Post Pandemic Ethics

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Peter Consenstein, a French professor in the department of Modern Languages at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and in the Ph.D. Program in French at CUNY Graduate Center. He is a translator and publishes critiques of contemporary and experimental French literature and poetry. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

Although intellectuals, educators, teachers and professors may be viewed as essential and/or frontline responders to the ongoing pandemic, we must admit that we intellectuals are not on the real front lines, ours are virtual. The difference between real and virtual spaces distinguishes life from death and sickness from health, a social situation at the heart of what it means to teach and learn through a pandemic. The students I taught were often real first responders. On real front lines, they faced sickness and death. They worked in grocery stores, they delivered food and medicine, they cleaned surfaces, they continued to take public transportation. They delivered services directly and indirectly to people like me. They kept me safe and fed. 

On March 19, 2020, all of the campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) closed and we moved to online or remote learning. Normal life routines ceased for 275,000 students on twenty-five campuses spread far and wide throughout the five boroughs of New York City, for 12,000 adjuncts and more than 7,500 full time faculty members, for the HEO’s (Higher Education Officers), the Professional Staff Congress (our faculty and staff union, representing 30,000 people), for most members of buildings and grounds crews, for all food service workers and for most members of the campuses’ security staff.' This was of course true for almost the entire City of New York and unless you were here, you cannot understand the isolation, desolation and strangeness we felt to see our entire city turn into a ghost town.

At the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), with an enrollment of almost 28,000 students, I was teaching two sections of intermediate French. Students enrolled in intermediate French usually hail from the Caribbean or Africa, where French is one of the languages they practice and learn. Among those students there are those learning French out of intellectual curiosity, French family heritage or as an enrichment to their career paths, but they are the minority. The semester began on January 29th, so by March 19th the students and I had gotten to know one another. Although we all felt shock and dread on March 19, we adapted, not knowing what we were up against. Most of the materials I needed to teach were already in electronic format and I grabbed the grammar book we were using when leaving my office. At home, I scanned the book’s pages and uploaded them to share during our video conferencing. Our remote learning took place on Blackboard and its video conferencing platform, Collaborate Ultra. We also continued studying excerpts of texts written in French. We watched a film and, at first, I felt confident that we could complete our course work. My experience at BMCC taught me not to make any assumptions at all, and yet I did not heed that lesson. 

The pandemic distinguished my world from that of my students so starkly, the differences became so vivid and apparent that my gut told me that a revolution had to be in the works. A professor on the H-France list server publicized an article entitled “The Revolution is Under Way Already” by Professor Rebecca Spang of Illinois University, in the April 5 edition of the Atlantic. The article, which I recommend, describes what it was like to live in Paris in the months previous to the French revolution. Parisians went about their daily lives even when there were big protests, government upheaval, institutional restructuring and religious strife. With all of the upheaval of the pandemic, immigration, racism, poor response to the pandemic, our health care system at its limit, job losses and numerous high-level sackings of top government officials, the similarities between Paris of the late 18th century and New York City of the early 21st century were undeniable. My students, who I’d assumed would reconnect with me online, stumbled. They did not all have computers or, if they did, they had to share them with the other students in their families attending public schools in the city, which had also closed. Students did not always have good Internet connections; they lived in homes where parents may have lost their jobs or where family members fell ill, and they consequently found themselves obliged to contribute financially to their households. Some students simply disappeared and those who had any form of disability lost support. The landscape was stark, their voices did slowly return, but they were either hustling or hunkered down, the sounds of their kitchens were clear in the background of our “classes,” as were the voices of their siblings and parents, their music and radio stations, and I often had to mute microphones just to stay focused. Some students could only call in and one often did, calling from a cab returning from her job at the hospital. She risked her life at work; she risked her life in the cab; she risked her life just going outside and yet she wanted to succeed in class. The general disconnect between educators and students worsened because our collective capacities to connect via Internet varied. The linear description—upper and lower classes—of our economy separated us and threatened academic progress. Here is where the distinction between real and virtual essential responders becomes ethical. Education is, of course, essential, but we did not risk life and limb to deliver our lessons and even suggesting such a comparison rings of hubris, fantasy and disconnect. 

Discussions were not as lively as in a real classroom. Breaking students up into small groups did not have the same chemistry; our intellectual exchanges had been severely dulled; however a comradery grew in both of my courses, with some students arriving early and others staying later. We asked after one another; we reflected on our situations together; we commiserated and their voices were like daggers because they were losing contact with their friends and the outside world, while their futures blurred. Tenacious, yes, but less sure and cocky, less New York City bravado; it is painful to hear young people succumb to fear and my voice cracked more than once. I too contracted Covid and missed a week of teaching because I was too weak to teach. Through Blackboard, I sent out assignments for them to do and then submit. They understood that I was sick and sent messages wishing me well; some prayed for me. We all knew too much about one another. But my job was to stay focused on the course syllabus and we shared a peculiar experience of what it means to learn, one that was hued with uncertainty, illness, threat and trauma. We learned together while our city lost 800 people a day. It was obviously not too much to bear, because we all bore it (but just in writing these words, the trauma resurfaces). One of the outcomes of teaching through the pandemic was a shared yet unspoken questioning of whether or not it was really worth it. Our teaching and learning were colored by despair, but one main objective my students did fulfill—and this was not on the syllabus or part of our previous experience—was to counter despair. Teaching and learning became a way to guarantee the future, to solidify hope and to establish a new toehold in the wall and keep climbing. Teaching and learning during the pandemic meant living for a future that was not guaranteed. We uplifted ourselves but it must be said that my students’ lives were in much more danger than mine and were much more precarious.

The risks they ran (and the brewing revolution against economic, racial and ethnic injustice) tell me that the funding of higher education after the pandemic/revolution needs restructuring, just as much as course content and methods of instruction. Our ethical obligations as a society and as individuals need scrutiny. As educators, we are representatives of the institutions that structure our society; our ethics define and guide our actions. In my case, I am in debt to the students of the City University of New York. They are owed because of the risks they ran on the real front lines. Yet, their services will be cut because of the economic “reality” caused by the pandemic. “Reality” in quotation marks because the current “economic reality” is the result of a society that has not paid its debts and there’s nothing “real” about economic ethics when debts aren’t paid. Some “facts” (I put the words in quotes because I do not do education research and this blog piece does not call for it) have unsettled me for the last 25 years of my career. 

As best as I can surmise, approximately 13 million students are currently attending public higher education institutions and approximately 3 million students are attending private institutions (see here and here). Ethically speaking, economic austerity or cutbacks for public higher education is a travesty for the great majority of American college students. Post-pandemic cutbacks will only kick people who are already struggling when they’re down. It should be noted that the richest private institutions also benefit from public funding. For example, it has been reported that “that the average amount of money that the government gives to public universities is less than $4,000 per student, and the average amount it effectively gives to Princeton, for example, is more than $50,000 per student.” This simplified triangulation of funding is unethical. Students attending private institutions should not receive more public funds than those attending public institutions, though it is politically understandable since the voters and families who attend private institutions have the ears of power. The funding of community colleges can be described as such: “Private, four-year colleges spend an average of $72,000 per full-time student each year […] five times more than the $14,000 community colleges typically spend. Public universities spend $40,000 each year on full-time students.” As well, “Community colleges enroll large numbers of low-income students, who increasingly are students of color.” These quick financial and demographic snapshots reveal not just unfair distribution of public funds, they are the uploaded video of an economic knee on the necks of those struggling for education, for justice and for survival. 

A return to the classroom as soon as possible is what the students of CUNY are owed. The costs of returning—because we are all owed a safe environment that adheres to strict health care protocols—will be high and can only come in phases. Private institutions, some with tremendous endowments, others without such funds, need to reopen as well. But it is our job to shine a light on the public funds the private institutions subtract from public institutions, where the great majority of American students are enrolled—students who are often of lesser means. Benefactors and endowments (the “Fort Knox” of private institutions), in enacting the principles of private financing upon which they stand, will fund those re-openings. In the short run, private institutions may lose money, but eventually (thanks to the excellent investment advice of their professors and Wall Street advisers) they will recover. Our institutions of higher learning, post-pandemic, can help us to untangle the roots of inequity so that when the next crisis hits, we can behave as a team, with just an ounce more trust in one another and in the institutions upon which our democracy stands.

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THANKS FOR SHARING YOUR EXPERIENCES, PETER. IT'S REASSURING TO YOUR COLLEAGUES TO HEAR THAT WE HAVE ALL SHARED SOME OF THE SAME CHALLENGES AND REAPED SOME OF THE SAME REWARDS IN WORKING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC AND ALL THAT MEANT AS WE SHIFTED GEARS DURING THE SHELTERING IN PLACE MANDATE. IT'S BEEN DIFFICULT BUT THANKS TO A POSITIVE ATTITUDE WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO GET THROUGH THIS FIRST PART...CYNTHIA WISEMAN

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Heartened to hear your words, that seem to come from a place of true caring and compassion. In this day and age, access to reliable broadband (a prerequisite for distance learning) is yet another aspect of existing socioeconomic disparities. A feasible solution that has been tried is to provide public access through free WiFi hotspots (e.g., in public areas around campus or libraries).

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