• Daniel Vollaro

Soldiering On Through April

What will we bend, break, or ignore in higher ed?

The grim scene at the Emergency Hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. With hospitals taxed to the limit, medical schools all over the country allowed students to waive coursework and in some cases graduate early in order to volunteer in hospitals like this one.

A T-Rex and a triceratops are watching a giant meteorite streak across the the sky. The T-Rex turns to his friend and says: “Oh shit, the economy.”


This meme was circulating on Twitter three weeks ago, right around the same time the president tweeted in all caps “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.“ Everyone in my corner of the Twitterverse was outraged. How dare the president suggest that the economy is more important than human life. After I enjoyed a few laughs, I toggled away from Twitter and returned to my work. I am a college professor, and I had been instructed to move my four writing courses “online” for the remainder of the semester. Like many colleges and universities around the country, mine had suddenly shuttered its classrooms in the middle of March and moved its instruction online. Despite the pandemic, we would all continue to soldier on through the end of the semester.


But that damned meme would not leave me be.


I kept thinking, how different are we from those dinosaurs? If a Category 5 Hurricane was bearing down on my city, would I think it was a good idea to continue teaching students remotely from inside my home while they huddled in their homes waiting for the storm to pass? How naive are we to think that we can flip a switch in the midst of this chaos and turn ourselves into online institutions of higher learning? We can’t, and we won’t. No amount of planning, curriculum redesign, new language in a syllabus, or Blackboard training sessions will change this. At best, the month of April will be a big messy poorly planned experiment that blows up in the end. I love experiments, I thrive on the unexpected, and I am not especially worried about things blowing up, but will our lumbering, bureaucratic, lawyered-up institutions be able to handle the shock of so much sudden change? I am not optimistic.


What is required most of higher education at this moment is maximum flexibility and creativity, but colleges and universities are bureaucracies—rule-bound institutions. They do not move quickly or bend easily. The administration may have extended the deadline for Withdrawal with a “W” from a course by a month, or even to the end of the semester, but there will still be a deadline—there must be, because the rules matter in a bureaucracy, a lot. This extension will be one of dozens more deadlines, rules, and procedures that groan under the weight of COVID-19. Decisions about how to bend, break, or ignore these rules are agonizing, but how higher ed behaves in this moment—how we all live outside of the rules or in the absence of them—will determine the future of college education in America.


Some of my colleagues have responded to the new COVID chaos by trying to reimpose order. They are carefully modifying their syllabi, anticipating loopholes, trying to forestall future grade challenges. They are laboring to create new schedules and rubrics. I see some of my more hyper-vigilant colleagues adding assignments that were not originally planned as they try in vain to inject the same integrity, rigor, and parity of workload that had existed in the pre-pandemic versions of their courses. For the rule-oriented among us, this has been an especially maddening month.


But most of us are being our most flexible, compassionate, and humane selves. Someday hopefully, we will collect the stories of faculty who extended deadlines, ignored their own rules and standards, and allowed a scheduled Zoom lecture to turn into a group therapy session—all in service of helping our students reach the end of this semester in one piece. Seeing this compassion in action among my colleagues makes me proud to be a member of the professoriate In America.


But I have noticed too that the institution casts a long shadow, even when many of us are not showing up to work there anymore. The semester, for example, is apparently an immovable pillar. Its integrity matters to many because a chain of future events is linked to it. Students have already applied for graduation. Registration for Summer and Fall courses is already underway. Students have been accepted to graduate programs in the Fall. And then there are grades, the other immovable pillar. The bureaucratic inertia demands that the semester will end with a grade entered beside every student's name, and it must be on the traditional A-F scale to preserve the integrity of the almighty GPA. Converting to pass/fail grading makes good sense to me, but then the institutional inertia kicks in again and the hand-wringing begins. What about the students who are applying to graduate schools, what about...? what about....?


These concerns seem perfectly reasonable in the version of the future where higher ed resets itself back to the early Spring status quo in three months. But it won’t. This is the once-in-a-century 8-on-the-Richter-Scale earthquake no one saw coming. Colleges and universities will be picking through the rubble for a year or more after this semester ends, and when the city rebuilds itself, it won’t be the same city.


A friend recently said this about primary and secondary school education during the current crisis. I am paraphrasing: Why don’t we just use the crisis to teach children. Make everything about COVID-19. She was saying, I think, that educators shouldn’t try to perform normalcy right now. We should fully embrace the moment. Our curriculum, the very structure of our schools, should be adapted to the crisis.


A century ago, some American medical schools expedited graduation for some students so they could serve as doctors on the front lines of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Newspaper articles from the period show that students from University of Oklahoma, St. Louis University, Tulane University, and the University of Pittsburgh volunteered or were “drafted” to help fight the influenza outbreak as it overwhelmed the nation's healthcare systems. The New York City health commissioner asked the deans of the city’s medical schools to send senior medical students to serve as nurses in flu wards. In the first week of October 1918, Philadelphia released all senior medical students in the city from their coursework for a week so they could serve in the “Emergency Medical Corps.” From my perspective, these stories represent the apex of adaptive institutional thinking in a national crisis, but how many of our risk-averse colleges and universities would be willing to crack themselves open like this? The mother of one of my daughter’s friends works at a gastrointestinal medical practice in my town. When I informed her last month that my college was closing down classroom instruction, she said “send your nursing students our way. We’ll put them to work. They can earn college credit too.” She was smiling when she said this, half serious, because we both know that the current legal and regulatory environment would make such a plan nearly unworkable.


I was impressed to learn last week that students and professors at MIT have very quickly pivoted to solving Covid-19-related problems. For example, mechanical engineering professor Marty Culpepper led a team at MIT to design a cheap, easy-to-manufacture face shield for medical professionals. A month later, a factory in Massachusetts is cranking out 100,000 of these face shields a day for less than $3 apiece. There are many other projects like this percolating at MIT because the institution has quickly pivoted to the crisis. MIT is perhaps uniquely equipped and resourced to adapt quickly to this kind of crisis, with its many maker spaces and its baked-in ethos of innovation, but every educational institution can learn from its example. Make the curriculum experiential and practical. Focus on solving problems. Figure out how to clear the space for students to contribute directly to the nation-wide fight against the virus.


In a recent interview on NPR’s On Point, Fiona Murray, co-director of MIT's Innovation Initiative said this about her institution's response to COVID-19: “One of the things that we have to do is we have to be fast, but we also have to be safe," she said. “And we have to, I think, understand the difference between rules and procedures that are basically there that have sort of built up in a cultural way over time, versus those that are actually really important to keeping us safe.“


There is wisdom in her statement for every college and university: take a hard look at the rules and regulations. Which ones make sense and which ones are merely “cultural,” tradition-based, or just plain standing in the way? How much can the pillars be moved or bent? Are they really pillars to begin with, or perhaps something less load-bearing than we thought?


Many of us who do experiential, service-, and project-based learning have been posing these questions for years? If sustained community engagement is a laudable goal in higher ed, for example, maybe strict adherence to the traditional sixteen-week semester is a barrier. Can we we remove this barrier? If you want students to do creative, innovative work that transcends the college/community boundary, is the traditional credit hour suitable to the task? If you want students to collaborate in teams made up of faculty and community partners, is the traditional letter grade system the best tool for motivating performance? And so on.


How adaptable are we, really? How willing are we to cast off regulations and bend rules—play the black market game in service of the greater educational good? Or, if we are not so bold, how quickly can we rewrite the rules? That is the challenge facing higher education right now.