(Third in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
The advent of COVID-19, or a novel coronavirus, has, it appears, virtually overnight altered the nature of university instruction and student learning. Throughout the months of January and February 2020, while the virus created havoc in China before turning Italy into the new epicenter, life proceeded on American university campuses without any real thought to what was transpiring in that ‘distant’ country. By January 25, a cordon sanitaire had been placed around the entire province of Hubei Province, which with a population of 60 million has as many people as Italy, but this did not leave any real impression on Americans nor on universities. As late as February 20, Italy had reported less than a handful of cases, and though there was the whole spectacle of a cruise ship marooned just outside the port city of Yokohama (really a ‘suburb’ of greater Tokyo) with hundreds of passengers stricken with the virus, COVID-19 must still have appeared as an overwhelmingly ‘Asian’ problem. In truth, even the alleged world-class universities in the most cosmopolitan cities of the United States are overwhelmingly insular. This is, needless to say, partly the consequence of being ‘American’: in universities, as in other spheres of life, ‘American exceptionalism’ reigns supreme, and there is frankly little interest in what transpires in the rest of the world. One hopes that, in rejoinder, one will not be told that most of the major American universities, and even many of the minor ones, have “global studies” programs, vast number of area studies programs and departments, and instruction in host of languages. They doubtless do but even naivety has its limits. Hegemons must command vast areas of knowledge as much as they wield dazzling military power, use their power to bend other nations to their will, or attempt to set the global agenda in various domains of life.
By early March, as COVID-19 continued on its relentless search for new terrains, panic was beginning to set in and on March 6th Stanford became the first university to announce that it was moving all classes online. Harvard followed suit some days later, as did the gigantic 10-campus University of California, and within hours nearly hundreds of college and university had suspended in-class instruction. The letter of the President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, to members of the Harvard University of March 10th serves as a useful template for understanding how university leaders across the nation have sought to normalize the transition to what is called “remote learning”. It begins with the customary acknowledgment that the crisis at hand has been “a powerful reminder of just how connected we are to one another”: barely had this platitude left the mouth of this “leader” of the world’s richest university, it became known that Harvard had no plans to offer any aid to students from working class families who were being asked to vacate their dormitory rooms instantly and had nowhere to go and inadequate funds to support themselves in independent housing. One student on financial aid, interviewed for a New York Times article, said that Harvard’s edict felt “like an eviction notice.” Harvard is well-connected indeed—what else is it but well-connected, we may ask—but its niggardly conduct and miserliness is as well-known as its propensity for being connected with the elect.
Without much fanfare, Bacow then proceeds to state that Harvard will “begin transitioning to virtual instruction for undergraduate and graduate classes”, and that students are asked “to meet academic requirements remotely until further notice” and be prepared to stay at home. “The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly”, avers Bacow, but members of the community were given no insights into the supposed ponderous deliberations in which he and other university administrators were engaged. The Chancellor of UCLA, the institution from which I derive my livelihood, similarly emailed members of the “campus community” about the “transition to online instruction” on March 10th. The wording of his missive, announcing the immediate suspension of “in-person classes” and the “transition to online platforms”, is similarly entirely opaque about the substantive nature of the deliberations, though the “community” is sought to be reassured that the decision was taken “after detailed and thoughtful discussion, consultation with experts, and planning and preparation”. I suppose it is enough these days to mention “experts” and expect that, willy-nilly, everyone will quietly fall into line. Presidents of even leading universities long ago ceased to be intellectuals—and I am hopeful that the distinction between “intellectuals” and academics, especially academic “experts”, still resonates with some—and the preponderant number, notwithstanding their academic credentials, have more of an aptitude for administrative work, fund-raising, and parleying with the legislature and the corporate world rather than anything else. Lately, considering this or that crisis—gun shootings and ICE raids on undocumented students, to name two—they serve eminently as conduits of information, as grief counselors, as consolers-in-chief, and as purveyors of messages of the “thoughts and prayers” variety. What is striking is that nowhere in these messages from Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts is there any substantive discussion of the implications of “remote learning”.
The extraordinary ease with which the highest-level university administrators have sought to effect the transition to “online” or “remote” learning should, however, be a matter of grave concern. It is not that administrators have not anticipated the concerns that some faculty and students alike have expressed: some students do not own computers, while others, particularly in rural areas, have limited or unstable internet connections; and there are yet other students, especially from poor or working-class families, who share their rooms with siblings or do not have quiet places where they can work. And there are even students, if a miniscule number, who are without any roof over their head. All these and other akin considerations are highly pertinent, if predictable: they point to the fact that higher education is as hierarchical an enterprise as any, and that its political economy in the US reflects the nakedly capitalist system in which it is embedded. But these concerns, genuine as they are, do not begin to approximate the perils of the mass transition to “remote learning” that is now taking place under the cover of the coronavirus.
Several considerations may be brought forward as a prolegomenon to further discussions on the subject. First, though the present transition to “remote learning” is being presented as a temporary measure, there is every possibility that it will become a permanent feature of the American educational landscape to a far greater degree than is the case at present. There are many people, representing a range of interests, who have been asking why, if brick-and-mortar bookstores have been replaced with Amazon and other online book vendors, and even grocery stores have lost a substantial portion of their business to online merchants, colleges and universities as we have known them should not fold and turn strictly to online learning. The initial investment in preparing a proper online course in a studio setting can be hefty, but is quickly recovered as the course can be recycled to tens of thousands of students in multiple setting over a long span of time; moreover, the “remote learning” that is now being peddled as the substitute for in-class teachings does not even remotely require such an investment. Those who have been hired to offer online instruction at community colleges or 4-year state level institutions over the last several years are generally paid a pittance, sometimes as low as $2500 for a full semester-long course or even a lesser amount for a course with a handful of students.
The growing attraction for online learning stems, however, from considerations besides the fact that online education is much cheaper than the “traditional” classroom setting. The university is one of the few remaining sites of dissent in most countries; the university is, comparatively speaking and to use a colloquialism, a “messy business”. University cafes have everywhere been recognized as the place where the real learning takes place, and where fellowship and conviviality become possible. Democracies have to allow, at least to a minimal extent, a public space to radical, dissenting, and eccentric ideas, and that space, to the extent that it exists at all in a country where nearly everyone subscribes to the capitalist ethos, is occupied preeminently by the university. Few people really understand what universities represent, and to most people, indeed even to most students, the university is merely a passport to secure employment and a job-training factory. The corporate and managerial types, as well as many politicians, have long fretted over the inefficiency of the modern university, where, lo and behold, a professor of art history, anthropology, or English literature may—in the best of circumstances—end up making upwards of $200,000 annually, and that too for teaching two to four courses every year. Though the corporation has made deep inroads into the American university, and rendered some units of the university—economics department, and the business and law schools, to name a few—largely servile to its own interests, the feeling persists that much more needs to be done to put the university on a “business model.”
The increasing encroachment of the business model, the ascendancy of the managerial and administrative types, and the relentless quest for profits have all had the effect of already altering the university in the US, and in countries such as India where the American model of privatization resonates strongly with the present government and Indian elites, to an appreciable degree. Nowhere is the present turn more palpable than in the increasingly diminished ranks of tenured faculty and the resort to adjunct and part-time instructors, many of whom are paid abysmally low wages, lack union representation, have no medical insurance, and of course have absolutely no protection against dismissal. A recent review article in the New York Review of Books (12 March 2020) of some 15-20 books on higher education terms these adjuncts not incorrectly as the “serfs of academe”. The brute fact is that the same administrators who are effortlessly pushing for remote learning, without any discussion whatsoever with tenured faculty, are also in favor of increasing the ranks of adjunct faculty. They cost the university a fraction of what tenured faculty do, particularly at the most prestigious institutions. All of this transpires amidst the charade of what at the University of California is called “shared governance”: naturally, university administrators are not keen on conversing with tenured faculty whom they would like to see replaced with cheaper and more vulnerable academic labor.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is also transparently clear that “remote learning” is in the most insidious ways the apposite form of pedagogy for the “social distancing” that we are all enjoined to practice diligently. One of the many unfortunate trends in American higher education, which I now fear is going to become more prominent with “remote learning”, is the destruction of the relationship between the professor and the student. It would take a volume to etch the narrative of this corrosive decline as there are myriad factors which have led to such a state of affairs. Many students in American universities, even at the better ones, are woefully underprepared for any serious intellectual inquiry, and the vast majority, as I have already argued, have no intrinsic interest in learning. But leaving aside these considerations, if one may turn to a very different illustration of the corruption of pedagogy, it is astonishing that a preponderant number of the faculty, at American universities and indeed now in universities in many other countries, such as Australia and Britain, have readily embraced such technologies as Turnitin [turn-it-in]. It has been ostensibly designed to prevent students from plagiarizing and thus, as the company states, to promote “academic integrity”. Such technologies amply illustrate the place of surveillance in a modern liberal society and the various ways in which the state has encouraged the practice of self-surveillance. There is a further problem here, though no one seems much bothered by it: the assumption is that potentially every student is adept at cheating, and students must establish that the work is their own and not plagiarized. (We may leave aside, for obvious reasons, such finer points as what is meant by plagiarism, how ideas are borrowed, or how in borrowing an idea might find a more interesting life than in the ‘original’ text; we may also ignore the argument advanced by compliant faculty that their recourse to Turnitin derives merely from considerations of expediency, just as it discourages students from leaning blatantly on the work of others without due acknowledgment.)
The effect of modern university learning, I would submit, has been to distance faculty from students. I am also mindful of the fact that there are arguments to be made for some forms of distancing: some faculty, to take one example, might argue that such distancing has been critical in keeping some male professors from preying on female students. The university is, needless to say, a very different institution than what it was three or four decades ago, but what is unquestionably true, to my mind, is that relationships built on trust have become increasingly difficult. “Remote learning” and “social distancing” are, in the milieu of university education, cognate categories: what remote learning will undoubtedly do is render students even more distant from faculty. University education is headed entirely in the direction of becoming another business, just merely another enterprise in a society that knows no other kind of person than homo economicus. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to hasten the end of the traditional university as we have known it over the decades and centuries.