Imagine this. You’re a creative writing professor and you walk into a classroom where you’re greeted by masked students occupying every fourth seat. To maintain sufficient social distance, the fifteen-student workshop meets in a cavernous room with the acoustics of a high school gymnasium. You take your place behind the lectern because that’s where the university wants you to stand. The lectern, twelve feet away from the nearest student, sits behind spittle-proof plexiglass.
Through your face shield, you glance at your students’ foreheads—the only part of their faces visible between their masks and baseball caps—hoping to recognize a furled brow or two. You pause momentarily, contemplating how best to approach the two stories you’re about to workshop in your advanced nonfiction class—a memoir where a student recounts being sexually assaulted and an essay in which a student explores his struggles with mental illness.
Soon, scenarios like this one will be occurring in college classrooms across America—in physics recitations and philosophy seminars, in the agricultural school and the engineering college, behind motherboards in a computer science class and behind keyboards in a music performance space. Meanwhile, in the chemistry lab, students and faculty will be coordinating with the maintenance staff to set up benches that conform to prescribed protocols for social distancing.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 63 percent of American colleges and universities are planning to return to in-person classes this fall, with another 17 percent operating from a hybrid model. This likely comes as welcome news to the millions of undergrads desperate for a return to the college atmosphere—an atmosphere where social distancing is virtually nonexistent, except in situations of weak cell service. In college towns, health care providers are prepping for an onslaught. Faculty and staff, meanwhile, feel abandoned, excluded from the decision-making process as a coterie of VPs weighed financial considerations against health risks. Somehow, no one in the ivory tower’s executive suite bothered to take pedagogic concerns into account—or to consult with those who practice pedagogy professionally.
Penn State, the university where I teach, waited until June 15 to make its decision on whether to reopen campus. Loyal cog that I am, I’ll give the university the benefit of doubt and presume that administrators were tramping through a deliberative process. But even before the university president announced plans for reopening campus, the faculty could read the ones and zeros on the virtual wall. A group of us gathered online to begin drafting an open letter to the Penn State administration. Within 36 hours of being posted online, the letter had accumulated almost 600 signatures. Now, two weeks later, the letter has amassed 1,050 faculty signers, along with 400 co-signers (students, staff, alumni, and community members).
Our letter makes one fundamental request of the university: to affirm instructors’ autonomy to decide whether to teach classes (and attend to other professional responsibilities) in-person or remotely. We recognize that no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Some colleagues (especially those in high-risk groups) fear going into a classroom while COVID-19 rages; others yearn to return to face-to-face teaching. As for me, I love teaching. I love watching metaphoric LED bulbs illuminate over students’ heads when a concept sinks in; I love seeing that d’oh expression emerge on students’ faces when they finally get a joke I told fifteen minutes earlier. But as much as I love brick-and-mortar teaching, I shudder at the prospect of teaching in a room filled with asymptomatic superspreaders. The university cannot—and should not—monitor student behavior twenty-four hours a day. And students being students will do what students have always done: congregate in packs, drink heavily, and comingle. That is the nature of college culture, with campus serving as a petri dish for the spread of the coronavirus. Teaching in such conditions is a risk many are unwilling to take, especially when the steps taken to mitigate the risk are pedagogically unsound.
Some people, I suspect, were unaware that Penn State had a university attached to its football team. Their knowledge of Penn State begins with Joe Paterno and ends with Jerry Sandusky. But that’s not my Penn State. At my Penn State, I get to work with some of the world’s most brilliant scholars and researchers. At my Penn State, I get to teach some of the country’s most insightful and enthusiastic students. My Penn State rewards creative thinking and teaching. My colleagues and I are simply asking for the freedom to deliver our lessons the most effective way possible—and to do so safely.
Paul Kellermann is a Teaching Professor of English at Penn State University.
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