Brave New Classroom: Lessons from the First Six Weeks

tags: teaching history, COVID-19, remote learning

Hannah Leffingwell is a Ph.D candidate in history at the Institute of French Studies at New York University.

The last six weeks have... highlighted common misconceptions about college teaching. Because graduate student instructors are underpaid and overworked, my colleagues have often warned me to set firm boundaries and to look out for duplicity on the part of my students. I was told they would make up fake excuses for absences, ask for leniency when they actually needed structure, and become overly friendly, mistaking my relative youth for camaraderie.

My experience with Covid learning has taught me that the opposite is true. Students want to make the most of their education, and they are also humans with complex personal lives that often make learning difficult or impossible to focus on. One student explained that they didn’t have time to write a paper because they were working full-time to pay the rent, while another asked for an extension while they moved across the country alone. Mental health crises, caretaking responsibilities, and financial uncertainty are nothing new for undergraduates. They have merely been made visible because of the current crisis.


Then there is the suspicion that young scholars might come to care about teaching too much. In a recent workshop with tenured faculty, my colleagues and I were warned not to do too well in our teaching, as overly positive course evaluations would make universities suspicious about our commitment to our own research.

We are optimized for production within a closed, competitive, and individualistic system. As neoliberal policies have reframed higher education, we have been primed to see others’ gains as our losses, our failures as uniquely our own. Undergraduate students feel weeded out by inflexible structures and divided along lines of socioeconomic, racial, gendered, and physical privilege. Graduate students feel exploited, unprepared for an impossible job market, and misunderstood by tenured professors who do not share our professional precarity. Our professors have their own frustrations: they feel increasingly constrained by the commercialization of higher education and the constant demand to answer to bureaucracies and budget targets. In this game, no one wins—except for those few at the very top, who win salaries of upwards of one million dollars a year at my university.


Read entire article at Public Seminar

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