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What is to be done? Scholar-Activism in the Era of COVID-19

By Flora Farago, Jennifer Richter & Beth Blue Swadener

What does scholar-activism look like during a global pandemic? What does scholar-activist teaching look and feel like? How are students and faculty living in and surviving a global pandemic that entails struggling with finances, balancing child care and work, and maintaining mental and physical well-being? Catastrophes and crises represent opportunities to open ourselves, explore different imaginaries, and learn – they unveil the worst and best of humanity, and also allow us to notice ways that intersectional and persistent inequalities and oppressions are brought to the fore and find ways to address them. As many have noted, the COVID-19 pandemic offers opportunities amidst uncertainties to come together virtually, to show up for and check in with each other, and to show kindness, compassion, and solidarity in the time of social distancing and quarantines.  We draw on our experiences and conversations as scholar-activists to better understand teaching and research as activism during and beyond these times.

It is critical to acknowledge that the pandemic has exposed “old battle scars,” such as racism, poverty, and lack of access to health care. The “virus” of racism, ethnocentrism, and jingoism may be more lethal than COVID-19.  As Margo Okazawa-Rey notes: “This virus encourages us to believe that our pain and suffering are the most extreme, the most important, and the most deserving of sympathy and immediate action, without regard for the scale of suffering, sickness, and death worldwide.” Kenyan poet “Sir” Lucky Samuel Man’gera points out that Kenyans (and millions of people across the Global South) are not foreigners to health and economic crises. We don’t even have to fly to East Africa to find communities who lack access to clean drinking water and electricity, like members of the Navajo Nation, a third of whom have no tap water or toilet in their homes.  The Navajo Nation has lost more people to COVID-19 than 13 other states combined. These are legacies of settler colonialism and a national ethos that is hard-pressed to provide apologies and reparations for past and current injustices.

Discussing and addressing these issues with students and colleagues is vital.  As Liz Sumida Huaman notes, slogans like  “we are in this together” and “we will get through this together” erase the grave inequalities the pandemic exposes. Ignoring these inequalities or remaining silent about them communicates the myth that the virus equally affects us all, and is race-evasive*,” perpetuating ideology that prevents us from collectively working toward a more just world.

Amidst a neoliberal education environment where research productivity is valued over teaching, how do we teach with compassion and justice about and during a pandemic so that we can honor the struggles and humanity of all? Faculty are asked to be teachers, mentors, advisors, therapists, and recruiters, all the while managing existing pressures of publishing and applying for grants. Like other remote workers, many faculty are struggling with the stress of working from home with children, pets, spouses, and combating “zoombombers”.  Precarity is systematic and relative to where one is on the academic hierarchy: Graduate students who can no longer research or teach; untenured and non-tenure instructors facing furlough or contract termination; tenured faculty facing furloughs and pay cuts; and all are facing increasing economic uncertainties and indeterminate professional expectations.

Aisha Ahmad argues that academic productivity during a global crisis rests on the “perilous assumption” that things will return to normal. The pressure we feel as academics to constantly produce also highlights larger issues around productivity, equating human worth with the number and popularity of publications and dollar signs on grants. Rather than focusing on career advancement, productivity, and the accompanying guilt, faculty including Brandon Bayne encourage prioritizing and supporting each other as humans. Bayne’s emphasis on intellectual nourishment, social connection, and personal accommodation are lessons to be taken to heart in both a pandemic-ridden and post-pandemic world.

Feelings of solidarity and care are emerging organically in classrooms.  In Beth’s critical advocacy and dis/ability justice course, graduate students deepened their sense of community care practices as they read and discussed Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice and screened, Crip Camp. Several students expressed how social isolation experienced by the majority in the country reflected daily experiences for many with dis/abilities and is further complicated with confinement and mobility limitations that many are currently experiencing. They expressed hope that community care might become more widely practiced post pandemic. Students changed from individual final projects to a group project in which they offered stories, similar to a human library, and reached out to friends in crip/queer/invisible dis/ability communities and made plans for ongoing mutual support.

Jen and her co-teacher jettisoned weekly assignments to focus on the most important outcomes. Zooming with students, seeing their children and families running around in the background, and hearing voices call out for their parents highlight the need for flexibility and prioritization of goals instead of punitive measures or static expectations that don’t recognize the inherent uncertainty or precarity of students’ situations.  Students saw neoliberal policies playing out in real time as they struggled with child care, family management, and whether they could afford to stay in school.  Class time was prioritized for articulation, reflection, and strategizing. Students pursued research, focusing on the legacy of pandemic and their careers as students.  Class was given over to honest conversations about what opportunities and challenges we were facing together, and how we could leverage to help students manage and cope with systemic stress.

Flora teaches very large, online classes that render prioritizing caring and fulfilling relationships inherently challenging. Building personal and professional relationships with students and with each other is a challenge as faculty attempt to balance service, grading, research, and other commitments. Also, some campus experiences like student rallies and sporting events cannot be moved online, or when they are, they do not nurture and feed the same sense of campus community as in person.

Beyond teaching and scholarship, grassroots activism is needed more than ever to strengthen solidarity. Tomasso Gravante and Alice Poma have drawn attention to the importance of grassroots activism and argue that denying the seriousness of the pandemic is emblematic of a neoliberal world where economy stands in for the multi-faceted human experience of human communities. Linking teaching and research to grassroots activism, where students engage in grassroots activism for course credit as service-learning, allows faculty and students to be part of “change on the ground” and be grounded in the community.

As faculty seek ways to practice self-care and resist systemic pressures to produce, research, and teach as if conditions are normal (when in fact we are living in a global crisis), flexibility, responsiveness, and care should be our highest priorities. For example, by fostering organic student collaborations and carving out time for check-ins are ways to maintain a sense of community and connection within our classes. In the long-term, we need to focus on strategic goals such as collective bargaining for contingent instructors and curriculum reforms that prioritize student needs and smaller class sizes.  Ultimately, our struggle is about humans, not products.  It is an opportunity to challenge and restructure how we view education as a right and a responsibility. As we cope with the pandemic, we urge students and faculty to prioritize scholar-activism and activist-scholarship, and to collectively work toward building institutions of higher learning where relationships and positive social change are prioritized.

*We use this term as an alternative to “colorblind” which perpetuates ableism.

Flora Farago is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in the School of Human Sciences at Stephen F. Austin State University. Jennifer Richter is an Assistant Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Beth Blue Swadener is Professor of Justice Studies and of Social and Cultural Pedagogy in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

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