Thankfully, the industrial revolution has given us smartphones, wireless fidelity internet connections, laptops and websites including zoom. A long supply chain beginning with African child labor winds back mostly to western countries such as the United States, producing all of these technologies and, so long as we can afford them, allowing us to attend school online from essentially anywhere. This is especially helpful during a pandemic which has killed over one million people around the world and prevents in-person classes for most students.
But all of us who participate in this Zoom-based education know how broken it is. It’s more difficult than ever before to access our professors. We can’t rely on usual campus resources including academic centers, physical offices and libraries. The actual labor of getting our degrees has in many cases turned into staring at a screen for eight hours per day or far longer — something very unhealthy for our brains and eyes, not to mention exhausting.
We plan daily routines involving some movement, changes of scenery and time outside to avoid merging with our desk chairs. Our greatest new labor may just be focusing during class. Gone are the stimulating physical and visual aspects of in-person classes, replaced by one all-knowing, demanding and often un-engaging screen. Our brain in this situation inevitably directs attention to phones, social media and whatever other distractions may pop up on our all-in-one entertainment and learning technology.
“The actual labor of getting our degrees has in many cases turned into staring at a screen for eight hours per day or far longer”
Because of these stresses, we’re struggling with mental health more than ever before, and this is on-top of the poverty, evictions, food insecurity and other material concerns which the pandemic has intensified across the country and which enough students were already struggling with. Plus, many students are spending this semester infected and sick in medical quarantine. Or, they may just be uncomfortable with the idea of getting COVID-19, the exact dangers of which remain unknown, although they definitely include death.
Thankfully, many of us can rely upon fantastic professors who understand these difficulties and work diligently to accommodate their students, making this hell as tolerable as possible. It also must be said that in many cases, professors and particularly graduate student workers who are already exploited within academia are offered no better deal, sharing in all of the discomforts and many of the material concerns affecting undergraduate students right now.
From students’ experience in this scenario, learning either does not happen, happens at great and unusual personal expense or happens only superficially through reception of passing grades.
From students’ experience in this scenario, learning either does not happen, happens at great and unusual personal expense or happens only superficially through reception of passing grades. In any case, this status quo is hurting most community members and is not providing us with the basic experience and resources we expect from our relationships to the university.
We’re in this situation because so few of the actors in our Zoom play have any alternatives. We rely on in-person and virtual student jobs, work-study programs and most importantly, we’re relying on the degree at the end of these four years to get us a living wage and help us with the compounding interest on our existing student loans. The same can be said of many graduate students and staff.
So I’m not arguing that UConn should suspend online classes or that we should withdraw from school these just aren’t options. What I’m arguing is that while today we find ourselves participating in this unproductive and uncomfortable virtual learning system, we can learn from this scenario and tomorrow create a world where this doesn’t have to happen.
This educational status quo that has many victims and few benefactors is due to a society that can’t reorient itself when people are suffering. It’s due to a society that is so fundamentally concerned with the extraction of value from human beings that there is no occasion for taking time off, even during a historically deadly pandemic. We aren’t trapped on Zoom because we have an insatiable hunger for knowledge — we’re trapped on Zoom because we have a reasonable hunger for all the basic necessities of life which are locked behind our productivity as workers. Developing this productivity is unfortunately the main reason we’re incentivised to attend college today.
COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to re-examine our most critical social relationships and institutions. We have the constant opportunity to create a society where human lives are the central priority and where ours aren’t spent towards the goal of production but toward enrichment and fulfillment, rest and relaxation, creativity and joy: one without Zoom school.