Figuring It Out Once Again

Credit: iStock.com/JENNIFER E. WOLF
Credit: iStock.com/JENNIFER E. WOLF
We’re in another academic year that’s got us navigating uncharted waters. Most of us are back on campus and in the classroom. What’s happening at our institutions varies widely: mandates for testing, masks, vaccines—all three, some, or none. To what extent the policies are being enforced depends on the place. More predictable are the front lines where faculty find themselves, and that’s not an easy place to be. Comments like this one appear regularly on social media: “I taught 135 students today. The two rooms were packed with no open seats. Only about 40 students had masks. When I described why I am wearing a mask and having virtual office hours (1 year old at home, his grandpa doing chemo treatment), I got eye rolls and dramatic sighs.”

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We’re in another academic year that’s got us navigating uncharted waters. Most of us are back on campus and in the classroom. What’s happening at our institutions varies widely: mandates for testing, masks, vaccines—all three, some, or none. To what extent the policies are being enforced depends on the place. More predictable are the front lines where faculty find themselves, and that’s not an easy place to be. Comments like this one appear regularly on social media: “I taught 135 students today. The two rooms were packed with no open seats. Only about 40 students had masks. When I described why I am wearing a mask and having virtual office hours (1 year old at home, his grandpa doing chemo treatment), I got eye rolls and dramatic sighs.”

Students have had it—with being at home when they planned to be on campus, learning online when they wanted to be in class, watching athletic events without attending any, being inconvenienced time and again by a virus that mostly made others sick. When will life ever get back to normal?

Faculty, too, have just had it—with administrators, forever-changing mandates, and even students (at least those who seemingly don’t care). Once again, we’re having to deal with a new version of life on campus and its incumbent set of challenges. The current points of tension and clashing realities get in the way of learning. Can they lead to learning—be transformed so that they promote intellectual growth and greater maturity? Probably not if we firmly tell students to mask up, even though we have a history of telling students what to do and many of them comply with our directives. Strongly worded statements or policies may alleviate immediate problems, but they’re superficial solutions that cannot begin to address larger issues of individual and collective responsibility.

Daily, the pandemic confronts us with questions of how individuals should respond to the needs of others, and not only in terms of masks. Perhaps it’s too fraught for constructive conversation. We could back away and use other examples; after all, the questions raised don’t apply just to the pandemic. It might be easier to talk about parental authority, a community issue that pits individual rights against larger communal needs, or a classroom issue. There may also be examples in our fields or the professions associated with them. I wish I had a clear vision of how to frame these conversations, but I don’t think the absence of knowing how excuses us from trying to get students beyond the inconveniences of the moment to larger issues.

Many of us missed the classroom and the potential that unique space has to showcase how individual and collective responsibilities can be joined and productively linked. In classroom discussions, discourse can be civil, attention respectful, arguments enlightening, and understanding deepened. With teachers leading the way, students can learn to think for themselves, deal with disagreement, change what they believe, and find motivation to act. This is learning where the events that sparked the exchange light fires of understanding.

Classroom discussions hold that potential, but difficult dialogues are rarely all that they could be. Most of us know that only too well. We learn to teach imagining possibilities while living with progress that holds promise. Still there are times, like the present, that make us wonder whether broaching the subject is even worth the effort. Maybe it makes more sense to wear two masks and only interact with students online.

Is it fear of failure that prevents the attempt to discuss the implications of individual and collective behavior? We should remind ourselves that we do assess discussion results with an incomplete view of what’s happening. Learning isn’t always visible to the naked eye. Mental groundwork gets laid behind the scenes. Moreover, for most young adults, intellectual maturity comes slowly via processes more circular than linear. A look back will remind many of us that we understood our intellectual and emotional experiences in college incompletely or even incorrectly at the time.

An ambiguous silence fills the space after a difficult discussion ends. In that space, assumptions about effects are out of order. Let us continue to teach with patient persistence, trusting that once again we’ll figure out how.