanted students to most understand was that failure was part of the process. “My experiments fail 95 percent of the time,” he told me. “And that’s exciting. Because every time they fail, I learn something that moves me closer to an answer.”
While the current pandemic, of course, prohibits the almost leisurely joy of unfolding implicit in his words, it certainly does illustrate the necessity of failure in our lives and work: we hypothesize; we attempt; we get it wrong; we reconsider; we try again. Captured in the current crisis is so much that we want to teach our students about process, about the answer versus an answer, even about those sometimes cloying buzzwords “grit” and “growth mind-set.”
Third, present here is a possibility of agency that often eludes many students. When answers are always perceived as something that only the professor holds, students are essentially in the sidecar to their own education. When, though, we allow that answers can sometimes be fluid and elusive, students become partners in the search for solutions, assuming agency in a shared exploration.
What are the proper policy solutions for flattening the curve? How can those best be communicated to an age group that may see itself as invulnerable? What role does art play in that communication? Social theory? Game theory? Translation?
At a moment that requires out-of-the-box thinking, it helps to engage populations who bring more varied perspectives to the conversation, who are less beholden to the various dogma -- read fields -- that shapes and limits our own thinking. What are the questions that need to be asked? What are the possibilities we haven’t even considered? As productive as it may often be, sometimes scholarly thinking benefits from a dose of irreverence.
Reconsidering Our Identity as Instructors
As is perhaps obvious by now, this whole mess is as much a learning moment for us -- that is, faculty and administrators in higher education -- as it is for our students. As one colleague put it in a workshop last week, “Now we’re finally learning all the things we should have learned years ago.” The range of “things” is expansive. It includes tech: Yuja, WebEx, Zoom, Canvas, VoiceThread and on and on and on. It also includes more deliberate ways of approaching our classes on a structural level: more expansive deadlines, more ungraded practice, less worry about covering every chapter in the book and more consideration of our fields’ driving concepts, of how those concepts operate in a shifting landscape
Perhaps most important, this moment of turmoil in higher education has caused us to think more carefully about ourselves and our identity as instructors. After all, the image of the all-knowing sage is harder to maintain when we have to condense our 90-minute lectures into 15-minute videos. Or when we can’t get the audio to work for our Zoom session. Or when the dog is barking or our children are crying or our son keeps walking up and down the stairs behind us in his boxer shorts as we attempt that once-a-week synchronous class.
Not to be flip, but it’s good for us to struggle with our teaching. Students struggle all the time. They feel vulnerable, at the mercy of fate and institutional structure and socioeconomics and grading policies that seem to be written in an ancient language no one understands anymore. Our own, lesser struggles force us to understand that some of the things we hold dear -- our bell curves, our attendance policies, those research papers we assign but hate to grade, our own wisdom -- are not actually what makes real education happen.
Put another way, this moment -- this horrible, excruciating, eminently shitty moment -- asks us to recognize that education doesn’t happen because we have a Ph.D. and can deliver an hourlong lecture without glancing at our notes. Rather, education -- deep, lasting, meaningful education -- takes place when we have the courage to allow our students to be partners in their own learning. I’ve never been a fan of the term “whole student,” but maybe that’s what this phrase means: a student is whole when they have agency in their own learning; they are whole when they are helping us figure out what they need to learn, and why; they are whole when their feedback impacts how we build our courses week to week; they are whole when they understand that they’re learning this stuff not to get a grade but to pivot beyond the college walls and participate in finding solutions to pressing problems -- ensuring, perhaps, that situations like this never happen again.
Of course, under normal circumstances, this pivot happens eventually: after graduation, students drift into work and service and citizenship, sifting through all those hours of lectures and labs and readings to determine what does and doesn’t matter in realities far more complex than anything we constructed in the classroom.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. The walls between academic life and life beyond the academy have crumbled. Which, perhaps, is OK. Because it allows us to be part of the journey students take into a wicked world, to be there as they move beyond memorization and simple answers toward something infinitely more fulfilling: a complexity that engages their curiosity and places profound demands upon their intellect. We can help them on their journey. And they can help us on ours.