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CUNY Professor: Distance Learning Could Mean the End of Higher Ed As We Know It

Issue 255.5

Bonnie Abbzug Apr 20

When most of my City University of New York colleagues and I found out that teaching as we knew it was over for the duration, we didn’t hear it from our departments or even our colleges. We heard it from Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the same time our students heard it. There was no prior communication, no preparation. For most of us, the idea of teaching online was totally new. 

Crises show us who we are and this one caught public education with its pants down.

Sure, our academic lives had become more virtual over the years. We vetted papers for plagiarism through online services. We fielded student and department emails at all hours. We set up course webpages to post readings — especially handy since the printers and copiers were usually broken or out of ink.

But how could a screen compete with the theatrical, in-the-moment nature of the classroom? How could we make eye contact with our students, walk between their desks, seize the shared moment in meatspace? Before the pandemic, when my students weren’t paying attention, I would say, “I am not a television! I am talking to you!” Now they watch me say that through a screen. 

When my mother went to CUNY in the 1950s, it was free — and that was how she could afford it. Higher education was a public good, not a life sentence of student loans. She would hardly recognize today’s colleges, largely run like corporations, valuing profit as their highest priority, intellectualism and sheer love of learning be damned.

From an austerity perspective —in which students and teachers are mere budget considerations — online teaching is a boon, dovetailing nicely with an agenda of cutting costs. Yet education is far more than a correspondence course, a mere exchange of assignments and grades. So while “distance learning” may be cautiously useful in this moment, in the long run, it is patently dangerous, part of this larger dehumanizing trend. 

Crises show us who we are and this one caught public education with its pants down. How do you battle a lethal virus when you’re already suffering death by a thousand cuts? Years of austerity left America’s public colleges and universities woefully underprepared when the pandemic hit the fan. 

Our wages alone are unliveable, unless you’re really good at finding food in the trash.

Teachers were already overworked and underprepared, with little margin to spare. Nearly two-thirds of CUNY instructors are part-time adjuncts, an underpaid position with little security and huge turnover, a common dynamic at colleges across the country. Seniority costs money, after all. What’s more, most adjuncts teach at more than one school. CUNY essentially mandates this by explicitly limiting how many credits an adjunct can teach at one school, so as not to be considered (or paid) full-time. But the wages alone are unliveable unless you’re really good at finding food in the trash.

So the crisis found most instructors not only frantically shifting everything over to distance learning but doing so at more than one school — and rarely have any two schools employed the same technology. Hours of unpaid labor were spent learning not just Blackboard Collaborate but Moodle or Skype or Zoom or what-have-you. And who has the bandwidth and equipment to do all this on an adjunct’s wages? One colleague fretted about having to spend a thousand dollars on a tablet when she was making only four thousand dollars a class. “This is a job,” she said. “Not a vanity project.”

But we faculty are living in paradise compared to our students. They have the most to lose with distance learning. When we first switched over, many students were simply and abruptly cut off from their college community, the digital divide as visible as a line drawn in dry-erase marker on a whiteboard, a widening moat around the ivory tower. 

While the administration assumed that everyone would have private computers and reliable bandwidth, many students had only their phones — if that — on which to join virtual classes and squint at readings and do research and type out papers. For every student I have like Gloria, who fled back to her parents’ suburban home at the first sign of trouble, I have three like Kesha, a young single mom who works 20-hour weeks at Fairway, holding her breath behind her mask inside a crowded store. Students are strapped; more than half of CUNY students hold down jobs, and nearly half live in households making less than $20,000 a year. 

The transition to distance learning was so ineffective that just a few weeks in, the administration screeched the proceedings to a halt, instituting a mandatory “recalibration period” as they hurried to distribute laptops. So having stopped and started, we then stopped and started again. While the majority of my students now seem to have the capacity (technologically and otherwise) to keep up with our classes, distance learning definitely impedes their presence and participation, and a few are still entirely lost.    

Online classes are to in-person learning like lip-syncing is to singing — a mere approximation of going through the motions. I am lucky in that my classes are relatively short (75 minutes) and small (around 20 students), so we can meet in realtime. I call it the Professor Abbzug livestream. Indeed it often feels like a performance, as if I’m strumming a guitar or wiggling puppets.

Yet it is a performance for people at a distance. I find myself dumbing down my material, exaggerating my gestures, stopping every few minutes to ask students to give a thumbs-up or a chat comment to show that they are paying attention, often calling students out by name. Sometimes I can’t even see their faces. About half usually have their cameras off, often by necessity due to limited technology and/or lack of privacy (or, as for one student the other day, to hide a self-inflicted haircut). 

I desperately miss the capacity for eye contact. And sometimes even this marginal communication is ambitious. We are often hampered by bad internet connections. The other week I had to conduct my lecture and discussion largely through the chat function. I am lucky in that my classes had a good rapport before we moved online. My students are comfortable shouting (or typing) their thoughts across the distance, willing to be present, to try to make it work. They tell me that our class’s limping progress is some of the most they’ve seen managed. They complain about having to watch videos of their professors lecturing: “If I wanted to watch a video, I’d go on YouTube.” 

Now teachers are televisions, and education is a far more passive process, something done to the students instead of an action they take.  

Where do we go from here? CUNY has decided to hold its summer classes online. We’re all praying to be back on campus in the fall. A colleague recently posited that the move to distance learning could be the end of higher education as we know it, and in my darkest moments I fear he’s not far wrong. My pessimistic crystal ball predicts that enrollment will drop. Not only will students not consider distance learning worth the money, they won’t have the money, as the economic depression makes higher education even less accessible, like a game of keep away. Austerity has eaten away at the scholarships and safety nets of the past. Lower enrollment would in turn slash off the most vulnerable adjuncts and make things more precarious for the rest.

But I’m trying my best to be hopeful, to have faith that enough people understand the importance of the physical, social, face-to-face experience of higher education. Despite what the administration may think, college is not a mere exchange of assignments and grades. Students tell me they feel like their lives have stalled out just as they were getting started. They miss their friends and the random strangers in the hallway who could become friends. College is a chance to be an adult out in the world, interacting face to face, building social capital. You just can’t do that from your couch.

At its best, education is a kind of connection, one that even the best internet connection can’t replace. To truly learn is not just to memorize but to understand, to think critically, to be willing to be changed. There’s something quietly radical in that. And priceless.

“Bonnie Abbzug” has been an adjunct instructor at the City University of New York for nearly 20 years.

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