Guest columnist Austin Sarat: The best in education wasn’t lost when colleges went online

  • Amherst College professor Austin Sarat in 2016 leads a discussion on the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison during a six-week seminar for high school teachers, spanning all of July, called “Punishment, Politics, and Culture” on the campus in Amherst. filed photo

Published: 5/22/2020 1:53:45 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 1:53:33 PM

As the semester winds down for the Valley’s colleges and university, we need to recognize that the move of residential colleges to online education precipitated by the coronavirus crisis earned them much more criticism than appreciation.

Even some of higher education’s most respected leaders have gone out of their way to make the case that colleges must reopen in the fall by pointing out that the “fierce intellectual debates” that occur when students and faculty are together “just aren’t the same on Zoom.”

But, these criticisms and concerns tell only part of the story. As this semester in exile draws to a close, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate the work teachers and students have done under adverse conditions and to note that much of what is valuable in education was not lost when colleges went online.

I confess that having just finished my 45th year of teaching at Amherst College, I still get strangely sad when New England’s snows melt, flowers bloom, and my classes end. I don’t like the feeling of loss that accompanies the end of teaching, and the start of commencement season. The mass migration that empties the campus leaves me with a sense of being left behind.

When the students leave, I don’t feel liberated, as if some burden has been removed. Instead, I look to the summer with a faint dread. I miss the intense community and sense of being in something important together that characterizes classes in small, residential liberal arts colleges.

Amid all the uproar about this semester’s abrupt move to online teaching, and somewhat to my surprise, these feelings are as alive as ever this spring, although I have been apart from my students for weeks. The strangeness of seeing students only onscreen, each in their own box, only intensified the feeling that my students and I had to work harder than ever.

In fact, as we all experienced the isolation required to cope with COVID-19, I sensed that my students needed me more than ever, even when our only contact was virtual. And I’m not sure that they knew how much I needed them this semester.

I do not discount the many problems encountered when residential colleges moved to virtual instruction and the tremendous demands put on students who did not sign up for an online higher education. I heard about my students’ profound sense of loss in almost every virtual advising session or in my online office hours.

But that loss is not just a response to our failure to replicate the dynamism of an in-person classroom. It also registers how much students value the full experience of campus life, and what college offers in the way of support and encouragement, friendship and joy.

The loss registered by students needs to be recognized as an indication that our colleges and universities are doing many things right. In creating an intellectual and social community for students, colleges and universities are instilling the values of listening generously, of staying with difficult problems until they are solved, and of taking into account the experiences of peers and teachers in the shared work of creating new knowledge.

None of that stopped when classes went online.

What struck me most in my Zoom conversations with students this semester was their evident recognition of and gratitude for those things. Many paid tribute to the dedication of their teachers and registered appreciation for the ingenuity and creativity they witnessed in the world of virtual teaching. They knew that their teachers were thrust into a new and unfamiliar medium and that they never let up trying to help students learn and grow.

Others simply noted how much they appreciated the “sense of normalcy” that their online class provided at a time when so much else felt so abnormal.

We know that success in the college classroom does not automatically translate to the online world. But just as the investment of teachers in the success of their students fuels their desire to learn when they are on campus, that investment matters all the more in the online world. In that world, community doesn’t happen organically as it often does when students gather face-to-face to tackle intellectual problems. Teachers have to be ever more intentional about connecting with students and communicating their investment and belief in their students.

A few years ago, a graduating senior passed on to me some wisdom about what students value in their teachers: I should always remember that students don’t care how much their teachers know until they know how much their teachers care. That advice is ever more important when we teach our students at a distance.

Letting students know that we care matters more than any nifty technological tricks that the online world might offer, because it is the thing that helps them recreate the sense of community and connection that defines their on-campus lives. The stories of countless faculty members who worked extra hard this semester to demonstrate such care and keep their students involved and learning need to be told.

With all the uncertainties about the kind of education residential colleges will be providing in the fall, I still hope the summer passes quickly. And I hope that when fall comes, we will be able to welcome students back to the Valley. But whether in person or online, I will remember what my former student advised about the centrality of caring, and I will be deeply glad to be back in my student’s presence. The world needs all the talent, ingenuity, and irreverence that our students have to offer.

Austin Sarat has taught at Amherst College for 45 years.

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