Remote Learning: Possibility and Responsibility

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In his recent opinion essay in the New York Times, “My College Students are Not Okay,” Jonathan Malesic suggests that college administrators start “resisting the temptation to expand to remote learning, even if students demand it, and ensuring that faculty workloads leave time for individual attention to students.” Nevertheless, it seems possible to look at the same evidence of students’ challenges in Spring 2022, and to arrive at much different conclusions.


Malesic believes college students’ current malaise was precipitated by remote learning during the lockdowns and quarantines of 2020-21. Instead, I suggest it might be more helpful to think of the historical context for the shift to remote learning. Remote learning did not exist in isolation from events that took place alongside COVID inthe last two years that students have eluded to in class discussions, journals, and writing projects: George Floyd’s murder, the 2020 presidential election, the January 6th, 2021 Capital Riot, the white supremacist murders across the US, the climate disasters of wildfires and Hurricane Ida, and so on.   


Moreover, the pandemic has not yet ended and the consequences, visible and invisible, continue to impact our students: nearly 1 million dead from COVID-19, the inception of vaccines, and the divisiveness of vaccine mandates and mask mandates. Other challenging circumstances are systemic racism and  the dismantling of the social safety net. The absence of a functioning safety net became more visible in the multiple crises in disparity that accompany COVID–healthcare, mental health care, childcare, housing, food security, education–the list goes on. 


In other words, the suggestion that remote learning alone caused students’ current difficulties is disingenuous at best, and catastrophic at worst. Our students’ current disengagement with schooling is part of a constellation of issues that predated the pandemic, and that will continue to exist in the aftermath. Because of this, I would suggest that students did not feel cared for before the pandemic, and even more so, during the pandemic. COVID might have been an opportunity to pull together for the greater good. Instead, chaos ensued. 


Remote learning certainly disrupted students’ lives. It did not help that there was no apparatus in place to address the needs of students who did not have access to the internet, and who had a difficult time engaging with Zoom, among other issues. The insistence on Zoom serving as a replacement for face-to-face classrooms exacerbated an already difficult situation, and a number of factors continue to contribute to students’ lack of engagement online: caregiving responsibilities, full-time work to support families and themselves, illness, including COVID and mental illness. This list of causes intersects with the absence of the social safety net, and the lack of infrastructure to support asynchronous learning, much less online classrooms.


Instructors also face these circumstances, especially, but not exclusively, adjuncts and other contingent workers in education This largely includes workers of color, who are often on the frontlines of student support. Contingent workers are usually assigned to this work without adequate compensation, without an adequate safety net, and in isolation from colleagues. 


Justice quilt patch made by Susan Bernstein.jpg

Justice: quilt patch from the quilt “2016/2022: In Hope and Sorrow” by Susan Bernstein

Photo by Susan Bernstein


To return to Malesic’s original point–that administrators should not capitulate to student’s demands for increased remote learning–is to leave aside the fact of the increase in students with mental health disabilities, and also to ignore the high costs of college education and the need for many students to work to pay for their education, while supporting their families. To suggest that faculty workloads be adjusted to give students individual attention is to overlook the fact that contingent workers have high student loads at more than one institution. It is also to neglect the reality that contingent workers are not fairly compensated for the additional emotional labor of counseling or advising.


What do I suggest instead? Somehow, whether we teach remotely or face-to-face, we have to reconfigure the system–the whole system, not only academia, but the social conditions in which academia is embedded. That is not a quick fix. These last two years, the only thing I can think to do is to teach Baldwin, to share with my students Baldwin’s concern that “All safety is an illusion.”  I can try, as my long-time mentor used to remind me again and again, to keep the class grounded in writing, and to make sure that the students are working to grow their own writing. I can stay up to date with theory and practice, as well, and I can try to be a good colleague.


Additionally, I can try to change the system, both individually and collectively. Surely that seems too daunting a task. Yet, as this second full year of online teaching draws to a close, I continue to ask myself–and to ask you, my audience–what choice do I have to do anything else but to support positive changes?  


The consequences of doing nothing haunt my dreams. Through that haunting, I allow my dreams to regenerate imagination, and to consider possibilities not yet imaginable. Listening to dreams might seem contradictory, or naive. Yet listening to dreams also reminds me to listen to students, however they communicate, whether through faces, blank screens, voices, Zoom chats, and especially silences. 


Sharing the unexpected possibilities of imagination is a responsibility to be taken seriously. The challenge, in a time of pandemic is to confront that responsibility, even in weariness and even in fear. For the last two years in the isolation of remote learning I have taught James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. I have read and reread their work, written new assignments, and worked with students to make meaning from their twentieth-century texts. I have done this teaching because, I realize, I am also searching to make meaning. The search is also a responsibility, and the search is ongoing.

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.