In a recent New York Times opinion piece aptly titled, “My College Students Are Not OK,” Jonathan Malesic (2022) chronicled a campus of students who were falling asleep in class, failing assignments, and struggling to do the bare minimum. While it is curious that he is reflecting on last year rather than the current semester, I found myself wondering the extent to which I could relate to the anecdotes that he was sharing. What struck me the most is he appeared to be describing on-campus experiences with his students, whereas I have observed a steady decline in performance specifically for my courses that remain fully online and asynchronous.
The conversation about student mental health
Since the pandemic, there has been a greater dialogue around mental-health related concerns for college students, as well as faculty. Just this month, for instance, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported such descriptions as “defeated,” “exhausted,” and “overwhelmed” when faculty members were asked to report how their students were doing (“How to Solve the Student-Disengagement Crisis,” 2022). Indeed, we are seeing upticks in depression and anxiety-related symptoms across our population right now, and college in particular is already a high-stress time for students, even under the best of circumstances.
I am wondering, however, whether the notion that this struggle is somehow unique to higher education isn’t a bit overblown. Can anyone point to a particular industry or profession that hasn’t in some way been shaken or put in peril since the pandemic? Relative to other levels of education, for instance, one could argue that students in higher education are generally better equipped and able to adapt to the changes that the pandemic imposed than kids in earlier developmental phases more tenuously forging their academic paths.
I teach at two very different institutions—a community college environment that has one of the most diverse student bodies in all of New York, and a graduate student body at an elite institution in the heart of Manhattan. The concerns and stressors that my students experience vary considerably, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to serve these communities. Similarities I have observed between them are that they were both at the epicenter of the virus when the pandemic swept across our nation, and their populations reflect communities that have developed significant resiliency in its wake.
The need for connection and accountability
What is also critical to insulating students during this time is the connection that they form with their professors. The same article in the Chronicle of Higher Education goes on to identify that student engagement is strongly predicated on the trust they develop with their professors, and the human connections they make in the classroom.
In my opinion, this is where remote learning has a significant disadvantage, as the medium lends itself to less accountability on the part of the student, and makes it more challenging for them to connect not only with their professors, but with one another. There are other benefits that may outweigh these costs; for instance, such as safety, reaching potential students who would otherwise be unable to attend college in person, and convenience. This time of the semester is usually accompanied by burnout, whether or not there is an ongoing pandemic. Moreover, student disengagement is not unique to this period in history, and while our students may be struggling and exhausted, they have also demonstrated tenacity, resilience, enthusiasm, and exhilaration.
As stories of burnout and exhaustion are shared, it is equally important to also recognize the innovative ways that faculty have been engaging with their students, challenging them during this time, and confronting head on the anxiety and fears that they may be experiencing in the classroom.
For instance, there were moments over the course of the semester when the threat of the virus loomed larger than others, and I would ask my students on campus directly whether they would feel safer if we had a live virtual session that week rather than meeting in person. Having students collaborate with one another and the professor as circumstances changed has allowed for us to feel part of our own community as a class, and has also helped us to develop an adaptability to circumstances necessary for the fluidity of the moment. What was planned for one week may have to be replaced by a new plan, depending on external forces. In my experience, students have a greater flexibility and capacity for resilience than they are often given credit for.
The pandemic is far from over, and as institutions of higher education continue to adapt, it is important that we offer our students the necessary resources, accommodations, and guidance to move forward during these challenging times.
All of this is to say that my students, by and large, are okay (-ish).
Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2022