A Manifesto on the Digital Pedagogy of Colleges and Universities
Prepared by Grace Alvino, Emma Dove, Elise Foote, Crystal Luo, and Savanna Morrison
This manifesto of Connection Established is a call to action from this year’s Praxis cohort to our fellow members of the UVA community. We took the dedicated space of exploration and learning provided by the Scholars’ Lab to reflect on and then voice our dreams and anxieties about the practice of digital pedagogy here at UVA. Another portion of our project documents the unique and shared experience of digital pedagogy for various UVA community members through an interactive narrative. The pieces are meant to complement one another, forming two halves of a single conversation about this past year’s educational experience. Each section emphasizes different aspects of the interconnectedness of teaching, learning, and living during times of crisis.
We chose the form of the Manifesto to reflect both the strength of our convictions and our recognition that convictions must be transformed into actions if they are to have any lasting meaning. While we set out hoping to collect digital resources and recommendations for the University’s teaching staff, we realized many of these local solutions would be profoundly limited without structural transformation. For that reason, we have included both individual recommendations and institutional demands in order to make explicit the connection between the University of Virginia’s role as a political and economic organization and its role as a place of learning. We are very far from the first to recognize and name the need for change. Many of the institutional transformations we call for are drawn directly from a still-growing list of demands from the Black Student Alliance, the #6Asks Campaign, the workers’ union, and other organizations in and around UVA. Most have appeared in some way, shape, or form in a document or report sponsored by the University itself. Our hope was to illustrate how demands for social and economic justice at the University are inextricably connected to demands for better pedagogical practices on the part of students, teachers, and administrators alike.
We have divided the Manifesto into a Preamble, seven themes (presented alphabetically), and a Coda. Some of the ideas and stated demands are repeated across sections. Some sections link to and from one another to gesture towards the interconnectedness of each theme. Thinking about how certain issues are connected can be intimidating for those of us invested in making change. We’re often left confronting the enormity of the work ahead of us, asking ourselves, “Where do I start?” After a year of exploring connectivity and community at UVA, we argue that the answer can be: “Anywhere, which is also everywhere.” For this reason, we invite our readers to not only think of each section as a group of problems to be solved, but as a set of entry points where you can begin to take action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the way college and university instructors are teaching and students are learning. The shift to remote learning will, in some instances, be permanent, both here at the University of Virginia and in universities across the country. While digital pedagogies have existed for decades, many faculty and students in the humanities relied upon them for the first time under the conditions of a global pandemic. At the UVA, the suddenness of this shift to largely digital and online learning, and the crisis within which it took place, have left little time for reflection. Few instructors, students, and staff alike have been fully able to find reprieve, let alone recover, grieve, or rethink our way through digital pedagogy.
Another consequence of universities’ shift to online learning during the pandemic was corporations and higher ed institutions’ shock doctrine approach to implementing certain tools and policies.1 Part of this shock doctrine has arrived in the technological form of what writer and pedagogue Jeffrey Moro calls “cop shit,” which he defines as “any pedagogical technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers.” This describes much of what is offered to public universities by private corporations seeking to make a profit, from Zoom itself to more specialized software intended to detect cheating or attendance. A second part of the shock was the overall lack of consent-solicited from students and University employees regarding the circumstances of pandemic instruction. Despite repeated calls from students, faculty, and community members for the University to stay fully remote during the Fall 2020 semester, UVA went ahead with a hybrid semester and bringing students back to Charlottesville.
A final aspect of the shock may be yet to come, as UVA prepares to expand its online course offerings over the next few years. During a presentation on possible models for future online courses in a December 2020 meeting of Board of Visitors, faculty representative Ellen Bassett said many faculty were “dragged… kicking and screaming” into online learning, though “it has been remarkably rewarding.” “Faculty are interested in [online learning],” she went on to say, “but a little bit skeptical.” Board member Thomas De Pasquale added that in years prior, faculty had been “adamant that they would never go to online learning.” The pandemic, it seems, has pushed UVA’s faculty to engage with digital pedagogy in ways that align with the Board’s plans for growing the University’s offerings. We fear that moving forward, faculty experience with online teaching–something Bassett admitted in her own case was still limited to “Zoom and Collab together”–is being conflated with faculty acceptance of it as a new norm at the University.2
Yet despite the shock of sudden policy changes, throughout our pandemic year, UVA leadership also desired to continue reproducing normality in decidedly abnormal circumstances. The decision to maintain certain in-person elements last Fall speaks to the fact that better than any other. Students were invited back to campus with promises of an “on-Grounds experience,” most instructors and staff were paid the same wages to work in-person under dangerous conditions, many faculty were handing out the same workload and assessments to overburdened students, and University leadership expected instructors to adapt their courses to online and hybrid models overnight while maintaining the same level of educational quality.
This search for normality during a pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 577,000 people in the United States at time of this writing, is itself potentially fatal.3 Students and employees of the University of Virginia are risking their health and their lives to recreate normal pedagogical conditions, but some have found this to be a strenuous–if not impossible–task. It does not take much digging to find student and employee testimonials scattered across the internet about how stressed, depressed, and terrified they are as a consequence of hybrid learning. Moreover, we have discovered that many normal pedagogical conditions were themselves damaging to teaching and learning to begin with. Cop shit in classrooms, for instance, was an accepted practice at UVA, as were harmful methods of academic assessment, unhealthy attitudes toward work and achievement, and unfair labor practices. These come together to create what historian and teacher Kevin Gannon refers to as “classrooms of death,” where higher education is reduced to learning a discrete set of skills and regurgitating a certain amount of information, all while reifying certain unspoken norms regarding race, gender, citizenship status, socioeconomic background, and ability.4
In this Manifesto, we argue for a pedagogical practice that rejects these “classrooms of death” and instead embraces the alternative, what Gannon names “learning for life.” This starts with treating students, instructors, and other University employees as full people who have been brought into a community with one another by love and need alike. Love for learning, love for the things we study and teach, love for the people we work with, yes – but also, need for money to pay the bills, jobs to pay off the debt, healthcare to keep ourselves alive.5 We say “full people” to describe a basic social truth: when students walk into a classroom to learn or instructors walk into a classroom to teach, they bring their worries, wants, anxieties, and joys with them. Further, we argue that this way of thinking about the people in higher education must extend beyond faculty and students. The learning community at UVA and elsewhere is only made possible by the labor of thousands of people who help keep our classrooms clean, our computers running, and our physical needs met. Everything that happens in the University is connected to pedagogy in some way.
Each of us has brought our own unique perspective as a PhD student in the humanities to the writing of this Manifesto. While we do not always agree on the particulars of where problems come from or where their solutions lie, we share a belief in the humanities, and higher education more broadly, as a potential force for social good. We share the belief that UVA, and universities across this country, has continuously fallen short of that potential. We share the belief, along with thousands of students and workers, that UVA can and must become a better version of itself.
We have written this Manifesto with several overlapping audiences in mind to reflect the diverse, intersecting experiences of this past year as well as the varying levels of power each group holds. If you are an undergrad at UVA reading this: this document invites you to reconsider your relationship to the University. Is UVA a product you buy? A club you join? Or a community to which you owe and from which you are owed? If we are to take seriously the interconnectedness of our UVA community, all of us are responsible for the good and harm we contribute to the world and, indeed, to the interconnected web of our relationships. Certainly, those at this University with more power than we have are responsible for structuring that web in ways that keep all of us safe. But just because they have abdicated their responsibility doesn’t mean we need to as well.
If you are a worker at UVA reading this: we wrote this document as fellow workers in an act of solidarity. Several of us know firsthand the sudden and punishing workload increase, the pressure to compromise our health to do our jobs, and the expectation that high standards must continue to be met in the face of crisis. UVA was asking a great deal from its workers even before the pandemic, and didn’t pay most of them nearly enough, particularly the Black and Brown employees and contract workers who constitute the majority of its dining and custodial staff. Task forces or one-time emergency financial aid do not provide the solutions to this unequal labor distribution. All non-tenure workers at UVA deserve wages fixed to the cost of living and full healthcare coverage. We deserve hazard pay when we’re asked to risk our lives for our jobs. We deserve an active role in governing the University, because without us, there would be no University.
If you are a faculty worker: as fellow teaching staff at UVA, we share your frustrations about the many ways in which it feels like our agency is circumscribed and we recognize your intermediary position in the University hierarchy. You are neither powerful enough to change policy meaningfully on your own nor powerless enough to totally abdicate your sense of responsibility. As graduate students, the six of us know faculty at UVA who are happy to support ongoing organizing efforts, students who speak out, and progressive politics outside the University. But now we need faculty who will not just support, but lead and initiate critical changes in our community. Leadership begins with implementing crucial reforms in your classrooms. Furthermore, it means confronting obstinate and toxic colleagues, organizing with non-academic University employees, and rejecting some University administrators’ business-oriented approach towards pedagogy.
If you are a decision maker, a person with power, a dean, provost, VP or president at UVA reading this: the following are not suggestions or requests, but demands. We do not use this language lightly; rather, it is a dimension of this document to which we gave a great deal of thought and consideration. Ultimately we decided this phrasing was necessary, both in order to reflect the urgency with which these changes must happen, and to respect the form in which many of these calls to action were originally made by student, faculty, and community activists. We also choose to address the University and its leadership in this fashion because we believe that UVA, as a public institution, can and must be accountable to its public. The demand for a democratically governed University is more important than ever, as UVA increasingly relies on private sources of funding to run. Many of you in positions of leadership must also consider the state of affairs we describe less than ideal, but nevertheless feel unsure as to what you can do to change it. We want to remind you that you do have power. Many of you have people on your payrolls. Some of you can grant your workers healthcare. You can do away with grades. You can leverage UVA’s strong financial position to borrow more money for workers. You can use UVA’s immense resources to lobby politicians. We all have levers we can pull.
“Shock doctrine” as defined by journalist Naomi Klein is the practice of using disasters, social upheaval, or other instances of crisis to push through aggressive neoliberal reforms such as privatization and social austerity. ↩
Kevin M. Gannon, Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2020), 17. ↩
We draw here from the work of several scholars of labor and higher education; namely, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, who write in “The University and the Undercommons”: “The university needs teaching labor, despite itself,” yet disavows those who “teach for food” as occupying a temporary (and distasteful) stage of being. Katina Rogers builds on this argument in Putting the Humanities PhD to Work to describe the ways in which love for teaching–and for academic work more generally–is pitted against these base material realities and used as justification when employers fail to meet them: “The rhetoric of love is one of the mechanisms that can lead people to endure underemployment, insufficient wages, and poor working conditions.” See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013), 33; Katina L. Rogers, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 21-23. ↩
Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost everyone has been exposed to greater amounts of mental and physical stress. As with the transmission of the virus itself, however, these effects are not evenly distributed throughout the population. Figures for the United States at large indicate that levels of pandemic-related psychological distress are higher among young people, those with lower income, women, and people with disabilities. Adults aged 18 to 24 in particular are even more likely to report heightened mental distress than the general population.1
Professors, teaching assistants, and support staff have witnessed this crisis among college students first-hand. Many have struggled to address it even as they themselves deal with heightened stress and anxiety. A great number of the difficulties they encounter come from universities’ overreliance on individual solutions (meditation, better time management, yoga workshops) to address a social problem–the pandemic. This resonates with a wider critique, long held by disability rights activists and scholars, that health and ability are socially constructed categories rather than objective descriptions of an individual’s physical or mental state.2 Scholar and disability rights activist Jay Timothy Dolmage reminds us in Academic Ableism that under current social and legal constructions of disability, “we will all become disabled at some point in our lives.”3 By pushing so many people into states of physical and mental distress so suddenly, the pandemic has shown that it is no longer feasible to consider disability–and therefore, accessibility–a problem for only unlucky individuals.4
Effectively countering the widespread effects of the pandemic requires adjustments of a similar scale in how universities treat access and disability. These adjustments start in the classroom, but ultimately necessitate long term changes in policy and institutional priorities as well. We emphasize the importance of structural transformation because much of higher ed already defines achievement in a very narrow and ableist manner. Dolmage argues in Academic Ableism that the prevailing educational philosophy in the United States views disability as “inimical to or out of place at the university.” This is of a piece with a broader attitude about higher education as “a place to sort society based on the education of the ‘deserving’ few, rather than as the place to elevate society based on the education of all of its citizens.”5
Because of this underlying assumption, the legal mechanisms put in place to accommodate students with disabilities often fell short even prior to the pandemic. Some of this was due to lack of resources for the overall number of students with disabilities, which the Department of Education estimates is at least 20% of all college students.6 Disability rights activist and UVA graduate student Nicole Schroeder has pointed out that dividing the national average for university accommodations funding by UVA’s projected disabled student body leads to a per-disabled-student spending of just $77.7
Additional limitations of the current system emerge from its largely reactive, as opposed to proactive, approach. For example, a student may be referred to the Student Disability Access Center (SDAC) only after their grades begin to fall. An estimated 2/3 of disabled college students “don’t receive accommodations simply because their colleges don’t know about their disabilities.”8 Dolmage points out in Academic Ableism that most students who do receive accommodations don’t get them until their third or fourth year of college.9 Moreover, the current overreliance on providing individual accommodations puts the onus on students to 1) seek a formal diagnosis, thus having to navigate a medical establishment rife with its own ableist assumptions and inequities; 2) disclose their diagnosis to faculty by a certain point in time; and 3) describe their needs in ways which fall within the current legal definitions of “disabled.”10
Within the classroom, digital pedagogies and tools can be very valuable in improving accessibility for many students. Remote learning during the pandemic normalized certain digital practices, such as closed captioning for live events and recording lectures, which we urge instructors to continue using as we begin to shift back to in-person instruction. Of course, the digital is not by default more accessible; nor can it offer any one-size-fits-all solutions. Instructors can and should learn how to accessibility test, to the best of their ability, any tools they plan on introducing to the classroom. Yet ultimately, what we need in the classroom is not a tool, but a method.
We therefore urge our fellow instructors to consider methods of course design, implementation, and assessment based on principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is the pedagogical subset of the broader concept of Universal Design, which one founder described as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” The “Universal” in UDL calls for teachers to “structure space and pedagogy in the broadest possible manner,” thus (ideally) negating the need for individual students to pursue individual accommodations.11 UDL has the added benefit of addressing student needs that are not often defined under the category of “disability.” Grief due to the sudden loss of a loved one, stress due to a sudden loss of income, depression due to isolation and lack of social contact—all of these are common conditions of life, not just pandemic life, and have a significant impact on students’ ability to meet certain academic standards in healthy ways.
Many UDL classroom practices are widely documented and, with a little work upfront, relatively easy to implement. Instructors Rick Godden and Anne-Marie Womack do point out that smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time between instructors and students can make accessibility measures feel more achievable. Nevertheless, these measures can and must still be attempted and adapted in these harder cases as well, particularly by faculty with the security of tenure. As Godden and Womack write, “Spaces like large lecture halls often lock teachers into inaccessible pedagogy but could more productively lead us to push back, to hack these spaces, to cooperate with students to make them more accessible.”12 We offer a few options and resources here to instructors who seek to move beyond accommodations and make access a core element of course design:
- Flexible deadlines
- Flexible attendance policies
- Assigning an “unessay” instead of a traditional paper
- Tools for testing website accessibility (NOTE: these tools are generally designed for site developers, but can be useful for instructors who want to become more familiar with the guidelines for accessible web content):
- Web Accessibility Compliance Test: Enter a website’s URL for a compliance score and a “list of actionable recommendations.”
- Color Contrast Checker: Check the contrast ratios of a website’s color scheme for readability
- Introduction to testing with screen readers: Provides a short overview of how most screen readers work and how screen reader users experience web pages
- #NoMouseChallenge: Walks readers through how to test a website’s usability without a mouse.
These tools are just that, however: tools. As the authors of the disabilities studies webtext “Multimodalities in Motion” write, “Universal design is a process, a means rather than an end. There’s no such thing as a universally designed text. There’s no such thing as a text that meets everyone’s needs.” Nevertheless, the attempt and the process are significant. “It matters who reads, it matters who engages, and it matters who is conceptualized as a reader,” the authors assert. In the same way, it matters who is conceptualized as a student in our classrooms.13
However, we acknowledge that the classroom is not a vacuum within the institution of the university. The most obvious point of intervention is in funding for accessibility services, but without greater transparency than UVA currently provides, it is impossible to know how much of Student Health’s $20 million budget goes to divisions such as SDAC or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).14 Increased funding alone is insufficient, however, without changes in institutional priorities and approaches towards student success. As Dolmage warns in Academic Ableism, universities have begun to use UDL as a signal of progressive pedagogy without attacking the more deeply rooted assumption that higher ed is a mechanism for sorting people into “deserving” and “undeserving” types.
UVA’s history of acknowledging and addressing disabled students’ needs demonstrates that these assumptions are alive and well, but also capable of being challenged for the better. Take, for instance, various contestations over undergraduate housing on the Lawn. In UVA’s own words, “[it] is considered an honor to live in one of the University’s prestigious rooms on the Lawn,” yet it took until 2020 for two rooms to be modified for ADA-compliance. The previous absence of these rooms precluded students with certain physical disabilities from even hoping to compete for this marker of academic and social achievement. Only after organized student activism did the University recognize the need for change. Now UVA students are making new calls for an even more equitable selection process. Undergraduate Noah Strike writes that the current emphasis on high GPA and only certain forms of community service biases heavily against transfer students, international students, and first-generation and low income students. To this list, we add students whose disabilities make achieving traditional academic and social success more difficult.
We offer the case of the Lawn as illustrative of how certain arbitrary markers of honor, prestige, and accomplishment at UVA assume an equitable meritocracy, but in reality, perpetuate ableist assumptions about what it means to “do well” in higher ed. For this reason, in addition to calling for greater budget transparency and a greater material investment in services for disabled students, we also demand:
- The implementation of a permanent and universal system of Credit/No-Credit grading, and the elimination of the Deans’ List and all grade point averages. (We explore the necessity for less rigid and competitive grading in the a section dedicated to assessment.)
- The funding of more tenure-track faculty lines to enable smaller class sizes with instructors who have the time, energy, and professional stability to implement successful accessibility measures. (We explore the additional importance of a tenured faculty workforce in a section dedicated to labor.)
Finally, to our fellow students we ask the following.
- When in doubt, reach out. We hope more of us can push past the culture of individual achievement and think of learning as a communal enterprise rather than an individual one, built on relationships and mutual empathy. We know as well as you do that some faculty are less inclined to accommodate the needs of their students, but many instructors are here to help as long as they know help is needed.
- Embrace existing mechanisms for helping one another succeed, such as applying to become a notetaker in your classes and strive to create new mechanisms where none currently exist. For those of us who consider ourselves able-bodied and able-minded, the pandemic may have been our first brush with long-term feelings of social isolation and mental unwellness. We hope these experiences can generate a greater recognition of our collective vulnerability and a greater sense of mutual responsibility.
Czeisler MÉ, Lane RI, Petrosky E, Wiley JF, Christensen A, Njai R, Weaver MD, Robbins R, Facer-Childs ER, Barger LK, Czeisler CA, Howard ME, Rajaratnam SMW. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic - United States, June 24-30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020 Aug 14;69(32):1049-1057. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1. PMID: 32790653; PMCID: PMC7440121. ↩
For a brief treatment of how disability was historically constructed through the US immigration system, see Douglas Bayton, Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics, (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2016). For an in-depth study on the ways in which disability is constructed in the US legal system, see Claire Liachowitz, Disability as a Social Construct: Legislative Roots, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), Accessed May 1, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fj3f4.Copy. ↩
Jay Dolmage, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017), https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.9708722, 22. ↩
The connections between the categories of “mental health,” “mental illness,” and “disability” are not always self-evident, especially for those who more typically associate the latter with physical, (or at the very least, chronic), impairments. A broader definition of disabled as being unable to do or accomplish certain normative tasks—whether that’s being independently mobile or being able to keep up with academic deadlines—allows us to consider a broader range of conditions as well, even ones which end up being temporary. ↩
Dolmage, 62. ↩
“Digest of Education Statistics, 2018 - Chapter 3: Postsecondary Education,” accessed May 1, 2021, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/ch_3.asp. The same report does not cite a figure for students in graduate and professional programs. ↩
Nicole Schroeder, “Accessibility & Universal Design in Higher Education,” https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1PcheSIhree9IJhLI0bbjoMQTraxsbI1u/edit#slide=id.p1. ↩
Allie Grasgreen, “Dropping the Ball on Disabilities,” accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/02/students-disabilities-frustrated-ignorance-and-lack-services. ↩
Dolmage, 22. ↩
For a short, general overview of ableism within the medical establishment, see Heidi L. Janz, “Ableism: The Undiagnosed Malady Afflicting Medicine,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 191, no. 17 (April 29, 2019): E478–79, https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.180903. ↩
Dolmage, 115-118. See the entire chapter “Universal Design” in Dolmage’s book for an excellent overview of the concept, its wider applications, and its implementation in higher ed. ↩
Rick Godden and Anne-Marie Womack, “Making Disability Part of the Conversation: Combatting Inaccessible Spaces and Logics,” Hybrid Pedagogy, May 12, 2016, https://hybridpedagogy.org/making-disability-part-of-the-conversation/. ↩
M. Remi Yergeau et al., “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces,” Text, 18.1 (Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, August 15, 2013), https://kairos.technorhetoric.net/18.1/coverweb/yergeau-et-al/index.html. ↩
“University of Virginia Proposed FY2020-21 Revised Operating Budget,” https://financialplanning.vpfinance.virginia.edu/sites/financialplanning.virginia.edu/files/FY2021%20Revised%20Academic%20Division%20Budget%20Summary%20-%20FINAL.pdf, n.d. ↩
The unhealthy social and psychological impact of traditional letter grades was put on full display during the pandemic. Students struggled to maintain high academic performance under disruptive and even traumatic circumstances. As a result, the University made the decision in the Spring 2020 semester to move to a default Credit/No-Credit (CR/NC) grading system, which allowed students to choose whether they wanted a traditional letter grade or not prior to final exams. The stated goals for this policy were to reduce stress and anxiety among students and ease the transition to remote learning. In her letter explaining the University’s decision, Provost Liz Magill asked students to “focus as much as possible on their health, their wellbeing, and that of their loved ones, and, in their classes, focus on the learning.”1
This move to prioritize student well-being over grades under what were understood as “extraordinary circumstances” was necessary, but begged a larger question: when do extraordinary circumstances end? The University had initially planned to revert to standard grading practices by Fall 2020, but many students and faculty clearly felt this was premature. Over 1,400 students signed an open letter calling for the extension of CR/NC grading, while UVA’s Student Council distributed a survey on grading options where almost 70% of students “anticipated barriers to learning in the Fall 2020 semester.”2 By October, the University was convinced by this activism to extend the CR/NC option, first for the Fall 2020 semester and later through Summer sessions 2021.3
These decisions and their grounding in their overwhelmingly positive reception among students should prompt us to question what purpose traditional letter grades and GPAs were serving prior to the pandemic. Rather than jumping to the assumption that normal circumstances should prompt a return to letter grades, we believe now is an ideal time to consider the impact letter grades were having on higher education and whether we can implement lasting alternatives.
The culture of perfectionism and high achievement is pervasive throughout the United States’ higher ed system. Among public universities in particular, UVA may be one of the more self-consciously competitive institutions, with its selective admissions process and pride in its high national rankings. Many of the students coming to UVA were high-achievers in high school: for the entering class of 2019, 90% of students reported being in the top 10% of their graduating high school class.4
Having both taught and studied here, we recognize the incredible strain students are placed under to do well in what can often be a highly competitive academic environment. Yet in much of higher ed, “doing well” has become conflated almost exclusively with getting good grades and a high GPA. The pursuit of letter grades has now come to define students’ classroom experiences at the expense of learning itself. Letter grades as commonly implemented encourage an adversarial relationship between students and instructors and competition rather than collaboration between students and their peers. As a result, classrooms can become hostile rather than encouraging environments. As author and educator Alfie Kohn has argued, competition is inimical to healthy learning; it causes students to “become dependent on external sources of evaluation” (such as grades) rather than an internal sense of drive or accomplishment. Moreover, certain competitive models of assessing students—such as grading on a curve—assume that some students will fail while others succeed.5
Furthermore, the pursuit of grades transforms what is often labor-intensive work—writing essays, conducting research—into oversimplified tokens of participation. This not only produces unfair evaluations of students’ efforts, but provides perverse incentives for expending that effort to begin with, as well. During the Fall campaign for extending CR/NC, the Cavalier Daily reported some professors expressing “worries that students will stop attending classes and engaging with their peers once they have done the bare minimum to obtain their credit.”6 Yet social scientific research has demonstrated repeatedly that traditional letter grades are what encourage a “path of least resistance” attitude towards learning. The more latitude students are given to focus on what they’re doing as opposed to how they’re doing, as Alfie Kohn puts it, the more they learn and retain.7
At UVA and elsewhere, CR/NC also offered many students a greater sense of safety as they navigated the challenges of pandemic. 2020 Student Council president Ellen Yates reported that “[the] significant majority of students on a scale of one to ten, rated their satisfaction with their [choice of grading option], eight or higher… We have significant evidence to show that students actually were really happy with this system.”8 As we argue throughout this Manifesto, the circumstances students went through may become less common as the pandemic passes, but few of them will disappear entirely. Students will continue to struggle with mental illness, technological barriers, financial anxiety, and family problems.
Students will also continue to come into the classroom with a wide range of experiences, knowledge, and abilities. Grades suppress and, at their worst, punish this diversity. In the humanities, this dynamic is perhaps most apparent when assessing students’ writing. Scholar of English and rhetoric Asao Inoue points out how most writing assessment uses a single standard of quality—usually one informed by white norms and discourses—to judge every student’s work.9 Inoue also highlights the lack of consent on the part of the student in these situations. The student has no say, and often no understanding, of the criteria by which their work is being judged.
Lastly, we also wish to highlight the negative effects grades have on instructors. The labor of giving out grades is both time consuming and alienating for many teaching staff, and often serves to satisfy administrative requirements more than pedagogical ones. During the pandemic, while students were asked to keep up with coursework, faculty were asked to keep up with designing, teaching, and grading coursework as well. We argue that instructors’ time and energy was, and is, best spent on developing healthy instructional dynamics with their students. These healthy dynamics are impeded by grades, which reinforce a hierarchical relationship between teachers and students. Meanwhile, the physical labor of grading either occupies time better spent working with students directly or is passed on to (frequently underpaid) graduate students.
For the sake of both student and instructor well-being, and a healthier, more holistic approach to pedagogy in general, we call for a serious rethinking of assessment and its function at UVA. To instructors, we provide the following resources about alternative methods of assessment which invite greater student participation in the process of grading while providing greater flexibility for students and teachers alike.
While implementing these methods in our classrooms is a necessary first step towards what Jesse Stommel describes as “collectively worrying the edges of grading as a system,” they do not address the institutional requirements and incentives held in place by University policy. We argue that the principles that led UVA to adopt the CR/NC option for the 2020-2021 Academic Year must continue to operate moving forward. In order to create a more equitable, accessible, and ultimately effective community of learning, UVA must move towards abolishing grades. To this end, we demand the following:
- That the University adopt a permanent and universal CR/NC option for all student work, as implemented at Brown University, Bennington College, Antioch University, and other institutions of higher ed.
- That the University eliminate all grade point averages and the Dean’s List.
- That the University free up the financial resources necessary for schools and departments to hire more full-time, tenure track faculty from more diverse backgrounds to facilitate smaller class sizes and the possibility of more written feedback and more personalized assessment styles.
- That the University permanently waive the standardized testing requirement for admissions rather than only waiving it for only two years.10
Finally, to our fellow students, we ask the following:
- If you run into an instructor or an institution which offers alternatives to traditional grading, treat it with an open mind. GPA and other tokens of competitive academic performance are better markers of able bodiedness, material wealth, racial privilege, and other social inequities than they are of your performance. That doesn’t mean that if you have a 4.0 at UVA you didn’t earn it; rather, it demonstrates there are better methods of describing your intellectual needs and accomplishments, such as written instructor feedback and self-assessment.
- Look for instructors and courses that honor your effort, rather than encourage you to seek shortcuts. Learning is work, and our methods of assessment should reflect the labor you put into your assignments and coursework.
“Explaining the Rationale for the University’s CR/GC/NC Grading Option,” Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, accessed May 1, 2021, https://provost.virginia.edu/grading-rationale-provost-magill. ↩
“Letter Urging U.Va. to Adopt Default CR/NC/GC Grading Gains over 1,400 Signatures, Faculty Senate Considers Application-Based Approach to Grading System,” The Cavalier Daily - University of Virginia’s Student Newspaper, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2020/10/letter-urging-u-va-to-adopt-default-crncgc-grading-gains-over-1400-signatures-faculty-senate-considers-application-based-approach-to-grading-system. ↩
For reporting on the University’s decisions to extend CR/NC in Fall 2020, see C. J. Paschall, “UVA Reverses Course, Offers ‘Credit / General Credit / No Credit,’ Grading Scale for Undergraduate Students,” accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.nbc29.com/2020/10/09/uva-reverses-course-offers-credit-general-credit-no-credit-grading-scale-undergraduate-students/ and Amanda Williams, “UVA Extends Optional Credit/No Credit Grading Policy,” accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.nbc29.com/2020/11/09/uva-extends-optional-creditno-credit-grading-policy/. For Summer 2021 grading policy, see “ FAQs for Students,” Coronavirus Information, January 20, 2021, https://coronavirus.virginia.edu/faqs/students. ↩
“Statistics,” UVA Admissions, accessed May 1, 2021, https://admission.virginia.edu/admission/statistics. ↩
“The Case Against Competition,” Alfie Kohn (blog), September 3, 1987, https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-competition/. ↩
“Letter Urging U.Va. to Adopt Default CR/NC/GC Grading Gains over 1,400 Signatures.” ↩
“Letter Urging U.Va. to Adopt Default CR/NC/GC Grading Gains over 1,400 Signatures.” ↩
Asao B. Inoue, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, Perspectives on Writing (Fort Collins, Colorado : Anderson, South Carolina: The WAC Clearinghouse ; Parlor Press, 2015), 48-49. ↩
Standardized testing is counterproductive to the creation of a diverse and equitable University in many of the same ways grades are. As a predictor of student success in college, studies have found that standardized testing is even worse than students’ high school GPAs. See Aguinis, H., Culpepper, S. A., & Pierce, C. A. (2016), “Differential prediction generalization in college admissions testing,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(7), 1045–1059, https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000104 and Elaine M. Allensworth and Kallie Clark, “High School GPAs and ACT Scores as Predictors of College Completion: Examining Assumptions About Consistency Across High Schools,” Educational Researcher 49, no. 3 (April 2020): 198–211, https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20902110. ↩
Instructors’ desires to replicate the physical conditions of a classroom during the pandemic—what we have termed “classroomification”—have too often ignored the exceptional circumstances our students have found themselves in over the course of this past year. Synchronous remote learning which maintains regular attendance practices, for instance, presumes that students have the same ready access to an internect connection, a quiet environment, or just the mental capacity to participate in a live classroom setting. Even more worryingly, however, "classroomification" has also manifested itself in the urge to surveil and police our students as they go about their remote learning. This includes the use of software such as Proctorio and Turnitin, but the mentality also extends to smaller practices such as forcing students to keep their cameras on during Zoom classes.
This suspicious and ultimately controlling approach towards students feeds into what Jeffrey Moro defines as “cop shit”: “any pedagogical technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers.” Educational technology like Proctorio that tracks student movement certainly falls under this category, but so do militant tardy or absence policies, assignments that require copying out honor code statements, and any interface with actual cops, including reporting students’ immigration status to ICE or calling cops on students in classrooms.
Why are instructors incentivized to be mistrustful of their own students, particularly at an institution where student honor is so highly prized? Despite its intended purpose of upholding community trust, we argue that in practice, the honor system creates additional anxiety around academic misconduct without looking at its root causes. As currently implemented, University policy surrounding issues such as plagiarism feed into a pedagogical framework that is based on punishment instead of repair. In a society where punishment breaks disproportionately along the lines of race, class, and gender, we must strive to avoid systems and situations which reproduce what prison and police abolitionists have termed “carceral logic” if we are to address these inequities.1 We must instead look to restorative modes of justice and more egalitarian conceptualizations of community trust.
Trusting students is the result of strong interpersonal relationships and a more personal form of pedagogy, standards which are difficult to attain in person and can feel even more difficult to attain online. Yet there are no shortcuts to building healthy classrooms, virtual or otherwise. Proctoring software and other mechanisms which extend suspicion towards students on the part of the instructor only serve to further complicate this task. For this reason, we ask our fellow instructors–particularly faculty instructors who have total jurisdiction over their own courses–to avoid it entirely and, when possible, to raise the issue in your own departments with other professors. If your department or school has a contract with Proctorio or another proctoring service, consider lobbying for this contract to be terminated. Not only do such technologies make test taking and other academic work even more stressful than they were already; their programming has been shown to reproduce racist, ableist, and other structural biases.2
Beyond simply rejecting antagonistic technologies we also want to remind our fellow instructors to think of cheating as a symptom of larger problems, both in our students’ lives and in the way our University incentivizes certain forms of academic achievement. As such, we encourage you to embrace flexibility, both for yourself and your students, and to implement changes in course design such as rolling-deadlines to make assignments easier to complete as intended. As librarian and researcher Shea Swauger writes in an essay against proctoring software, “We need to stop believing that technology can solve complex social problems like cheating, and we need to start reframing our educational goals to center equity, compassion and trust. The future of online education depends on it.”
While we ask instructors to embrace flexibility and trust, we acknowledge that over the past year that UVA did not always sufficiently support its teaching staff to do that work from afar. Some of this was down to structures such as the Honor Code and letter grading discussed earlier, but another important component was the way in which online learning was commonly discussed. Perhaps the most common refrain from University communications was that fully remote learning was fundamentally inadequate, so much so that students needed to be brought back to Charlottesville for some level of in person classes. “Our mission is to educate students, conduct research, and provide medical care,” Jim Ryan stated at an August town hall. “All of those things are better done in person, and students are involved in each part of that mission.”3 We absolutely do not argue for online learning as a meaningful substitute for in person classes. We do argue that framing online learning as necessarily inferior can feed into harmful notions of online learning being less rigorous, and thus requiring the strict oversight of software like Proctorio. “People are aware that cheating is more rampant [online],” last year’s chair of the University Honor Committee told The Cavalier Daily.4 Taken in the context of a global pandemic, this statement feels detached from struggling students’ daily realities, which continue to impact their studies and their relationship to coursework. Fluctuating academic performance—including cheating and other forms of misconduct—should be expected and handled with compassion, not surveillance.
Some of us in this year’s Praxis Cohort embarked on this project sharing in the belief that the digital space is a lesser imitation of the real world. As we’ve learned through both study and experience, however, it doesn’t have to be. As more people come to experience it outside the confines of the pandemic, the six of us hope that instructors and students alike realize that digital pedagogy is valuable in and of itself, replete with its own challenges, joys, and responsibilities. The perceived value of digital pedagogy must not, as we’ll discuss in greater detail elsewhere, become a case for devaluing the work of teaching. In many cases, good digital pedagogy requires more labor than in-person teaching, not only from instructors ourselves, but from a wide network of support staff, whose contributions to higher education continue to be ignored or diminished.5 We need more training and resources to ensure the tech ed infrastructure on which we rely are kept up-to-date and accessible. We need more time to make digital pedagogy comprehensive and engaging. We need more mental and emotional support so we can pass the same support on to our students from afar. All these resources go towards producing classrooms, both virtual or otherwise, as spaces of trust rather than surveillance.
For these reasons, we demand the following:
- That the University moves from a passive stance on proctoring software to actively discouraging its use.
- That the University follows through on the recommendation of the 2020 Racial Equity Task Force to “examine institutional biases within such student-led institutions as the Honor system, University Judicial Council, Judicial Review Board” with an eye towards total abolition, as any reform of a system which polices student behavior simply prolongs its ability to punish.
To our fellow students: if you’ve experienced a virtually proctored exam or a strict camera-on policy and found yourself feeling uncomfortable but weren’t sure why, we hope we’ve offered a way to describe and push back against this form of “classroomification.” If you want to look further into the development and use of “cop shit” like Proctorio, the fields of critical algorithm studies and surveillance studies may be of further interest to you. If you want to find ways to end these programs’ presence at UVA, you will be far from alone, as university students across the country have authored petitions and open letters demanding as much from their institutions. Though digital pedagogy is likely here to stay, surveillance technologies do not have to be a part of it.
Mariame Kaba, Tamara K. Nopper, and Naomi Murakawa, We Do This ’til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), 158. We can see carceral logic at work in how UVA has set up its honor system to mirror the criminal justice system at large. Students accused of violating the honor code are brought before an investigative panel; if sufficient evidence is found, students undergo a trial during which they are found either guilty or not guilty. There is no inherent reason why issues of academic and other misconduct must be adjudicated in this manner—or adjudicated at all. While UVA’s system of having students act as judge and jury for one another avoids some pitfalls, it creates others. For one thing, students are far from immune to prejudice or bias, as figures on the disproportionately high sanction rate of students of color show. See Geremia Di Maro and Erica Sprott, “Report Shows Racial Disparities in Honor Sanctioning during Past Three Decades, Some Improvement in Recent Years,” The Cavalier Daily, https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2019/02/report-shows-racial-disparities-in-honor-sanctioning-during-past-three-decades-some-improvement-in-recent-years. ↩
See Shea Swauge, “What’s Worse than Remote School? Remote Test-Taking with AI Proctors,” NBC News, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/remote-testing-monitored-ai-failing-students-forced-undergo-it-ncna1246769 for an overview of how anti-cheating softwares’ use in higher ed has impacted students. See Mitchell Clark, “Students of Color Are Getting Flagged to Their Teachers Because Testing Software Can’t See Them,” The Verge, April 8, 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/4/8/22374386/proctorio-racial-bias-issues-opencv-facial-detection-schools-tests-remote-learning for a specific discussion of algorithmic racism in anti-cheating software. In particular, webcam based technologies have demonstrated difficulty detecting dark skin, while keystroke analysis “can’t always accurately identify students who have certain physical disabilities or medical conditions.” Often, using anti-cheating software forces students to sit in place for the duration of an exam, further disadvantaging students who have physical disabilities (or who just need to use the restroom). ↩
Caroline Newman, “Friday Town Hall Answers Questions from Students, Faculty, Staff,” UVA Today, August 7, 2020, https://news.virginia.edu/content/friday-town-hall-answers-questions-students-faculty-staff. ↩
Sierra Martin, “Professors Implement Anti-Cheating Software, Diversify Exam Questions in Effort to Discourage Cheating Ahead of Finals,” The Cavalier Daily, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2020/11/professors-implement-anti-cheating-software-diversify-exam-questions-in-effort-to-discourage-cheating-ahead-of-finals. ↩
Lee Skallerup Bessette, “Stop Ignoring Microaggressions Against Your Staff,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 8, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/stop-ignoring-microaggressions-against-your-staff. ↩
Many instructors, ourselves included, consider teaching students about social inequalities and resistance towards them an essential part of what we do in the classroom. This practice can be limited, however, by the context of the institutions within which we learn and teach. The past year in particular has seen a renewed public reckoning with racial inequality in its many violent forms, a reckoning the University of Virginia itself has sought to engage with and take part in. Part of this process has involved a public accounting for UVA’s violent history of upholding white supremacist, eugenicist, and colonial ideologies.1 Yet that history is reproduced daily in the labor and social relations of the University, as well as in the University’s larger relationship with the surrounding city of Charlottesville and its permanent residents.2
How, then, do we teach and learn about resisting or unmaking oppressive hierarchies from our position within this University? We know that people, organizations, and institutions at UVA are committed to improving the University’s record on racial justice, particularly its treatment of Black and Brown students, workers, and community members. We want to use this space to point to some of these ongoing efforts, from which we have drawn many of the following resources and suggestions.
- Racial Equity Task Force
- Equity Center
- Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab
- Democracy Initiative
- Black Student Alliance
- President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation
At the same time, there is a deep contradiction between some of the University’s rhetoric and the structural position of the University as a political and economic institution, a contradiction which has great consequences for the pedagogical work the University ostensibly exists to enable. We watched this tension play out in the school’s recent decision to bring back thousands of undergraduate students for in-person classes in Fall of 2020, prioritizing student experience (and the University’s own bottom line) over the health and safety of Charlottesville residents, particularly Black and Brown workers at the University. The University leadership’s decision must be placed into 1) the greater context of historic harm UVA has inflicted upon low-income and minority residents in Charlottesville,3 and 2) the broader social impact of the pandemic, during which Black and Brown people working high-risk jobs have gotten ill and died at higher rates than the general population.
The University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only way in which UVA still, at this very moment, reinforces racial, economic, and other inequalities. We could further point to the University’s embeddedness within the prison industrial complex, its use of an armed police force which disproportionately arrests Black and Brown residents and students, and–as argued by our preceding Praxis cohort–its direct involvement in the depletion of affordable housing in Charlottesville.
This tension cannot, we argue, be resolved solely with initiatives that originate from within the power holders of the University. Philosopher Sara Ahmed has described the limitations of University-commissioned reports and statements which turn naming a condition—in this case, the University’s racism—into a “claim to have overcome the conditions.”4 Lasting solutions to the condition of structural oppression necessitate a combination of worker, student, and tenant power. UVA’s own Racial Equity Task Force gestured towards this truth when, in response to being asked for “thoughtful and bold recommendations for racial equity” by President Ryan, they assembled a long, interactive timeline of calls to action from “students, faculty, staff, and working groups” since the 1960s. While we continue to organize outside the strict boundaries of our academic lives towards these ends, we also use this space to reiterate some of those calls to action.
- That the University terminates its long-term private contracts with corporations such as Aramark and rehire all currently contracted workers as direct employees.
- That the University immediately raises all minimum wages, including those for student employees, to $15/hour and base all future wage increases on the rising cost of living in Charlottesville.
- That, in the words of the 2019-2020 Praxis Cohort, the University “consider the actions and policies of the UVA Foundation and its subsidiaries when evaluating the impact of the University on local communities”. This is especially critical with regard to the impact of the Foundation’s land-buying practices on local housing availability and affordability.
- That the University keep its promise to support the development of up to 1,500 affordable housing units in Charlottesville by 2030, and that it does so in partnership with low-income and unhoused residents and their advocates such as the Public Housing Association of Residents and the Low Income Housing Coalition.
- That the University admit an undergraduate and graduate student body which reflects the racial and gender demographics of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
- That the University set aside a permanent endowment to fund scholarships both for the descendents of enslaved workers who helped build and maintain UVA, and members of the Monacan Indian Nation, on whose stolen land the University sits.5
Whatever UVA does or does not choose to do in the short term, it nevertheless remains a critical part of instructors’ mission at the University to ensure that students have a context through which to understand their social surroundings and the forces which shape them. As digital humanists in training, we see a lot of possibility in how digital tools and projects can fit into this pedagogical mission, but we have our reservations as well. In particular, we are concerned about the increased use of certain digital technologies without attendant frameworks through which students and teachers can interrogate them. What assumptions do they carry? What inequities do they reproduce? What norms do they reinforce? Though people sometimes talk about the digital and the online as separate from “the real world,” the two are in fact very much intertwined. As media and African-American studies scholar Safiya Noble writes, “We can no longer deny that digital tools and projects are implicated in the rise in global inequality, because digital systems are reliant on global racialized labor exploitation. We can no longer pretend that digital infrastructures are not linked to crises like global warming and impending ecological disasters.”6 The solution, as Noble describes it, lies in neither ceding nor uncritically embracing the digital. Rather, digital humanities and other related fields must be deliberately engaged in “immediate and pressing global concerns” of racial, economic, and political oppression, and scholars and actors in those fields must be engaged with the digital in order to take part in interrogating its biases and addressing its shortcomings.
For instructors who do not consider themselves scholars of race or racism but are looking to these subjects into their classrooms; for scholars of race, gender, and other systems of power who are interested in critical digital humanities and what it has to offer to our work; we share the following resources as one possible place to start.
- Histories of race, white supremacy, and antiracist organizing in UVA and Charlottesville:
- Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequality, ed. Dr. Claudrena Harold and Dr. Louis P. Nelson: A collection of essays by faculty members at UVA reflecting on the events of August 11th and 12th, 2017 and their wider context.
- “The Charlottesville Syllabus”: “A resource created by the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation to be used to educate readers about the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
- “Voices for Equity”: A living, interactive timeline of “calls to action made by students, faculty, and community members through protests, petitions, and working groups” for racial equity at UVA, compiled by the UVA Equity Center.
- “Mapping Cville”: A digital mapping project visualizing multiple forms of inequality in Charlottesville created by Jordy Yager for the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center. Yager is currently “plotting every single deed in the city that contains a racist covenant within it.”
Modern Language Association’s “Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities” – Keyword “Race,” curated by Dr. Viola Lasmana and Dr. Adeline Koh: A collection of syllabi and digital projects on teaching and learning about issues of race and identity in the classroom.
“Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities” by Kim Gallon: An article by historian and digital humanist Kim Gallon on using Black studies to think through both the “digital” and the “humanities” of the digital humanities.
- “The Political Power of Play” by Adeline Koh: An article by scholar Adeline Koh on the importance of games, play, and creative exercise in the process of learning about oppressive structures and systems.
Lastly, antiracist pedagogy in the classroom can and must work in tandem with organizing the enormous workplace that is UVA to be more equitable and democratic. In addition to participating in local organizations committed to combating the effects of structural racism, we must also engage in workplace organizing, particularly in forms which build commonality between our own positions and those of staff at the University. In conjunction with this, we must also build lasting ties to the Charlottesville community in which most of us live, become engaged citizens who vote in local elections, attend city government meetings, and generally take part in the civic and social life of the city.
To our fellow students: organizing is critical to fighting back against the racist, patriarchal, and otherwise oppressive incentives which still hold sway at UVA. Yet, effective organizing without a strong and genuine sense of community is impossible. As each other’s best advocates, talk to and learn about your fellow students. If you have the capacity and the privilege of spare time, become engaged members of the UVA community who vote in student elections, serve as active members of student organizations, and generally take part in the University’s civic and social life. Listen and collaborate with longtime residents who know best what they need. We can’t let our limited time at UVA become an excuse to not get involved. As an institution, the University counts on us not staying engaged. Resist!
On the University and slavery, see Maurie Dee McInnis and Louis P. Nelson, eds., Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019) and Marcus Martin, Kirt von Daacke, and Megan S. Faulkner, “President’s Commission on Slavery and the University” (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2018), https://vpdiversity.virginia.edu/sites/vpdiversity.virginia.edu/files/PCSU%20Report%20FINAL_July%202018.pdf. On the history of the eugenics movement in Virginia, including the role of the University, see Gregory Michael Dorr, Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008). ↩
Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, “An Examination of the University’s Minority Classified Staff (The Muddy Floor Report),” (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, June 1996), https://blackfireuva.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/an-examination-of-the-universitys-minority-classified-staff-the-muddy-floor-report.pdf. ↩
Brian Cameron and Andrew Kahrl, “UVA and the History of Race: Property and Power,” UVA Today, March 15, 2021, https://news.virginia.edu/content/uva-and-history-race-property-and-power. ↩
Sara Ahmed, “The Nonperformativity of Antiracism,” Meridians 7, no. 1 (2006): 104–26. ↩
Jahd Khalil, “Universities, the Enslaved, and Repairing Damage,” accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.wvtf.org/post/universities-enslaved-and-repairing-damage; Jeroslyn Johnson, “Virginia Passes Law Requiring Universities to Create Scholarships for Descendants of Slaves,” Black Enterprise, April 3, 2021, https://www.blackenterprise.com/virginia-passes-law-requiring-universities-to-create-scholarships-for-descendants-of-slaves/; “Our History,” Monacan Indian Nation, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.monacannation.com/our-history.html; “Indigenous/UVA Relating,” Office For Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights, November 1, 2019, https://eocr.virginia.edu/monacan. ↩
Safiya Umoja Noble, “Toward a Critical Black Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, edited by Gold Matthew K. and Klein Lauren F., 27-35, (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), accessed May 9, 2021, doi:10.5749/j.ctvg251hk.5. ↩
Even if we only think of pedagogy as what happens in the classroom – a perspective this Manifesto expressly argues against, but one its authors recognize many people adopt – we must still acknowledge that pedagogy is work, both for instructors and for students. It deserves to be framed, discussed, and compensated in those terms. While education workers often talk about our love for our jobs and our students before all else, the truth is that more often than not, the work will not love us back. Indeed, love for the work is something our employers weaponize against us to justify paying us smaller wages, granting fewer benefits, and denying us stable employment.1Like many peer institutions of higher ed, UVA does not always talk about the people it employs in terms of the labor they do for the University. A 2020 announcement for graduate teaching awards, for instance, refers to graduate students’ teaching as “part of their training,” and Teaching Assistants (TAs) themselves as “budding professors” (ignoring whether those students are indeed able to become professional academics). While TA-ing is indeed a valuable part of many graduate students’ education, it also provides essential labor for the University: large courses with complex assignments require teams of graders, labs and studios require trained assistants, small college writing courses require dedicated instructors.
The University’s tendency towards euphemism regarding its teaching workforce is particularly apparent in how it describes its contingent faculty. Workers who may be categorized by another institution as “adjuncts”—that is to say, faculty who are ineligible for tenure—are referred to as “general faculty” or “Wage Faculty Employees” at UVA.2 Both terms manage to avoid visions of precarity, low pay, and lessened prestige many of us now associate with “adjunct” while keeping those conditions intact.
Non-teaching labor is just as essential to the functioning of the University and the fulfillment of its pedagogical mission, but is often even more precarious, poorly compensated, and at times, taken for granted. When UVA promised its students an “on-Grounds experience” last Fall, it relied on the in-person labor of custodians, food service workers, librarians, and support staff to make that experience happen. Yet unlike faculty and some student employees, UVA’s frontline workers were not given the choice to stay home while keeping their jobs. Like employers across the country, UVA has thanked these essential workers for their service while repeatedly neglecting to give them hazard pay. Moreover, some workers with the choice to stay remote have reported feeling pressured to work in-person before they felt fully safe doing so. “People are feeling rather expendable and sacrificial,” one employee told a local reporter.3
We simply cannot imagine good pedagogy being produced under such precarious conditions. This does not mean workers aren’t giving their all; in many cases, faculty, staff, and other employees have given everything they have and more. Rather, it means that the University’s leaders did not create the necessary safety nets to support and sustain these workers when the pandemic and all its challenges arrived. The already extraordinary demands of research, instruction, administration, and other forms of university labor became all the more difficult when workers also needed to watch their chilidren, take on additional care work, and worry about their personal safety at work.
All this speaks to the fact that, while the particular stresses and circumstances of the past year have been somewhat unique, the underlying causes for worker dissatisfaction and exploitation at UVA are much older. It was only in 2019 that President Ryan raised the hourly wage of full time workers at UVA to $15 an hour, a victory won by student and worker activists after decades of organizing.4 Student workers continue to be excluded from this policy, with our hourly minimum wage remaining at $9.50 an hour.
Low pay is just one of many ways in which the University devalues those who work in its most critical positions. The janitor who cleans the classroom, the dining worker who serves students their meals, the technicians who maintain our electronic devices, the nurses and doctors treating students at Student Health, all have as much a hand in fulfilling the mission of the University as faculty and teaching staff. Yet rarely do we see these workers treated with the respect–nevermind given the compensation–they deserve. Instead, they’re inevitably the first to lose pay, lose shifts, and lose jobs when money is tight. Many of these workers are employed through private contractors such as Aramark, a company known for its unfair and discriminatory labor practices. Privatization itself is a shift away from equitable labor standards, as wage workers from Charlottesville–many of them Black and Brown women–are left with jobs with the least security and the lowest pay.5As a public institution of higher education, we believe UVA should set the standard for worker compensation, benefits, workplace safety, and job security in the Commonwealth. Not only would this be an enormous step towards fulfilling the University’s stated commitment to racial and gender equity; it would promote the level of pedagogical excellence the University continuously aspires to achieve. The uneven impacts of the pandemic will doubtless resonate throughout higher ed for years to come. Already, we're seeing staggering job losses—over 650,000 since the start of the pandemic—with low-paid staffers, workers of color, and women suffering the majority of these cutbacks. In other words, the workers who already take on the majority of care work, both at home, in our schools, and in our economy at large, are the first to be put on the chopping block. We call on UVA to defy these trends rather than give in to them.
We therefore demand:
- That the University immediately raises all minimum wages, including those for student employees, to $15/hour and commits to future annual wage increases based on the rising cost of living in Charlottesville.
- That the University terminates its contracts with Aramark and other private contractors and rehires all workers as direct employees.
- That the University compensates its workers with hazard pay for all hours worked in-person since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 through the end of Summer 2021.
To our fellow instructors, the work of improving our conditions at the University begins with recognizing our own jobs as work. Only after we embrace the power that our position as workers gives us can we begin to use it in ways which benefit ourselves and our coworkers. While UVA has not yet embraced adjunctification to the extent that certain other institutions of higher education have, the unequal treatment of wage, general, and tenured and tenure-track faculty points to the University’s cost-based priorities when it comes to hiring and compensating instructors. Instructors must resist any further efforts to expand wage/general faculty positions, both through already existing modes of faculty governance and through renewed alliances between various work classifications. As professor and activist Chris Newfield writes, “Instead of looking to senior management for defense, faculty members should look to employees in other workplaces in advocating democratic rather than autocratic organization.”6
To our fellow students, we similarly ask that you take advantage of the tremendous collective power we all hold. If you haven’t already, get involved with some of the following organizations:
Remember that without undergraduate and graduate student labor, UVA would quite literally cease to function.
Katina Rogers, 22. ↩
Faculty Wage Employees are defined as faculty “hired to complete a short-term and/or part-time academic work assignment, such as teaching one or more courses for one or two academic terms.” Wage faculty are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs minimum wages and overtime. See “Faculty Appointments and Employment,” Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, accessed May 3, 2021, https://provost.virginia.edu/faculty-handbook/faculty-appointments-and-employment, and “PROV-026: Faculty Wage Employment,” Policy Directory, accessed May 3, 2021, https://uvapolicy.virginia.edu/policy/PROV-026. General faculty are faculty members who are ineligible for tenure but who work on longer (generally three-year) appointments. According to UVA, the term as currently used arose in the 1970s and can encompass a wide range of titles and positions, from Lecturer to Librarian. See “PROV-004: Employment of Academic General Faculty Members (Tenure-Ineligible),” Policy Directory, accessed May 3, 2021, https://uvapolicy.virginia.edu/policy/PROV-004. ↩
Brielle Entzminger, “Read ’em and Weep: UVA Library Employees Fear for Their Safety,” C-VILLE Weekly, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.c-ville.com/read-em-and-weep-uva-library-employees-fear-for-their-safety. ↩
See “Living Wage at UVA,” lwc-uva, accessed May 3, 2021, https://livingwageatuva.wixsite.com/lwc-uva for more information. Since 2019, the cost of living in Charlottesville has continued to rise. The Economic Policy Institute’s “Family Budget Calculator” puts a single, childless adult’s annual costs at $38,839, or over $18/hr working full time. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator puts its estimate for a living wage in Charlottesville slightly lower at $15.63/hour for a single, childless adult. See “Family Budget Calculator,” Economic Policy Institute, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.epi.org/resources/budget/ and “Living Wage Calculation for Charlottesville City, Virginia,” Living Wage Calculator, accessed May 3, 2021, https://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/51540. ↩
For more on the perverse effects of outsourcing and privatization, see: “Race to the Bottom: How Outsourcing Public Services to Private Companies Rewards Corporations and Punishes the Middle Class” (In the Public Interest, June 2014), https://www.inthepublicinterest.org/wp-content/uploads/Race-to-the-bottom.pdf. For student reporting on UVA’s relationship with Aramark in particular, see Victoria McKelvey, “End Aramark’s Contract,” The Cavalier Daily, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2020/04/mckelvey-end-aramarks-contract and “Aramark Is Still a Problem,” The Cavalier Daily, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2019/03/mckelvey-aramark-is-still-a-problem. ↩
Christopher Newfield, “Essay Calls for a New Strategy to Protect Faculty Rights,” Inside Higher Ed, July 20, 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/07/20/essay-calls-new-strategy-protect-faculty-rights. ↩
Who makes decisions at the University, and how is it governed? For an institution which has recently invested so much financial and intellectual capital in the study of democracy, UVA—like most workplaces in the United States—remains a deeply undemocratic institution. Decisions are made in a top-down manner without the input of the vast majority of students and workers who study and work here, much less residents in the surrounding city who must live with the consequences of these decisions.Social hierarchies of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, hierarchical labor relations, hierarchies of nationality, and so on. For this reason, not all students are equally powerless (or powerful); some are given more permission to act freely than others. Many Black students worry about the potential violence behind every exchange with University Ambassadors; white students may ask them to take a picture of their friend group. UVA fraternity members may act recklessly and help bring about COVID lockdown restrictions, whose potential penalties have a history of being enforced more heavily among the University’s Black and Brown student body. These dynamics have become even more fraught during the pandemic as students are asked to surveil and police one another's behavior, either as University workers or as "engaged bystanders" within the UVA community. Yet as we argue elsewhere in this Manifesto, giving students the institutional means to punish each other often reproduces pre-existing social hierarchies rather than circumventing them.
There is no straightforward solution to these inequities at UVA, not only because UVA is an institution which still produces and benefits from these inequities, but because UVA is not an island. Nevertheless, efforts for change within the University are still worth pursuing. If one of the missions of the public university is to teach students how to be good citizens of the world, then surely lessons in democratic self-governance must take priority.
By this we do not merely mean the lessons some students learn through participating in the Student Council, a body which our incoming CLAS Student Council President Abel Liu has argued is less engaged in traditional governance than in spearheading students’ collective bargaining with the University’s administrators.1 Similarly, we envision even more than giving students and workers a seat at the table. Students, workers, and the surrounding community must gradually seize more and more collective power within the University which they create and with which they must live.
To that end we demand:
- A vote for both the student and the faculty representative on the Board of Visitors.
- Elections of all higher level University administrative positions, from Deans up to the President, by students and workers at the University.
To our fellow instructors: Most of us have learned by now that the classroom is not free from governance. Just as University policies alternately weigh us down or free us up in the work of teaching, so do our policies influence our students’ work of learning. As facilitators, our choices can create an environment of inclusion or exclusion, of respect or fear. Tools of inclusion and respect, such as contract grading and a student-designed syllabus, can help ensure the educational process is constructive for all involved. More broadly, we echo bell hooks’ assertion that “any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged… the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.”2 Instructors must learn to resist the tendency in higher education to see our students as customers and ourselves as service providers to instead meet our students as peers and intellectual collaborators.
To our fellow students: Both during and before the pandemic, we have seen student power wrest significant reforms and resources from the University towards the collective good. During the past year, students have applied our collective power to winning CR/NC grading, getting greater workplace protections for RAs, and fighting for a tuition freeze in the Spring. We hope as our power grows, so do our aims and ambitions.
This past year’s student campaign for an undergraduate tuition freeze at UVA raised a range of questions regarding the monetary value of a digital education. Students feel they are not getting what they were promised while attending Zoom University: no in-person mentoring from professors, no valuable connections with peers, no enriching experiences in the cities and towns their schools are located in. As the pandemic continued into Fall of 2020, tuition-paying students at UVA and elsewhere started questioning what it was, exactly, they were paying tens of thousands of dollars for.
These calls for reduced tuition during the pandemic, often framed by students and their parents as wanting to pay less for an inferior product, sparked anger and frustration among many university instructors who identified students as misunderstanding the purpose of tuition. “The tuition isn’t paying the ‘bills’ as you might imagine it,” sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote in a Tweet pointing out that the majority of tuition revenue at most universities goes directly towards paying for instruction. In other words, tuition is where most universities – public and private alike – find money to pay for the teaching labor on which their institutions run. This is no less true for UVA. Indeed, the fact was brought up at a February Board of Visitors meeting as part of the University’s justification for proposing a tuition increase. Resources from that increase “would definitely be tied to compensation for our faculty and staff,” Vice President J. J. Davis announced.1
The contest over freezing tuition over a perceived lesser product and appropriately compensating University staff for their labor is almost entirely the product of austerity and artificial scarcity. State funding for higher education has been steadily declining in Virginia (and elsewhere) for several decades. In the February 2021 Board of Visitors meeting where the Board discussed increasing tuition, Vice President Davis pointed out that “over the past thirty years we have seen the responsibility of higher education funding shift from the taxpayer – the state – to students and their families.”
In this scarcity environment, it is unsurprising that University employees would perceive student calls for tuition freezes and refunds as a threat to their own compensation. Yet multiple truths can hold simultaneously. A tuition freeze is just and needed; AND, a virtual or remote education is not inherently inferior to an in-person one; AND, austerity is a choice, not an economic inevitability.
Education, especially public education, is a right. The added factor of an economic recession and soaring unemployment means that freezing – if not reducing – tuition for the foreseeable future is and was the only moral and equitable position the University can take. It is for this reason, not the inherent inferiority of remote learning and digital pedagogy, that the University’s decision to freeze undergraduate tuition in the coming school year was the correct one.
Rather than painting all of online learning with the broad brush of being cheap—both fiscally and experientially—we offer an alternative explanation for why the past two semesters have felt so drained of value. As we have strived to show throughout this Manifesto, digital pedagogy is a robust and developed field of tools, practices, and perspectives which instructors have been making use of for years. Yet their efficacy and reception is fundamentally constrained by the conditions of higher education itself. Over the past year decision makers at UVA and elsewhere saw the pandemic as a crisis in which only new technologies were necessary, not new ways of using them. Schools kept in place pre-existing bad practices—harsh deadlines, strict grading policies, exploitative labor conditions, inequitable systems of governance—all while expecting their students to weather the stress of the pandemic and adapt to an unfamiliar mode of learning.
The financial cycle that UVA is currently caught in was not entirely of its own making, and the school has fought in many ways to remain affordable. The University’s continued commitment to meeting 100% of undergraduates’ demonstrated financial aid and its policy to offer admission to students “without regard to their ability to pay the cost of their education” make it rare among public universities in the United States. Yet these policies are the floor from which we build, not the ceiling of possibility. Now is the time for UVA and its representatives to take a strong, principled, and public stance on free public higher education. As we write, the “Free College for All Act” has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and, if passed, will “allow students from families earning under $125,000 a year to attend public colleges and universities tuition-free and debt-free.”2 If UVA’s current leadership wants to break out of its reliance on shrinking state funding and students’ tuition dollars, we believe they must put the institution’s significant political and economic influence to use in that direction.
Lastly, we’d like to nudge our fellow students to express our future demands around tuition and the cost of college in slightly different terms. We cannot keep capitulating to the idea of education as a consumer product. Rather, we must rediscover the idea of higher education as a public good.
UVA Board of Visitors, Board of Visitors Board Meeting – February 17, 2021, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UvIurO7MqY&ab_channel=UVABoardofVisitors. ↩
“Sanders, Jayapal and Colleagues Introduce Legislation to Make College Tuition-Free and Debt-Free for Working Families,” accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.sanders.senate.gov/press-releases/news-sanders-jayapal-and-colleagues-introduce-legislation-to-make-college-tuition-free-and-debt-free-for-working-families/. ↩
The present state of digital pedagogy at UVA seems to many teachers and students to be a grim landscape, something we’re all too eager to put behind us as the University plans for a “much more normal” Fall 2021 semester. Yet even if another global pandemic does not come in our lifetimes–a prospect many scientists find unlikely–online learning is almost certainly here to stay. Governments, corporations, and universities, UVA included, are already probing the possibilities of what this brave new world might look like. As humanists, scholars, engaged citizens, we cannot let the pursuit of profit and prestige drive this conversation. The present state of digital pedagogy may, for most of us, be inextricably linked to the traumas and crises of our plague year. The future of digital pedagogy, however, is still what we choose to make of it.
To demonstrate a possible version of that future, we offer our own year in the Scholars’ Lab as a counterexample.
As this year’s Praxis Cohort, the six of us have spent the past academic year meeting remotely two to three times a week to learn entirely new skills with an almost entirely new group of people. Critically, we are all fully funded, with finances dealt with in an upfront and transparent way. We had assignments with flexible deadlines and no grades, were encouraged to collaborate, and deliberately fostered an environment of mutual care, respect, and camraderie. We established connections over Zoom, WeChat, Slack, and Discord, had movie and game nights, and met all of one another’s pets. We became friends.
We don’t think we’ve succeeded at building a community because we’re special people. Rather, we were given the necessary environment in which to flourish, in spite of the chaos in our lives and in the world. We succeeded because, as Brandon Walsh kept reminding us, “You’re already successes in our eyes.”
What would the past two semesters at UVA have looked like if every administrator, instructor, and student had approached the pedagogical experience along these lines? If decision-makers had looked at online learning, not as a financial opportunity or a challenge to be forced onto teachers and students, but as a space to try new ways of relating to and experiencing education? Would they have felt so pressured to bring students back and put themselves, University employees, and the surrounding community at risk? Would professors have kept up strict grading and deadline policies? Would students have struggled so much to feel they were still learning and building community from afar? Of course, we can’t know for certain how things might have been. But we can listen to students and workers about the many ways in which they experienced education over the past year. We can tell the story of the pandemic at UVA in as many ways as possible–some celebratory, others mournful. Moving forward, we can try to build something stronger, more accessible, and more just.
As several of us remarked at the start of our year together, the pandemic drove us into isolation because the virus relied on our connectivity to one another. Yet even as our cohort met and worked together through our computer screens, we remembered the connections were still there: just as vital, just as demanding of respect, care, and love. We will carry the connections we established into the physical world when, hopefully, we’ll all get to meet in person for the first time. We hope the same will be true for higher education writ large in our post-pandemic future.
One last note: Very few of the issues we’ve outlined here are unique to UVA, or even to higher education. However, we felt it was important to highlight how these big structures manifest in local and specific ways shaped by our own local histories of domination and resistance. We did this to establish not only how connected we all are to the problem, but also how close we are to the solutions. Over and over again, we discovered many of the answers to our questions already growing in our own backyards. Through Connections Established, we hoped simply to create a hub for these problems, solutions, and ideas to interact with one another. We hope our audiences, whether you come from near or far, are able to take something useful from this project and plant it in your own soil.