April 24, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Teaching in a Time of Crisis

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As a Freshman Writing Seminar  instructor, one of the first things I tell my students is that “an assignment should never take precedence over your mental health.” I design my classes to adhere to this principle as much as possible, in order to respect my students’ agency and their overall well-being in a system that for the most part respects neither. My class has deadlines, but they are always flexible. I don’t “evaluate” student work with grades — which I understand to be classist and reinforcing of structural inequities, and which get in the way of real, risk-taking work. Instead, overall grades are given out at the end of the semester in accordance with a contract that grants A’s to those who complete the labor asked of them. Sticking rigidly to set course structures, time or practices is always less important than reading the room, i.e. understanding and respecting my students’ desires and energies, as much as my own. If something I present to them isn’t interesting, or isn’t working in the classroom, it’s as much my fault (if not more my fault) as theirs. Perhaps what’s most important to my pedagogy, however, and what unites these practices as a whole, is a recognition of what exactly it means to be a student, and remembering all the things that I couldn’t stand about education growing up poor and queer. Being a student — especially if you’re poor, of color or queer — is really fucking hard. And most professors only make it harder.

Thus my pedagogy is predicated upon my memory of being a low-income student — someone for whom education was not built for, and which posed myriad challenges, not only when it came to learning (as if that was all that education granted), but also towards my own well-being. I remember many instances in my life where teachers (in high school or college) never considered or made room for my disabilities when designing their course — be they my depression, anxiety or OCD — or never considered the myriad class-based struggles that I, as a poor student, faced, whether those were the problems I faced at home with parents who were unemployed or the long hours I had to work as a full-time student once I was in college. Such negligence made education an often painful and overwhelming experience. Don’t even get me started about all the ways teachers failed to consider or reach out to me as a queer student, which had their own damaging effects.

I hear stories all the time from my students about the things they’ve endured from other instructors because these teachers failed to consider the critical differences of their students’ identities, be they acts of routine transphobia/misgendering, racism or misogynistic behavior. Moreover, my students are constantly telling me how exhausted they are from their classes, how rigid and lacking in understanding their instructors are when it comes to assignments. This takes an immense toll on their mental health, especially students who don’t have the privilege to just be a student.

As such, when this pandemic began, one of my first feelings as an instructor was deep concern for the well-being of my students, particularly for those — like queer students and poor students — for whom the thought of “going home” is a nightmare. As a freshman at U.C. Berkeley who escaped an abusive and homophobic family, I could have never imagined going back “home” and then being asked to complete, as though all was normal and equal, the coursework asked of me. For faculty members to think that any student, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, could or should be expected to continue to work as though nothing has fundamentally changed during this pandemic, is irresponsible and cruel. For low-income students who do not have easy access to virtual resources and who must deal with problems far beyond those of the academic, such an attitude is nothing short of classist.

I would have thought that at least during these times, where the significance of anyone’s labor (particularly academics’) is brought into question when compared with concerns much more immediate, that faculty would behave in a manner which acknowledged the impact that this pandemic has had on so many of their students. Still, I’m hearing horror stories of professors continuing the status quo: assigning long essays or lab reports, research papers, group projects, with no flexibility or leniency when it comes to either the submission or evaluation of these assignments. And while students labor at home with family members who have lost their jobs or who have fallen ill, and struggle to maintain their mental health, workload and identities in the midst of great stress, Cornell faculty can remain safely at home with their guaranteed check. To make things worse, rather than attempt to ameliorate the damage that this lost semester will have on students from marginalized backgrounds by instituting a universal S/U option, faculty members have decided to vote against it. Such behavior from Cornell faculty reeks of privilege and unreflectiveness, and cannot be tolerated.

Yes — it is admirable that some are now beginning to understand and debate the classism inherent in assigning grades, or the relationship between impaired mental health and academic labor during a time of pandemic. But these concerns are not simply going to go away once the pandemic is over. The truth is that this pandemic isn’t just an extraordinary event which requires leniency and empathy on behalf of instructors — though it definitely is. It’s an event which has revealed a need to seriously rethink pedagogical practices, and what it means to teach once this pandemic is finally over. For many students, this pandemic’s end will not be the end of crisis; for many students, education is always a time of crisis.

I want to reiterate this to other Cornell instructors and faculty: rigor is not equivalent to stress, and retaining academic rigor is the last thing that should be on anyone’s mind during this pandemic. Going along as though nothing has changed will only serve to further harm the Cornell students who have always been most at risk. Education is not a meritocracy, and the myriad structural inequalities which came before this pandemic will not go away once the pandemic is contained. Instructors not only need to alter their pedagogical practices during this time of global crisis — whether this means removing grades or altering deadlines — but also need to seriously evaluate the damage that their pedagogy does to students on a daily basis. Instructors hold tremendous power over their students’ well-being, and it’s time that they acknowledge this.


Peter Shipman is a graduate student in the Department of English. He teaches a first-year writing seminar titled “The Queer Art of Memoir.” Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.