Campuses across the country are coming together this fall with a return to largely in-person learning, in some cases for the first time since March 2020. There are so many challenges facing institutions of higher learning in today’s environment: declining admissions, concerns about the Delta variant, institutions facing financial pressure, debate over Title IX procedures, student mental health concerns, shifting student demographics, and the nebulous role of technology in learning.
At HxA, we’re primarily interested in the expression climate on campuses: are learners and scholars able to pursue good-faith lines of inquiry, even and especially when they challenge the norm? Are students being exposed to a range of viewpoints, even — and especially — viewpoints that they do not agree with? And, are learners and scholars able to engage constructively across lines of difference?
For these reasons, here’s what we’re paying special attention to this semester:
COVID-19 and the intensifying “epistemic crisis”
The COVID-19 public health crisis has exacerbated concerns about public trust in institutions of knowledge. While skepticism can be an essential skill for learning and even constructing knowledge, if not responsibly tempered, it can (and has) eroded trust in expertise and the research process. HxA is interested in how universities, journals, courts of law, and others might begin to renovate public image and restore trust in the coming months.
The Effects of Legislative Interventions In Classrooms
Since the spring there have been weekly headlines about proposed and passed legislation from states about what can and cannot be discussed in classrooms, and what can and cannot be taught. (See here, here, here.) HxA is primarily interested in how these legislative interventions may have a chilling effect on constructive discourse in the classroom environment. Will these legislative interventions enhance or hurt the expression client on college campuses?
Student Expression on Campus
After acclimating to Zoom and hybrid learning, students on campus will be readjusting to in-person learning. How will reuniting on campus soften or exacerbate existing tensions? In our 2020 Campus Expression Survey administration, students reported more reluctance to discuss controversial topics than in 2019 (62% of students in 2020 versus 55% in 2019). One third of students reported feeling psychologically isolated “often.” Will this trend continue for Fall 2021?
The Continuing Contingent Faculty Crisis
Before the pandemic an estimated half of all instructors were contingent, meaning scores of teachers were facing unreliable futures. Financial pressure brought on by the pandemic forced mass lay-offs of both contingent and tenured faculty. Given their precarious roles, contingent faculty face unique challenges in expressing or teaching viewpoints. Will the pandemic stir discussion about changing hiring practices that protect academic freedom while offering scholars and instructors more defined roles on campus?
After a year of just-in-time teaching innovations — Zoom breakout rooms and chat features, adapted course materials, new modes of assessment, asynchronous projects, and hybrid platforms — professors are returning to the classroom with new practices for engaging students and pivoting in moments of need. The pandemic also created a strange ‘remote intimacy’ that gave students and instructors a window into each other’s lives. We hope this leads to greater empathy and curiosity about others’ perspectives, and continued pedagogical innovations as the year unfolds.