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The Zoom Compromise
When we finally get back to campus, let's admit that, necessary as it was, the long-term damage from putting whole universities online has been significant
This post is a quick one, friends: it’s the first week of school, and I am slammed. If you have friends who like newsletter writers who complain, please:
Those of you who read the Chronicle of Higher Education will have seen a recent article on “The Great Faculty Disengagement.” (January 19, 2022) As it turns out, while some faculty are retiring early under these long, dragged-out pandemic conditions, others are simply drifting away. As Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar write, faculty
are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself. Faculty members are not walking away in droves, but they are waving goodbye to norms and systems that prevailed in the past. They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.
While there are significant opportunities for people to change jobs in other industries, that isn’t likely to happen in colleges and universities: we hire in ways that are, in the world, downright quirky, and the tenure system constricts the job market in such a way that, once hired, people rarely return to the market at any stage of their career unless it means moving up the food chain (for example, SLAC→ R1; regional R1 to Ivy League, and so on.)
The supply and demand curves are often discussed in terms of the failure of universities to provide good, entry-level jobs and substituting zillions of per course adjunct jobs instead. Of course, this is a huge problem. But it is also a problem that it isn’t easy to think through a career crisis or career malaise if you are a tenured college professor. On your campus, you are old news; on other campuses, there are very few seats at the table to be filled.
This immobility makes the Great Resignation different from the faculty version, the Great Disengagement. If you are a nurse, there is a lively job market where you will be valued, even by a hospital across town. If you are an associate professor, making such a change can mean moving across the country—should there be a position open in your field and at your rank that year. So what do people do? They spend more and more time at home.
And, of course, many of us have now been home for years. And even if you weren’t home the whole time, there is no sociality. No job talks, no department meetings, no full faculty meetings, no parties, no hanging out at the office. Nothing.
What we have is Zoom. We Zoom our classes, and we Zoom our office hours. We Zoom our meetings, job talks, and campus events. For the first time in my life, I'm not too fond of technology.
Have you noticed that everyone is flat on Zoom?
And it isn’t just that. People flicker in and out, and their squares move to different places. They disappear and reappear in ways reminiscent of the 1960s sitcom Bewitched, except that nobody even wiggles their nose before they go. The only reason you know they are gone is motion: the gallery suddenly reconfigures itself. So then your mind is all, like, WHO LEFT????
Then there are the boundaries issues. I can’t tell you how much pointless advice has been conveyed over the last 24 months about organizing our spaces, dressing, and being endlessly clever to captivate our students with anything but the course materials. But you know what nobody told me? How to stop the text message app on my computer from opening itself every time someone wants to get hold of me. People text me in the middle of class and—in addition to minding the chat, the stack of students who wish to speak, my notes, and the screen sharing function—suddenly I have people from another part of my life entirely in the classroom.
I used to turn off my devices: now I can’t. I am using them.
At my joint, we go back to the classroom in a little more than a week if New York is not hit with another variant, and it is not a minute too soon.
What will it take to re-engage faculty? I don’t know. But we can start with one thing that we learned over this long, terrible period. There are several reasons for using technology in the classroom and teaching online. We can do it well, and we can do it poorly.
But putting a whole brick-and-mortar school online indefinitely? It’s a major fail, and we should never do it again.
There is a new feminist book review!
It’s called Liber. Go here to take a look and maybe even subscribe. Jennifer Baumgardner edits it, I write for them, and Katha Pollit is the poetry editor. One year for activists and artists is only $40.00.
What is not at the top of the news with all eyes on Ukraine? Monday’s military coup in Burkina Faso. As Danielle Paquette of the Washington Post reports, the coup was led by Captain Sidsoré Kader Ouedraogo, who will be the third head of state in the last eight months. Ouedraogo claims that the coup was completed “without spilling any blood.” But that may be entirely accidental or false since other reports say that now-former President Roch Marc Kaboré survived an assassination attempt. The capital, Ouagadougou, has recently been shaken by widespread protests demanding Kaboré’s resignation. (January 25, 2022)
The January 6 insurrection pushed some QAnon conspiracy theorists further into the deep dark hole of their parallel world—but it shocked others into getting out.
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