By Adam Bessie,
Author of Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey (with Peter Glanting, The Censored Press/Seven Stories Press).
On Friday, March 13, 2020 the community college system as we knew it ended – and I’m not sure it will ever return.
And just maybe, that’s a good thing.
The day before the pandemic forced our campus to shut down in the San Francisco Bay Area, I taught my final in-person class. Aptly, it was a Science-Fiction/Fantasy course in which we had just finished a unit on “The End of the World as We Know It: The Literature of The Apocalypse.” That’s no joke: we were studying the apocalypse as it seemed to arrive. And to add to this cosmic prank, we had just read a 1909 story by E.M. Forster “The Machine Stops,” about a distant future in which humans live underground in bunkers to avoid the toxic air of a poisoned planet, with the only source of human contact through TV-like screens. But that day, there was no joking, no discussion, no fun – just planning our exodus from campus.
A week later, as we sheltered in our bunkers, we reconvened in Cloud College, a community in exile tethered together by a patchwork of Big Tech platforms –Zoom, Canvas, Google. What was meant as an emergency measure became our new reality, as our public “classroom” was a virtual space constructed by for-profit Silicon Valley giants.
But not everyone joined us.
Many students didn’t make it to Cloud College, blocked by technological and financial barriers. In fact, it seemed that it was
the most vulnerable students –the students community college is supposed to open doors for, the students I was drawn to teach – who were left behind in the exodus online.
So too were the most vulnerable community college employees – adjunct professors and classified staff, the bulk of the workforce that makes our institution run. As a tenured English faculty member, I was able to transition to Cloud College, but many of my colleagues were laid off without ceremony or even acknowledgment of their service. Adjunct professors weren’t even officially laid off – rather, they were simply not offered teaching assignments.
Would these vulnerable students and precarious faculty and staff ever return? Would the community ever come back to community college?
In this moment of crisis, I imagined utopian possibilities. I yearned for sort of New Deal, one in which community college would be on the leading edge of cultural transformation that disrupted the increasingly corporatized and standardized model of higher education. With our open-access democratic model, the community college system is ideally suited to be this transformative force – one that would lead to a more just and caring socio-economic system, one built on a culture of care and collaboration, rather than cut-throat competition and cruelty. This utopian vision, too, would be the end of the community colleges as we know them, moving towards a more well-resourced and ambitious vision of my beloved institution.
But when I returned to ground last year, it was still a dystopia – no New Deal enacted to transform community colleges into educational leaders, even though we now need such a program even more urgently. The campus felt dead: silent classrooms, silent hallways, silent quads, with a smattering of masked survivors wandering across the empty expanse. No, many of the students didn’t return to ground – or to online classes. And many of those colleagues lost never returned, and worse, were cast into a 1984-esque memory hole, as if they had never been part of our community at all.
While the Covid-19 State of Emergency has now been declared over, the crisis for our community college system is not. Although enrollments have been rising and I’ve found much renewed vibrancy on campus and in the classroom, many students are still struggling profoundly. Since the pandemic began, I’ve received multiple emails per week with students sharing personal crises — anxiety, suicidal thoughts, homelessness, food insecurity, domestic abuse –thrusting me into the role of a counselor, a therapist, or a social worker. Often, I feel less an English teacher and more an untrained social worker. With neither training nor mandate, my only recourse is to send off reams of reports to the campus crisis team designated to support students in these emergency situations. In fact, I sent so many crisis reports during this time, that I was the invited to become the team’s faculty representative, and had a front row seat to what the American Psychological Association has called the “Youth Mental Health Crisis.” With roots that predate the pandemic, this crisis is worsened by the dearth of resources that leave too many young folks untreated and unsupported.
In light of this mental health crisis, in light of the profound learning loss, in light of the rapid advancements in digital technology, we cannot return to the old system. We need to imagine and fund that utopian vision, a New Deal to develop a community college that treats students – and staff – as full people, with wrap around services that can only be delivered by committed human staff in concert with thoughtfully deployed technology.
But more than three years out since COVID hit, I worry that Naomi Klein had it right in her prophetic May 2020 Intercept essay “Screen New Deal,” that this disaster has been “a living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.” The “Screen New Deal” is a corporate takeover of core democratic functions – such as schooling. In other words, I worry that our community college – a living, public, democratic space – will be replaced by Cloud College, a privatized, corporate space run by profit-driven algorithms, and now, AI such as ChatGPT. Rather than this crisis being a moment to design human, community-centered solutions developed from the ground up by students and educator to meet their needs, I worry we are turning to purely technocratic and technological solutions which aim to meet shareholder demands.
But don’t worry: ChatGPT has assured me that community colleges won’t be replaced by AI… in the near future.
Adam Bessie is the author of the graphic memoir Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey (The Censored Press/Seven Stories Press), illustrated by Peter Glanting. A Publisher’s Weekly Top 10 Graphic Adult Graphic Novels to look out for in 2023, Going Remote explores Adam’s experience during the pandemic as a community college professor, cancer patient, and parent. He writes comics in collaboration with artists for national outlets such as The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Project Censored series. Adam – known as Prof B by his students – teaches community college in the San Francisco Bay area. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @adambessie