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In the short story “Swim Team,” by Miranda July, the protagonist teaches a group of people in a land-locked town to swim without a swimming pool. As “coach,” she has her team members put their heads in bowls of water and wave their arms around, practice belly-flop diving onto the bed, and butterfly stroke across the kitchen floor.
As an adjunct professor of visual art at a major university as well as an art school, this fictional scenario resonates highly with the task which has unfolded for my teaching community in the past several days in the wake of school closings under COVID-19, which is: to teach art online. As we individually scramble to stock our pantries, secure our loved ones, manage childcare, assure our finances, better understand our mediocre healthcare coverage (or lack thereof), and finally, isolate, we are also grasping to figure out how on earth to switch our materials, tools, and techniques-dependent, in-person, community-reliant, hands-on teaching of studio-based art to virtual platforms, within a matter of days.
Quick problem solving and improvisation are not new to artists who teach. And contingent faculty, or adjuncts, who constitute 75% of the teaching labor force in colleges in the United States, are among the most savvy at creating compelling learning opportunities on the fly, sometimes with few resources. Adjuncts often do not know what they will be teaching until a week or two before a semester begins, are given little information about classroom setup, school amenities, and student learning needs. Most barely earn a subsistence wage for what is considered full-time teaching labor (two to three courses per semester, which offers anywhere from 2-6K per course on average), and augment earnings with side jobs and commissions, and by working at several institutions at once. Without tenure or any guaranteed institutional continuity, they earn their bread solely through the positivity of student reviews, the quality of student work, good relations with department chairs, and luck (and increasingly at some schools, the support of unions). They are the cockroaches of the higher ed system: numerous, easily squashed, but impossible to eliminate; but also its diamonds: brilliant under pressure, and treasured — not by the schools but by students, who are the reason any sane person would keep doing this job. Despite the precarity of life conditions experienced by this camouflaged class of academic laborers (so precarious as to have spawned a whole literary genre referred to as “quit lit,” which chronicles the conditions that lead contingent faculty, finally, to quit teaching), these same laborers are now expected to provide stability, assurance, novel and quality teaching to students amidst a pandemic.
In the final days of spring “break”-turned-COVID-prep marathon and (uncompensated) online professional development crash course, I watched colleagues — about 30 of whom I am in urgent dialogue with as we tried to make sense of the sparse and wires-crossed information coming from our schools — brainstorm and troubleshoot their own teaching challenges and provide emotional support, suggestions, hope, and sense to each other and to students. We navigated and participated in newly created online resource share groups, such as Facebook’s “Online Art & Design Studio Instruction in the Age of ‘Social Distancing,’” scoured open-source documents, researched differences between online platforms, learned about synchronous and asynchronous teaching models, scrapped our old syllabi and started to imagine new ones.
In the words of a particularly conscientious department chair I am lucky enough to work with, “I hope that this crisis brings light to how much we rely on part-time faculty not just to show up and teach, but also to be visionaries, innovators, and adaptable thinkers.” Such thinking can be seen in the plans of my peers. A glass instructor friend, who until Wednesday of last week was — at the assurance of her school that until recently did not provide her healthcare — still holding highly tactile glass blowing lessons, came up with recipes for students to do mold-casting with sugar and other vitreous-like home materials. A senior thesis and exhibitions instructor is shifting her classes’ shows into catalogue format, highlighting research over final forms. A sculpture teacher is having students make survivalist-oriented functional objects, emphasizing ad hoc utility. A painting instructor has students totally jazzed about what the class is calling “University of Instagram,” eschewing clunky academic LMS’s (Learning Management Systems) for the more popular app to show the progress of student work and stay connected. An installation teacher, sensitive to the emotional challenges of her students, will offer an option to make installations from bed. Two assignments I had planned for my Drawing 1 class, one about “surreal interiors” and the other about “significant (digital) screens,” adapt almost too perfectly to this quarantine situation.
But what is the cost of this outpour of scrappy emergency labor by an already taxed and largely unsupported labor force? As English Professor Anna Kornbluh explicates so eloquently in her days-old essay “Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine”:
Faculty are being asked to redesign their courses and reinvent their pedagogy on an emergency basis. Are there appropriately urgent ways to limit virus exposure while also allotting time for these laborious undertakings? Could all courses be suspended for a week to give faculty time to survey students about their internet access, computer ownership, and data limits — and to give institutions time to redress inequities in student access? … Time for disability services offices to train faculty members in online accommodations? Time for institutions to devise support systems for faculty teaching from “home” when home might be scrambled by young children whose own schools are closed? Time to develop collaboration workarounds with crucial staff, who should also be afforded “social distancing”?
The cost is, first, on the teachers and staff, whose much-needed spring breaks (needed even just to catch up on grading, let alone take a break) were spent sifting through conflicting emergency protocol emails, in “Webinars” and online tutorials, and who are launching into this next chapter of the semester in a state of disarray glossed over by tropical Zoom background. Teachers with questions about where this valuable teaching data, all these new free online lessons, will be housed and how they will be used in the future, with schools completely mum on the matter of intellectual property. Teachers worried that if they teach too well online, their jobs will be replaced by online learning more permanently (“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online” is the title of a leading pedagogical blog post). Teachers trying to assess where their students will be, what technological equipment they’ll have access to, what time zones they’ll be operating in, and if the online systems are accessible through international firewalls (much American tech software cannot be viewed in China, for example). Teachers juggling the real eventualities of a global pandemic, like getting sick and caretaking, while simultaneously wondering if their homes are presentable enough to share with students through a webcam. (I have one colleague friend who confessed a recent nightmare that she accidentally emailed porn to her students. An absurdly anxious but imminently telling dream as all of our spaces — work, home, desktop, and internet — suddenly merge.)
Equally serious is the cost of this hardscrabble transition on the students and their families. Students scrambling out of dorms and scattering geographically, students grappling with loans, who may not even have materials to complete this online coursework, students left wondering about graduations, paychecks, housing, withdrawals, reimbursements. Students who are resourceful and hopeful — in some cases already setting up home studios and getting to work — but who are still footing the bills for their studios, specialized equipment, visiting critics, and thesis shows. Students who are fleeing illness or may already be experiencing it.
While schools boast multi-million, and, in the case of the top tier, billion-dollar endowments, as well as new gymnasiums, auditoriums, and 3D printers, the lack of acknowledgement and support for the labor occurring on the frontlines between faculty, students, and staff is alarming. Understood, we are in the early days of a global health crisis, and there are indeed more dire urgencies at hand, as well as much more egregious labor exploitations and devastations (with the recent closure of so many businesses, teachers are immensely grateful and privileged to continue to have work at all!). But this does not negate that the cracks in the higher ed system which have always been gaping right are now gleaming, that many people integral to the business of schools are unsupported in times of calm and woefully unsupported in times of emergency.
For schools to best support students during this particular seismic shift, faculty, too, need support, all faculty: to rewrite syllabi, learn new technology, use our own devices and data plans, and field the manifold needs of our students. If the labor expected of faculty at a time like this differs based on whether or not they are full-time with benefits versus contracted and working at multiple institutions without health insurance, schools should be clear on what the boundaries are, and how course content will reflect these differences. Parents should be aware of these differences, and students as well, and should demand better compensation for all teachers so that they can all receive exemplary teaching by adequately compensated teachers. Teachers should continue to engage in collective bargaining efforts, as schools with unions experience improved healthcare, job security, course cancellation policies, and pay across the board. As for working conditions under time of emergency, future contracts could be reworked to reflect the possibility of extenuating circumstances (as teaching in the Anthropocene surely demands), offering compensation for overtime, emergency performance, like a reverse force majeure clause. These ideas are just the beginning of what comprehensive equitable reform of labor conditions in higher ed would look like.
And for students, their travails must also be responded to with options to suit their real and pressing needs. Why were preparations for student housing, transportation, and learning accessibility — concerns affecting predominantly low-income, international, and disabled students — conveyed merely as afterthoughts in this plan to simply “move courses online”? Will there be refunds, or vouchers available for students who prefer or must return to classes in the summer or fall, when life returns to its normal levels of unmanageability? Will there be mental health support for students triggered by sudden moving, by the pandemic itself, by this cataclysmic shift and gulfing uncertainty? Will most schools, as some have already done, support already struggling students by continuing to compensate for cancelled TA-ships and work study jobs? How are low-income students to foot the cost of emergency dorm move-outs and pandemic supplies?
The swim coach in Miranda July’s story admits in a reflective moment, of her water-free swim class, “….I was instead of the water. I kept everything going.” Teachers and students are the unsteady “instead” who keep so much going, along with staff and service workers (administrative, IT, custodial) whose jobs are even more imperiled at this moment and contributions even less rewarded. There is not enough handwashing we can do to cleanse this truth. The time for schools to create more equitable systems to support all students and all faculty and staff is long overdue, but now is better than never. Lest we continue to be left to tread water where there is none.
Author’s note: The bulk of this essay was written on March 12, 2020, as schools were just making public their closure plans and protocols. Some policies reflected in this essay may change (I hope). Thanks is given to all the brilliant unnamed colleagues whose ideas are featured in this essay.