Absence and Presence
Attending to Questions of Equity in Remote Education
It’s springtime, and the expanding availability of COVID-19 vaccines suggests it is time to reflect on the pandemic and its effects on the study and teaching of history over the past year. The remarkable ability of historians to adapt to this crisis has been well documented in these pages and on the AHA website; museum curators, librarians and archivists, faculty, graduate students, and AHA staff have shown tremendous resourcefulness and resilience in continuing to do their jobs and meet the needs of their varied constituencies. The historical enterprise has not only survived—in many aspects, it has thrived.
Yet it is dangerous to conclude that remoteness presents an enduring, viable alternative to in-person communication of all kinds. Indeed, online instruction and virtual presentations, including webinars and asynchronous events, have exacerbated familiar aspects of inequality in education, and opened up new fissures between the haves and the have-nots. We must keep in mind the consequences of these inequalities on students, faculty, staff, and researchers.
Before the pandemic, many historians effectively used online tools to teach students and reach people outside the academic community. Remote instruction can be a boon for students with disabilities, working students, parents, and those who commute long distances. Virtual programming, including Virtual AHA, has allowed historians and the general public to engage with historical scholarship without the expense of traveling to a conference. We should remain supportive of various, creative means to reach our audiences, and online learning will no doubt continue to play a major role in history education.
At the same time, too much of what can be a good thing can be a very bad thing. We must remain attentive to who is absent from the remote classroom, as well as to who is present. High schoolers in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status, regardless of race, have dropped out of online schooling at an alarming rate. As documented extensively by our colleagues in the social sciences and reported in outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on communities of color, regardless of socioeconomic status. Lower income households, however, often have additional stressors, such as struggles with unemployment, the threat of eviction, food insecurity, high rates of illness, and mental health challenges. In March 2021, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the enrollment of first-year Black and Latino students in Massachusetts community colleges fell by one-third in the 2020–21 academic year. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicate that community colleges suffered a nearly 30 percent drop in first-year students from those same groups. The disruptions of the past year have deprived these students of the resources and the in-person counseling that would support them in filling out applications and financial forms for college. Over the past year, traditionally underrepresented groups have found it even more difficult to earn a postsecondary degree.
Online instruction and virtual presentations have exacerbated familiar aspects of inequality in education.
Reporting in Inside Higher Education emphasizes that students in lower-income households must manage the dual pressures of finding a job and contributing to the household income, on the one hand, and staying in school, whether in online or in-person classes, on the other. While online education may lift some barriers, it often creates others. Students often work on aging laptops, lack access to reliable internet connections, and must sometimes contend with conditions that are not conducive to learning. Video and sound functions reveal living spaces, and a student’s home circumstances might intrude into the digital classroom. Teachers and students may judge differences in Zoom background in terms of class differences, doubling down on messages of who “belongs” in higher education.
New modes of instruction place added burdens and stress on instructors and staff as well. They have had to adapt their courses and presentations, learn about new forms of technology, and deal with periodic glitches in Zoom and other online platforms—at times while juggling child care and the care of ill family members. The workload has increased dramatically for women and for people of color who are performing the “invisible labor” of mentoring students contending with anxiety and distress, and for graduate teaching assistants trying to complete coursework or conduct research. The AHA and other organizations have offered resources to support faculty and other instructors transitioning to online instruction. Unfortunately, faculty still suffer from burnout borne of new modes of instruction and the urgent demands of their own households, a trend documented by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Fiscal challenges resulting from COVID are both a cause and a pretext for slashing history faculty, staff, and programs generally. According to the New York Times, higher education has lost $120 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. Some small colleges have had to close their doors altogether. Under budgetary pressure, some institutions have eliminated history as a major, others have consolidated history with other departments, and some have cut history-related programs such as Black studies and religious studies. In some states, governing entities are considering measures that would facilitate elimination of tenure without the conventional high bar of financial emergency. The AHA has protested policies that would do away with employment protections for tenured faculty (for example, in the Iowa and Kansas state university systems, and at John Carroll University).
Most at risk in this economic environment are non-tenure-track faculty and nonacademic staff.
Most at risk in this economic environment are non-tenure-track faculty and nonacademic staff. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that between February and August 2020, colleges and universities cut their employees by more than 300,000, mostly staff jobs. Vulnerable employees like non-tenured faculty and staff, along with graduate TAs, might not feel secure enough to protest unsafe working conditions. Unfortunately, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, they are also most likely to be forced into crowded classrooms and offices, making them more susceptible to COVID. Their workloads have increased without a corresponding increase in pay, and without the job security that tenured faculty enjoy.
The inequalities among institutions of higher learning stand in stark relief as well. On one end of the spectrum are wealthy schools that can provide state-of-the-art technology, round-the-clock tech support to instructors and students, regular COVID testing, and reasonably safe classrooms. These well-resourced institutions have streamlined paperwork for small in-house grants; modified requirements for annual reviews and dissertations; and granted extensions on the tenure clock and the suspension of committee service for junior faculty—flexible policies all in line with suggestions the AHA made in its Statement on Research during COVID-19 in July 2020. These institutions have paid for students’ internet connections, mobile hot spots, and private-home utilities service, and provided laptops and emergency cash stipends to students in need.
At the other end of the spectrum are those less affluent institutions that provided their faculty minimal support for online instruction, sent them into unsafe classrooms, and continued to mandate rigid expectations for graduate degrees, tenure, and promotion, despite all the disruptions of the last year. This go-it-alone tactic increases exhaustion and resentment among faculty, staff, and students alike.
The destructive effects of COVID-19 have been distributed unevenly throughout American society. We must caution against concluding that Zoom has ushered in a new era of educational progress, where all students, now rendered as small boxes on a screen, have the same opportunities for learning. One need not be opposed to remote learning to offer a word of caution when it comes to assessing what might otherwise be seen as a miraculous development in the history of communications—our ability to reach millions of students and other audiences in the midst of a pandemic—when in fact that “miracle” can perpetuate and exacerbate dangerous forms of inequality.
Jacqueline Jones is president of AHA.
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