My institution recently finished its second seven and one-half week term, part of an experimental new calendar that divides each semester into two shorter, intensive modules. The college implemented this system of mini-semesters so as to become more flexible in light of changing public health mandates and COVID-19 numbers. About two months ago, when the trees were at peak autumn color here in the upper Midwest, we were deep in the grind of our first round of finals. Since beginning again in early November, we have now hurtled through an entire second term: different student faces on the Zoom calls, same blurred backdrop of exhaustion.
Colleges and universities across the country have had to muster significant creativity in order to adapt calendars, campus life and curricula to this pandemic. In order to (rightly) prioritize physical health, institutions have mandated adjustments including remote learning, hybrid classes, compressed semesters, asynchronous lectures and class meetings in tents. And yet most adaptations remain grounded in the preservation of certain standards of academic rigor: exams, deadlines, traditional grading systems and maintaining a demanding workload. Evidence is mounting that student mental health is suffering as a result.
Here we are, collectively adrift on an ocean of chaos, transformation and trauma -- and in a vessel that was never equipped to navigate it. We are holding on tightly to a set of academic expectations designed for dry land: expectations that have their origins in the capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, settler-colonialist, ableist structures that are (finally, necessarily) beginning to collapse around us.
Students, staff and faculty alike are struggling. Many are struggling to manage daily life and, in spite of the new and welcome arrival of vaccines, will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future. Additional stressors and anxieties -- side effects of our institutional adaptations -- are compounding feelings of hopelessness and despair for many of us, and we are only halfway through the academic year. Expectations of productivity and achievement are impossible to meet for those in our campus communities who are deeply suffering. And we know that the traumas of this moment, many of which predate this pandemic, will not be ending soon.
Spending so much energy clinging to academic constructs that were not made for these circumstances is harming our well-being. To correct this, we may need to marshal a more radical use of our collective imagination for the sake of not just surviving this academic year but also thriving in it.
What if we could reimagine it all for the spring?
Imagine spring semester 2021 at a small liberal arts college, but all classes have been canceled. Instead, students, faculty and interested staff have been placed in small cohorts together, evenly distributed across the campus.
Imagine that each cohort is small, maybe five or six students, and facilitated by one faculty or staff member. Let’s say this facilitator is responsible for helping students identify the issues, topics or activities that feel most concrete and meaningful to them at this current moment. Imagine these small groups taking 15 weeks to explore the connections between students’ academic focus, their individual circumstances and the tangible, relevant work their hearts and minds feel called to do right now. For some, this might mean contributing to racial justice efforts, community food insecurity or urgent environmental threats; for others, it might mean caring for the immediate needs of family and loved ones.
It would be an inside-out semester, with cohorts determining for themselves how best to support each other in the pursuit of meaningful work, discussion and reflection. Imagine these conversations happening when and where the group chooses: in the woods, along the river, inside masked and distanced classrooms, on the phone -- or yes, even on Zoom.
Think of the cross-pollination of ideas that could result from students, staff and faculty identifying and pursuing this work together, in whatever form it took, freed from the usual expectations. Imagine the deep connection and companionship, and the potential for transformative rest and recovery. In the absence of a predetermined agenda, arbitrary goalposts and quantitative evaluation, imagine this: students empowered to claim their own education and to connect it directly to their lived experiences.
Imagine truly experiential learning.
Imagine every student receiving a full semester’s worth of credit for this “sea change” semester and an automatic grade of an A. What experiences could be nurtured if we abandoned, for one semester, the fraught concepts of “worth” and “rigor” in which the system of academic grading is so deeply invested?
Imagine that tuition continues to be paid, because education still happens. Imagine higher education, in this time of reckoning with multiple pandemics, being redefined by students, staff and faculty alike. Imagine the seeds of systemic transformation that could be sown.
For the Class of 2021, this could result in a collection of senior thesis papers grounded meaningfully in the here and now, weaving threads from the students' field of study into their lived experience of this tumultuous and historic time. What richness these papers could contain as they reflect, in part, upon what it means to reimagine their own institutions.
What about required courses? Imagine allowing this class of graduates to return in future semesters for specific courses needed for graduate school, at no charge. Imagine waiving unrealistic graduation requirements for all currently enrolled students. Imagine graduate schools working with undergraduate programs to address this.
Imagine recontextualizing our buzzwords: “unprecedented,” “nimble,” “pivot,” “hybrid.”
These thoughts are imaginings, perhaps not practical -- and certainly challenging, financially and logistically, to implement. Spring semester, for most of us, is knocking at the door. And yet, we are in a truly singular historical moment. The year 2020 has laid our systems bare and found them wanting, and higher education is no exception. If the pandemic is, in fact, a portal, what aspects of academe do we truly want to carry through to the other side? As we face the prospect of years of continued disruption, might it be possible that all of our pivoting could produce something entirely new, creative and unexpected? At the very least, might we find some relief in the practice of shared reimagining?
Our collective mental health needs more than just an ungainly approximation of a normal academic year. We need a spring semester that transforms chaos into caring, that builds our communities up rather than slowly grinding them down for the sake of rigorous academic standards. We could find ways to craft such a semester. But we would need to intentionally center care and well-being as a primary condition of learning and be willing to set our obsession with achievement -- gently, even if momentarily -- aside.
We know from recent experience that practices and behaviors we think are unchangeable can, in fact, be changed. And we know that, even in academe, change can happen surprisingly quickly when needed urgently enough.
This academic year is a Titanic, and its rigid expectations are sinking us. We could transform the hulking barge into a flotilla of lifeboats, nimble enough to scramble to a safe place to reconvene. But it would take imagination: a willingness to see the unprecedented not just as something to react to, but as something to thoughtfully and deliberately create.