I remember the first day I heard about my university moving to remote instruction. It was the second week in March, and I was in a meeting with my fellow teaching assistant and our two professors, preparing a midterm exam. I wrote off the rumor as just that: a rumor. At that point, there was only one verified Covid-19 case in New York City and none at NYU. One week later, all in-person classes were canceled and our midterm was moved online. We haven’t seen our students in person since.
What felt at the time like the worst-case scenario has now become our “new normal.” Emails warn of budget catastrophes, lost tuition, low enrollment. Amid fears that this crisis portends the end of higher education as we know it, I’ve started to wonder whether that is necessarily a bad thing. In a time of scarcity and generalized suffering, we are forced to reflect on what actually makes universities great—and what has made them toxic.
The class that I assist in teaching covers the history of New York and Paris. Until March, it looked like a fairly traditional lecture course at a large research university. With nearly seventy students to oversee, the professors took turns giving seventy-five-minute lectures, and the teaching assistants would grade their papers and exams. There was no time for discussion. None of us knew our students’ names. In the wake of New York City’s “pause” order, with NYU moving indefinitely to Zoom instruction, our professors changed the structure of the course. Instead of the long, uninterrupted lectures, they presented ten minutes segments with time for questions in between and ended each class with small discussion groups. My fellow TA and I were promoted to “assistant instructors” to help out with extra preparation and in-class discussion.
All of us agree that the class has improved since we implemented these changes. Student engagement with assigned readings has improved, we hear from students that never spoke up before, and lecture segments have become more distilled and better organized. Last week, I received an email from one of our students thanking us for incorporating breakout groups. These adaptations to remote learning have helped him focus, he explained, and he wishes other professors would make the same adjustments.
Other changes have found their way into our teaching, especially as we adjust our grading strategies. We are liberal with extensions and lenient in our grading structure to account for Covid-related difficulties. We created an alternative assignment for those who didn’t have the brain space to complete a traditional argumentative paper. Instead, they were asked to record themselves teaching material from class to a friend or family member. One student presented to his father in the family room while their dog napped nearby. He was supposed to present for only ten minutes but went longer because he and his father got into a heated discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of urban renewal.
All of this happened because we sought and received feedback from students as we were teaching. Usually, course evaluations come at the end of the semester, when students have completed their learning process—for better or worse. This spring, we sent out an evaluation two weeks into remote learning to gauge how the changes were working, and what students needed going forward. We learned that they were suffering from a general lack of motivation, increased financial stress, exacerbated mental health struggles, and unstable learning conditions. They asked for more creative assignments to keep them engaged, and a more flexible grading system.
The last six weeks have also highlighted common misconceptions about college teaching. Because graduate student instructors are underpaid and overworked, my colleagues have often warned me to set firm boundaries and to look out for duplicity on the part of my students. I was told they would make up fake excuses for absences, ask for leniency when they actually needed structure, and become overly friendly, mistaking my relative youth for camaraderie.
My experience with Covid learning has taught me that the opposite is true. Students want to make the most of their education, and they are also humans with complex personal lives that often make learning difficult or impossible to focus on. One student explained that they didn’t have time to write a paper because they were working full-time to pay the rent, while another asked for an extension while they moved across the country alone. Mental health crises, caretaking responsibilities, and financial uncertainty are nothing new for undergraduates. They have merely been made visible because of the current crisis.
This kind of information about students is hardly new for primary and secondary school teachers. My partner, a recently certified elementary school teacher, spent the past two years learning pedagogical techniques as she took child psychology classes and participated in sensitivity trainings. But doctoral students are lucky if we get one non-credit course on the basics of university teaching. In research universities, where lecture-based courses have so long been the norm, there is little incentive from our advisors and mentors to structure our sections and courses around active learning.
Then there is the suspicion that young scholars might come to care about teaching too much. In a recent workshop with tenured faculty, my colleagues and I were warned not to do too well in our teaching, as overly positive course evaluations would make universities suspicious about our commitment to our own research.
We are optimized for production within a closed, competitive, and individualistic system. As neoliberal policies have reframed higher education, we have been primed to see others’ gains as our losses, our failures as uniquely our own. Undergraduate students feel weeded out by inflexible structures and divided along lines of socioeconomic, racial, gendered, and physical privilege. Graduate students feel exploited, unprepared for an impossible job market, and misunderstood by tenured professors who do not share our professional precarity. Our professors have their own frustrations: they feel increasingly constrained by the commercialization of higher education and the constant demand to answer to bureaucracies and budget targets. In this game, no one wins—except for those few at the very top, who win salaries of upwards of one million dollars a year at my university.
The Covid-19 crisis has amplified these divides and called urgent attention to them. At many universities, students have demanded tuition refunds, more graduate research funding, and mutual aid. This has brought into stark relief the distrust each university constituency feels for the others. But importantly, it also reveals the possibilities for solidarity that emerge when we begin to understand what each other’s lives are really like. At NYU, faculty members have stood up for graduate students, doctoral students have supported master’s students, and teaching assistants have advocated for undergraduates. In this way, communities have been coming up with models for resource sharing and equity university-wide.
This crisis has pulled the ground out from under us all—professors, researchers, doctoral students, and undergraduates alike. It is natural to feel this spring as a loss, even an ending. We don’t know what we will return to when we “return” to our universities. But in truth, the weak spots revealed through this crisis have long existed.
Whatever classroom teaching does look like after this is all over, I hope a few of the lessons from this time stick with us. Universities are not only places of intellectual community: they are also spaces for material community, where resources must be distributed more equitably. We must invest in our doctoral students and professors as educators, not just researchers, and give them the resources and incentives they need to teach well across a diverse student body with a wide range of capacities and needs. And we must provide the material means and spiritual support for students to succeed academically when we are not in crisis conditions. This is how we can ultimately guarantee the continued value of higher education and ensure a future worth fighting for.
Hannah Leffingwell is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department and at the Institute of French Studies at New York University.