During the coronavirus, academics have found themselves in a crisis of their work

Rinaldo Walcott: After decades of pushback, the move to online teaching has been swift. It’s time for academics in the humanities and social sciences to step out of the virtual classroom and into the community.
Rinaldo Walcott
University of Toronto downtown campus before it closed due to COVID-19. (Roberto Machado Noa/ Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2015/05/07: Toronto University front walkway lined with old fashioned street lights during the day. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This is part of a series of essays from Canadian authors on the coronavirus and how it affects our lives.

Rinaldo Walcott is professor of Black diaspora cultural studies at the University of Toronto. His research cuts across the humanities and social sciences.

COVID19 has placed modern work in crisis. More than anything, the crisis has pointed to the unnatural nature of modern work. In contemporary late modern society work is one of those unifying forces that binds us together. But even more importantly, work has become the means through which human survival and reproduction now appears to be hinged. Work as individual self-worth has been proffered as the most fundamental way to contribute to the collective well-being of a modern society.

But work and its rank status in the order of jobs, with some jobs considered more important than others, is a problem for our society too. The nature of our work and its compensation, has impacts on health, material experiences of life and social status, including who might survive COVID-19. And of course, there have always been those among us many who are incapable of working.

We have replaced the human instinct and impulse for survival with work as the only way to survive. Indeed, work now stands in for the totality of what surviving meant to our ancestors and its meaning exists well beyond the reproduction of human life; the meaning of work is primarily connected to the reproduction of monetary wealth.

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In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, academics have been adamant about getting their work donewriting articles, books, teaching and catching up on overdue activities. In my view this is wrong. I think now is the time for academics to be practicing a public pedagogy where humanists and social scientists engage the public beyond the university in what it means to be human.

Over the last decades we have seen the humanities and social sciences come under attack from numerous forces as not worthy of their status in our universities, and now is a time to prove those claims incorrect. Instead, academics and their managers have taken a decidedly different route. In a rush to practice physical distancing, most post-secondary institutions in North America shifted to online teaching. It was a stunning and swift move, and one that most of us would not have imagined before it actually occurred. 

I have found this quick switch to online teaching as well as the claims of furthering productivity by writing books and articles maddening and unthoughtful. In this moment, some academics need to work (the microbiologists); others not so much (the Medievalists). So what are these claims to work all about then? Currently, academics are professing their love of teaching and their students as fundamental to their identity, and while such emotive claims are admirable, most teachers are not trained to offer the kinds of therapeutic practices that might be required right now.

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Furthermore, students who are impacted in various ways by the crisis might find it difficult to continue as though things have not been absolutely turned upside down. Can most of our students be fully attentive in online classes? Many were not able to prior to the crisis given their multiple jobs, family arrangements, mental health and other health issues. If as academics we were not attentive to those issues in the face-to-face classroom, can we magically be attentive to them online? For these academics then, work is doing something else: COVID-19 unravels work. 

In the current situation, some forms of work matter less. For many academics, the fear that what they do might appear to matter less in the aftermath of the crisis underwrites their affective and emotive responses to teaching during coronavirus. Academics find themselves in a crisis of their work; a crisis of the meaning for their labour. And the desire to keep going is a buttress against that fear of not mattering. Now more than ever, we must forcefully demonstrate why we matter so powerfully to the society we have helped to make by refusing to pretend that what we do is so easily transferable. 

For at least a decade or more, faculty in universities and colleges have argued that online teaching required not only special skills but an entirely different approach to course material delivery. And as they made that case they won concessions from education authorities who placed online teaching in a special pedagogical bracket. With coronavirus, those cautions disappeared immediately.

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This swift transformation might mean a change to post-secondary education from which there will be no return. There exists a latent desire for education to be commercialized and forced online. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their spectacular flameout was a significant attempt not long ago, but this rush to online teaching has returned and has dreadful possibilities to education.

Academics, especially those in the humanities and social sciences have been given an opportunity in this crisis to show what really matters: that civics, social good and ethical considerations, the foundations of an excellent liberal arts education, is what makes us who we are and is the core of what we might become.

Instead, we largely chose to perform a false and faulty notion of care, endangering the entire educational enterprise and leaving it open to commercialization. Goldman Sachs already put out a memo on the possibilities of online education for its investors. Should those wishing to commercialize education in the aftermath of this crisis succeed, academics will have to take a significant amount of responsibility for the outcome, since years of resistance to online teaching crumbled in two weeks without debate or union protest in universities.

Now is the time when the humanities and social sciences can demonstrate that critical thinking, ideas and practices of care, community-making, understanding culture are the social practices of everyday life. Who better to teach these values than those who have spent their adult lives studying, researching and writing about the meaning of human life? Now is the time for academics to step out of the ivory tower and into the community.