It’s July now, and–as impossible as it is for me to believe–the fall semester is not too far away. Reflecting on that fact is equal parts terrifying, exhausting, and frustrating. Why frustrating? Because we are not talking about the right things at the moment in higher education. We are pretending that the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and instead of giving people space to process the last year or more and reflecting on what we have learned during the pandemic (and what changes we should take with us into the fall), we are talking too much about going “Back to Normal,” as if such a thing was ever possible or even desirable.
Back in April, approximately 1000 years ago, I was honored to give a talk for Plymouth State University on grief, loss, and the need for introspection about what we have collectively and individually experienced as educators this last year.
I ended that talk by suggesting that I see a disconcerting, even dangerous, thing happening right now both in the national discourse and locally on campuses everywhere. What set off my alarms? It seems to me that the important spotlight that was cast on issues of equity, empathy, and student learning during the early part of the pandemic is starting to fade as folks turn their heads squarely toward the future and move back into the silos that unfortunately dominate our work.
Remember in the early part of our transition to emergency remote teaching how many institutions changed their grading policy, seemingly overnight, to a pass/fail system that could partially help to relieve some of the stress students were feeling? Fortunately, Laura Gibbs has archived these policies so that we can never forget. But do you hear anyone talking about these policies now? Is there any discussion of continuing them in the future? Probably not.
And this is just one of many examples. We were also talking a lot about trauma and students as human beings and workload and cognitive load and alternative assessments and on and on. Now, though, most places seem to have conveniently forgotten that these changes ever happened, almost as if they are embarrassed that they had to shake the foundation of Traditional Higher Education for even just a second.
Because of this I suggested in that April talk that those of us who care about students and teaching and learning must hold the floor. I referenced the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to draw on its message about refusing to yield our ground in order to defend what is right. (Note: my thoughts about the *actual* filibuster in U.S. government are another matter entirely!)
For those who believe strongly in the work we do as educators: now is our moment. We must hold the floor and refuse to let these conversations change or fade into the background. If they are already fading, then we must reintroduce them. We can collaborate to make this happen. We can share resources, strategies, research, talking points in an effort to hold the floor. Rest assured, if we let this moment slip away from us, we may never see this kind of opportunity for reform present itself again.
Students, faculty, staff, everyone will remember the beneficial changes that institutions made during the pandemic and wonder why these same institutions are going back to the way things were done in the Before Times, especially because the pandemic has revealed just how inequitable education was and remains. They’ll wonder why we were able to center them during a crisis but now we are moving in other directions. And they’ll be right to wonder this.
Hold the floor. Let’s do this work together so that no one feels alone. I sincerely think that this is one of the most important moments in the modern history of education. We cannot let this chance pass us by.