During the Coronavirus, Academics Have Found Themselves in a Crisis of Their Work

tags: higher education, universities, technology, humanities, COVID-19

Rinaldo Walcott is professor of Black diaspora cultural studies at the University of Toronto. His research cuts across the humanities and social sciences.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, academics have been adamant about getting their work done—writing articles, books, teaching and catching up on overdue activities. In my view this is wrong. I think now is the time for academics to be practicing a public pedagogy where humanists and social scientists engage the public beyond the university in what it means to be human.

Over the last decades we have seen the humanities and social sciences come under attack from numerous forces as not worthy of their status in our universities, and now is a time to prove those claims incorrect. Instead, academics and their managers have taken a decidedly different route. In a rush to practice physical distancing, most post-secondary institutions in North America shifted to online teaching. It was a stunning and swift move, and one that most of us would not have imagined before it actually occurred. 

I have found this quick switch to online teaching as well as the claims of furthering productivity by writing books and articles maddening and unthoughtful. In this moment, some academics need to work (the microbiologists); others not so much (the Medievalists). So what are these claims to work all about then? Currently, academics are professing their love of teaching and their students as fundamental to their identity, and while such emotive claims are admirable, most teachers are not trained to offer the kinds of therapeutic practices that might be required right now....

In the current situation, some forms of work matter less. For many academics, the fear that what they do might appear to matter less in the aftermath of the crisis underwrites their affective and emotive responses to teaching during coronavirus. Academics find themselves in a crisis of their work; a crisis of the meaning for their labour. And the desire to keep going is a buttress against that fear of not mattering. Now more than ever, we must forcefully demonstrate why we matter so powerfully to the society we have helped to make by refusing to pretend that what we do is so easily transferable. 

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