We’re two semesters into the pandemic university. What happens next is up to us.

This is not a crisis essay.

It’s the end of the most difficult semester that many of us can remember, and I’ve been thinking about the future of higher education.

Back before the pandemic started, I was writing a lot about crisis thinking. Crisis thinking is what happens when you live in a state of constant fear in anticipation of the end of the world you have come to love.

One thing that happens when we believe we are in crisis is that we begin to fear other members of our community. Another is that we become more willing to give up our power, our rights, and our privileges. We do this because we hope it will insulate us from disaster.

This may shift the consequences of our changing environment onto other, less secure members of our community. But it does not protect us for long.

Higher education, and especially the humanities, has been operating in a state of crisis for decades. I have been under the influence of crisis thinking for the entirety of my academic career. It’s not a surprise that when the pandemic started, many of us thought that the higher-ed apocalypse we had been fearing was finally coming to pass.

But the apocalypse didn’t come, and two semesters into the pandemic, universities are operating as they always have: taking advantage of crisis thinking to extract money from students, force out members of marginalized communities, and exploit workers.

The way this crisis is unfolding is not new. What is new, and what is transformative, is what we can do about it.

This is not an essay about the crisis in higher education. This is a call to action.

Early in the pandemic, Brian DeGrazia and I sat down in front of a google doc and conceived of something we called the Visionary Futures Collective, a loosely organized group of academic-adjacent humanists invested in building a better future for higher education.

If crisis thinking leads us to isolation and despair, an actual crisis can be a time of solidarity and collective action. Today, the VFC is made up of more than twenty members using data collection and digital storytelling to support our community and advocate for institutional change.

We have spent six months tracking campus responses to the pandemic. Our studies of campus policies, of student reporting, and of caregiver experiences shows that university policies are:

  1. Failing to protect students, staff, and college communities from infection.
  2. Damaging to the mental health of students and staff.
  3. Disproportionately harmful to the most vulnerable members of our community, including those who are BIPOC, disabled, first-gen, queer, and and immigrants.
  4. Creating an unsustainable work environment for everyone involved with student learning.

One thing we have learned is that once a new semester begins, the time for good decision making has passed. If we want a better 2021, we have to act now.

If you’re feeling exhausted, or overwhelmed, or burned out, we understand. But if you’re feeling angry and determined, here are some tactics you can use to push for change.

1. Increase Transparency

In an environment shaped by misinformation and secrecy, transparency around current events, policies, resources, and structures of power can have a transformative effect.

At the VFC, we use data collection and digital storytelling to bring transparency to campus policies. For example, we have created a series of datasets designed to bring visibility to the ways that universities are providing support to caregivers on campus.

Campus caregivers are university employees who also have responsibilities towards loved ones including children, disabled adults, or elders. When schools and other caregiving facilities shut down at the start of the pandemic, caregiving employees were left in an impossible situation. As the pandemic stretches on, that impossible situation is becoming harder to sustain.

We started collecting data about university support for caregivers through our caregiving survey. (You can take the survey here).

What we have learned from almost three hundred respondents representing over one hundred colleges and institutions is that:

  • Less than 50% of institutions have acknowledged the burden of caregiving on their employees
  • Less than 45% of institutions are offering modified labor expectations of any kind
  • Less than 10% of institutions are offering any kind of financial or logistical support.

Even where these accommodations are being offered, they are rarely available to adjunct instructors, postdocs, ntt staff, or grad students. Many early career professionals fear the consequences of sharing their situation or asking for support.

How can transparency help us? The results of our survey are available in a spreadsheet, organized by institution. You can look up the kind of support offered by your institution and compare it to peer institutions.

You can also collect and share similar data for your division or department to paint a clearer picture of how caregiving, or any number of other challenges to pandemic life (like the job market, precarious employment, the digital divide, and more), is impacting your workplace.

2. Build Compassionate Communities

Our Caregiver Survey concludes with a place for respondents to offer additional comments, and over one hundred people have written in to tell us personal stories about their experiences.

“The desperation is real and pressing” wrote an adjunct faculty member in California.

“I’m a single parent with two kids virtually schooling from home. My research goals are feeling unobtainable,” wrote a tenured professor in Virginia.

“My supervisor lets me work from home, but that just means the days tend to be very long,” wrote a librarian in Georgia.

We have found that the ability to share stories safely and anonymously can be meaningful for participants and for our community, many of whom report feeling isolated and alone. It also provides us with the kinds of detailed information that allow us to make policy recommendations.

One strategy you can use in your department or division is to create a similar space for safe, compassionate conversation. The Collective Responsibility Labor Advocacy Toolkit, designed specifically to address contingent labor in academic libraries, has extensive resources to help imagine how to hold these conversations and share what you learn.

We have also found that creating spaces to share feelings and be vulnerable together can help strengthen our collective determination to fight for change. We have learned from more experienced activists that even when the fight is difficult, the coming together of a community around a shared mission can be an opportunity for creativity and joy.

In fact, community and joy are necessary conditions for long-term activism.

This is the spirit behind Academic Tarot, which evolved out of VFC’s efforts to create playful, regenerative spaces and compassionate communities to support workers in academia experiencing the upheaval of the COVID era.

We were interested in tarot because it allows us to ask difficult questions without getting caught up in pre-existing narratives of hopelessness, despair, or outrage. Tarot defamiliarizes the present, and it always offers a way forward. It also allowed us to channel some of our pandemic feelings into satirical art, and to apply our close-reading skills to a new context.

Our academic tarot project generated enough interest that we started a kickstarter to fund the production of tarot decks, masks, and tote bags. We haven’t made any profits yet, but if we do it will go towards furloughed workers and academic mutual aid.

3. Shifting Institutional Policies

What does change look like? Respondents to our caregiver survey report that where they are receiving accommodations, it is thanks to collective action, often in collaboration with a union.

Our study of student reporting reveals that students have been able to use public platforms, like student newspapers, to push for change. You can learn more about some of their advocacy efforts here.

Our conversations with university staff show that data collection across peer institutions can help groups advocate for policy shifts on their campuses. Union organizers have used both our study of campus reopening plans and our study of caregiving policies to fight for better policies.

While we would all love to see institution-wide policy change, we suspect that most change will happen at the level of the department or division. Our caregiver study has revealed several simple actions that departments can take to meaningfully improve the quality of life for their students and staff members.

By implementing and sharing policy changes across divisions, we can shift institutional practice from the ground up.

I didn’t write this essay because I want you to join the VFC, although I’d love to have you, or because I want you to support our kickstarter, though I’d be grateful. I wrote it because the end of this brutal, difficult semester has awakened new levels of determination in me.

We cannot, will not, have another year like this. We all deserve a better future for higher education.

Card XIX, The Undergrad shows a young Black woman in a swimsuit and COVID mask reading a book in the sun.

digital | humanist

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