We Miss the Campus Amplification of Liberal Learning

I recently published this piece in the Hechinger Report.

“Nothing ever changes in academia,” the refrain goes. “Universities still teach the same way they did in the Middle Ages!” Usually I hear this tune from folks in the business world.

Trustees at Wesleyan University, where I am president, have for years been singing the siren’s song to professors about the benefits of online teaching, and usually the answer they get is: “It just doesn’t work.” Well, things in academia are changing now! The coronavirus has upended our plans and our prejudices. Students have left their campuses, and entire curricula have shifted into distance-learning mode.

“Things will never be the same in higher education!” is the refrain of the moment, and not just in the business world. Those who expected radical disruption in the wake of the Great Recession now seem to believe that it’s the coronavirus that will lead to a massive migration of students away from in-person learning and toward the promised land of tech-infused distance education.

Of course, millions of students had already moved to online courses over the last several years, in programs that were either aimed at specific skill-building or in programs that offered greater flexibility (and affordability) than can typically be found in on-campus settings. But despite growth in the numbers and sophistication of online options, high school seniors continue to apply for the opportunity to learn with one another on a college campus. Will the 2020 coronavirus pandemic change that?

I myself was teaching a class on campus, “The Modern and the Postmodern,” that I am now teaching remotely. I’d already adapted this class in 2013 as one of Coursera’s free online humanities offerings. In our current stay-at-home period, more than a thousand people have joined the pre-recorded version of this class each week. For me, it was pretty easy to imagine how I’d supplement the online pre-recorded lectures from my MOOC with discussions with Wesleyan students on the Zoom platform. Although we record these discussions, almost all of my 50+ undergraduates attend class together. We’ve been talking about Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf and Michel Foucault in our first weeks online, and the students have been as insightful as ever in connecting these texts to their own situations.

My colleagues report similarly positive experiences. Even those who used to chide me about leaving intimate education behind in offering MOOCs seem to be finding real value in teaching remotely on a platform that allows for discussion as well as lectures. Professors all over the country have been sharing tips on making their online educational environments as interactive and potent as possible.

I’ve been particularly impressed by suggestions that lead to more active learning (or project-based learning) among students who are scattered across great distances. I never found the right way to do that in my MOOCs because there were so many students enrolled and they were not moving through the material together. But I see now there are many more ways to do this than I’d imagined — from collaborations on science problems to coordinating music ensembles. I recently “attended” a fabulous pipe organ class recital, now displaced onto the various kinds of instruments student have at home. The problem wasn’t just the platform, it was my own limitations as a creative teacher.

At this point, undergraduates seem able to get hold of the material and address the tasks assigned on the syllabus. Seminar discussions on Zoom, Teams or Google Hangouts can be lively, lectures can be understood, and breakout sessions and team projects can be completed. Still, many students want nothing more than to be back on campus.

A cynic might say that the entitled young people miss their climbing walls and their beer pong, their lazy rivers and their bar-hopping, and surely some do miss the social bonds that form in the recreational dimensions of the college experience. But students are finding they miss a lot more than that. They miss the opportunities that campuses provide to amplify the straightforward instruction from classes via serendipitous encounters, informal discussion and collaborative discovery.

Sure, classes convey information about molecular biology or World War II, macroeconomics or social psychology, but the lessons are amplified and become resonant as students talk about them in the cafeteria, before sports events, in the library or in the dormitory lounge. Campuses provide homes for students, to be sure, but they also are environments in which the specifics that one learns are integrated into who one is as a person and into what one comes to think and believe as a member of a community.

On a campus, students encounter other people learning, and even when the subject of discussion isn’t a class, the lessons of a liberal education resonate into multiple dimensions of their lives. For faculty, too, the opportunity to talk with colleagues and with students outside of class amplifies the continuous learning that is their calling.

We are unlikely to see a massive migration away from campuses as a result of more students and teachers having “discovered” distance learning. But professors are likely to use a wider array of digital tools so as to make their in-person teaching on campus as compelling as possible. Tools in liberal education may be changing, but its essential mission — its core task of empowering the whole person — is not.

We Americans can sometimes gravitate toward efficient transactions, but education is impoverished — not made frictionless — when it is reduced to isolated exchanges among people in predetermined boxes (even when those boxes are on a computer screen).

Our goal as teachers should be to facilitate the amplification of what we teach so that what students learn resonates more fully in their lives. In this way, the skills that students build will strengthen them not just in building successful careers but also in searching for meaning and connection in their years beyond the university.

Students Heading to Physical Isolation, Faculty Re-Tooling Classes

These are strange times, indeed. It’s the middle of spring break, but the campus is emptying out for the rest of the semester. Friends are saying goodbye in Middletown, or expressing sadness at already being so far apart. Anxiety hovers over us all as we deal with the disappointment of finishing our school year through distance learning while we yearn for connections with one another. But it’s the connections that put us at risk.

Well, it’s physical connections that put us at risk. We can — we must — connect with one another in other ways. In the coming weeks, we will share academic work through various platforms online, and we will talk to our friends, share music, photos and stories through our lively networks. In addition to the new materials we will generate, there are many videos, works of art and music already available through the Wesleyan website. We can watch them together, and we can find ways to talk about them — even at a great distance. It won’t be the same as sitting around Usdan, or chatting by the gym, or hanging in a wood frame, but it will preserve some of our connectivity. We don’t have to be isolated from one another in spirit.

Many of you will keep journals during this period — some in notebooks, others in podcast form, while others in videos. We will find ways to connect people registering their experiences. We want to hear from you. More on this soon.

Students are stepping up in big ways to help one another, and faculty and staff are finding ways to support those who need it the most. There are various efforts underway to give assistance to those at risk. No surprise, I prefer using official channels to ad hoc, if well-meaning, private projects.  Students who need emergency funding are asked to contact Dean Mike Whaley (mwhaley@wesleyan.edu). Members of the extended Wesleyan family who want to donate to the fund can do so here.

It’s a frightening time, to be sure. But we will depend on one another, deepen our connections with one another, so that when we come back to campus, we will be the stronger for having gone through all this.

 

Working Together in Anxious Times

Yesterday I sent the following note to all faculty and staff at Wesleyan. These folks have been working tirelessly to help our students through this crisis while also dealing with the threats posed by the epidemic. I am so grateful for their efforts!

 

Dear friends,

As you prepare for a weekend of ‘socially distanced’ activities, I wanted to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts at making Wesleyan’s response to the current crisis as humane and responsible as possible. Many faculty members have been actively sharing information about how to move their classes into distant learning modes. Along with many others, I have learned much that will be relevant to my own class. Students, too, are preparing for learning in an uncertain future. Of course, many of them are deeply saddened to be torn away from friends and teachers, classmates and coaches. Yet, most are already figuring out how to continue to learn, and, eventually, to thrive. Countless staff members have been working with an intensity that is truly heroic as they prepare the campus and our students for the weeks ahead. The complexities of a diverse student body are everywhere apparent – from varieties of learning styles to a complex range of personal circumstances that require us always to customize. We have a framework of principles for making decisions, but I am so proud of the ways that we’ve tailored that framework for the specificity of individual students.

Faculty, students and staff – we are all educators at Wesleyan, and we are all especially attentive to the most vulnerable members of our community in this time of anxious planning and generous caring. I don’t want to overuse this phrase, but this seems to me ‘compassionate solidarity’ at work.

So, thank you for exemplifying the “independence of mind and generosity of spirit” signaled in the university’s mission statement. I am proud and grateful to be your colleague.

Yours ever,

Michael

Wesleyan Moves Classes Online and Asks Students to Leave Campus

 


This week we posted this video and sent the following message to all Wesleyans. We have been dealing with individual questions over the last couple of days, and we are trying our best to provide support for those who most need it. A couple of things have come up often: 1. why do I have to come back to campus now to retrieve my stuff; 2. why did the university not just suspend school for 2 weeks at a time (as some other schools have done).

In answer to the first question, we do not encourage students to fly back to campus to retrieve their belongings. We will work with students and their families to make alternative arrangements. In answer to the second question: I carefully considered this approach, but the public health experts I consulted found it unrealistic, at best. The consensus of professional opinion is that conditions will only worsen, and I believe it will be least disruptive to our community to have a clear and consistent plan to complete the semester remotely. That said, I find it immensely sad to see our students deprived of the chance to thrive together on this campus we love. 

This is the kind of event that has happened once in a century. We must keep our community safe and our mission clear.

Here’s my message.

Dear friends,

This is a message I was hoping not to have to write.

With the CDC today reporting nearly 1,000 known cases of COVID-19 nationwide (having doubled since Monday) and Governor Ned Lamont declaring a public health emergency in Connecticut, it has become clear just how rapidly this potentially deadly virus is spreading. As hard as we work to make the on-campus Wesleyan experience the best it can be, we must apply that same diligence and care to protecting our community’s well-being in light of this growing threat.

After consulting with a variety of public health experts and other higher education institutions around the country, we are announcing the following preventive measures:

  • In-person classes have been suspended for the remainder of the spring semester; we will be transitioning all classes to distance learning models.
  • Undergraduate students who are able should return to campus through March 23 to gather their belongings; all students without University-approved alternate arrangements must depart campus by that time.
  • We know that there are students for whom Wesleyan is their only home. We have set up an online petition to work with them to make sure that access continues, as well as for students who would like to request an extension for picking up their belongings.
  • Students who cannot return to campus for their belongings should contact reslife@wesleyan.edu and staff will work directly with them on packing, storage or shipping solutions.

I am enormously grateful to staff for continuing their regular work schedules on campus to support these transitions and care for students for whom leaving is not an option. I also want to express the trust I have in our faculty and students to adapt to teaching and learning in this new mode. I have always known Wesleyan to be an inventive place that rises to new challenges, and I have every confidence that the remainder of the semester, while taking a much different form than in the past, will be successful.

While it may not diminish any sadness and frustration, it’s important to note that my colleagues and I have searched far and wide for ways to avoid this suspension of in-person classes and campus activities. Realizing that the closeness of our richly interactive community is what makes us more vulnerable to this disease has led us to this unhappy decision. And now, we are determined to find ways to empower student learning while most are away from campus.

We continue to update the central coronavirus/COVID-19 webpage with the latest available information, including a video message I have recorded explaining our rationale behind these decisions. Additionally, I would encourage everyone to review the list of Frequently Asked Questions we have compiled in anticipation of the many inquiries these decisions will understandably raise. Should you have further questions, please direct them to Covid-19Info@wesleyan.edu or call us at 1-888-675-2011 and we will respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

With thanks for your patience and understanding,

Spring Break but No Rest from our Anxious Times

It’s usually the most chill part of the year – two weeks away from classes just as winter turns to spring. Wesleyan has a generous two-week break, though truth be told many faculty and students work hard during the change of season. Athletes are training or competing right through the time away from classes (how about that Men’s Hockey NESCAC Championship!); thesis writers are intensely moving their projects toward completion; professors often count on this period to make progress on their research. And the staff continues to labor away, planning everything from graduation to how to repair parts of campus strained by the first two-thirds of the academic year.

BUT THIS YEAR! This year we have a world seriously shaken by a pandemic, with repercussions ranging from a reeling global economy to changing how we casually greet one another. We are bombarded continuously with information, some of it very suspect. Authorities in Washington try to reassure, but conflicting (and sometimes nonsensical) pronouncements breed further confusion. State and local officials are scrambling to get current information, but the shortage of tests for Covid-19 has made this very difficult. Some schools are closing, and many organizations have canceled travel. Here at Wesleyan, hundreds of students—many of whom felt unsafe returning home—have stayed on campus for spring break, and we are asking everyone to contribute to a supportive community. We are also asking for social distancing. Oy.

To reiterate what we do know:

Similar to the flu, symptoms of coronavirus are mild to severe respiratory illness including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

At this time, the CDC reports that symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.

The CDC recommends preventative actions to reduce the risk of developing the flu or other respiratory diseases, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • When you are sick, stay home.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

More information can be found here, and we will update this page frequently.

If you feel sick, please get assistance from the Davison Health Center. If you need help managing your anxiety and emotions in this stressful time, the folks at CAPS are there for you.

And wash your hands.

We have a good team working on contingency plans for classes and other events. We’ll get through this by relying on what we at Wesleyan call compassionate solidarity. We may be instructed in new forms of “social distancing,” but we’ll also take care of each other. Reach out. Help is nearby.