Shopping period is in full swing, and while the start of the semester is normally a time filled with options and new opportunities, students face obstacles to accessing their education. While professors and students alike struggle to adapt to online learning, many courses include problematic policies that fail to consider the diverse and difficult situations in which students currently find themselves. Over the past four days of shopping, my five housemates experienced eighteen different courses with inaccessible class policies, including mandatory synchronous class attendance, uncompromising late policies, technological expectations beyond the University’s minimum requirements (such as requiring students be present on-campus to access in-person technology) and limited course offerings, all of which constrain the academic freedoms that Brown prides itself on. Without widespread University policies dictating standards for accessibility within courses, how can Brown justify its commitment to uphold the rights and responsibilities that accompany academic freedom?
It is entirely possible for Brown to be compassionate toward its students and make each course accessible. Indeed, the changes to the fall pre-registration period demonstrated a firm attempt on the University’s part to make course registration a fair playing field for students in diverse circumstances. Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 implemented a two-stage pre-registration process, emphasizing that “we will not have a first-come, first-served system, because we understand that not everyone will be able to push the ‘register’ button at the same time around the world.” This valuable attentiveness to student needs has been seemingly abandoned when examining the adjusted course syllabi for this semester. Some fall 2020 courses entail an increased workload, no sympathy for late submissions and required synchronous participation.
If you are not a student or are not currently living with students, you might think that students are comfortably settled into life during the pandemic, at home with their families. Perhaps you even believe that we have the time to focus on our classes. While that may be true for some, the reality for many students looks quite different. Students have yet to receive government financial stimulus after being passed over in April’s relief checks while the next stimulus package struggles to make its way through the federal government. We have worked to support job losses in our families, helped our younger siblings with the mental strains of online schooling, experienced severe declines in our mental health and grieved the loss of friends and family to COVID-19, police brutality and environmental catastrophe. We are not all comfortable in a private home office space with air conditioning and reliable Wi-Fi. We are not all sheltered and safe with people who can create a consistently productive environment. The last thing we need is another obstacle between us and the education that we have worked for, paid for and sacrificed for.
Some professors are both cognizant of and sympathetic toward the unique problems that college students are facing during this pandemic and have adjusted their assigned coursework accordingly. Many have implemented fully digitized, free readings; designed the course with minimal synchronous class hours and are properly responding to student feedback in email correspondences. Others appear to be assuming that students are just “relaxing at home” amid the confines of the pandemic and therefore must have more time to commit to learning than before: They have increased the quantity of readings, screenings and problem sets. While I’m certain that the vast majority of students would prefer to take a course with the empathetic professor, students still have non-negotiable concentration and writing requirements. Moreover, professors have the option of taking leave this semester, delaying their course offerings until the spring or summer in hopes of teaching classes fully in-person. As such, many fall semester students may have no option other than to take courses with unaccommodating professors due to lack of time before graduation and suitable alternative course choices.
The problem here is not with the individual professors who are out of touch with students’ circumstances, but with the lack of University-enforced academic standards outlining the level of accessibility necessary for students to manage this semester. The Academic Policies for Fall 2020 ask professors to “please be mindful of the many different circumstances … of the students participating in your course,” but beyond polite requests and optional teaching resources, no formal policy exists to guarantee students accessible digital courses. Suggestions for adjusting courses for online learning include “encouragements” for professors to record synchronous lectures, offer 24-to-48-hour final exam windows and “consider asynchronous online activities, such as Canvas Discussions, as an alternative means of meeting learning objectives.” The University’s mandatory coursework hours have not been reduced, asynchronous learning has not been enforced and important considerations of students’ participation abilities (such as attendance and having one’s camera or microphone on) have scarcely been mentioned.
Professors were tasked with the enormous burden of rapidly reorganizing their courses and adapting their pedagogies, all while trying to prioritize their personal teaching values. It’s no easy task to accomplish this while making courses appropriately accessible, and the University’s policies are too vague to be useful. There is no system of accountability for course accessibility, and the lack of University-mandated standards allows problematic course policies to go unchecked. The resources available to professors, through the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning and the Digital Learning and Design team, have been helpful to some, but consulting them is not required in order for departments to approve online courses. Professors certainly should have as much flexibility as possible to transition their courses in the way they see most fit, but in unprecedented times of transition, people need clear guidance, not blind faith.
While flexibility is kindly offered to professors, the University is not providing adequate supervision to guarantee that each course offers equal and equitable levels of academic rigor and technological accessibility for students. Professors have been attempting to do their jobs without clear guidance and without anything to hold them accountable for failing to reach even the most minimal standards of accessibility. Professors and students are both struggling under a severe lack of leadership. If Brown is to survive the massive upcoming shifts in how American society views post-secondary education, we need to maintain our community through clear and considerate policies that uphold our historical values in support of academic freedom.
Beth Pollard ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.