“UW stays the course.” “We are weathering the pandemic.” “Students Together in Spirit.” “We’re all in this together.”
Looking at the University of Washington website, and reading messages from the administration, one could feel quite hopeful about teaching and learning at the UW in the midst of a global pandemic. Despite spring quarter having to be moved online, the message was clear: Life at UW and in the community went on.
This is not a wholly inaccurate picture.
Yes, students logged on to take classes each day. They avidly worked through course material, wrote and handed in assignments — fueled no doubt by that staple student diet of coffee and ramen.
Yes, instructors quickly got their virtual classes up and running. They shared their expertise often in novel ways, they graded papers and got to know their students.
But scratch even a little below the surface, and you will find that things were far from business as usual.
From Zoom-bombing fears and technology issues, to screen fatigue and disconnection (literally and figuratively), there were many challenges, and much extra physical and emotional labor, involved with teaching and learning at the UW this spring.
Speaking to students, one word came up again and again: exhaustion.
An average day for many consisted of at least six hours in front of a screen — usually more like nine — either attending virtual lectures and seminars, reading, writing or teleworking.
Exhaustion is something instructors also felt. A lot of this came from the extra labor involved with setting up and managing online classes.
On March 18, the UW announced that spring classes would be held remotely. Instruction began only 10 days later. This left many instructors with just over a week to completely adapt their class to an online format.
In the midst of all this labor, they received messages praising their resilience and innovation. This was not easy to read whilst working flat out, missing sleep, to get everything ready.
Instructors could have been given more time. Arguably they should have been.
In addition to tiredness, the lack of community was one of the toughest hurdles to overcome.
In an online class, those moments before or after lecture when you might make a personal connection with a classmate, or together have a breakthrough as you continue to discuss the material, or the informal conversation with the professor that creates a level of familiarity before the bell rings — those unique elements of the college experience all but disappeared.
Truly, the difference was stark.
Students and instructors did the best they could, but it was absolutely not the same UW experience.
So, while it was not business as usual, students and faculty are resilient. They rose to the challenge, and yes, we are all in this together.
But it is important that the reality of life this quarter, and all the extra labor required to make any of it possible, is not forgotten or obscured by simplistic messaging.
Roneva Keel, who taught a class on U.S. Migrant Histories this spring, sums it up nicely: “The priorities for this quarter have just been different …. it has been about getting through this together and coming away with some valuable knowledge of the subject matter. It doesn’t matter if we weren’t able to cover all the details or go as in-depth as we might have been able to in different circumstances. We’ve learned, and we’ve managed to carry through in a difficult and unprecedented time. That is a valuable lesson in and of itself. I think we can and should be proud of that.”
As this academic year comes to a close, as graduating students get dressed in their finest clothes, as they fling their meticulously decorated caps into the air in celebration — all from the “comfort” of home — we’re reminded that the pandemic is far from over.
These are not UW specific problems and experiences. While we don’t quite know what to expect in the fall — another point of anxiety and frustration for many — it’s clear that academic life across the nation won’t be business as usual for the foreseeable future.
If we are to tackle what this means, and the implications for the hundreds of thousands of students and faculty affected, then we must face difficult questions about the realities of online learning and the importance of the on-campus experience head on. We must move away from the idea that everything’s the same … just different.