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Why I’ll Be Teaching Outside This Fall

Issue 257

Kristin Lawler Jul 21

The author. Photo: Stephen Lovekin.

For weeks, I’ve been telling colleagues, administrators, anyone who would listen, really, that I plan to teach all my fall classes outside on the grounds of my beautiful riverside Bronx campus. The response has generally been a mildly dismissive chuckle. But I am dead serious.

What we know about the new coronavirus is tentative but, so far, it seems that there are three things that will allow us to live in public and still keep each other safe: staying outside, wearing a mask and social distancing. My small Catholic college plans to hold in-person classes though. Unlike top tier elite private institutions or public universities like CUNY, we can probably not weather a fully online academic year without losing a catastrophic number of students. Besides, real education flows through embodied interactions, and there is simply no substitute for that. This is especially true for our working-class, largely first-generation student population.

Of course, there is a plan to make the indoor air safe: filtration, masks, distance. But this virus has proven again and again that it does not abide by the tenets of wishful thinking and there is just no evidence that indoor air won’t transmit it over the course of a class session or a day teaching.

So why not head outside? The weather’s fine. Even when it’s not, tents overhead, heat lamps, hell, coats and hats will work. I can’t help bragging here: I teach at one of the most beautiful spots in all of New York City. Seventy rolling acres, all the buildings historic landmarks, Hudson River and Palisades views, lots of gorgeous patios. I can take my pick of idyllic spots on campus, and I know this is not the case at every college, especially in big cities. 

Every park should be buzzing with the intellectual life of the city.

So I recommend that we take a cue from what restaurants are doing: take the streets. Claim space for what matters — in New York, eating out is a basic part of city life.  So space is given over to it. And just as the city looks extraordinarily beautiful these days, in a dreamy European café society kind of way, I think outdoor college classes could add something even more magical. Every park should be buzzing with the intellectual life of the city. Streets around campuses should be closed and open-air tents set up for masked professors and students.

I am working hard to figure out how to do this well, until the inevitable winter hibernation (and we finish up via Zoom). In addition to getting something to amplify my voice, I am considering what kind of outdoor setup will best engage students. It’s actually a wonderful exercise: I have not thought about the spatial arrangement of my classes for a long time and it’s a welcome shake-up, a breath of fresh air. 

I teach sociology and one of its subjects is the way that space conditions social relations. The chance to think concretely about this in my own classes and engineer sessions around new spatial flows is invigorating.

I hope my colleagues follow suit. Most are not part of Trump’s death cult, so I have a feeling they will. And I am well aware that this is quite easy in the context of higher education, far easier than for elementary or even for secondary schools. Still, teachers are extraordinary. I have complete faith in them to take student learning down to the studs and innovate together, in their unions and professional associations, what and how students can learn when taken outside. 

The idea that learning can only happen under rigid curricular standardization, in standard-issue, rigid spaces, is false. Let the teachers decide how to foster student learning in a new context. I trust them — us — completely. Even the lamest, most burned-out teacher is a thousand times smarter, more capable and better intentioned than Betsy freaking DeVos. 

It’s our elites who can’t be trusted. Trump has made it all too clear that he does not give a shit whether any of us live or die. The administration seems to favor viral spread. Wall Street doesn’t give a shit either. The slow-motion disaster we are living through is a consequence of a decades-in-the-making evisceration of all things public and of the common good.

It’s long past time for us to rescind decision-making privileges from the American ruling class. They are driving us off a cliff. But we are smart. Together, in public discussion and autonomous, creative action, we can bring to birth a new world, as the old union song promises, “from the ashes of the old.” See you outside.

Kristin Lawler is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City.