Student Success Rests on an Institutional Culture of Support

It wasn’t long into the pandemic closures of March 2020 before faculty began to rethink practices long upheld as essential ingredients of a rigorous pedagogy. Instructors reconsidered the purpose, design, and utility of exams, the nature and value of the grading system, and the most equitable way to treat late work. As the pandemic rolled on, taking a mounting toll on student mental health, faculty – themselves steamrolled by the shift to online teaching and need to manage their own lives – were challenged to take onboard the complexity of their students’ lives, and not view them only as learners whose identity was defined by the subject of the course being taught.

Confronted with Zoom screens in which a quarter of the cameras might be turned off, teachers were hard pressed not to wonder what was going on behind those blank boxes. Were students drowsing off, watching videos, completely uninterested in what we had to say? Were they unwilling to reveal themselves parked outside a McDonald’s in order to grab a bit of the Golden Arches’ bandwidth that they lacked at home? Were they embarrassed about what their homes revealed about them?  

Now colleges are back and faculty – to the extent that they have the time for it – are examining the importance of face-to-face teaching and the residential campus with fresh eyes. Even for those instructors who best met the challenges of online teaching and learning, the impact of not being able to develop or sustain multi-dimensional relationships with students was unmistakable. Faculty certainly lost the ability to interact with students in complex ways in the classroom, but the loss was felt even more deeply in other arenas. We no longer saw our students playing sports, performing music, or hanging out at the local coffee shop. We couldn’t share a meal with them in the dining hall. The more that students were squeezed into their Zoom boxes, the more faculty came to miss (and cherish) the human relationships and social interactions that are critical to student learning and the overall success of the academic enterprise.

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