The Unprecedented: Teaching in an Age of Crisis and Mutation

by Brett Griffiths

I am impressed by you. Yes, you, all of you, all of us. In the middle of March, 2020, schools and colleges around the country began to close down as the Coronavirus s200_brett.griffithspandemic swept across the nation and emphatically nudged teachers and students online. Within hours—maybe a day?—a Pandemic Pedagogy group opened on Facebook. There, I watched as teachers-scholar-activists invited suggestions and shared resources, tested out philosophies for learning transfer in digital spaces, and emphatically encouraged one another to seek balance: balance their students’ learning outcomes with their emotional needs during a once-in-a-century global crisis, balance their own needs as humans with their responsibilities as teachers, balance the needs to shore up the appearance of safety through routine with the need to acknowledge catastrophe across our social, political, and wellness spheres.

In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff writes, “The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented” (p. 12). Presenting examples from early industrialism (“the horseless carriage”), colonialism (the greeting of the first colonists as gods from across the water), and the domestic (collecting photographs as a fire rages through the structures of the home), Zuboff makes the case that our responses to the unprecedented are nearly always responses to a more familiar echo of the current situation rather than the situation as it is. “This is how,” she continues, “the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past.”

The current disruption in our education system differs in kind—and end, I hope—from the disruptions identified by Zuboff. However, her use of “the unprecedented” as a lens for observing our responses in the midst of the unknown and unknowable may be generative for thinking about how we—two-year college instructors, student support specialists, writing centers and tutors—respond to our current crisis. It may be a particularly productive lens for analyzing the teaching we do in two-year colleges because unprecedented affords an opportunity to slow our movement and observe our thinking—at least after the first chaotic sweep it made of business as usual. Having been required to “reform” on demand and “scale up quickly,” such a slowing down may be overdue. This moment invites us to observe the assumptions we made just prior to the unprecedented and to appreciate—and direct—the mutations in structure that follow. Indeed, we are creating them even now.

It is my argument that we have been pitching ourselves into the unprecedented for decades, that the current pandemic only makes the many failures of our adaptations to successive, exponential expansion and access in higher education visible. My argument calls us to name the short-term adaptations teachers, institutions, and administrators have made to “keep up” with the unprecedented, always through a lens of crisis and short-term outcomes. My call is to rethink the praxis and theories of our teaching and to identify the internal changes necessary in higher education successfully reach and enable all learners to succeed.Guardian Image


Mutations vs. Adaptations

Zuboff draws on Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of the “mutation”—“enduring, sustainable, qualitative shifts in the logic, understanding, and practice of capitalist accumulation” from “random, temporary, or opportunistic reactions to circumstances.” Schupeter’s original use of the term “industrial mutation” referred to the ways many industries had “revolutionized [their] economic structure[s] from within” (83, Kindle Loc 1712). There, Schupeter described revolutionizing industrial practices during the eras of early and post-industrialism through 1950, paying specific attention paid to U. S. Steel.[1] Schupeter’s critical frame is useful precisely because it highlights the behavioral responses of workers within a system restructuring the industry from within to shift the logic, understanding, and practices of their work. That restructuring intended to create more sustainable, resilient outcomes aligned with and in keeping with professional practices and excellence.

For educators, the framework of mutation may prove useful for identifying and establishing practices that shift our logic, understanding, and practices in response to the unprecedented expansion of higher education in the last half century. To reflect on our practices through this framework, we must distinguish between “adaptations” and “mutations”[2]. Adaptations in this framework are short-term, unsustainable responses. We might think of adaptations as bandages and tourniquets applied during crisis and mutations the medical interventions and preventative care necessary to sustain quality and longevity of life. In the end, chronic and severe medical complications will emerge, no matter how many emergent and first-aid interventions we implement for short-term management of their complications.

We can find no shortage of adaptations in higher education during the proliferation of college-for-all, including automatic registration systems, learning management systems, expansive adjunct hiring, expanded teaching overloads, deprofessionalization of faculty, placement testing, developmental course work, etc. We have lagged, nevertheless, in our development of mutations—sustained structural changes in our logic, understanding, and practices around higher education. In other words, we have developed many bandages aimed at sustaining the internal, physical, and intellectual lives of our students, of perpetuating a wounded and fundamentally obsolete system, and they cannot hold. Gaps exist, however, between these measures and the changes needed to sustainably and ethically support college-for-all in this country. There are myriad examples of such gaps.

One is highlighted in our current crisis: As colleges shifted to all-online learning with the frenzy that characterizes a crisis response, we ran into multiple barriers that made that herculean task even greater. Not only did many of our students lack access to computers and internet in their homes, so too did many of our faculty. More, we recognized that our educational institutions served expansive community missions beyond learning, including as distribution services for food through K-12 lunch programs and college food pantries and as public sites for information for the many citizens who access their newspapers, internet, and community news through our libraries, computer labs, and coffee shops. Access to the Internet and the knowledge and means to use it is a prerequisite for participation in nearly all civic and intellectual activities in this country. Our culture distributes the knowledge necessary to participate in society predominantly through digital means, including internet and HD-integrated cable news. Yet many of our college students, adjunct faculty, and teachers lack access to these very resources we have identified as “core” and “foundational” to civic life. The economic infrastructure of this country have left them digitally disenfranchised from all civic life.

In our current situation, teachers are again scrambling to attend to the most urgent of student needs while providing the best sense of normalcy they can for their students and for themselves. We see this playing in the synchronous/asynchronous online teaching wars right now. Whereas many instructors argue that synchronous, video-streaming is the best way to keep students feeling connected and to reinforce a sort of normal routine—arguments that certainly speak to the needs of many students—others caution that the lives of our most vulnerable students have changed in ways that are qualitatively different. They are caregivers at home. They may be working overtime as grocery delivery drivers, cashiers, healthcare aids, and other “essential” positions, especially as other family members may have lost their jobs in the crisis. These immediate concerns fail to even begin to register the additional risks to students who may face additional risks when required to attend their courses via video.

As we watched the city of New York make decisions about closure of their schools, we were neither surprised nor appalled by the knowledge that the districts were weighing the cost-benefit analysis of food access to virus spread.  It was a lives to lives cost benefit analysis they were conduction.  When the decision to close a school to save lives puts an entire district of families into a “trolley dilemma,” the structures that uphold that educational system can only be described as insufficient and obsolete. They are made so by the insufficient and obsolete structures of the society that shapes them. Of course, while New York City took center stage in the media as it made its decision, its dilemma was not singular. The same evaluation played out in the offices and conference calls of superintendents, principals, and teachers, of college provosts, faculty, and college presidents in rural, suburban, and urban settings. We have developed a school system that has scaffolded upon it the nutritional, moral, and civic responsibilities of a 21st century Frankenstein. Charged with a spectrum of missions and outcomes and perishing structural supports and resources, education—and educators—are doomed to chase our tails into eternity. That teachers every day in K-16 seek to fulfill these missions is inspiring; that such heroic machinations are necessary is a source of shame for our country. Shelley’s monster, we remember, had a creator.

A third example of the way higher education has sought to reify the familiar in the face of the unprecedented can be seen through analysis of the genesis of our Unprecedented—the expansion of access to higher education in the throes of uneven opportunity and racial constriction following incomplete and inequitable racial integration in the schools. The hangovers of racial mistrust and class privilege in higher education has resulted in a multi-tier hierarchical system of higher education. The elite and middle-class tiers remain steeped in the “familiar” structures of the early modern university. They adhere to academic structures that ritualize privilege and rely on the availability of one or more members of a family unit to devote four years of his or her (historically his) time to learning. It assumes the family can absorb or defer those costs. The lower tiers provide access to instruction, first through land-grant institutions and then through public, open-access two-year colleges. The successive waves of access have responded to industrialism and integration, with each social epoch of progress resulting in an additional tier of “access.” Institutions that offer “access” remain most prolifically defined by what they are “not”—they are “not” like the elite, residential colleges that perpetuate “the familiar.” Within these tiers, the access missions of two-year colleges remain unprecedented—impossible to understand and sustain except through the lens of the familiar—the traditional college, a framework that perpetually casts the historically unprecedented expansion of instruction in terms of its distinction from the familiar, and a failure to develop sustained mutations to make such instruction equitable, sustainable, and—yes, understandable through its’ own lens.

During this time of disruption, the unprecedented requires that we observe ourselves through a Schroedinger lens—to see ourselves as both adapting and failing to adapt to the circumstances. The full contexts and experiences of our students are fundamentally out of view, because it has been designed this way, because Americans have wanted it this way, because it is easier to declare hard-working winners and lazy losers when we do not have to see our students and workers scraping by.  We have to be willing to name the behaviors we identify.  Instructors who aim to recapture “class time” they view as “time lost” through a cascade of additional, supplemental work, those who require synchronous class meetings despite the known technological and personal barriers experienced by their students can ONLY be seen as clenching tightly to the reigns of this new “horseless carriage,” doing their best to keep at bay the unprecedented through the framework of the familiar. But everything has changed. Everything has been changing for decades. We must stop restructuring the shape of our wake to resemble a path we are no longer traveling. In the words of Chris Riddell, editorial cartoonist at the Guardian: “What must change after all this is over? Everything.”

Everything Must Change

A sustainable restructuring of higher education requires a restructuring of American life, K-12 education, our food distribution system and our assessment of winning and losing within the capitalist paradigm. Expanded access to college—and the subsequent implicit expectation for college-for-all—should have resulted in an equitable distribution of students across socio-economic backgrounds and geographies, but that is not the case, and our academic journals are replete with reasons why. Yet,  college educators, administrators, and education policy-makers have layered additional adaptations within the system, expanding and then contracting developmental course work, revising placement procedures, accelerating and stretching curriculum content over time—all the while recognizing that all of these reformations fail to change the one thing that must change: how we structure our K-16 education system to prepare and support all learners to participate capably in a college-for-all culture. We keep adding tools, options, bridges, and scaffolds to make a fundamentally unsustainable system hobble further forward. We have failed, nevertheless, to examine what needs to fundamentally change—what educators need from one another and how they can work with one another to redesign system in which we work to make “enduring, sustained, qualitative” shifts in our systems. Such an examination would put kindergarten teachers and college instructors in the same room to discuss learning trajectories for all students. Such an examination would examine the potentials and protocols for randomly assigning school enrollment and sustainably funding school districts—yes, revised bussing and equitable distributions of tax funds. Such an examination would begin and end with individual learning and cultural contexts and would have the luxury of asking first what concepts are essential to 21st century living and now, how can we keep our students alive, fed, and “on track” for another day.

If we have been living within the unprecedented for decades, then how do we make the invisible visible to ourselves? Once visible, how do restructure from within against a dominant, deprofessionalizing narrative that seeks to undermine those very efforts (e.g., the educational industrial complex). Even as I am writing this, I am mindful that I cannot *see* the very changes I want us to consider. But certainly, we can agree that any educational system must be found insufficient and obsolete when both students AND faculty lack the basic technology and tools necessary to participate in the dominant definitions of civic life. We can agree that we cannot first assess schools on their students’ learning outcomes when they must prioritize keeping students alive, fed, and attending above the elite and esoteric goals of gaining and critiquing knowledge, of applying knowledge to new situations, of synthesizing what they’ve learned into their expanding goals of what it means to be human, capable, and contributing. And a country and culture endorses such insufficient structures—or worse, denies or reduces funds from schools who must divert their energies to provide the essentials of human living prior to intellectual engagement—is not merely naïve but criminally negligent in its assessments. A country that creates an expansive system of open-access colleges and promotes them as an avenue of democracy and social advancement while shackling the possibilities of its teachers and administrators with insufficient funds, too, stands similarly accused.

To rethink the unprecedented is to ask, if had understood what was happening in that moment as I understand it now, what would I now know was necessary? We can easily look back on the invention of the automobile and identify it as something different from a stagecoach. We have accepted its horselessness into our schema of vehicles. In fact, for most of us, the sight of a horse and carriage is a novelty. Like creating reigns for a horseless carriage, our adaptations have responded to the familiar—added modifications that in essence strain to reaffirm the familiar—to remake and reify the elite university model by offering layered adaptations that, rational and well-intended, establish all other modes of higher education as “other” and fail to address the one crucial truth: higher education for all is unprecedented. It is now, and it was in the 1960s when the open college movement began. In the decades that followed, we have expanded and contracted in our commitment to its promise. We have lauded its goals and criticized its outcomes. In all of these moves, however, we have overlooked the one quintessential quality necessary to acknowledging and advancing its promise: it is unprecedented. It cannot be known until it exists, and all efforts to structure its form in the shape of the familiar will, nearly by definition, fail.

If we imagine a future in which education is perfected—one in which we are not identifying the limitations of what we have nor attaching bandages to what ails the current system, what keeps two-year colleges from looking and operating like universities, we can perhaps open new ways of thinking. What do we need for a college-for-all culture to succeed? What does that look like? What would need to change in our culture and in our colleges to make learning neither “other” nor “familiar” but to offer it precedence, the beginning of the new normal? What must we see to unsee our own famiilars and to radically reinvent our teaching and learning to accommodate those ideals? We need to revolutionize from the inside. The concept of the unprecedented and the lens of mutations offers a heuristic for articulating those structural changes, and it is quite possible that in our conversations in Facebook groups and in our Zoom classrooms, those shapes of those changes are beginning to emerge. I, for one, hope so.

[1]  I acknowledge that deleterious effects have nearly always resulted when applying economic theory to educational outcomes. Those deleterious effects stem from applying a supply and demand notion of capitalist gains, wherein “learning outcomes” stand in for “goods and services,” and teachers are substituted for the machines that make such products possible.

[2] Apologies to scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, who I believe would transpose these definitions.

Brett Griffiths directs the Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, where she serves as a teacher-scholar-activist for trauma-informed, anti-racist writing pedagogy. She also teaches workshops on scientific writing for the Big Data Summer Institute at the University of Michigan. Her work primarily examines how faculty identities are developed and sustained in two-year colleges, as well as through interinstitutional collaborations. Her academic work appears in PedagogyTeaching English in the Two-Year College, and College Composition and Communication, and in several anthologies on writing instruction. Her Creative work has appeared in Ohio State’s The JournalPoemMemoirStory, and elsewhere.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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