University, Interrupted: Teaching and Scholarship during COVID-19

by Robyn Repko Waller

As the fall term winds down for universities across the US (and abroad), what has one semester, interrupted, and another one, planned, under COVID taught us about university life?

Image by Yinan Chen from Pixabay

In March 2020, with the growing community spread of COVID-19 upon the nation, universities shuttered in response to the seismic early rumblings of the pandemic. Starting on the West Coast, institutions such as University of Washington and Stanford closed their campuses, suspending in-person teaching and activities, a trend that would quickly reach institutions of higher learning across the nation all the way to the eastern shores of the US. 

Empty lecture halls and dormitories — at least in term time — are a rarity. Lecture halls, laboratories, and dormitories of universities are meant to ring and echo with the hustle and bustle of human interaction. Gilbert Ryle, in his well-known explication of ‘category mistake’ in The Concept of the Mind gave this imagined (mis)description of the University:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen the where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.’

Ryle’s aim was to illustrate that if one thinks, as the hypothetical visitor does, of the University as another member of the class of items which contains these buildings and locales, one has misunderstood what kind of thing the University is. One has seen the University already. But, I want to suggest, the COVID pandemic teaches us that neither the visitor nor Ryle even is entirely correct about the nature of the University. Visit the deserted campus structures and quad, vacated in response to COVID, and one has not really seen the University. Rather, the University is constituted by its human constituents, past and present — the academic community. 

But where is the University — the academic community — now? And what is the academic community now?

As university administrators planned over the summer for Fall 2020, operation and safety plans for teaching, research, and community events reflected the altered reality of 2020. While some universities planned for a transition back to some semblance of in-person teaching and residence, others opted for majority to full online or hybrid learning. In this case, planned online course delivery. 

How have these impromptu and planned departures from the traditional brick-and-mortar university life shaped the academic community? As the fall term winds down, I reflect here on the good and the bad — including the surprising hints of beauty and of sadness — that describe the new face of university life during COVID. 

As improbably long as 2020 seems, likely most of us can still remember our now estranged mindsets from early 2020 and the realization of impending change. (In my case, I was sitting with colleagues at a work function, eating in a restaurant (!) (and unmasked!) when the news hit that one of the first cases in New York had been reported, not far from my child’s school. People chatted while I watched footage of news trucks blocking my commute home. I remember feeling that this moment was surely to be significant and transformative, all while lacking any real understanding of what it would be like and what was to come.)

As researchers and mentors, this meant the cancellation of meticulously planned talks, workshops, and student celebrations. We mourned the loss of ritualistic human togetherness, the graduations, the parades, receptions, student research symposia, fine arts performances, and the academic colloquia that give form to the academic social life. What is a holiday or university event without others congregated? An emergence of unity of intention from congregants is lacking without that timeless element of proximity of others, or so it initially seemed. 

Indeed, classroom meetings, congregations of university teachers and students in unitary engagement of academic content, are the heartbeat of many — especially teaching-focused — institutions in the nation. And there are many traditional teaching-focused campuses in the US. How has COVID reimagined the university classroom?

For universities, the decision to pivot to online learning in Spring 2020 meant rapid changes in course delivery. We as university teachers would need to make course material activities digestible over the at-the-time novel Zoom medium. For Humanities folks who are used to stirring up active discussion about complex reading, this meant reimagining the forum. It’s much harder to assess whether a student is engaged if they are a muted blank box in the void than if one takes a lap around the lecture hall. (Where, fittingly, the new asleep-at-the-end-of-class student is now the doesn’t-leave-the-Zoom-meeting box.) 

Accordingly, some turned to flipped classrooms and asynchronous instruction taking advantage of the rich, engaging multimedia of internet, while others reimagined the discursive landscape in digital synchronous form. For the latter, breakout rooms, a simple small-meeting-room concept, was instrumental at recreating a sense of small group dynamics. Here, encouragingly, students were free to explore the issues of the day largely out of earshot of the professor, a comfort to some. Moreover, the waiting room feature is the perfect remedy for individual meetings and office hours. These simple elements of Zoom only scratch the surface of what some university instructors have done to artfully transform the classroom, with blogs upon helpful blogs to kickstart your twenty-first century pedagogy. 

For those of us unfamiliar with online and hybrid teaching, as we acclimated to the new world, the intentional online and hybrid delivery of Fall 2020 took shape. It turns out that for some — those digital-comfortable folks — Zoom provided an alternative outlet to engage afresh with ideas. Enhanced use of formats, such as discussion boards and chatboxes, beyond verbal discourse, allows for new entrants into the discussion. Students who, for varied reasons, are not comfortable or able to engage in the traditional classroom verbal exchange now had powerful communication tools at their disposal. In this way, we have seen the flourishing of those who otherwise might sit silently in the traditional lecture hall. Their insightful voices are now better heard. 

Still, challenges abound. Especially for students who returned to tight or precarious living situations, finding the time, space, energy, and silence for attending courses with a classroom mindset is formidable. To some extent this is true of faculty as well. There are multiple hats to wear, and no hat hooks to leave them on. Now one is not only the student or professor in the class. One is also simultaneously acting as a parent or caretaker, a child, a sibling, a roommate, a worker. Instead of one’s desk or lab station, one has to carve out an academic nook. Especially in small homes such as in cities, this is, unavoidably in cases, a common room table or a cramped bedroom. Our private homes are in no sense left behind when we go to class these days, a fact that professors ought to bear in mind when frustrated about the sea of blank boxes on the screen (with the lone face or two smiling back). 

Not to mention the Wifi issue that was never an equitability issue in the space that was the  traditional classroom. One cannot be present in the classroom if one lacks access to the equipment and internet speed to “show up.” (Some institutions, in addition to Internet companies, provided equipment to mitigate this issue.) For lab sciences and other hands-on fields, the tech solution is not nearly as simple.

In some ways, though, through it all, COVID or not, the academic community has remained at its core untouched. What is a university but a ‘space’ to work, collectively, through the current issues that we as a society face? And with 2020 there are no shortage of situations to address, from public health and financial crises to political turmoil and the (too?) eventful 2020 Presidential Election to the pressing Black Lives Matter movement. Academic communities, when at their best, are a diverse set of voices connecting in open critical dialogue, expression, and action.

Moreover, we the university remain a welcoming place to find new avenues of interest and fellowship as well as a place to hone critical analysis, writing, and speaking skills. Distant or in-person, these opportunities abide. In these ways what is timeless about the university has been a comfort in these times.

Through it all, too, I strengthened my appreciation of the academic community and what it is and can be. This newfound appreciation sprang from the transformative experience of COVID itself. Although I miss in-real-life faces, the log on to connect with others to discuss meaningful impactful topics and to plan virtual celebrations of research, student and professional alike, give a reminder of what the world ‘out there’ continues to be and will be in its full potential again soon.

More pointedly, this crisis has given us all, university teachers and students alike, a rare glimpse into the ‘little things’ that make each of us, us, beyond the academic setting. With no clear line between the private and public space (admittedly a problem), one sometimes gets an endearing hint of the other — the yappy dog or moody cat invading the screen, the child at play in the background, the nicknack that tells of one’s past endeavors and quirky projects. 

Of course, with the hopeful horizon of a vaccine in sight, some surely yearn to escape to the crowd of the campus, the university of convening masses of humanity, engaging, expressing, growing, celebrating, and acting. The crush of the people in the hallway. The yell of the sports team across the arena. The hum of the chatter before the class. The clank of the dishes in the dining hall. The applause of the audience at the event. The sounds and smells of coffee in the busy coffee shop. The sensory experience of human-inhabited space.

Yet teaching and research in the time of COVID have taught us grace and have, in some cases, widened the net of participation. Grace in understanding and reacting with compassion to the struggles of others. Now isn’t the time of hard deadlines and rigid project structures. Now is the time to connect. 

And to connect in greater numbers. No longer is the talk or conference open only to those who happen to be in town or at the resource-rich hosting institution or who can afford the flight. Anyone anywhere, layperson through to professor emeritus, with an internet connection can join in, escaping their corner of the world for a few hours to convene with the greater academic community in pursuit of a common passion. Each participant an equal-sized box in the Zoom realm. 

The university can be everywhere and everyone. That’s beautiful.