Zoom and Gloom: Universities in the Age of COVID-19

By Ryan BoydMay 25, 2020

Zoom and Gloom: Universities in the Age of COVID-19

Radical Hope by Kevin M. Gannon
Academia Next by Bryan Alexander

FOR A WHILE it has been difficult to be optimistic about American higher education, beyond the fortunes of a shrinking circle of “elite” schools. Just ask historian and professor Kevin Gannon, who introduces Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto by claiming (and I mean this is literally the first sentence) that “it has never been more difficult to teach in higher education than in our current moment.” And, thanks to “strangulation” by neoliberal austerity budgets, things are wretched for students, too: “It has also never been more difficult to learn in higher education than in our current moment.” Nonetheless the former group is still expected to be intellectually “transformative”; the latter, transformed by and grateful for their collegiate experience. In a tottering empire’s declining institutions, where corporate ideology and standardized tests and student loans and vast battalions of adjuncts dominate reality, it’s hard to teach and learn.

If Gannon’s polemic is a thickly descriptive, close-up, quasi-ethnographic narrative about teaching and the “increasingly fucked-up ways” life on campus unfolds, Bryan Alexander’s Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education tries to see things from 30,000 feet, looking for broad trends that will extend into the coming decades. And things look grim: “Frankly,” he observes toward the book’s end, “many of these trends describe a challenging if not dark near- and medium-term future,” and “American higher education now faces a stark choice: commit to experimental adaptation and institutional transformation, often at serious human and financial costs, or face a painful decline into an unwelcoming century.”

Eerily, Academia Next raises the specter of a degraded “future academy after a major pandemic has struck the world, perhaps along the lines of the early twentieth century’s Great Influenza.” Such an outbreak would be a “black swan event,” an epochal disruption that radically intensifies present conditions. During and after the pandemic, Alexander argues, every university would have to grapple with political chaos, economic instability, and vast cultural and technological shifts. A black swan would do the same to higher education that it would to the rest of our society: highlight all the cracks, holes, weak joints, and moldy patches. Guess what COVID-19 is up to.

On the one hand, there will be pre- and post-coronavirus worlds — little will ever be the same; on the other, though, this pandemic merely exposes and extends what was already falling apart. Or — to look at it still another way — the outbreak both renders partially obsolete everything previously written about education and makes certain texts more relevant than ever.

In the higher-ed sector, as in American society at large, we have two paths: we can juice up what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” leveraging the crisis to increase the wealth and power of existing elites, or we can embrace an expansive, collectively minded ethic of care and “radical hope,” as Gannon puts it.

What kind of world do we want? What sorts of colleges and universities will operate in it? Kathleen Fitzpatrick has called for “generous thinking” about the university’s internal culture and its wider sociocultural roles. Now is the time to see how generous we can be. Nobody knows what is going to happen, and that is all the more reason to fight for humane post-capitalist visions of the future, for something other than what Gannon calls “the current neoliberal fetish for ‘schools of death.’”


Although he doesn’t go for corny rhetoric about how teaching is a noble or sacred calling, Gannon is a teacher to his bones. Learning consists in a “critical refusal to abide by the limitations of the present,” and good pedagogy functions “to help students actively intervene in their own reality.”

It is easy to be cynical if you teach college in 2020. It is easy to, as they say on Twitter, get black-pilled when your classes are too big or numerous; when the provost emails to say that cost-of-living adjustments aren’t coming this year because of budget constraints; when more and more of our work is routed through quasi-corporate power channels; when creepy ed-tech corporations encroach upon our classrooms; when humanities enrollments decline catastrophically; when legislators slash budgets while mocking professors for having cushy gigs; when poll after poll shows a mounting public antipathy, particularly among conservatives, toward the very idea of higher education. Contra the tenacious myth that professors are recumbent bourgeois professionals who drive Volvos and own big houses, most of us are more like service workers with doctorates, and we’re barely making rent.

And American society treats its students just as — if not more — roughly, providing little in the way of a future besides scarcity and precarity. As Gannon writes:

Far from being a generation of entitled snowflakes, today’s college students are under siege. They have less funding, less support, learn in more dysfunctional institutions, and live in an environment that is more fractured and polarized than ever. They work more hours at more jobs than any previous generation of students, deal with more issues related to anxiety and mental health than any of their forebears, and face a postgraduate economic landscape so bleak that the Baby Boom generation is in full-on denial of its very existence. All this, and they are mocked, by generations that had it twice as good, about how it’s all their fault.

Then along came COVID-19.

In the face of all this, Gannon argues that “our default pedagogical approach should be empathetic and kind.” Every classroom must be “a place of radical welcome and maximum inclusion.” Cynics, including some professors, will counter that this makes you a pushover who has abandoned all rigor. But actually, kindness and empathy are higher forms of realism — ways of recognizing our collective situation. For Gannon, empathy also means teaching “from a place of radical hope instead of jaded cynicism.” In part this idealism is pragmatic — it’s easier to get up and go to work if you aren’t a nihilist, and pessimism ultimately serves the already powerful. No one needs a burned-out, angry, hopeless teacher. Gannon is following Paulo Freire here, who says that “I am hopeful, not out of mere stubbornness, but out of an existential, concrete imperative.”

Teaching with radical hope is necessarily political (as Gannon emphasizes, “Neutrality is a luxury of the comfortable”). By this, I don’t mean that tenured radicals are making their pupils swear loyalty to Mao. I mean that if one of the fundamental goals of college is to teach critical thought, and if such critique involves interrogating assumptions and received narratives about why the world is the way it is, then a higher education potentially threatens established political orders. Good students activated and nurtured by their classes — students who are “dynamic and evolving coparticipants” in their education — will ask questions. The status quo doesn’t want too much of that; it’s better if people just shut up and sign for their student loans. What Henry Giroux calls, in Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, a “critical education” (“public pedagogy that make[s] knowledge meaningful in order to make it […] transformative”), is out of place in a world dominated by market logic.

Gannon does concede that, when it comes to actually enacting a critical pedagogy, it matters a lot who you are. In other words, it’s better to be tenured than an adjunct with no job security who might upset their employers by doing anything too, well, radical, like having students design the syllabus and assignments or abolishing letter grades altogether. If anything, Gannon downplays that enormous qualifier: “If you’re a new and/or adjunct faculty member who might not be in a position to do this kind of pedagogical tinkering, your scope of action is limited.” I’ll say! Good luck revolutionizing your praxis when you don’t have an office and can’t know for sure whether your current school will even employ you next term. Gannon is honest about this power dynamic, but I still wish he had said more about it. It is, after all, one of the great catastrophes of US higher education, and it severely limits the freedom of teachers.


Bryan Alexander dedicates Academia Next to “all the adjuncts, who do more than anyone, with less than anyone, to build the future of higher education.” He also observes that “trends and metatrends suggest a decline for American higher education.” Even worse, “we may be experiencing a global clash of liberal education with rising illiberalism.” In the face of these bleak prospects, he takes on a difficult project: mapping possibilities for the academy over the next few decades, roughly into the mid-21st century. As a “futures work,” his book extrapolates from present trend lines, but Alexander is cautious, particularly when it comes to territory beyond the 2020s. He presents multiple, sometimes competing narratives that may unfold.

But among the potential scenarios, motifs stand out. We will almost certainly see a number of bad things: colleges will fight over a shrinking pool of students, owing to demographic and economic declines; they will hire more penniless adjuncts and pay more upper administrators even better money; they will outsource larger tranches of their work to third-party entrepreneurs with Pynchonesque names like Schoology, InstaEDU, Smarterer, and Knewton; and they will move more classes online despite faculty resistance and student skepticism, because as Alexander drily puts it, “lower quality is not necessarily an obstacle to growth.”

That said, it’s not like we were doing well to begin with. Gannon is right: things are bad for students and professors at most places. Vast disparities in access and outcomes persist, with poor people and students of color (especially black, Latinx, and Native American students) lagging far behind other demographics. All students carry more debt than ever before, while frequently taking classes in crumbling facilities. The current faculty pool, meanwhile, is a staggering 73 percent contingent, and Alexander raises the possibility that only 10 percent of the professoriate will be on the tenure track by 2030. The reliance across institutional types on adjunct labor has been a “humanitarian catastrophe,” he underscores, and “academic labor as a whole has been devalued economically and politically.” At the same time, a “transformation in campus labor” has created more administrators earning more money while often doing vague work, particularly at upper levels of management. State legislatures don’t seem to mind, as long as they don’t have to pony up more funding. Alexander argues that aggressive unionization and resistance is the only way out of this impasse, but so far these efforts have been piecemeal: “[O]utraged faculty members have generally not assembled political coalitions effective enough to alter leadership pay.” Want to earn a living wage? Become a VP or a football coach.

Or join the education-technology sector. Despite the “hype crash” of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in the mid-2010s, and despite “a persistent trend” of “faculty resistance” to technologizing pedagogy, campuses are pressing ahead with virtual reality, augmented reality, AI, online course modules, proprietary apps, and automation. Soon students are more likely to get an “information experience” than a critical education. Consider Alexander’s vision of a visit to an “Augmented Campus”; he’s neutral about it, but I felt nauseated, like I had a low-grade fever:

We walk among students, faculty, and staff striding, sitting, or talking, but more of them are wearing glasses than in the distant past of 2018. […] Some do not sport these glasses, but if we look closely, we can see in their eyes tiny flashes of light, which do not seem to interfere with walking or speaking.

Once we visit the library and borrow visitors’ goggles, things become clear. The entire campus is saturated with augmented reality content and services. The population accesses AR through glasses or contact lenses (hence those tiny flashes). Through AR, faculty, staff, and students can interact with much of the Internet, including contemporary social media, class materials, shopping, and news from home. Audio plays from earbuds connected to glasses or contacts; tiny microphones pick up the wearer’s spoken words.

Maybe I’m a Luddite. But imagine this technology woven into the sort of panopticon that universities would be able to set up and centralize within administrative channels. Such technologized oversight — the sort of control over unruly professors and unionized staff that managers salivate over — would begin at well-resourced, elite schools, but it would spread. Everyone wants to keep up with Harvard.

Certainly the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the gap between the haves and have-nots: while community colleges are turning their wi-fi routers toward the parking lot so that students without home internet can study in their cars, other schools lean on Zoom subscriptions and Blackboard portals and can presume that most of their undergraduates have steady home broadband. Alexander predicts that this divide will widen.

Without a serious course correction, he warns, we will see “rising segregation” between people and institutions that were already part of a vicious hierarchy. Poor students and students of color will take on more debt and graduate at lower rates; and while elite liberal-arts colleges and flagship research universities will remain healthy, most schools — especially the public institutions that educate the majority of low-income and nonwhite students — will decay. This “two-tier pattern” will be little more than a caste system. Many schools will simply go broke and close, in what Alexander calls a “queen sacrifice.” And in the grimmest of his timelines, we have

a socioeconomic elite powered by automation and related industries, dominating a society consisting largely of disempowered poor or working-class people kept in line through a mix of rich entertainment and ubiquitous surveillance. This could become something nearly medieval in scope, with a social base of impoverished techno-peasantry and a vanishingly small middle class above it.

It is an austere future of “sacrificial strategies, costly yet aimed at saving something from what could well be a catastrophe.”

But there is hope, in the form of political solidarity and a broad skepticism of privatized digital technology. The advocacy group Tenure for the Common Good, which has worked to build a coalition of the tenured and the contingent, called on March 30 of this year for radically progressive responses to COVID-19, among them the extension of non-tenured-faculty contracts and robust institutional support for adjuncts who are now teaching online. John Warner, meanwhile, writing on his influential blog at Inside Higher Ed, rejects the canard — pushed by some academics — that now, during a crisis, is prime time to explore pedagogy operated through easily hacked online platforms like Zoom. And on his website, Alexander has blogged about the emergency’s effects on higher education. There are, he notes, a number of possible scenarios that could emerge from the pandemic, some sunnier than others. Among them is the grisly possibility of a “long plague” that persists for a year or more, devastating the world economy and shocking colleges and universities in far worse ways than the Great Recession did.

Again, there are two paths: despair or hope. We — citizens, families, students, faculty, staff — can push for drastic revisions of how the United States educates its people (among them: free public college). Or we can collapse into cynical nihilism and die alone. Take your pick. Together, Gannon’s and Alexander’s books make it clear what the stakes are, and which path we should sprint down, right now, if we want to live and maybe even thrive.


Ryan Boyd (@ryanaboyd on Twitter) lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Boyd lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of Southern California. Having quit Twitter, he can now be found on Bluesky (@ryanboyd.bsky.social).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!