Academe’s Coronavirus Shock DoctrineRoundup
tags: higher education, online teaching, digital courses, academic labor
Anna Kornbluh is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She gratefully acknowledges communal conversations about faculty concerns in various social media venues.
Never let a crisis go to waste. In her bestselling book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein observes that disasters, emergencies, and breakdowns often prove inspirational to entrepreneurs, and just as often provide ideological cover for the repurposing of public funds and the reconfiguration of labor conditions. Covid-19 looks like it will furnish exactly this sort of pretext. Faculty members—a variegated group that has not excelled at thinking of ourselves as a collective—should beware.
As the home of expertise across the research and medical sciences, public policy, and human expression, universities are taking a leadership role in responding to this pandemic, especially given the absence of a functioning federal government. Being on the front lines means that universities are acting rapidly to take the kinds of dramatic steps necessary to flatten the contagion curve and limit harm. But unlike some elementary schools or businesses, U.S. universities are not simply closing; they are ordering faculty to ensure "continuity of instruction" by moving classes online.
Online education has several benefits and has seen experimentation and progress, often thanks to big budgets. Yet the mandate for this sudden conversion of large swaths of higher education to an online format threatens to trigger a breakneck paradigm shift with unforeseen ramifications. Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal — they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations. American higher education has already endured several slow-moving disasters over the past 40 years: the radical defunding of public institutions, the casualization of academic labor, the militarization of campus security, and the erosion of faculty governance. As a result, the very instructors now tasked with the herculean transition are already working in extreme conditions: Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of college and university teaching is performed by non-tenure-track faculty members or by graduate students, many of whom conduct heavy course loads without health insurance and with suppressed wages, housing insecurity, and stifling debt.
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