Las Vegas, (slightly) before and (not quite) after Covid

Annette and I went to Las Vegas a couple weeks ago, the sixth time in the last 20 years. The last time we went was in late February 2020; it was the last normal thing we did before sheltering in place. So it made a certain amount of poetic sense that the first big trip we took after being fully vaccinated was back to Vegas.

That, and we got a really good deal on the flight and hotel.

Most of the people we know are lefty humanities intellectual academic types who think Las Vegas is “gross,” but we like it– at least in three or so night doses every couple of years. We do like to gamble (Annette more than me), but neither of us plays any table games or poker– just the slots– and most of the time, gambling is something we do before or after we do something else. I can’t imagine how anyone goes to Las Vegas and does not gamble at least a little bit, but the main attraction of Las Vegas for me is the spectacle of it all. I like fancy celebrity (okay, overhyped for the tourists) restaurants, and we’ve had good luck in the past seeking out/stumbling into more local kinds of places. I like the goofy faux glamor of the big resorts and even kind of like (in smaller doses) the grit and grime of the “real” Las Vegas downtown. We like the shows– we’ve seen Blue Man Group, Penn and Teller, a few of the Cirque Du Soleil shows, and also lounge acts (when we stumble upon them) and smaller burlesque/cabaret variety shows. And of course the people watching in Las Vegas is the best because there are complete weirdos everywhere: rich people with dubious plastic surgery, homeless people hustling change, fat midwesterners (me!) stopping right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to just gawk, 20-somethings with tattoos they will regret, bros and the female equivalent wandering around in packs and probably imagining themselves in a Las Vegas-set movie.

Las Vegas is everything that is wrong and right with the advanced capitalist state. It is a waste of resources, a city that is totally unnecessary and made what it is now by a history of organized crime and greed. There’s a lot of walking sad stories. I haven’t seen Leaving Las Vegas in a long time, but as I remember it, it’s clearly not that far-fetched of a story. But there is also something for almost everyone and at almost every price point, from villas with butlers for thousands and thousands of dollars a night, to sketchy rooms at an off the strip motel for $25. Super rich and successful people from Los Angeles on an impromptu visit walk up and down the strip at 1 am and play slots right right next to the next to janitors from Montana that saved for years for the trip, and it’s oftentimes hard to tell them apart. So maybe Las Vegas is a level of hell, but at least we’re all in it together.

Anyway, right after we scheduled our second dose, we wanted to make May travel plans. Las Vegas was an easy choice because of the (sort of) bookend experience of before and after Covid, and also because of the prices. I should point out there is no fucking way we would have done ANY of this without being fully vaccinated. I mean, we didn’t go to any restaurant during covid, indoors or out. Also, the idea that Las Vegas has been open since last summer (albeit with restrictions) kind of freaks me out. I’ll come back to this point.

Last February, we stayed at the Wynn because of a game Annette played on her phone for literally months where she got enough points (or whatever) to pay for the room for a night or two. This time, we got a fountain-view room at the Bellagio because we’ve always wanted to stay there and the price was right. And then– long story short– we ended up being upgraded to an enormous penthouse suite which was, well, sweet. Last year, we rented a car so we could get off of the strip a couple of times, including a trip out to Red Rock Canyon, downtown, and to The Mob Museum. And as a bit of unsolicited advice to those who might think of going to Las Vegas: if you think you’re liable to need more than one Uber or cab per day, or if you are planning on doing any tourism off of the strip, renting a car is the way to go. Also, Red Rock Canyon and The Mob Museum are both completely awesome.

This time, we kept it simple because we thought it wise during pandemic-y times to not plan too much, and also because this was our sixth trip– and the third one since 2018. We kind of had already done stuff we wanted to do off the strip, at least for a while. So we took a cab to and from the airport, and otherwise stuck close to the hotel. During the day, we spent a lot of time enjoying our ridiculous suite and also hanging around the fantastic pool area. We didn’t have any particularly fancy food experiences because a lot of those restaurants were closed on the days we were there– Monday night through Thursday morning– and it was too late to get a reservation at one of the few fancy places that were open. We didn’t see any of the big shows because none of them had restarted yet, though we did go see Absinthe, which was a modern take on burlesque: a couple of SUPER dirty insult comics, a number of acrobatic and strength acts of the sort you might recognize form America’s Got Talent, and several dancers, both men and women, and featuring a stripper who started out in a gorilla suit. If you are okay with extreme potty mouth and breasts with pasties, I’d recommend it.

And of course, there was the before and after Covid. Back in February 2020, the pandemic was something that was almost done in Asia and raging in Italy; the idea that it would come to the U.S. was still a bit abstract, at least for me. Back then, I saw some people wearing masks, though they were mostly Asian and I just saw it as being overly cautious and a cultural thing (it’s not so odd to see people wearing face masks in more “normal times” in places like China and Japan). And keep in mind that this was when the official advice was masks weren’t necessary and to just wash your hands.

This time, there were masks and distancing and other Covid protocols pretty much everywhere, and I was surprised by the extent to which people played along. Oh, I’m not saying compliance was perfect. There were lots of chin diapers and noses hanging out, and not a lot of distancing while waiting in lines for things or walking around crowded casinos or sidewalks. But given that there are a lot of parts of the country where you rarely see people making any effort at all, I thought the compliance was pretty good, and that was especially true in casinos. If the choice is follow the rules or get kicked out, people follow the rules.

On the day we left, the CDC changed the guidelines about masks so that anyone fully vaccinated didn’t need to wear one anymore, inside or out. I noticed that the Bellagio’s web site now says “fully vaccinated guests do not need to wear masks,” though I don’t think there’s any system in place to verify that. I suppose we will all see if the rule changes result in an uptick in covid among the unvaccinated going maskless, though there hasn’t been any sign of that yet anywhere. And really, even though Las Vegas and all of its casinos have been open (albeit with severe limits) for quite a while now, Covid has been less serious there than in Michigan and metro Detroit. I’m not sure if anyone quite understands why, though it’s a lot easier to be outside in southern Nevada in the winter months and the ventilation in casinos has always been good (which is why you don’t smell as much cigarette smoke in those places as you might think). So maybe going to Vegas was at least as safe as staying home?

The success of the vaccine and the beginning of a return to what life was like before the pandemic is great, but I do have to wonder what would have happened if there was no vaccine and we were going to have to live with face masks and distancing and the risk of dying from this stupid disease indefinitely. How long would I have stayed out of restaurants, movie theaters, casinos? At what point would even the cautious like me said “I don’t care anymore, I’m just going to go to Vegas and take my chances?” At what point would those of us following the rules and the science have thrown that all out and joined the reckless and the deniers and just did what we wanted? Tens of thousands of people die needlessly every year in this country from guns because we have almost no restrictions on them and we’ve gotten pretty used to that being just the way things are. At what point with the pandemic would we have all kind of just accepted it and went back to doing what we did before?

Mostly, Covid is Boring

Lockdown started on March 11, but I think the last day I had that was close to “normal” last year was on March 13– naturally, a Friday. I got a haircut at Arcade Barbers, which was crowded with waiting and largely maskless customers. The state closed down barbershops and hair salons until at least May a day or two later. I went to Meijer, trying to stock up (shortages had already begun on weird things, though we always have plenty of toilet paper), saw a few masks and kept my social distance. Will was back home for his spring break, though he cut his trip short because the University of Michigan sent all of their students home (and so he didn’t have any old friends to hang around with), and also because he was worried about potential travel restrictions as the number of cases and deaths climbed.

But at the time, it didn’t seem like this would last that long. The predictions that we’d all be back to normal by Easter seemed a little optimistic to me at the time, but I didn’t think this would last through summer. We had planned on going on a cruise with Annette’s parents in May and then on a trip out to Seattle in June. Those things started to seem less likely to happen after other academic conferences cancelled, and especially after the NBA and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament canceled. Maybe this would last longer than we thought, but hey, we’d still all be getting together again at Thanksgiving and Christmas. How could this last that long?

So, here we are. It’s mostly boring.

My family (near and extended) are physically healthy. Annette and I have been careful, and our biology PhD student son is careful and gets tested all the time. At least one of my sisters (and probably two of them) and several college-aged nieces and nephews had mild cases of Covid. My parents, clearly in the demographic most at risk for hospitalization or death, did more going to restaurants and socializing with friends and traveling than I would have preferred, but they’re fine and now vaccinated.

The impact of all of this on my mental health has been more significant, and that was especially true in late May and early June. There was (and is) the anxiety about a mysterious disease where the outcomes range from you never know you have it to death. It’s also of course been everything else– George Floyd’s murder, the insanity of the Trump administration, the election, the closing of everything, the many cancelled plans. I’m better than I was and working on getting better still, and Biden’s win and Democrats being able to (kind of) take control of the Senate definitely helped.

As far as my work and finances go, Covid has not been a problem; if anything, it’s been a slight positive because I feel like the new research I’ve been trying to get off the ground this year about teaching online will have some relevance for the next few years and beyond. Granted, Annette and I are dependent on EMU’s finances and future and higher education was in a difficult state before all this, so there’s definitely still time for us to feel some pain. The faculty contract is up for renegotiation this summer and that could be bad. Or, given that part of Biden’s Covid bill is some money for higher ed, it could be fine.  And of course, because this is not my first online teaching rodeo, moving everything online hasn’t been too hard for me– certainly not relative to a lot of my colleagues, that’s for sure.

As far as I can tell, all of my family and friends are in the same boat: that is, Covid has forced us all to work remotely, which isn’t always easy obviously, and there has been plenty of complaining about all that on social media, much of it justified. But the fact that my family, friends, and I are complaining about this and not complaining about being laid off is clearly a mark of privilege. This past weekend, The New York Times published this interesting and helpful series of infographics to demonstrate how unfair and uneven life has been during Covid. Reading over this data and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve never felt more white and well-off.

I have experienced some of the darker parts of Covid tangentially through some of my students. I’ve written about this a few times before, notably in what has become the most popular post on my blog in the last few years, “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic.” Many of my students have had relatives die from Covid, have had Covid themselves, have lost jobs, have had to move (in some cases these moves have been to completely different states) because they lost their homes/apartments. I always have students who have mental health issues, but those numbers have increased a lot. I try to help as much as I can (that’s kind of what that blog post was about) and it’s not enough. The disparity between many of my students’ Covid experiences and my own both amplify my guilt regarding my privilege and simultaneously make me feel very lucky indeed.

So while my life has changed since before Covid, it hasn’t actually changed radically or even become that much “worse,” if that makes sense. We haven’t eaten at any restaurant, inside or out, in over a year. No going out to see movies, shows, festivals, events. No gym– I try to make up for it by walking in the neighborhood and doing some exercise in the basement. Instead of grocery shopping several times a week to just pick up what we need for the next day or two, I try to keep it to once a week. We’ve been able to travel a bit to a couple of VRBO rentals for a few nights, but that’s mostly been about going from keeping to ourselves at home to keeping to ourselves at a vacation home with some nice views and a hot tub. I talk to my parents once a week, and it’s been mostly the same phone call every time: after an exchange of news regarding Covid and the vaccine (I avoid discussing “everything else” with them), we tell each other what we haven’t been doing lately, which is usually “nothing.”

Mostly, Covid is boring, and it’s a bad boring. Boring can be useful; think of the romance of the artist alone in their studio or in front of their keyboard or whatever with no worldly distractions, bored, ready for inspiration to strike. I’ve found myself writing in a lot in boring times in the past. The problem with this boringness is it was happening during a terrifying time. I remember posting on Twitter something like “for those of you who are too young to remember what it was like right after 9/11, it was like this,” and at least for me, that meant it was impossible to get it out of my head, impossible not to watch the horrific images on cable news, just impossible to not be constantly thinking of it all. Plus everyone I know who had to shift everything to working at home and online were completely overwhelmed and swamped.

Being bored, terrified, and depressed at the same time is not a good way to get things done or to be creative.

But it’s getting better, and it has been getting better for a while now. Trump and his crazies are still out there, but lurking in the shadows– for now. Going out and about doesn’t worry me much (at least around here) because people wear masks and keep their distance, and it turns out we probably never needed to wash our groceries in the first place. The number of cases are starting to fall steadily, the vaccines are rolling out. Annette and I will almost certainly be vaccinated by the end of this month. I’m looking forward to starting to do some of the little normal things soon– go to a restaurant, see a movie in a theater, hang around a coffee shop. I suspect it will be more difficult to reflect on the date when everything went back to normal (or “close enough” to normal) than it has been to remember the date when this all started, but it does feel like it’s coming soon.

Three Brief Thoughts About K-12 Schooling During Covid (spoiler alert: they never “closed”)

There have been a lot news stories and commentaries about the public demanding we “reopen” schools. Most of these stories irritate me tremendously; I have three thoughts.

K-12 schools never closed. Period.

I realize that the phrase “reopen the schools” really means going back to normal, face to face instruction, and who doesn’t want everything to go back to normal? But c’mon, K-12 school teachers, staff, and administrators have been busting their fucking asses trying to make schooling work online and with hybrid arrangements and all that. Actually closing the schools would have meant just that: lock the doors, turn out the lights, everyone go home. Instead, there are K-12 teachers literally risking their lives trying to make school work.

I’ve been watching a lot of cable news lately (I mean, there’s been a lot of news, and I’m a fifty-something white man so of course I watch a lot of cable news), and it’s pretty standard to end a show with some kind of uplifting or inspiring story of perseverance in these “difficult times.” Whenever these stories feature teachers, I cringe. There was the story about the older woman who has been teaching third grade for 30 or 40 years, but this teacher is so dedicated and so great that she’s teaching via Zoom from her hospital bed while she’s dying from Covid. Or maybe it’s the one about a teacher who is doing house calls and checking in on each of his high school students by figuring out where they live, driving around town, and showing up to chat with them while appropriately socially distanced on the front lawn. My guess is that that this guy doesn’t have 125 or more students, which is typical for most of the people I know who teach high school.

I’m supposed to admire these teachers for their dedication and their great example of going way above and beyond what’s required. But what I see instead are completely unrealistic and unsustainable expectations we’re putting on these people. I mean, do real estate agents or bankers keep doing the paperwork and serving their clients while on oxygen in the ICU? Do we restaurant cooks spend their own money on food to cook and then drive around and deliver that food to their customers for free? Mainstream media loves these super hero teacher stories, and then parents see these stories and think it’s totally okay to expect their kid’s teacher to do the same far beyond the job description activities. Simultaneously, teaching as a profession and the teachers’ unions are getting bashed all the time. It’s no wonder that fewer people are going into this work.

Which brings me to my next point:

It’s not online courses, and it’s not only students.

All the teaching I’ve done online and all the research I’ve done about distance education tells me that it can definitely work, but there are clearly circumstances and settings where it works better. Online classes work best when students have some experience and maturity at being students, which is why (IMO) having advanced undergraduate or graduate classes online is much more effective than having classes like first year writing and other “gen ed” classes online. I think a lot (but certainly not all) high school and middle school students can do okay with online classes, but I have no idea how anyone expects a third grader to succeed online when that student is still trying to figure out how to just read and write in the first place.

So obviously online courses are difficult to pull off in K-12 schools, particularly for elementary school. For example, elementary school-aged kids typically do not have their own computer and a quiet place in the family home to do school work. So yeah, I can imagine the online classroom experience for the fifth grader who has to share a laptop with a sister and/or a parent and who has to do all of their work sitting at the kitchen table with said sister/parents and who are all working off of the personal hotspot wifi network on Mom’s iPhone, yeah, I can imagine that’s not going great.

But look, it’s not all about school  being online. It’s mostly about “everything else.”

By “everything else,” I don’t just mean this mysterious disease that has emerged like we’re in a dopey science fiction movie and forced all of us to change almost everything we do in our day to day lives. I don’t just mean the protests that are the result of long-simmering racial injustice and that came to the forefront this past summer. I don’t just mean the enormous number of people out of work and struggling to find food. I don’t just mean the completely fucked up politics we’ve had during the Trump presidency, cumulating in the “Big Lie” of a stolen election and the first violent transition of presidential power in our country’s history. I mean all of this as part of “everything else,” but not just this.

I also mean that for a lot (most?) kids, just being home all the time–even in the best of times– is horrible. I’m not just talking about families where there is abuse, though those are obviously the absolute worst situations. I’m also talking about perfectly normal children– particularly teens. It’s been a while since I was that age (though not that long since I had a teenager in the house), and I grew up in a completely supportive and loving household. But like most normal teenagers, the absolutely last thing I wanted to do back then was hang around with my parents or sisters for any longer than necessary because I was 15.

So what I’m saying is when I see stories on cable news about how children are struggling with their schooling, are feeling stressed, and find themselves depressed, I keep thinking two things. Number one, the main cause of these problems is not school being online. It’s “everything else,” and there is A LOT of everything else. If there had been no pandemic, no BLM movement, no economic collapse, no Trump administration, etc. etc.–and if the only issue was high schools shifted their classes online for some reason, then there would be no story here.

Two, whenever I read or see on the news these stories about how students are more depressed and stressed out than ever, my reaction is who isn’t?! Join the fucking club! I’ve seen a whole lot of student meltdowns this year and I’ve done what I can to try to help students through all this. But look, we’re all stressed and depressed– at least to some extent– and we’re all struggling. So yeah, open the schools to help the depressed and stressed students, sure; just remember that that elementary school teacher who has been working her ass off to teach those kids has a ton of the same problems of her own.

Finally:

If folks want to have f2f classes in K-12 schools again, vaccinate.

The CDC has said that K-12 schools can have f2f classes again even if teachers and staff aren’t vaccinated, and there are other studies out there that suggest the rate of transmission in K-12 schools tend to be lower than in the community in general. Now, I’m a “follow the science” kind of person when it comes to all things Covid. But if I were an elementary/secondary school teacher– especially a high school teacher– I’d be very skeptical about all this. And honestly, given that every teacher in the world has had to deal with administrator’s telling them stuff that turned out to be completely wrong, why should teachers trust the experts now?

The bottom line is parents (and students and a lot of teachers too) who want schools to have f2f classes need to prioritize doing the things to contain Covid that can make that happen, and we as a country need to prioritize vaccinating K-12 teachers and staff. Ya’ll can’t yell and scream about schools not being open for f2f classes and then complain about masks and insist that restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and all of these other high Covid risk places are open for business as usual.

So let’s concentrate first on vaccinations and everything else first.

What didn’t suck about 2020?

I usually write a post at the end of the year to kind of sum up highlights of the previous year (particularly highlights from blogging and social media posts), mostly as a reminder to myself of how things went. You know, like all these “the year that was” articles in MSM. And I had started here recapping all the ways that Covid disrupted everything and how it all sucked and all of that, and then I thought: who needs more of that? I am quite sure I’ll remember all the ways that 2020 was a disaster for the planet and for the country for the rest of my life, and I’m also sure I’ll get the chance to re-remember in movies and books and television shows for some time to come. I’m quite sure I’ll remember the ways 2020 hurt me and my family personally, and those are things I’d rather not go into in a blog post. Not now anyway.

So instead, I thought I’d take a bit of time to write about/meditate about what didn’t suck about 2020, about what I still managed to do that was good, about what I learned about myself. Part exercise in living in the moment/mindfulness (which I think is mostly a bullshit way of looking at the world, but I’ll play along), part needing to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Here it goes (in the order it occurred to me):

I’m grateful I didn’t have any close friends or family members who became seriously ill or worse from Covid (knocking on wooden things). Annette and I both thought we might have had it several different times (who hasn’t wondered if that cold or cough was something worse?) and we’ve been tested a couple of times as well, but so far, so good. Same with Will, though he gets tested about weekly because of the stuff he’s doing at Yale. I have some more extended family members and friends who have had it, some with barely any symptoms and others who felt it like a hard flu. Given some of the terrible stories I’ve heard from some of my students, I am grateful and feel lucky about this.

I’m happy my day-to-day life and work carried on mostly the same. Don’t get me wrong– this has all been much different and it’s hard. I have been in my EMU office three times since mid-March. I haven’t been to a restaurant at all since things locked down– not even outdoor dining– and I have been to a coffee shop/beer garden kind of place exactly once when I met Derek for a beer at Cultivate Coffee and Tap House and then we sat a picnic table distance apart in the outside area on a lovely day back in September. I used to go to the gym at least four days a week and then often went shopping for whatever I was planning on cooking for that night, and I haven’t done any of that since mid-March. No movies, no shows, no museums, none of that. I go to the grocery store or places like Meijer about twice a week, and I make a point of trying to get outside to walk around a bit. That’s about it.

But the thing is I was already mostly working from home and mostly teaching online before Covid. Ironically, I spent a lot of January trying to make more use of my EMU office, which has kind of been a failed New Year’s resolution for a few years now. The short version: I keep thinking I need to draw a firmer line between my “life” and my “work,” this despite the fact that I’ve spent the last 30 years working from home and coffee shops with few boundaries (physical, intellectual, emotional, etc.) between life and work. Plus I have a very nice office that seems wasted with me not using it for much of anything beyond office hours and storing junk. So once again in January, I was trying to work more from my office, and once again, I had given up on working more at EMU by mid February. All of which is a long way of saying shifting to working at home and teaching online wasn’t exactly a big lift for me.

And of course, let’s not forget the basics: Annette, Will, and I all still have jobs, insurance, money in the bank, etc. Speaking of which:

Annette, Will, and I all are very lucky to be able to comfortably shelter in place/just stay home. Will started his PhD program in Cellular Molecular Biology at Yale in Fall 2019 and he had (continues to have) a nice (albeit student-y nice) apartment in New Haven, and since his work mostly shifted to working on qualifying exam/pre-dissertation portion of things, he was fine. With Will out of our modest three bedroom house (and this has been the case since he was living on campus at Michigan), there is plenty of room for Annette to do her thing in her work space/library downstairs and me to do mine in my hard to beat office/study/man cave area upstairs. Which is to say we just had each other, mostly: no pets, no really little kids, no school-aged kids, or none of the other things (many much worse than this of course) that made staying close to home challenging. Sure, having more people around means, well, having more people around, so there’s an advantage there. But let’s just say I think that having all three of us here would have made for a very difficult year.

Despite it all, we did get to travel a bit. We mostly got our travel jollies out in 2019 with trips that took us to three different continents (not counting North America), and we did have a couple trips we were going to go on in 2020 canceled. But we weren’t completely at home in 2020. We went to Las Vegas at the end of February, one of the nicest trips we’ve taken there. We had a room that was basically free at the Wynn (long story), saw some shows, did some gambling, stumbled across a Banksy exhibit in a shopping mall, and went to Red Rocks. Covid was just starting to leak into everything, though we didn’t think a lot about it then. I do remember seeing some people in masks (mostly Asian tourists, so I honestly didn’t think much about it), and I also did make a point of getting up to wash my hands about every hour while playing slots.

In July, we went “up north,” staying at a really cool cabin on Glen Lake– well, not on Glen Lake because that’s pretty much all multimillion dollar homes, but across the road from Old Settlers Park, which meant we kinda/sorta got a lake view. We didn’t get out to any of the fancy restaurants up there (a number of them were closed anyway) and we didn’t get into Traverse City or do a whole lot of shopping, but we did get to do some hiking, we looked at a lot of trees and nature, we got to see some friends who live up there, and we did a lot of relaxing and hanging out.

And then in September, we took a road trip to Maggie Valley, North Carolina to spend a four-day weekend with Annette’s parents– they rented a house there. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to making the trip (the driving, during the midst of the school term, an area of the country that isn’t really my cup of tea, etc., etc.), but it was a nice change of scenery, and it’s certainly not a trip I would have been willing to make with the current crazy spikes in Covid.

We watched A LOT of movies, and a lot of kind of weird and/or old ones too. I generally write down the movies we watch (I keep a list as part of my journal), and I think we saw about 170 of them last year. In normal times, we watch a lot of movies, but 170 or so is, well, A LOT. Mind you, that includes multiple viewing of some comforting favorites (The Big Lebowski, Dirty Dancing, A Knight’s Tale, Star Wars), rewatching of a lot of movies we’d seen before, and a few new ones too– got to see Parasite in the theater before Covid and again at home on demand during Covid, too. But it also included a lot of odd/weird/old movies, including True Storiesthe almost 5 hour long Until the End of the World, Killer Klowns from Outer Spacethe Sean Connery sci-fi flick ZardozFoodfight! (which is perhaps the worst animated movie of all time), the fantastic Forbidden Planet, Vincent Price’s Theater of Blood, Eating Raul, the fantastic musical Golddiggers of 1933 and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent thriller The Lodger. And more than that too, of course, not to mention a lot of other shows– The Queen’s Gambit, working our way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

Oddly enough, a pretty good year for me in terms of scholarly activity.  For me– which is to say it isn’t a lot compared to really prolific and famous scholars, but it’s plenty for me.

What will probably be my one and only single-authored book (at least in terms of academic writing) More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs came out in January– actually, it was already available in December 2019, but it has a 2020 copyright date. Kind of a bittersweet moment because I think the book was published too long after MOOCs and of course Covid didn’t help, but still, it’s done. And it did get at least one good review, too.

But beyond that, I once again was reminded that the weird thing about blogging is it is very much like writing the proverbial message in a bottle: every once in a while, someone somewhere picks up that bottle on the beach, reads what’s inside, and reaches out to find the writer. Startled and confused by the number of faculty who have decided to teach online synchronously with Zoom, I wrote a blog post, “‘Synch Video is Bad,’ perhaps a new research project?” Not a lot of people read it, really (I think my most popular post of this past year was “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”), but the right people read it– namely, someone at Media & Learning, which is a Belgian group promoting “the use of media as a way to enhance innovation and creativity in teaching and learning across all levels of education in Europe.” They invited me to submit a version of my post as a newsletter article, and also invited me to participate in a panel discussion for a conference they had in November (all via Zoom, of course). And this is all motivating me to kick off a new research project about teaching online during the 2020-21 school year– see this post here to see what I mean and maybe take my survey.

So like I said, kind of small potatoes in the general scheme of academia and scholarship, but I don’t often get to add a short publication and an invited presentation to my CV just as a result of a blog post.

And last but not least, Biden won and a cure is coming. Last but far from least, imperfect and incomplete as of this writing for sure because who knows what craziness Trump and the Republicans are going to attempt before January 20, and we’ll likely see another 100,000 or more deaths in this country before the vaccine is widely distributed. But still, it could be much, much worse. Developing a vaccine so quickly was far from a foregone conclusion back in April and May, and if Trump and his administration had done an even half-assed job in dealing with the virus back in the spring, I’m pretty sure he would have won a second term. So yeah, I’m thankful that what is a terrible time now and what will probably be a terrible time for a few more months at least is not being made more terrible by another four years of Trump.

So let’s hope that 2021 continues on that path.

My talk at the Media and Learning Conference (plus with a post-talk update)

After the break and this recap is the text of my talk for the panel “Maximising the learning potential for students and academics” at the Media and Learning Conference. Before the panel happened, I thought I would be the “odd man out” in the sense that I think teaching with video is overrated, and the other people on the panel (notably Michael Wesch and Maha Bali) do not.

Now that it’s over, I can report my first Zoom academic conference talk is in the books. As I mention in the script of my talk, I was invited to participate in this because of a blog post I wrote back in early September about why I thought synchronous Zoom teaching online was a bad idea. An organizer of this conference somehow came across that post and invited me to be on the panel. So once again, I posted something on my blog because it was on my mind, it caught someone’s attention, and it turned into a couple of (small) CV entries. So yeah, there’s a reason why I still blog.

Anyway, I thought was good discussion/panel, with a few minor hiccups along the way. I don’t know if I ended up being at odds with my fellow panelists so much as we were all talking in different ways about the issues of reaching out to students and how video can be a part of online teaching.

The first two speakers, Sian Hammlett and Phillip Seargeant, were filmmakers in the UK who talked about making videos for Open University courses. These are professionally produced videos made with the intention of being used repeatedly for years in courses; the example the speakers and a lot of the participants mentioned in the comments was “The Language of Lying,” which looks quite interesting. Impressive stuff.

Then Michael Wesch talked. Now, I don’t know if the mostly European audience was aware of this (I assume so), but Wesch about as close as you can get to being a “famous academic” after years of high-profile work with video, digital ethnography, and YouTube culture. So he of course gave a great talk featuring all kinds of video and neat slide effects and everything. Super interesting and slick.

And then there was me. Wesch was a tough act to follow, let me tell ya.

I think it went okay, but I had basically three problems that folks might or might not have noticed. First, because this a session that was happening at 1:30 in the afternoon in Europe, it started at 7:30 am for me. Sure, I’m usually up by then and it’s not like I had far to go to get to my computer to participate, but I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t had to be “presentable” this early in the morning in months, possibly years. Second, when I was preparing my talk, I decided not to do any slides or video, mainly because I didn’t know how well it would work on Zoom to begin with– I didn’t want to be fiddling with slides and Zoom at the same time– and because it was a short talk. Turns out I was the only one who didn’t have slides, so that didn’t look great. And third, I was originally told 12 minutes, so I wrote up a script (below) that took me almost exactly 12 minutes to read. Then the moderator began by saying we had 10 minutes each. These things happen, but it did mean I did a lot of skimming over a lot of what I wrote.

And finally Maha Bali talked. She’s a professor at American University in Cairo who I had heard of before through the things I’ve read on Hybrid Pedagogy and her Twitter feed.  I think the other talks were more technical than hers, but what Maha was talking about– how to foster equity and caring in education in the midst of Covid– was arguably more important than to video or not to video. She made her slideshow available here.

This was all via the “webinar” version of Zoom, which I suspect is what most conferences that are going to happen online this year will end up using. I thought it worked well for hosting the presentations and it seemed like it was easy to moderate. One of things that happens at too many f2f conference panels is a moderate is unwilling/unable to stop someone from going over time. Credit to the moderate of this panel, Zac Woolfitt, for not allowing that to happen, but I’d also argue that’s one of the advantages of Zoom: it’s easy for the moderator to stop people. And none of the speakers had any serious technical problems.

But I do wish Zoom had a few better features for facilitating these things. There was a text chat running along with our talks, but there was no way to go back to respond to a specific comment. That was annoying. The only way for folks in the audience to ask questions was via a text box. Perhaps it would have been possible for the moderators to set it up so that someone who wanted to ask a question could get audio/video access– kind of like someone stepping up to the microphone to ask their question. I also found it a bit disembodying because we couldn’t see anyone in the audience; rather, all I could see was a fluctuating number of participants (between about 90 and 110, so a pretty good sized crowd for this sort of thing) and a stream of texts.

Anyway, Zoom was okay, Zoom could have been better, and it felt like a reasonably good substitution for a face to face conference session. Though as I blogged about back in early March, I don’t think synchronous video should be the only alternative to a f2f academic conference presentation, and covid or not, higher education needs to think a lot harder about how to embrace hybrid conference formats that could include a mix of f2f sessions broadcasted online, synch video discussions like what I just participated in, and asynch discussions/posters that can be made available as beyond a particular session time.

As I wrote back then, the problem with moving academic conferences at least partially online during and after Covid is not the technology. The problems are all about the difficulties institutions and people have with trying and doing “new things.”

After the break is the script for my talk.

Continue reading “My talk at the Media and Learning Conference (plus with a post-talk update)”

Why I’m (Still) Teaching Online

I pitched this piece to Inside Higher Ed and even started writing it, but they turned it down. Oh well. So I’m posting it here as a blog entry instead.

About a week after Christopher Schaberg’s op-ed “Why I Won’t Teach Online” was published, Inside Higher Ed also published my intentionally playful response “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To).” This was in March 2018, two brief years and a lifetime ago, back in an era where we actually had a choice about teaching online or face to face, and back when that choice wasn’t a matter of personal safety and public health. How times change. Now he has written again, this time a piece called “Why I’m Teaching Online.” This time, we agree more than we did before, though not entirely. 

I agree with Schaberg that teaching as many university classes online this semester as possible (and probably next semester as well) is the right thing to do for both personal and public safety. College campuses are joining nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants as prime spots for spreading the virus. (I will leave it to readers to contemplate what these places all have in common with each other.) My university has tried to provide a safe campus experience during the time of covid, but the need for everyone to stay six feet apart from each other means we do not have enough classrooms and other large spaces to hold more than about 20% of our classes face-to-face. 

Almost all of the classes EMU is holding on campus now are ones that would be difficult to hold online, courses that depend on special equipment or that are very hands-on (pottery immediately comes to mind). While almost everyone here is happy with this arrangement (including those like Schaberg who two years ago never thought they’d be doing this), I do have a few colleagues who grumble about how this is all completely overblown, that covid is no worse than the flu, and it will fade away in no time soon. This just goes to show you that not all academics are in favor of science and data, but I digress.

I also agree with Schaberg that shifting from the f2f to the online classroom is a great learning opportunity for faculty to rethink their approach to teaching– and this is especially true for those of us who have found ourselves doing the same thing not necessarily because it is still “the best” and most current approach, but because it “works,” at least well enough. It isn’t easy to adapt to the affordances of online teaching, but it can be revitalizing since it requires a new perspective on an old practice. And it’s not just about learning new ways to teach online: a lot of the activities I first tried online have found their way into the courses I teach face to face.

But there are two places (really, one and a half) where we disagree. Schaberg says that the current moment also gives us a chance to introduce new technologies into our teaching. “We have the tools; let’s use them.” Well, sorta. 

The examples that Schaberg cites here are Google Docs, “drawing reading materials from the web,” and email. If these technologies are actually new to Schaberg, well, welcome to 2005. And yes, this is also a good time for faculty to learn more about your institution’s Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) But I’ve also heard a lot of stories about teachers trying to use new and shiny online toys and tools less because it helps their teaching but more because it is new and shiny. It reminds me of the Monty Python bit about the machine that goes ping.

My pet peeve example of this is the use of video– particularly live video. I blogged about this earlier and also recently published a short article about it here, but the short version is a lot of faculty new to online teaching are overusing applications like Zoom. I think the appeal of Zoom (and similar synchronous video tools) is that it is a technology that appears to replicate the traditional teacher-centered classroom: teachers talk, students sit and listen, occasionally interrupting with questions. There are even “breakout rooms” to put students in discussion groups once in a while. 

In practice, Zoom is a mixed bag at best. It certainly has its uses for conferences and occasional larger group meetings, and we are learning more about other successes through a lot of trial and error.  But it’s difficult and oddly exhausting to stay engaged in a Zoom class, and don’t get me started on the issues of privacy and surveillance it and related technologies raise. Streaming video also requires the kind of decent computer and robust wifi access that a lot of my students just don’t have. No, I think Zoom is a great example of how sometimes the more simple and established technology and approaches to online teaching are still the best: asynchronous course designs that rely on students working through problem sets, using discussion boards to talk about readings and activities, collaboration with tools like Google Docs, and so forth. 

Finally, Schaberg says all of this is temporary: “We’ll be back in the classroom eventually– even if it’s a changed classroom, with newfound sensitivity to virus transmission, shared space and personal hygiene.” Sorry, but this ain’t temporary. Not even close.

Restaurants, theaters, bars, international travel, cruise ships, salad bars, and so much more are going to be different experiences when they fully come back– if they are able to fully come back at all. We will all continue to hold a lot more work meetings and routine visits with doctors via video conferencing tools. Many who were forced to work from home will never regularly return to the office, and some will take advantage of that freedom to live not where they have to but where they want to. On and on and on.

So yes, there will come a point where students and teachers will once again meet in physical classrooms in real time. But there will also be a lot more fully online classes, and these classes will become a part of the normal offerings at the kinds of elite and exclusive universities that have long resisted online teaching before Covid. And even most face to face classes will not be entirely face to face. Instead, teaching and learning after the Covid crisis will increasingly be “hybrid:” that is, a mix of some face to face meetings with asynchronous discussion and assignments, along with some synchronous video conferencing, particularly with individual students and small group work.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong. One of the many things I’ve learned from 2020 is don’t become too comfortable in assumptions about the future. One of the curious features of the 1918 pandemic was that once it was over, people the world over seemed to put it all behind them to the point where it was mostly forgotten–until something similar happened again this year. Though this moment feels to me like less of a memory we will suppress and more like a tipping point that will impact almost everything for decades.

A Few 2020-21 School Year Thoughts and Bits of Unsolicited Advice

Of course many/most college classes are going to be online this fall! Of course hundreds of colleges and universities have changed their reopening plans! Not every school is going to be offering most classes online or as a hybrid, though just because a college starts classes f2f doesn’t mean it’s going to keep classes face to face. For example, Brown University is starting online September 9 and hoping to bring students in for on campus classes in October; but “if by Sept. 11 the public health situation has not improved, the remainder of the semester will be remote.” That’s a pretty big change from Brown President Christina Paxson’s op-ed about how higher ed must be open this fall no matter what.

Of course of course of course! Everyone who was paying attention to what has been going on with the virus and with higher education has been predicting this, at least everyone who had not succumbed to the magical thinking/collective hallucinations that overtook way too many college administrators. None of this is surprising.

Not to say that being right makes me feel that good, and I feel especially bad for those first year students who are going to miss out on the traditional “college life” part of higher ed this fall. Even if they do decide to live in the dorms or an apartment away from home (and judging from what I’m starting to see in Ann Arbor, there aren’t as many of these young people but there are still plenty) it’s not going to be the same for all the obvious reasons. I’ll be honest: I don’t have a lot of patience for whiny faculty or administrators about all this (and don’t get me started with college football), but I legitimately feel bad about what this is all likely to be like for students.  As my friend and  colleague Bill Hart-Davidson pointed out in a couple of different social media discussions, everyone is going through the stages of grief. Though in a lot of ways, it kind of feels to me like we’re going through all five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) at the same time.

Most faculty at EMU are teaching all online this fall– something like 80-85% of all courses this fall will be online, and a lot of those remaining 20-15% are going to be some version of a hybrid class. I’m happy and relieved about that because I like teaching online and because I was afraid the administration was going to force a lot of us who are teaching small classes to teach f2f. So in a very real way, I’m not at all concerned about how classes will go for me and my students this fall. Now, everything else that’s happening and that will happen this fall (gestures broadly at the entire world), that’s a different story.

So, this means I will be starting my 22nd year at EMU as a tenure-track professor, and my 32nd year of teaching in college, going all the way back to 1988 when I started teaching first year writing at Virginia Commonwealth as an MFA student. Yikes. Anyway, instead of my somewhat irregularly annual August post where I begin the school year by reflecting on my goals and resolutions for the next couple of semesters, I thought I’d offer some unsolicited advice to both faculty and students mostly new to online education in the time of Covid.

  • Taking classes/teaching classes online is going to be much better this fall than it was in spring. I’m not saying your online classes will go “perfect” or even “as good as you’d hope,” but it will certainly go better than what happened last spring. As I blogged about here, that was not online teaching; that was an emergency lifeboat to rescue everyone from the sinking ship/semester. It was unreasonable to expect faculty to switch a class from f2f to online in a couple days, and it wasn’t at all pleasant for students who had the same amount of time to pack up and get the heck out of the dorms. Things will be better because we all know what we’re getting ourselves into, and because 90% of faculty really do care about their teaching and they’ve been getting ready to teach online. I’m sure students will be better prepared as well.
  • If your classes are starting f2f, there’s a good chance they’ll end up online. This is especially true with the lack of progress we seem to be making as a country to control the spread of the virus; you probably already know that. Also: If you’re scheduled to teach f2f and you are worried about that, consider a “flipped classroom” approach. I do not see how any course focused on discussion, group work, and collaboration can possibly work with everyone wearing a mask and sitting six feet apart. I mean, take a look at this advice for practice “Active Learning while Physically Distancing” from someone at LSU. These are all good ideas, but every single one of the activities in the physical distanced classroom column is actually online. So I get that there is some value to having everyone together in “meat space” even if most of the interactions are online. But I’m not sure that benefit outweighs the risks of Covid.

If I was required to teach my classes f2f, I would have everything that was required be online and the f2f meetings would be optional, brief, and not necessarily every week. Sure, that’s easy for me to say because I’m a tenured professor (meaning I can get away with stretching “the rules” in ways that aren’t as possible for a part-timer or a graduate assistant) and also because this is only a hypothetical. But I honestly believe this is the only realistic way to approach the distanced f2f classroom.

  • Students who are mad about online classes: stop thinking you deserve some kind of tuition discount and take the classes seriously. I get the frustration, petitions, complaints, and demands for discounts that are covered in this New York Times article from the other day, and when it comes to everything but tuition– room, board, activity fees, athletic fees, tickets to sporting events, on and on– I completely agree. Students and their parents have every right to feel like they’re being jerked around to the point of being the victim of a bait and switch.

But look, the online classes I teach are every bit as rigorous, serious, and important as the f2f classes I teach. It is not a “discount” experience, and at the end of the day, the credits you earn in an online or hybrid class count the same as a f2f class. The mode of delivery has nothing to do with it, and to think that online classes are inferior and not worth it is just elitist bullshit.

Tuition was too high and increasing too fast long before the pandemic, and the relationship between tuition and the cost of running a class has always been fuzzy. I mean, it’s not like I directly get a “cut” of what students pay to take my classes. So if being forced to take online classes actually makes students (and their families) question the cost of tuition and forces universities to justify the expense and/or cut costs, then great. But the main cost of running a class has nothing to do with the mode or place of instruction; it’s the cost of labor.

  • Finally for faculty teaching online for real for the first time this fall: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’ve seen some awesome work and effort from colleagues who will be teaching online for the first time this fall, and that is really great. But– and I mean this as gently and as non-mansplainy as possible– you are not on a trek into an undiscovered country. There are a ton of resources out there, a ton of people who have been studying and practicing online pedagogy for a long time. Ask these people for help.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. It happens when well-intentioned faculty in other disciplines (particularly in disciplines far from the humanities, in my experience) “invent” writing courses without any connection or reference to any of the scholarship or practices common in composition and rhetoric. It happened with MOOCs when these Stanford (Coursera and Udacity) and MIT (EdX) folks sincerely believed they had “discovered” the concept of teaching classes online without any reference to the work being done in the distance education world for decades. And I am seeing that stuff now with these new-fangled online classes this fall.

People often need to make their own discoveries and their own mistakes first before they listen to others or seek out advice. I get that. But I must say I’m sure seeing a lot of faculty-types putting a lot of energy into making videos most of their students are not going to watch, or gearing up for lots of synchronous Zoom sessions filled with lectures, or trying to find ways to make sure students don’t cheat on exams, including requiring students to turn on webcams so the surveillance panopticon can keep on working.

Hey, if this all works out, that’s great, more power to you. If it takes making mistakes to learn and make changes next time, that’s great too. I regularly learn more from mistakes than successes. But…

    • Video is extremely overrated and it is much harder to do than most faculty think.
    • Zoom classes are exhausting for everyone involved to the point of being downright cruel.
    • Asynchronous online classes make MUCH more sense than synchronous online classes.
    • Instead of trying to spy on students so you don’t have to change the test, maybe you should change the test to take advantages of the affordances of the medium. Also: if you’re giving a memorization test about information that’s easily found with a Google search, maybe it’s not so important to memorize that stuff anymore?

Good luck, everyone. Wear those masks, wash those hands, keep that distance, and for the love of God, do NOT vote for Trump.

Is Frank Bruni right? Is Minerva the future of higher education?

No.

And I know Bruni is wrong because I wrote a book about this.

The longer version:

From yesterday’s New York Times comes this column from Frank Bruni, “How to Go to College During a Pandemic,” a fawning admiration of the Minerva Project (or School? or Institute?), an elite, experimental, and all online college. Minerva is not that new, relatively speaking– it was formed in 2011– and it is tiny. According to this article from the student newspaper for Claremont Colleges, Minerva claims it is more selective than Harvard, and it has a total of 631 students, 78% of whom are not from the U.S.

I learned about this op-ed from this twitter rant from John Warner, and I’d recommend reading that for some of the reasons why Minerva specifically ain’t it. I agree with everything Warner says here: an exclusive, private, expensive, online university that replaces the luxuries of a f2f campus with a program where students “periodically move to a new city that becomes their campus, but only temporarily” is not where higher education is going– at least it certainly is not the direction higher ed should be going. As Warner said on Twitter, the “radical thinking” that higher education needs in this country is robust public funding.

This is not to say Minerva isn’t a good school, and I am sure the students who attend that program have a fulfilling experience. But Minerva reminds  me of other unusual institutions like Deep Springs College, which is a junior college and also a working cattle ranch enrolling about 26 students at a time. It’s “free” for students, though in exchange, they work on the ranch which is located in what can only be charitably called the middle of nowhere. Or Black Mountain College or Naropa University or other now defunct art schools more notable for their contributions to the avant-garde than the history of higher education. It also kind of reminds me of the opposite of higher education, the Thiel Fellowship which paid would-be college students $100,000 to not go to college.

So for Bruni to suggest that Minerva represents a “creative mix of disruptions and rebellions that could, in some form, have application elsewhere” is just wrong. And as an aside: I subscribe to The New York Times, I think it is a great newspaper, and I often like what I read from Bruni. But honest to God, I really do not understand how this got published.

Like I said, I wrote about this in my book More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs.  While my book is primarily about the rise and fall (sort of) of Massive Open Online Courses, it’s also about how MOOCs were not something new but rather part of the ongoing history of distance education. Higher education has been rethinking and “disrupting” its modes of delivery for more than 125 years, with correspondence courses, radio and television programs, “regular” online courses and universities, and MOOCs (which still enroll tens of millions of participants), all offered through a series of non-profit and for-profit entities, a host of public and private partnerships. All of these different educational disruptions/innovations/experiments and the people behind them– including Minerva– all have two similar and contradictory goals: how can we change the mode of delivery of higher education to extend opportunity to eager learners who do not otherwise have access, while simultaneously also making money?

THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON SINCE THE TURN OF THE LAST CENTURY. MILLIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE ATTENDED AND COMPLETED COLLEGE THROUGH ONE OF THESE PROGRAMS. NONE OF THIS IS NEW. NOT AT ALL.

And yet, Bruni shares a delightful piece of marketing and promotion for Minerva (I’ll bet their website hits are way up), pronounces it as the disruption we’re waiting for, and tops it with whip cream and a cherry. Why can’t I get the Times to publish anything I write?

A F2F Writing Class Can’t Work With Students Six Feet Apart, and ADA Has NOTHING to Do With COVID

EMU’s leadership had a virtual “town hall” meeting this morning about plans for fall 2020. While the presentations from the administration folks went on (the president, the provost, the department head for nursing who was on the public health committee, and the CFO I believe), faculty were invited to submit questions in writing that would be taken up after the presentations were completed. Judging from the parallel discussion that was happening on Facebook, a lot of faculty had the same question I have had for a while now: can I preemptively opt into changing a course now scheduled as f2f to an online format? Provost Rhonda Longworth’s answer to this question was not reassuring to me. To sum up:

  • If a faculty member doesn’t want to teach on campus, they need to go through the ADA process to demonstrate an underlying medical condition or disability (which, the more I think about it, is the wrong standard, as I’ll get to below here).
  • The administration’s guess/estimate is there are only enough large classrooms or other spaces (like ballrooms) to accommodate somewhere between 12% and 35% of classes to be offered f2f. This strikes me as an alarmingly large range for this estimate. In any event, Longworth said we don’t know how many classes we will hold on campus until we have clearer data on how many classes we can hold on campus, and she hopes to have that data by the end of the month.
  • And then this (which is pretty close to a direct quote from Longworth): “I can’t make a promise that every instructor can request to teach online. The goal is to balance what faculty can teach online effectively, and then go from there. I think everyone can have the format they want, but I can’t guarantee that.”

On the one hand, it’s easy to interpret this statement as meaning that most classes in the fall will probably be online. This seems especially true with any class with more than about 25 students simply because we do not have that many rooms where more than 25 people can all be sitting six feet apart. On the other hand, Longworth specifically said she might not be able to honor requests for faculty to teach online, I believe in part because of  my previous blog post on EMU’s “bait and switch” marketing campaign. The administration has advertised the promise of f2f offerings and the provost just said she could not promise that all faculty who want to teach online will be able to do so.

It is very likely that any class with more than 40 students will be online. But there are also a lot of classes like the ones I teach where the cap is around 25 students, and my fear (heightened by this town hall meeting) is the way that the administration will sorta/kinda fulfill its promise of f2f offerings is to insist these classes are held on campus, and probably in lecture halls designed for 100 or more students.

Currently, I’m scheduled this fall to teach three classes. Two were scheduled as online offerings long before the pandemic. The third class, called “Digital Writing,” was scheduled to be f2f. The cap on that class is 25, and realistically, it probably won’t get above about 15 students. Back in April or early May, I asked my department head to move that f2f class online because it seemed pretty inevitable to me that this was where this was all heading anyway and I’d just as soon teach it online. The response I got was (basically) that was no longer possible because students were starting to register for the f2f version– unless I wanted to contact all those students and get them to agree to it being online. About 2 weeks ago, I once again asked if I could have this class moved online. That time, the response was “probably but not yet, let’s wait a bit. This class is going to end up online so there’s no need to do the paperwork.” Well, after today’s town hall where the provost very clearly said there was no guarantee that requests to teach online would be honored and that requests like that had to be made through the ADA process, I decided to email my department head again.

Here’s an excerpt of that email (I have left out four of the six reasons I gave for wanting my class moved online because most of those other four reasons are kind of specific to this particular class):

“The first and most important reason (and I am only now bringing this up after I started to think how I would teach this class f2f if I had to) is pedagogical. I don’t think it’s possible to teach an effective f2f writing class that requires everyone to stay 6 feet apart. Like most other people who teach writing, my classes depend A LOT on small group work. Students do small group discussions about readings and what-not, they do small group work frequently for peer review, and in this class, I generally make the last project (which involves writing, story-boarding, recording, and editing a public service announcement-styled short video) collaborative. These activities will not work if students have to sit 6 feet apart. Students would literally have to shout at each other, could not share a computer screen, etc., etc. In contrast, I know from previous experience these activities will work fine online through a combination of asynchronous discussions and synchronous video conferences with either Zoom or Google meetings. ”

and then a bit later:

“And yes, I am concerned for my own health and the health of my wife because of what strikes me as being asked to take an unnecessary risk.

“The standard EMU (and lots of other universities) has decided to follow is to require faculty who don’t want to teach on campus to seek an ADA exemption. That strikes me as extremely problematic because while it is true that most of the deaths from Covid have been older folks with some kind of preexisting condition, there have also been MANY examples where perfectly healthy and otherwise able-bodied people have been infected, faced serious illness, and even died. I’ve read several articles like this one from the June 8, 2020 NYTimes where they surveyed a large group of epidemiologists and asked them when they would feel comfortable resuming various activities during this pandemic, and the range of responses provided here suggest that even the experts are in a moment of “it depends” and/or “we don’t really know.”  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/08/upshot/when-epidemiologists-will-do-everyday-things-coronavirus.html

“From what I can tell (from what I’ve read, listened to on the radio, seen on TV, etc., etc.), a lot of these choices are inherently personal. I am not too worried about walking around outside without a mask, going to a store with a mask (especially if that store limits the number of people inside, requires others to wear masks, if it’s easy enough to create distance, and you aren’t just hanging out in that store), ordering take-out, etc. I’d be okay with going to a restaurant if I was seated outside, though I haven’t done that yet. I played golf once and it was fine, though my partner and I did opt for our own carts. I had my hair cut last week, and it felt safe to me. My wife and I have had people over to sit around six feet apart in the backyard. And so forth. The point I’m trying to make here is I am not someone who has (IMO) overreacted and not left their homes more than a handful of times and only when absolutely positively necessary. I do not have an illogical fear that the virus is just waiting to get me.

“At the same time, everything I’ve read/heard/seen suggests that being in an enclosed space with others for an extended period of time is still risky, which means I am personally not willing to do things like go to see a performance of some sort, go to the movies, go to a religious service (which wasn’t exactly on my to-do list anyway, but you get the idea), attend a f2f department meeting (I hope we keep doing those on Zoom anyway), go to a casino, or go to a sporting event. I think being in a classroom with 20 or so students for an extended period of time falls into this category of risk. Even in normal times, it’s pretty common for me to catch a cold or something from my proximity to students; I’d rather not risk it with Covid.

“Now, I would probably feel differently about this if I either hadn’t taught a lot online over the last dozen or so years, or if I taught in a subject where f2f interaction was essential. It’s not my expertise of course, but I don’t know how you teach online stuff like a chemistry lab, a ceramics class, an acting class, a dance class, etc. But that clearly isn’t the case here. I have lots of experience teaching online, and writing (and I’d argue ‘English’ in general) is a subject that does work well in an online format. I mean, I’m already teaching two writing classes online, and this class– called DIGITAL WRITING– lends itself to the online format. So the only reason I can think of as to why this class should NOT be online in the current situation is because the administration is requiring that we run at least some classes f2f, and a small class like this one might allow the folks in Welch to honestly claim they did indeed offer ‘plenty’ of f2f offerings as promised. That’s not a very good reason for me.”

We’ll see what happens next.

Higher Ed’s Reopening Plans Have Gone From “Wishful Thinking” to “Bait and Switch”

The tl;dr version: universities are running a “bait and switch” marketing strategy for fall 2020. Plan for online courses because it’s the only option that makes any sense, and it’s time that university administrators admit that.

Back in late April/early May, about a month after all of higher education got into the online lifeboats to salvage the term and at around the same time when, predictably, faculty and students with zero prior experience with online learning declared that the last month proved online courses were just “the worst,” we started seeing major universities announcing their plans to be open for f2f classes in fall 2020. I blogged a bit about it here. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels had a series of eyebrow raising ideas about how things could work in the fall, and while I disagreed then (and I do now) with Brown’s Christina Paxson’s reasons for reopening, at least she was honest: universities need the money.

Other universities soon followed, and, with the notable exception of California State University’s announcement that they were planning on primarily online courses for fall 2020, the pattern has been the same: universities are planning to be back in the fall with f2f classes and students in the dorms. EMU released its own statement along these lines both as ads on regional television and with this extended YouTube video.

All of these plans were short on details and long on emotions (not to mention carefully worded hedges), and they reminded me of what people say after a hurricane or a tornado. It’s a weather news cliché at this point. There’s the video footage of the storm hitting, the stock photo/video of the beautiful home or popular seaside restaurant as it was before, and then the after the storm ruins with a tearful family or owner proclaiming “We will rebuild!”

Hey, I get it. The first response to the hurricane destroying your business or a pandemic destroying your school year is to fight back, to at least pretend to have a little hope and optimism. The first thing you say to someone laying on the pavement and clinging to life after a car accident or a heart attack is “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to make it!” even when (especially when) you know that’s not true.

As we got into May, university presidents and officials began describing their plans for reopening, and it became clear these “plans” were not much more than “wishful thinking.” For me (and pretty much everyone else I know who actually teaches college classes), the plans just raised more questions. How are you going to have f2f classes that are physically distanced? As it is right now, my university is reluctant to run any class that is less than 3/4ths enrolled because (or so we are told) we can’t afford that; so how is a class purposefully kept at half capacity possibly going to work? Where are you going to put these classes, anyway? Where is the money going to come from to pay for mandatory testing, for everyone or randomly? What about these antibody tests– are they going to get more accurate? Or are we just giving up on testing entirely? What is the plan when (not if, when) students, faculty, and/or staff get sick and need to be quarantined? Is EMU going to just send those people home, and thus endanger the sick folks’ relatives and friends? How are we going to require everyone to wear masks while on campus? Given that the classroom buildings are barely cleaned now, how is the university possibly going to clean them even once a day (never mind between classes)? Who thinks teaching behind a plexiglass shield is a good idea? What if I as an employee am not willing to sign a document that says I won’t consider the university liable if I get sick, am hospitalized, or even die from Covid-19? And so forth.

Now and just within the last week or so, it feels like we’re entering into new phase. We have gone from “hope and optimism” and “wishful thinking” to a situation where it is clear these plans for a robust number of f2f offerings this fall just aren’t going to work. Here are a few simple examples of things I’ve seen recently, articles and commentaries that are getting a lot more pointed in questioning university administrator’s plans and motivations:

  • To help pay for its (always strange and unrealistic) plans for reopening, Purdue is asking for donations specifically to pay for things like face masks, hand sanitizer, virus tests, and plexiglass shields, and they’re doing this with a campaign (here’s a link to the web site for it) that has the feel of one of those “feed the children” or “save the stray dogs” ads– “just one dollar a day can make such a difference,” etc.
  • IHE published an opinion piece by Lia Paradis (a history professor at Slippery Rock) called “A Day in the Life This Fall (Faculty Edition),” which describes the many ways the administration’s plans for reopening can and will go wrong.
  • From sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan in Psychology Today comes “Pandemic U,” where (among other smart things) she says it’s “profoundly revealing” that after years of universities encouraging students and faculty into online classes they are now insisting on face-to-face classes in the midst of a pandemic. “In and of itself, this rich irony should cause us to question motives. It is nothing short of institutional gaslighting.”
  • In a New York Times Op-ed with one of the clearest headlines I’ve seen in a while, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy,” psychology professor Laurence Steinberg draws from his expertise to explain something every person who actually teaches college has known forever: 18-24 year olds engage in a lot of risky behaviors and do not follow rules like staying six feet apart, wear masks in public places, etc.
  • And from Forbes, where economist Andrew Zimbalist and Donna A. Lopiano ask the rhetorical question “Has Higher Education Lost Its Mind?”  Specifically, has college sports lost its mind as we are already seeing the craziness of preparing for the all important football season while players increasingly become infected with Covid-19.

In short, the message “we will be open this fall” is now just a “bait and switch” marketing strategy, and it’s been that way for a while. Would-be and returning students said back in May that they would be less likely to start or return to college in the fall if they had to take classes online. Universities in turn said “oh, don’t worry, we’re going to have f2f classes,” albeit with a ton of hedges and qualifiers that I am guessing most students and their families ignored. That’s the bait. Once students are “locked in” for the fall term and it is too late for them to change their plans, universities will start announcing that despite their best efforts, they just aren’t going to be able to offer many (any?) f2f classes after all– darn it!– and if students want to go to college in fall 2020, they’re going to have to take their classes online. That’s the switch.

Bait and switch is usually described as a scam, though it’s such a common marketing strategy nowadays I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. What else would you call these “Black Friday” deep discount sales on giant flat screen TVs? Adding the phrase “while they last” doesn’t make it less of a bait. Regardless, it certainly isn’t an ethical practice.

I have no way of knowing for sure if this was the plan my university’s administration had all along or if it has just kind of evolved into this. And to be completely fair, maybe there will be some kind of Covid-19 miracle before the start of fall, or maybe in the next two months, these crazy, fantasy, delusional plans for successfully holding f2f classes really will come together and it’ll all be great. But I’ve also seen administrators at EMU (and elsewhere) do some pretty shady and dubious shit in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me much if this bait and switch was part of the plan all along.

Either way, it does appear to be a marketing strategy that has worked– at least so far. According to this article in Inside Higher Ed, enrollments in public research and regional universities for the fall are not much different than they were last year. EMU was specifically mentioned in this article. “Eastern Michigan University, like many regional publics, does not use the May 1 (or this year June 1) deadline day to reply to an admissions offer. Currently, the university is down 8.4 percent on new students for the fall, but it has two more registration dates in June to close that. The university is also offering students who want them a single room.” And frankly, that drop in enrollments isn’t necessarily tied to Covid-19 at all since our enrollments have been falling for a while, mostly because of the demographics of the state and the upper midwest.

At this point, I don’t really care if this was the administration’s intention all along or if this was just a strategy they stumbled into; I just want them to tell everyone the truth about what is becoming patently obvious with classes this fall term. If it’s a class that can be online, it will be online. If it’s a class that can’t be online (say some kind of chemistry or biology lab, a ceramics class that requires a kiln, a class about welding, etc.), it is either going be held under strict limitations to maximize safety, or it’s not going to be held at all. I want my university to tell this truth because it is the ethical thing to do, and because faculty who are going to teach these classes and students who are going to take these classes need to start making plans.

Be honest for a change of pace.