On Building Community In the Classroom During COVID
Starting next week, I’m set to teach a class on feminist philosophy in person. I’m generally excited about going back to teaching after nearly a two-year hiatus since I genuinely love teaching and getting my students excited about philosophy, but I can’t help but wonder if teaching in person is the best decision given the current environment.
This morning an NC Policy Watch article came out stating that UNC epidemiologists expect student infections to peak about two weeks into the semester with around 1,600 cases a day as students come back to campus. For perspective, in fall of 2020, UNC went online after a week of classes because 120 students tested positive in a week.
Now, I understand that we’re not in the same position that we were in 2020. In the first place, we now have multiple vaccines and boosters against most of the known variants of COVID. Furthermore, if the UNC COVID Dashboard is to be believed, around 90% of all persons on campus are fully vaccinated.1 We’ve also gone through a semester of in-person instruction in the last fall that seems to have gone fairly smoothly, and we’ve all become more or less accustomed to doing the most basic things to protect each other. I haven’t heard of any egregious cases of defiant students refusing to put on a mask to make political statements in the class, or anything like that.
I myself am vaccinated, and as of last week am fully boosted. Indeed, when I was told that I would be teaching in person this semester sometime last fall, I didn’t think twice about it since I was (and am) as protected as I possibly could be.
The Omicron variant that is burning through the population right now, however, has made me a bit skeptical, but probably not for the reason that people might expect me to state. Let me first set aside that reason for folks who are anticipating it: I know that the consensus is that Omicron is less dangerous than either the Alpha or Delta variants of COVID, and that, especially among the vaccinated and boosted, it results in many fewer severe illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.2 This is good news for those who are vaccinated, and, once again, given the stats that the university presents, it means that the vast majority of those who are vaccinated will fare fairly well even if they contract it.3 The variant is, however, much more contagious than its relatives. And this means something else about the way that instructors have been told to think about their classrooms. It is in relation to this latter fact that I want to say some things.
In essence, the general consensus floating around since the start of the pandemic has been that online learning and teaching is the unpleasant means by which we can keep the university going until it is safe to return back in person, but that the ultimate goal is to get back to face-to-face instruction. I agree with both parts of this claim: online teaching and learning pales in comparison to in-person instruction. Having both taught online and taken classes online, I can tell you that it sucks from both sides.
From the student side, it’s so much easier to get distracted and do other things while someone drones on in the background. Here, I’ve got Dr. X telling me about an obscure principle of epistemology, but over there, just above my eye line, I’ve got all my Netflix friends and video games. I’ll grant that I’m probably a generally weak-willed person, but I think it takes a lot of willpower to remain focused under these conditions. Not only is it easy to get distracted, but there’s something really unpleasant about the fact that all of one’s work ends up being done from essentially the same couch or table, day after day, class after class, with no break in the monotony. One monotonous day bleeds into the next and the only thing that distinguishes lecture time from work time from leisure time seems to be the degree that one allows oneself to lay down.
It also sucks doing it as an instructor. This is not only because I know that all my students are as distracted as I am when I’m taking classes, and that so much less of what I’m communicating to them is sticking than if we were meeting in person. But it’s also because I don’t really get to know my students or interact with them how I normally would.4 There’s a certain distance in online instruction that makes the process seem somehow so much more clinical and cold. For example, it’s hard to “read the room” in an online environment and tell whether an explanation, or a point, or a joke has landed with the students. There are no snickers, no confused faces and no smiles; there is no eye contact or fidgeting or signs of discomfort or frustration that tell me as an instructor to speed up or slow down. Indeed, very often, when you get a room that’s mostly full of anonymous black screens, the whole exercise feels like speaking to oneself for oneself. And in those cases it’s hard to build rapport and trust with one’s students, both of which I think are crucial in letting learning happen.
I’m not the only one that feels this way.
All this being said, in light of the pandemic, it really made sense to take the bitter pill of online instruction for the sake of keeping our students and ourselves safe. Now, as everyone should remember, the UNC administration had to be brought to this conclusion reluctantly and only after a string of nationwide embarrassments in which they repeatedly brought back students onto campus, only to have their numbers spike, and then send out the same students who were brough to campus prematurely back into their communities. The administration not only disregarded the safety of the student body, but, as the UE150 union has repeatedly brought up, the safety of the campus workers as well.5 The obvious explanation for this reluctance is, of course, the profit incentive—UNC is a business, run by people who see it as a business, and it cannot generate a profit if all of its student body is online (indeed, if it remains online for too long, students might start wondering why they’re paying $28K a year to take classes in their hometowns).6 What justifies the cost of tuition is, of course, the experience of being at UNC; no experience, no justification for the cost. This is a cynical take, but I believe, also the correct one.
There’s an even more cynical take which claims that the students themselves are primarily interested in the nebulous experience of being on campus, and that that experience is to be cashed out in terms of social goods (basketball games, parties, hooking up, etc.). I’m not so cynical about my students and I think a vast majority of them really do care about learning, but this is a common take.
In any case, let’s leave the cynical takes behind and consider that the “experience” being considered here is neither an empty appeal to squeeze dollars out of undergrads, nor a reference to general teenage bacchanalia, but precisely the experience of teaching and learning in a classroom. After all, that is an experience, it’s one that I’ve acknowledged as missing from online teaching, and it appears to be a valuable one. If both the teachers and the students can grant that in-person teaching is preferable to doing it online, then it seems that there’s some common ground for why we should phase out online classes in favor of in-person meetings.
The way the argument for returning in person is presented now is that the value that’s manifest in bringing students together is the value of “community building.” Here, check out this excerpt from Dean Terry Rhodes:
Especially for our undergraduate students, in-person instruction is important for Spring 2022. We have found that meeting early in the semester is a critical aspect of building community. After four semesters of COVID-related disruptions, in-person classes provide the richest chance for students to learn from one another and to build relations with faculty.
The general argument for returning in person, then, is something like the following: “look, moving online was necessary during the worst parts of the pandemic because the threat of death and illness were severe. In doing so, we were taking on the loss of one value—the value of our community—in order to preserve another value—the value of life. Now, however, as you yourself have noted, Pavel, we have vaccines and boosters, and although the Omicron variant is much more contagious, it is also relatively more benign than the original strain. And given that the threat to life and health is significantly reduced for so many of our campus members, we should work our way back to recovering the lost value of community. This, in turn, requires returning to campus.”
Now, this isn’t an absurd argument, and, setting aside the real serious danger to those who remain unvaccinated7, I can see its appeal.
However, I think it involves a slight of hand that is accomplished by putting the stress on the notion that this is a cost/benefit analysis. The general thrust of the argument relies on the unstated assumption that merely returning to in-person instruction is enough to secure the value of community. Or, if not the value in full, enough to tip the scales. In that sense, it invites people to think about whether they’re being inordinately risk-averse or not. And given that on the most optimistic views of the matter and despite how contagious this variant is, it doesn’t pose as significant of a risk as other variants did, it implies that the same precautions that were taken previously are unnecessary here.
The problem with this, however, is that the unstated assumption is, to put it in technical terms, dogshit.
This is because there’s yet another unstated assumption in how people imagine the classroom situation playing out: namely, I suspect most people think that the environment is going to be the same as it would have been pre-COVID, with the addition of some masks and some extra hand sanitizer. Yes, it’s true, there may be one or two people missing from class every week if they get Omicron, but that won’t be any different from the couple of people who get sick and miss class because of a cold or the flu. While those people are out, the rest of the class can continue to build a community through being in contact with one another and discussing ideas, hence, getting us to where we were before.
But this isn’t how it is, is it?
In the first place, the assumption that there will always be a core group of students who are available to keep the community going given how contagious this virus is, is uh…to be doubted. Imagine just how many students 1,600 a week are and what the odds that there won’t be a sizeable chunk of any given class affected by these numbers. I fully expect that a great number of my students will simply disappear after the first week of class.8
Second, the students who end up contracting it won’t be out for a day or two, but will be isolated and in quarantine for at least a week. For me, this means missing three classes. And it would be one thing if everyone missed a week of class and then we got back to things on schedule, but the fact of the matter is that this will be staggered. I expect that for any given week, then, I will have a different chunk of my class gone. That being said, the requirements to quarantine and isolate aren’t a bad thing! I don’t want my students coming to class sick (this was true even before COVID—if you have the flu, stay home!).
Third, one of the assumptions that’s put in place is that, at the very least, the professor will be the glue that holds the class together. This has been true in the past—I’ve taught when I’ve had a cold in the past despite the fact that I could pass my cold onto my students because, as with most jobs, you can’t just not show up if you don’t feel good. This isn’t the case with COVID though, and it’s imperative that if I get sick I, too have to isolate and quarantine. This is true not only if I actually get sick, but if, for example, I am exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID since I can be contagious even without showing any symptoms. In turn, this means that the mere exposure to someone who tested positive (and, again, think of the 1,600 students a day that are expected to test that way), a week of class is lost.
Again, this isn’t a bad thing, and I’m not requesting that I be allowed to show up to teach in person if I’m contagious (I don’t want to!). Rather, the point of both of these examples is that both from the student side and from the instructor side, the conditions are completely disruptive.
From the student side exposure or diagnosis means about a week of isolation for them, and at any given point that ‘them’ could be a quarter of the class. From the instructor side, the same phenomenon leads to the same week of isolation for me.
Let me give you a more concrete example of just how disruptive the process is in practice. Last week I was for the first time exposed to someone who tested positive after being in close contact with them. We had hung out on Thursday night in my house to avoid going to bars (so as to be responsible!), and they tested positive on Friday. My girlfriend and I didn’t know whether we were sick, but assumed we were since we were in the same room as them for more than a couple of hours. The next day we went out hunting for at-home test kits of which there were none. We also tried to schedule PCR tests, but the soonest availability for those was Jan 7th and that was all the way in Hillsboro (incidentally, this was also the week that UNC sent out an email that they were scaling down their testing facilities, and that they weren’t giving tests to anyone who wasn’t already showing symptoms—smart choice!). To our relief, we managed to track down an at-home test kit from a friend who found one in Raleigh, but there was little sense in taking the test until 3-5 days had passed anyway since they were unlikely to be accurate before then. So, we sat at home for that time, waited, and finally took the test at the appropriate time. Luckily, we were both negative, and we were able to find a second at-home test kit to verify that later in the week (though still five days after our exposure date!) and the crisis was averted. If we had tested positive, I would have had to isolate and quarantine for another five days, bringing the total time of isolation from exposure to normal behavior to around 10 days.
This is the process that would happen every time there is a potential exposure from both sides.
If I had been teaching at the time, I would have had to move the entire classroom online so that my students don’t lose out on anything. Likewise, anytime this happens to my students (and who knows how many times it might happen to them in a semester), they have to go online too.
What this means in practice is that there have to be two courses available at all times: one that is online, and one that is in person (this is what the university means by being “flexible” as if we’re too stupid to figure it out). But given the fact that the possibility that I could get sick means that I have to have something worked out online for everyone, and given the fact that at any given point there’s probably going to be a couple of students missing that would require the same thing, it makes much more sense to structure my classes to favor the online mode of instruction than the in-person mode of instruction.
At the risk of letting out the most open secret in the university out in the open, not only are we generally not really trained how to teach, we are especially not trained how to teach online. The entire operation is and has been a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing since day one as everyone kind of tries to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t. Furthermore, we’ve already granted that online instruction doesn’t capture the value of community building that we were supposed to recover!
The upshot of this is that, in reality, instructors are primarily encouraged to create online classes for which they’re not trained, and to mix that with a kind of half-assed in-person instruction that amounts to a kind of theatrical pretense at what we had before since those in-person classes have to be done with an eye towards helping the folks at home.
The pressing question, then, is how this kind of environment is conducive for building a community! (Note, this isn’t a criticism of the cost/benefit analysis of returning to in-person instruction. That analysis remains in place—what I’m suggesting is that even on that analysis, the purported benefits are simply not there!) Anyone who takes the value of community seriously (as I do) but who is buying the university’s argument at this point (as I don’t) should seriously consider what the purported answer to this question is. I have no serious answers to offer at this time.
Which brings us back to the cynical reading. The reason we’re being brought back is not because to do otherwise would be to forego the value of community, but because students need to be back in person (under whatever conditions necessary) so that the whole machine can keep going.
Anyway, happy new year and see y’all in class!
It should be noted that I don’t know how these numbers are calculated. The source on the Dashboard is from EHS, Office of Human Resources, the registrar, and ConnectCarolina, which leads to me believe that the number is a mix of people who have been vaccinated through UNC health services, along with self-reports of vaccination status (that’s all I had to do to prove that I was vaccinated anyway). That’s not necessarily a bad thing since I don’t have any reason to think that students are lying when self-reporting, but it’s something to note.
Here’s the official CDC page: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html
It’s not good news for those who are unvaccinated or those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons since, Omicron appears to be just as damaging to those folks as the original strains, but, of course, much more infectious too. See this for example.
Okay, I will say that the wonderful thing about teaching online is the fact that I never have to remember anyone’s name since it’s written on the screen.
Full disclosure: I am a UE150 member of the graduate chapter and am proud of the work we’ve done over the last two years to raise awareness for the plight of campus workers.
That’s just in-state tuition, by the way.
Aside: I may have brought this up before, but one of the positions that people take towards the unvaccinated is that of the collateral necessary to return to “normalcy.” In other words, it’s assumed that people know what they need to be safe, they’ve been given the option to be safe, and have refused it. Consequently, if they die as a result, then that’s their autonomous choice, and that’s just a risk they choose to live with (or not), and the rest of us shouldn’t be hampered by the poor choices that a minority of people make. This argument is enough to make Foucault blush and it doesn’t take much scratching at the surface to find it fueled by some really neat eugenicist and free market principles. But that’s a matter for another time.
There’s another issue that is hardly talked about which is the question of whether students will actually interact with one another given how contagious they know they are! Who’s going to be eager to do a group project with four strangers, any one of whom might get them sick?