The Class System of Higher Ed Goes Online

Most American colleges and universities moved courses online over the last week. That shift highlights the class disparities of higher education. For example, at Georgetown, by the time the University President announced that classes were moving online, more than 30 full-time staff members from the teaching center and the center for classroom technology had prepared webinars, guides to using various technologies, and a full schedule of office hours and workshops to make the transition as smooth as possible. At Youngstown State University, the poorly-funded working-class institution where I used to teach, the  Institute for Teaching and Learning made similar preparations but with a staff of just five people. Their website includes a well-designed FAQ emphasizing both online pedagogy and equity, clearly recognizing that internet and even computer access may be difficult for the many working-class students enrolled. On the upside, unlike Georgetown, YSU extended spring break to give faculty, staff, and students an extra week to prepare.

It’s no surprise that an elite private university would have more resources than a chronically underfunded working-class state university. What’s troubling is how clearly that disparity does not align with the needs of either faculty or students. At Georgetown, full-time faculty typically teach two sections a semester (the story is different for part-time adjuncts, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Class also provides advantages for most Georgetown students (again, with important exceptions), who have benefited from private high school preparation, individual tutoring, and family lives designed to give them as much cultural capital as possible. High quality teaching won’t make as big a difference for them as it would for most of the students who attend working-class institutions, where faculty teach more courses and more students and have less access to support for teaching. At YSU, my colleagues and students succeed largely because of dedication – something that most have in abundance – but moving education online is a heavier lift and a greater risk for them.

Higher ed’s online shift has particular implications for the least privileged faculty. Many part-time faculty – the working-class labor pool of higher education — teach five or more sections, commuting between at least two different schools. Even where adjuncts are unionized, as most in the DC area are, this situation demands significant extra labor for which they are not being compensated. That this hits during the hiring season, when some have been preparing for campus interviews for full-time positions or are looking for new part-time gigs, just adds to the stress.

Many are also anxious about the move to online teaching means could reshape education after this crisis. Will more schools or students embrace distance learning? If so, what will that mean for faculty? Multiple professional organizations certify online courses and programs, and many review courses or provide certification for faculty. Will those standards be jettisoned if enough students succeed during this massive move to online learning? Faculty also worry about their ownership of the materials they’re creating. Guidelines from the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors insist that faculty own their work, schools don’t necessarily follow those guidelines. The Grievance Chair of YSU’s faculty union, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, tells me that the Board of Directors there wants to retain the policy they insisted on when the University began developing online courses: that materials faculty create for online courses belong to the University, not to them. The advice of Rebecca Barrett-Fox seems especially apt in this situation: faculty should do a bad job of moving our courses online. Indeed, whether we do so deliberately or not, I think it’s just as likely that this year’s mass move to distance ed will demonstrate that faculty can’t do our work nearly as well online as we can in person.

But that doesn’t make us any less anxious, a response that cuts across categories of employment. When my department held a meeting on Zoom last week, my colleagues’ anxiety and uncertainty was clear even from a distance. This may be one area where working at a less prestigious institution could help, because state universities are more likely to be unionized. While a faculty union wouldn’t solve everything, and its powers are sometimes frustratingly limited, unions do provide support. I found myself thinking fondly this week about the YSU faculty union listserv, which provides a ready forum for faculty conversations across departments. As one professor there told me, sharing concerns has reduced his anxiety, and the listserv has helped faculty identify shared problems. Further, the union has a policy and a committee to manage faculty grievances, so they have a process for responding to problems.

Of course, students are wrestling with their own anxieties, and while some tensions affect students from all classes, the challenges are particularly significant for working-class students. Georgetown has kicked most students out of the dorms, requiring them to figure out how to get back to DC to get their things, even as public health experts encourage us all not to travel. For working-class, international, and LGBTQ students, closing the dorms doesn’t just present a problem of managing their belongings. It can leave them homeless. Some can’t afford to go home, some come from countries that have closed borders, and some – especially LGBTQ students — can’t go home because their families have rejected them. Imagine having to deal with that AND figure out how to navigate online classes at the same time. While some appreciate the structure and connections they’re getting by returning to class, others are too stressed out to deal with that.

This may be one advantage of attending a local or regional campus: if you get kicked out of your dorm, it’s easier to go home. On the other hand, home might not have the computer or technical resources you need to attend class online. Home might also be overcrowded and noisy, especially if other family members, including children, are at home with you. Add to that the stress of losing the job that pays your rent, buys your food, covers your tuition, and gives you whatever limited funds you have to pay for health care. Many of the students I taught at YSU worked in food service and retail, fields where workers are especially vulnerable right now. Higher education has never been a fully comfortable place for working-class students, and the current situation makes it even more challenging.

The midst of a crisis might not be the best time to restructure higher education, but I hope we will learn a few lessons from all of this. The first is about the value of human connection, between faculty and students and among faculty. The most hopeful responses I’ve seen to this crisis have been messages of support and solidarity — among faculty and between faculty, staff, and students. From multiple “Pandemic Pedagogy” forums on Facebook to the collective community effort at Georgetown to find housing for students who’ve been evicted from the dorms to the choice most of my students made to continue working in collaborative teams, I see people trying to help each other. I also see plenty of critique of how higher ed works, from complaints about how quickly we’re having to revise our courses to concerns about how this affects faculty evaluations and promotions to how we’re supporting faculty, staff, and students with disabilities and much more. Perhaps solidarity and critique will come together and we will find opportunities and inspiration to push for changes to make higher education more equitable — even if we have to do that at a distance.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

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4 Responses to The Class System of Higher Ed Goes Online

  1. Pingback: WCSA Members Writing on Workers and the Working Class in the COVID-19 Economy – WORKING-CLASS STUDIES ASSOCIATION

  2. Pingback: Working-Class People Hold Society Together: Class and COVID-19 | Working-Class Perspectives

  3. Denise Ann Narcisse says:

    Thank you Sherry for your post. I deeply appreciate it As an Associate Professor of Sociology at Youngstown State University, I am currently on the “front lines” dealing with the very issues you discuss. Issues such as transitioning course material to online format. and trying to allay student fears about failing a transitioned course or not graduating on time, because of it.. Whether intentional or not, our education systems can operate as institutional systems of oppression, reflecting, if not perpetuating, deeply entrenched social class- inequality. The challenge for me and others at YSU has been how to create a level -playing field (parity) when you know social inequities in preparedness for college and resources (e.g. access to computers, printers, computer software, tutors and other resources) outside of college exist WELL before students enter college. Until we address such fundamental inequities within the broader society, the inequities will continue to exit in brick and mortar settings and in virtual learning and teaching environments alike. … Still holding on to John Dewey’s and Paulo Freire’s ideas about higher education and critical pedagogy (Freire, 1968) being vehicles for social reform and liberation.


  4. Fred_in_PA says:

    Excellent post!
    Where I taught (IUP) was much as you describe.
    Stay safe (and 6 feet apart!).


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