Desperate times call for flexible measures

By EDITORIAL BOARD

SARAH FAGAN

Everything we know is changing. Peppered all around the globe, Middlebury students are now undergoing a very different method of schooling. And like most transitions, this one is not without its kinks. Maybe you’ve forgotten to mute your mic or sent what you thought was a private message to the whole class on Zoom. Maybe you’ve forgotten to “go” to class altogether. And maybe, for you, this is not about unfortunate inconveniences but about serious barriers — lacking reliable WiFi, your own computer or a quiet place to work. The majority of us have departed a campus which, for the most part, offered us the same universal resources and standardized academic procedures. Now, the opposite couldn’t be more true, and the expectation of a one-size-fits-all approach to academics is no longer viable. But in these unconventional times, we have the opportunity to innovate beyond the conventional vein of teaching and learning. 

To our professors, we want to say thank you. We do not take your hard work for granted. We  breathed a collective sigh of relief when you reworked and shaved down your syllabi. We’ve appreciated the softening of the professor-student power dynamic as you have doled out your phone numbers while your kids and pets bop in and out of the video frame. And we are indescribably grateful for classes that begin not with a discussion of the last night’s readings but with the simple yet essential question: “How are you doing?”

Within the context of remote learning, professors have been significantly more flexible. But this situation also calls for reflection on what “flexibility” actually entails. As a board, we do not claim to know exactly what the answer is — when we got together to parse it through, we could not always articulate what we meant conceptually when we said we wanted a more flexible virtual classroom. Instead, we were able to identify where we saw it working best. Often, that efficacy coincided with clearly-stated expectations from professors about our work going forward. One editor said her professor uploaded an annotated version of the old syllabus that showed what she was changing for the rest of the semester. Another said his professors have been holding one-on-one sessions with students to ask them what they want to get out of the semester.

We found that some of the most meaningful displays of flexibility addressed potential disparities in students’ capacity to learn this semester as well as concerns about grades. For example, while extensions for 10-page research papers might allow students to achieve higher grades in the long-run, they don’t mitigate the stresses that comes with penning an essay thousands of miles from the stacks of Davis Library, in a time that has filled even the most optimistic of students with bouts of existential dread. The same may be true for assignments now labeled as “optional.” What does that really mean? Even when these assignments are marketed as grade-boosters, it’s hard not to worry what a professor will think if they’re not completed. (And of course, as the contentious debate over opt-in Pass/D/Fail has shown, optional for some means definitely-not-optional for others.) Clarity in regards to what is expected of students is crucial. But what might be the most vital aspect for remote learning is deliberate and purposeful instruction.

When our worlds are turned upside down, we should center what we consider the most meaningful. By stripping down our education to its most pertinent essentials, we can re-evaluate not just what we’re doing but also why we’re doing it. Against the backdrop of precarious circumstances, we have the chance to reconsider the intentionality behind our learning. 

In doing this, the last thing we want is for professors to feel any undue burden. Please do not spend hours crafting an entire new syllabus. Even small changes can relieve a profound amount of anxiety — decreasing the page requirements for papers, having assessments be open note, seeking out and listening to feedback, encouraging reflection over analysis, offering different format options for a final. And as we ask for this reexamined flexibility from you, we acknowledge that these relationships will only be effective if we return the favor. We urge our fellow students to be patient, adaptable and compassionate with our professors as they navigate these newfound hurdles alongside us. 

Above all, these considerations can and should extend further than this semester. There should always be a place for resolute intellectual engagement unhampered by grades. And there should always be a place for genuine human connection and the mutual embracing of uncertainty. In the recent weeks of physically distanced learning, many of us have found our “classroom” environments to be less intimidating and more, well, familial — ripe with more mistakes, laughter and “thank-yous.” We started out this remote experiment thinking about how to adapt the structure of lecture halls to our laptops, but we should also be envisioning ways to bring the intimacy of our Zoom screens back to our classrooms.

And hey, we wouldn’t mind the continuation of guest appearances by professors’ kids and dogs, either.

This editorial represents the opinions of the Middlebury Campus’s editorial board.