It’s Not Just for Emergencies

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, I published an op-ed in Inside Higher ED. The piece, titled “What counts as proximity?,” talks about the future of online telework. “In telling my story,” I write,

I hope to provide other faculty members with leverage for conversations about expanding options for working remotely. I also want to arm them against administrations that might promote academic telework to save on infrastructure costs rather than to reinforce a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Academic telework is a feminist issue and a matter of social justice. While promising to benefit women and minority faculty members in particular, it has the potential to lift everyone.

Academic telework is currently being promoted as a health issue. Classes are being moved online quickly in an effort to protect members of higher ed communities from the spread of coronavirus. There are some clear problems with this move. To name just two:

  • First, while promising greater protections for many students and faculty, this move does not diminish the danger for staff who are still required to travel to and be present on campus.
  • Second, the transition to virtual learning environments is coming with little to no institutional support for students or faculty, including expansion of technological hardware, software, and services.

These two problems suggest how an unprepared-for move to online learning and teaching can perpetuate inequitable, even toxic, practices that harm higher education’s most underserved and vulnerable populations.

So my concern this morning is that the current coronavirus crisis will not teach institutions of higher ed how to mobilize academic telework to improve conditions for students, faculty, and staff. Instead, amidst fears for my own health and the well-being of family, friends, and colleagues, I am worried about how the move online may set back academic telework as a viable option in higher ed.

Will the speedy rollout of online teaching and learning lead to new misapprehensions and misrepresentations about what working remotely is and what it can do? How will administrators use missteps during this period of crisis to foreclose future opportunities for academic telework? Or, conversely, how might administrators use success — which will come from the ingenuity, compassion, and labor of instructors and staff — to force remote working on students and employees?

So as we try to keep up with the present, I hope that we can continue to look to the future and imagine ways for new technologies to better the lives of our students, one another, and ourselves.

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