Finding the Silver Lining
As vaccines become more widely available in the United States, normalcy seems to be in sight. We are all ready to leave behind the horror and psychological toll that the pandemic has inflicted on us and embrace a full return to in-person teaching and learning in Fall 2021. But as we reflected on the drastic changes in our lives in response to the public health crisis of the past year, the Editorial Board realized that there were actually some silver linings.
There are valuable lessons we can all learn from this time about accessibility, flexibility and empathy amidst social isolation and our personal and collective struggles. Moving forward as an institution, we ought to carefully evaluate what we should restore, preserve and most importantly, improve. Our return can be an opportunity to re-imagine and reset campus life, forging an enhanced mode of learning, teaching and living.
To that end, the Editorial Board would like to first consider some of the accommodations that we were forced to develop in the face of the pandemic. First and foremost, our academic experiences have been predominantly virtual during the past year, with technology more present in almost every facet of our lives than ever before. Zoom classes themselves have been linked to increased fatigue and anxiety. Many of us are on our screens when we learn, when we read and when we take time off to chat with friends or watch a new show. In short, the online learning experience has had many downsides. On the other hand, the move to virtual learning has expedited improvements to the accessibility of classrooms. Recorded classes have become commonplace in order to accommodate students in different time zones, but continuing to record classes would bring benefits to students who have to miss them for emergencies or even those who simply wish to get a refresher on the content straight from the professor themselves.
The option of Zoom for occasional office hours and meetings has likewise made it easier to schedule important discussions, even when participants are dealing with busy schedules or disparate locations — something which would be beneficial in both increasing efficiency and flexibility in life after the pandemic. Further, both professors and the library itself have moved to make the provision of digital materials more consistent and less costly, helping to mitigate student worries about the financial accessibility of different classes. While we all crave a return to in-person learning and time with our peers, we urge the administration and faculty members to consider the ways technology has equalized some aspects of academic accessibility over the course of the pandemic and how we can retain those unforeseen benefits.
Beyond technology’s role in promoting flexibility and accessibility, students have also enjoyed a number of administrative policy changes and an increase in leniency in order to cope with the pandemic. There is no reason why a number of these changes should not stay in place.
A full course load was adjusted from four to three per semester in light of the pandemic, with the addition of a January term meant to provide space for extra courses and intellectual exploration. These changes, more than any other policy changes over the past year, have helped the college live up to the goal of its open curriculum, enabling students to carefully choose courses that interest them from a breadth of disciplines in a time frame that makes the most sense to them. We sincerely hope that the college will not only continue to offer January term for all future years — as they will in the next — but will enable students to lower the course load in other semesters in order to offset the added material. We also hope professors will continue to share the research and information they are passionate about with curious and often inexperienced students, who may not have had an opportunity to take those courses otherwise, over the January term period.
Professors have also extended greater leniency in the face of the many experiences students have and emergencies they face, promoting better faculty-student relations and making courses at Amherst less stressful without reducing their rigor. The choice of take-home exams over timed in-class tests and the greater willingness to grant extensions are both academic changes we would love to see carry forward after the pandemic.
The pandemic has also magnified concerns about our mental well-being and the competitive culture of relentless productivity that endangers it, leading to administrators and faculty members addressing those issues more frequently and more seriously — a new dynamic that we hope continues into the future.
Outside of classes, the college also has extended accommodation to support our day-to-day lives. Several members of the Editorial Board noted the improvements to Valentine Dining Hall’s food options, pointing out that being insulated on campus has forced the college to cater to all students’ dietary restrictions and needs. On the other hand, the college has also extended financial aid toward students in order to help them purchase meals from restaurants in the town of Amherst. The extension of a similar program — that provides financial aid beyond tuition dollars — moving forward would be a good step toward recognizing the impact that financial inequality plays in students’ social lives on campus by working to make experiencing the Pioneer Valley more financially accessible to the whole student body.
There are many more small changes to life at Amherst that we may want to carry into the future — outdoor dining, Mammoth Mart and Mammoth Day sitting chief among them in our editors’ eyes — but the majority the deeply resonant changes that have occurred over the course of the pandemic really rested on one major theme. Overall, the pandemic rendered many of the usually invisible inequities of our academic lives blatant for all to see, with the visibility of problems leading to new solutions and a better campus culture. If there’s one thing we hope to take away from the pandemic, it’s the deep level of care and understanding for one another that has led community members to work so hard to make life on campus more accessible, more flexible and more pleasant for one another every day.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).