COVID-19 and the rise of emergency remote teaching at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has profoundly affected the identity and roles of academics. No longer the centre of their classrooms, many have felt a sense of dislocation and disembodiment. These and other changes catapulted UCT into the future, Associate Professor Lis Lange said.
Associate Professor Lange, the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning, was speaking at the start of the annual Teaching and Learning Conference, held virtually this year from 18 to 23 September. The conference theme is Shifting Academic Identities and drew 43 diverse proposals from across the university, some from students.
Her opening presentation was titled “Decentring the academic: Preliminary reflections on academic identity and the university of the 21st century”. She used the word preliminary to flag her early thinking. There’s much more to be thought, debated and researched about the post-lockdown university, Lange added.
As the pandemic hit, most universities scrambled to adapt their courses to an online environment. They’ve continued that mode of teaching for the past six months. The impact on academics’ sense of self has been profound. Used to teaching in the physical space of the classroom and following the linear time of the campus timetable, they became disembodied. The changes have repercussions for established academic identity and job descriptions, with consequences for the future, Lange said.
She situated this new challenge within the context of the many changing demands that academics and universities faced following the rise of neoliberalism and managerialism after the 1973 oil crisis, the result of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries embargo.
Lange’s empirical point of departure centres around the work UCT did to effect emergency remote teaching between March and September 2020. The main data points come from a survey on students’ access to data, connectivity and devices, which was conducted before the start of emergency remote teaching; a survey on students’ experiences after the first term of emergency remote teaching; and interactions with academic staff and the UCT Academics’ Union.
While emergency remote teaching challenged academics by removing them from the space and time of the campus, it also introduced them to the real time and space of their students’ social realities.
“This experience must be carefully examined to draw pedagogic as well as political conclusions that matter for the process of shaping the university and its place in society in the 21st century,” Lange said.
“The rise of managerialism, the Fallist movement and the movement into emergency remote teaching to deal with a pandemic are not themes or problems specific to universities, or even specific manifestations of global problems. They are movements and events that correspond with the nature of the global phase of capitalist development we have been witnessing since the early 1970s, aggravated by the financial crisis of 2008. To analyse the changing academic identity in the context of COVID-19, we need to situate not only the academic at the university but the university in the world.”
Identity off balance
The rise of neoliberalism and managerialism had profound impacts on how universities were perceived, organised, managed and funded, Lange said. This also influenced how academics came to understand their identity.
“The changes brought home a much stronger correlation between relevance and funding; much greater competition for funding; the rise of academic stars; the impact of the rankings and the many measures of impact, satisfaction and so on; as well as the rise of the notion of the student as client.”
This changed the pedagogic relationship considerably.
“Add to this the impact of social media on academics’ lives as students express their opinions freely to watchful management, often more preoccupied with institutional reputation than with truth or facts. Academics have often found themselves cowed and less motivated to do what they thought their jobs were.”
But these challenges did not touch the ‘sacred’ place of academic identity: the identification with the discipline.
“Academics soldiered on, with their sense of self shaken but still pretty much intact – until now.”
“While it was possible that certain fields of knowledge might not be fashionable or well funded, or that academics’ departments were merged causing disciplinary conflicts, life at universities continued as it was. However, the very origin and value of their knowledge fields, or their morality, was up for questioning. Though put off balance by the introduction of management systems, satisfaction surveys and key performance areas, academics soldiered on, with their sense of self shaken but still pretty much intact – until now.”
In the 21st century a new form of dissonance has spread across the world’s campuses, hand in hand with student protests, angrily questioning the authority of academics, the university and the knowledge produced and taught at universities, Lange said.
“This pushed the university and its academics out of the central place they occupied. What [the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter protests] did was question the identity of academics epistemologically in terms of the very underpinnings of the disciplines they profess in. But in the call for a decolonised university, it also questioned academics ontologically: who they were, where they came from and how they positioned themselves.”
Lange said that this challenge to academic identity was felt particularly by white academics.
“Many were intellectually displaced or felt displaced by the anger of the confrontation, while black academics found a new political and academic space.”
However, this displacement occurred within the familiar coordinates of time and space, Lange said. Fast-forward to 2020 and a global pandemic that has forced the world to operate “out of place” to avoid contagion.
“For contact universities like UCT, the disruption has been phenomenal.”
Out of place and time
During the survey conducted to determine students’ access to data, connectivity and devices, it was found that they could devote 30 hours a week to learning at home. Lange said that the answers shaped the nature of remote learning now being offered: low-tech, asynchronous, short videos and narrated and captioned PowerPoint presentations.
“The community of students and scholars that constitutes the oldest definition of the university is broken.”
No longer does the academic occupy centre stage in the physical lecture hall. They can’t read the room, see the students or establish links in time, she added. Fifty-minute lectures were cut into 15- minute chunks to fit technological constraints. They became disembodied voices.
“The community of students and scholars that constitutes the oldest definition of the university is broken because it does not exist in a synchronous time and space.”
The solitary act of preparing lectures or developing curricula changed too. But to take this same content online, academics needed help from staff with other skills and different knowledge.
Between March and August, UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) ran 99 webinar sessions, attended by over 2 500 staff.
“This level of unprecedented participation in support activities showed how many academics understood they needed help to transition to remote teaching,” Lange said. “From an individual display of personal mastery in ‘normal time’, the preparation of a lecture becomes an exercise in grappling with new tools [and] new ways of thinking about the organisation of content. This resulted in a lower degree of confidence in their ability to perform.”
However, both students and academics have reported a greater degree of support over this time.
“From the very beginning of emergency remote teaching, it was clear [that] student support would be vital, especially those from socio-economically disadvantaged families,” said Lange.
While several support services were established, most academics were at the coalface of student support. The interactions created “a new, different knowledge of students than that acquired on campus”.
But emergency remote teaching comes with other costs. Most academics spend double the preparation time for their online lectures, raising concerns about workload, burnout, research productivity and issues of promotions and performance management.
And, like everybody else during lockdown, academics were at home, so the virtual space of the university started residing ‘physically’ in the space of their homes.
Nonetheless, emergency remote teaching created a need to think systematically about how to teach the content of the syllabi; working online sharpened assessment practices; students “came” to lectures in ways they did not use to, Lange said.
Universities in society
Beyond this Lange also pointed to UCT’s place and role in the macro cosmos.
“The changes in academic identity are not disconnected from the evolution and contradictions of our globalised capitalist society.
“The commodification of nature – whether in the form of the fossil fuel economy or in the form of the predatory exploitation of nature – is one of the root causes of climate change but also of the spread of disease, as we are seeing it today.”
Lange said that despite the effort, anxiety and the difficulties, the university has learnt a great deal during this period – and that some of these learnings should stay with us.
“The COVID-19 crisis has catapulted UCT into the future in ways that seemed unthinkable a year ago.”
“I have said often that the COVID-19 crisis has catapulted UCT into the future in ways that seemed unthinkable a year ago. But for the future to be worth living, we need to shape it – and for that to happen, we need to walk into it with our eyes wide open about the contradictions, the risks and the possibilities of rethinking the academic project in general, and teaching and learning in particular under new conditions.”
In order to do this with an acceptable level of depth, Lange said, we need to think again about the university as a social institution.
“We need to understand where we position ourselves as an institution in relation to this. From where do we enter the future? From the reproduction of the status quo or from the critique and transformation of the status quo and our own role in it? Do we enter the future by jumping onto the bandwagon of the new educational fad – whether it is [artificial intelligence] or online education – without thinking of their assumptions and their consequences?”
There is no doubt that society cannot go back to “normal” after COVID-19.
“And I do not think we should. There is much we have learnt that I think is worth taking with us into the future. But we need to enter the future to shape it as intellectuals – that is critical.
“We need to harness our new awareness of the different spaces and times that we and our students inhabit to develop appropriate pedagogies. We need to harness the newly discovered power of technology and online learning in such a way as it challenges the status quo ethically and politically and takes us forward along our decolonial trajectory.”
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