I had asked my students—first-semester, first-day freshmen just as new to the flagship state university as I was—to share with the class their names and why they had chosen to study at our university.
“Wait!” I said after the first five students said they had come for basketball. “Do you all play basketball?” Perhaps a significant chunk of the team had signed up to take class together, but I was doubtful that the 4’11” young woman who just told me she was here for the sport was one of them.
They looked at me with confusion, then laughed. “No,” the petite 18-year-old explained. “We’re here because we’re basketball fans.”
Now I was even more confused. They had paid money—some of them out-out-of-state tuition!—to move here to watch other people play basketball. People they could watch play for the cost of cable TV or a night out at Buffalo Wild Wings? And, on top of the cost of tuition, they would have to buy tickets?
As a recent graduate of a small, private, liberal arts college where lots of students played sports but no one enrolled to be a spectator, I did not understand the appeal of Division I athletics. I would soon learn.
Like many of my scholarly peers, I pretend that my students’ primary reason for being in my classes is the Pursuit of the Life of the Mind. For many students, this is true some days, and for a few students, this is true most days. But their reasons are far more varied than that.
- to earn a degree that will help them advance their career goals and earn a decent income.
- be part of a family tradition.
- to start a new family tradition of college graduation.
- to retain relationships with their friends and romantic partners who are attending.
- to have fun, whether that means partying, playing sports, being part of clubs, engaging in Greek life, living in dorms, making friends, or finding sexual partners.
- to delay or avoid entrance into more traditional forms of adulthood, like full-time employment, marriage, or military recruitment.
During spring 2020, those reasons were threatened—and we lost some students as their connections to our campuses faded. We face the same possibility now, no matter what decision universities made for the fall semester. An online start seemed the worst option to many of them, but physically distanced campuses present a similar set of problems. Students want the physical presence of each other, and they will get it, even if it means ignoring university admonitions not to gather in crowds. To demand a return to campus without recognizing that peer-to-peer physical relationships are a major source of support, motivation, and connection for students—the very things they need to be successful academically—is to place a lot of pressure on classes.
Without an effort to build community for online students, online teaching this fall means that our classes will have to be the reason why students enroll and show up. They won’t be doing it for the pride of their families coming to commencement or the fun of fall homecoming, after all. With those factors—which some of us previously dismissed as distractions—fallen away, the global pandemic is the time for our academic offerings to shine, right?
Unfortunately, for many of us, our courses are not of the quality that we are used to if we are experienced in-person teachers. That is to be expected, since most of us are not trained or practiced online teachers. In any typical semester, if one of us takes some risks in our teaching that don’t pay off, the damage to students isn’t large-scale. We’re not typically doing it in all our classes, and we’re not all doing it at once. This fall, with nearly every teacher new to online, hybrid, or “HyFlex” teaching, students are indeed affected by our imperfect instruction, even as they are also mostly patient and gracious. The situation is frustrating: Now that we, as faculty, are most needed, we’re unable to provide the contributions we can uniquely offer in the way we are best prepared to offer it.
In the short term, this means we must get good at teaching online without the modeling, mentoring, study, preparation, and support we (ideally) had when we first entered the college classroom. We are doing it already, with hard work, and some of us are discovering that we’re good at it and like it. The joys of online teaching—how quiet students have a little more time in an asynchronous class to find their voices, how conversation can be richer and deeper when we write it out rather than speak it—are there for us, and for our students, to find.
Even as we do this, we are figuring out how online education can create ties that help students see themselves as members of a community, just like they are when they are on campus. When community is not built in the dorms or in the field house, where is it built? How do we cheer for the same team when there is, literally, no space to gather and cheer together?
That can be done, but it requires buy-in, innovation, energy, time, and leadership. Too few universities made that effort for their online students during non-pandemic times, frequently sending the message to their online students that they were an afterthought. Perhaps now, the pressure of student desire for community or the threat of competition from established, affordable online programs will motivate more administrators to take this work seriously.
In the long term, students are not going to forget that their reasons for attending college go beyond our classes, including our best-designed online ones. It dings the professorial ego a bit to think that even our brightest-eyed, bushiest-tailed students are there more for each other than for us or our classes. Even as we may be frustrated that students continue to engage in physical contact with each other, we should also be as grateful for these ties (if not the behavior) as our students are—because they will be the reason students return to campus.