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Letter to the Editor: On “returning” to the classroom

By Helena Michie     7/28/20 2:06pm

Editor’s Note: This is a letter to the editor that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All letters to the editor are fact-checked and copy edited by Thresher editors. 

My colleague, Moshe Vardi, spelled out the risks to students, staff and faculty of reopening Rice. I would like to support his conclusions by focusing on the other half of this question: the benefit for which we are asked to take these risks. 

When we talk about a “return” to campus, we must be clear that it is not in any sense a return. I cannot speak in detail to the return to student dorms, but I can speak to the “return” to the classroom. The classroom to which about half the faculty has agreed to return will not be the classroom we left in March. The intimacy of humanities classes, which depends on discussion not only by but between and among students, will be gone as students sit six feet from each other while masked. Colleagues who have taught this way over the summer at other schools have explained that while strategically placed microphones can help the instructor to be heard, it is very difficult for students to hear each other — even as they shout into the masks that depend for their effectiveness on the wearers speaking quietly. One colleague from another university has talked about the increasing importance of a central technology — whiteboard, blackboard or screen — to help students participate. The first two involve getting up and handling chalk or markers, the third — the projected screen — returns us not to the classroom but to Zoom. If the screen and the PowerPoint are so central, there are safer ways to use them. Students cannot break into small groups to work together or to look at a book, a piece of paper or even a projected image. Breakout rooms on Zoom are not perfect, but they make small groups possible.



Almost no one at Rice actively wants to teach online. Many of us have turned down requests to do massive online open courses or similar online classes.  There are losses we confront every day as we work remotely. But the choice is not, as it is often framed, between remote teaching and  a “return.” It is a choice between a pedagogy  that is safe and secure that faculty have now been trained to implement, and a profoundly unfamiliar and necessarily alienating version of the classroom of techniques for which neither students nor faculty have been prepared. 

Staying remote has its costs. Some students depend on Rice for their physical and psychological well-being. These people could apply to come to campus and to Zoom their classes from there. There are also financial costs. Although this brings up a whole other topic, I do not think it is impossible that Rice’s extremely healthy endowment could be used to safeguard jobs. We have been told that the endowment is “not a rainy day fund.” Living and working in a state that insisted its rainy day fund should not be used for the rain damage caused by Harvey, I am wary of protected funds under any name. Rice’s continued flourishing may require dipping into those funds at a higher rate.

Like Moshe Vardi, I am deeply grateful to my colleagues — staff, administrators and faculty — who have worked so hard to prepare for an in-person fall. When I think of the staff at the registrar, faithfully redoing the entire course schedule at least twice in response to the pandemic and to government whims, I want to scream or cry. I admire the attention to detail that takes into account the specifics of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning  system (other universities have not done this important work.) I love the creativity that came up with the solution of tents, (now being copied by many others, and that imagined art projected on them. The core of the university, though, is the classroom — and that will change beyond recognition.

Several months ago, I suggested that rather than insisting on a pale imitation of our usual offerings, that we include a series of new opportunities and distinctive offerings that can be done online. These could be curricular (research classes) or extracurricular. There may be time to make a non-return something different and better.

Dr. Helena Michie is an Agnes C. Arnold Professor in Humanities at Rice and is director of the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality.



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