• Alexandra Sills

Silver Platters and Students in Pandemics

Every now and then, I'll see a tweet that irritates me. I'm sure we all do; twitter is populated with irritating people. And once in a while, one of those irritating people tweets something that speaks to my own experiences. Writing a blog post in retaliation to a stranger splashing their ignorance across the internet might label me as #triggered, but hear me out. What I have to say affects far more people than might initially be assumed.

The tweets in question are in regard to participation in online university seminars. As I write, we are nearing two years since the start of the current pandemic and my own first experience of subsequent online teaching was around19 months ago. Entire modules of my degree have been completed online. I've never agreed that students should get a discount for online learning, from what I can tell my lecturers seemed to work twice as hard to ensure the quality of their teaching didn't drop. But I agree that aspects of the format aren't ideal, even if there are some definite pros, e.g.

  • I've loved having lectures recorded for a few reasons: I can listen to them as many times as I like, whenever I like. This is great for revision but also for time management. Any students with jobs and/or caring responsibilities will likely agree, flexibility has made our pandemics easier. Doubly easier, given that my sources of childcare were all unavailable. I also really appreciated captioning, as my hearing isn't 100%.

  • Open book exams - I don't know of any student in any circumstance who misses sitting in an intimidating, silent room, frantically scribbling for several hours. We're being tested on comprehension, not recall, and I've felt prouder of the exams I've written at home than the ones I wrote at uni.

  • Not all lockdown experiences are the same. Some were spent in solitude, some were spent crammed into a small home filled with family. Mine was spent shielding and trying to keep a very small, asthmatic child safe and happy. Home schooling was involved. Seminars were a very rare and welcome opportunity for adult conversation that wasn't about parenting or trying to buy loo roll.

  • My lecturers worked flat out to keep us all going from a distance, all whilst having to adapt in a very short time frame. As well as every resource I required, I got help and advice any time I needed it, and I am under no illusions that it likely came at a cost to their own workload and by extension, private lives.

Of course there were difficulties. Even rinsing libgen for all they had, I frequently pined for a library and their tantalising, offline tomes. Some essay bibliographies were constructed on a wing and a prayer. I don't have the luxury of a study or even a permanent desk, so I often had to work perched on my bed if I hoped to have any quiet and privacy. My studying was juggled with keeping my daughter safe and entertained, particularly after my husband was sent back into the workplace.

I could read perhaps a paragraph at a time before being interrupted; getting a snack, putting on CBeebies, mopping up a spill, being asked to watch a dance, or find a lost toy. It was frustrating for me, but how much more frustrating for a pre-schooler who was confined to a small house, deprived of playmates, excursions and doting grandparents? And so, like many others during this time, I had to rank my priorities, and my priority will always be steering through my tiny daughter through this dreadful period with minimal psychological scarring.

When I did get a moment to study, my wifi was appalling. I felt forced to splurge on a signal extender/booster doohickey that stretched my already thin budget. Even so, certain online functions tested my signal sorely, particularly having my camera on in Zoom et al. I could see the frustation on my lecturer's faces as I watched them talk at length at a series of black squares. I'm sure it must have, at times, felt soul crushing. I turned my camera on whenever I felt able, and my excessive typing in the chatbox often felt more for the lecturer's benefit than mine. But honestly? Some days even typing in the chatbox felt like too much. Before I explain why, let's get back to that tweet.

Someone was whinging about teaching online. And yeah, I get it. It must be a lot harder and take more energy. And then, an undergrad piped up that they actually don't mind online learning so much, for many of the reasons I've stated. But this student has an axe to grind: other students. Namely, those who don't participate by having cameras on or speaking. Worse, this student suggested, and I quote: "Perhaps a medical cert (sic) should be required for mental health reasons, and a signed statement showing internet upload and download speeds. Anything to make it a bit annoying that might make just turning your camera on easier. Or maybe if you can't have your camera on and engage, you have to complete a short 250 word assingment each week to get participation marks."

It was the word 'annoying' that caught me. I asked for clarification, do want to annoy people with mental health difficulties? Apparently not, despite their use of the word 'annoy.' Merely demand certification and/or extra work. I countered that medical certificates aren't always easy/free to acquire, and that making students already struggling jump through extra hoops right now may not be the best idea. But apparently, people who can't engage are ruining his learning experience. Besides, and again I quote: "When you are trying to get a job, and you don't show up to an interview, or you have a meeting to discuss funding for your research project, and you don't turn on your camera on or engage, should they just give you the job/money?" At this point, I am ready to step away. The guy sounds oddly boomerish, and stubborn to boot. But then he dropped the kicker: "I'm sure with your mentality on things, you'll definitely finish your degree... this time around. Maybe your mean lecturers will just give you your degree on a silver platter and not make you work, or engage, for it."

Dear reader, I quote tweeted that, and I'll tell you why: this take fucking stinks.

  • For all of his protestations that he wants to separate people who can't engage with those who won't, he repeatedly chooses to hand the former extra caveats and extra work. His opinion is not only ableist but classist. Requiring certification for anything is often time consuming and costly, if you can get one in the first place. I suspect that if I approached my doctor, already up to their eyeballs due to the bloody PANDEMIC, for a note for teacher, they'd ask me in warranted exasperation, why can't your lecturer treat you like a fucking adult and give you the benefit of the doubt? My own lecturers definitely do, not only because my university's key demographic is older students, but because my lecturers are decent human beings.

  • Lazy students who don't engage in online seminars can indeed be a pain in the arse. But do you want to know a secret? They don't bloody engage in f2f seminars either. Students who have legitimate difficulties engaging online are the same. I have sat in both online and f2f seminars where 3 out of 20 people speak. Do you know what I've never ever considered doing? Interrogating them as to why. The reason for this is simple: just as my engagement is not responsible for them crossing the finish line, their lack of engagement is not responsible for keeping me from it. I like a dialogue as much as the next student, but when all is said and done my diploma is only going to have my name on it. Degrees are not a team sport, so just let everybody else run their own race.

  • Accordingly, and fellow students repeat after me: you shouldn't give a toss about what your classmates are doing. If participation is a requirement on your course, then participate as much as you are able. And if other people aren't, leave them the fuck alone. Do your work, get your grades, go home. As I said to this guy, it blows my mind that this far into a global pandemic, we still have not learned to empathise with the circumstances of other people. I have rolled my eyes at classmates just as they no doubt roll their eyes at me, but I leave them the fuck alone. Simply put, I have no clue what their deal is and neither does any other student. Moreover, it's none of my business and neither is it the business of any other student. That is between them and their professor. If they want help, they can ask for it, from their lecturers or classmates they trust. But they ain't gonna ask you if they think you're a pretentious turd.

  • Reasons for non-participation include but are not limited to: exhaustion, shyness, nervousness due to pronunciations of difficult words, attending seminars conducted in their second or third languages, health flare-ups. Additional reasons caused by the pandemic include but are not limited to: stress, unreliable internet, lack of designated suitable study space, lack of privacy and quiet, covid anxiety, health scares, worrying about sick relative and friends, mourning sick relatives and friends.

To prove my point, I'll use two examples of lectures I've attended during my own depression related rough patches; one f2f and one a year later online. Both lecturers know about my mental health issues because they are, as I said, decent human beings who treat me like an adult and I therefore feel comfortable being honest. Both keep what I confide private because I don't owe my classmates any explanations.

In the f2f lecture, I looked haggard and at one point I think I was silently weeping. I didn't engage, in a module where I was one of the regular talkers. My lecturer quietly checked my welfare in the break, left me the fuck alone during the seminar. I cannot stress enough how I would have crumbled if engagement was demanded, and no-one's seminar was banjaxed because I didn't give my 2 cents about Thucydides.

In the online lecture, I'd already emailed my lecturer that I was in a rough patch. Subsequently, I kept my camera off because I looked like Worzel Gummidge and again, might have cried. My lecturer sent me a lovely email and then left me the fuck alone in the seminar. Nobody complained that I wasn't giving turgid soliloquies about Cicero. I am eternally grateful to both lecturers and they forever have my trust and affection.

I don't know why I need to tell any student or indeed human being this, but people who struggle for any reason - be it medical, financial, or just the nature of their personality - are quite capable of discussing this with lecturers as adults when they are treated as adults. Demanding certifications is some infantalising bullshit. And to the OP, who mansplained workplace etiquette to me ever so helpfully - workplaces that refuse to adapt to an individual's needs aren't just arseholes, they're usually in danger of a bloody lawsuit. Why? Because there's this little thing called discrimination. And by OP's plan to make people with extra needs/difficulties do extra work to separate themselves from lazy freeloaders, and not vice versa, he is discriminating. So take that to your future workplace and smoke it.

As for handing out degrees on silver platters? I'm not sure anyone in my cohort found the last 18 months easier than before. Even if it were true that essays and exams were marked higher than usual (and I can't see that they were,) my fellow students found it just as stressful as the lecturers to adapt to no libraries/workspaces etc. On top of this, we have been locked down (myself in a house, I don't know how students in halls coped!) many of us lost our jobs, many of us had to adapt to working remotely on top of learning remotely, many of us had to homeschool our children, many of us had to care for loved ones, many of us tested positive and got sick, many of us lost friends and family members to a brutal illness and attended funerals online. Concurrently. These two years have been brutal, they have been testing, they have broken hearts. Frankly? Passing even one module under these extremely extraordinary circumstances is a laudable achievement. Completing a degree right now deserves a standing ovation. I say that as a mature student with a home and an existing support system, who has studied her own brain chemistry and triggers for two decades.

Students leaving home for the first time, living in locked down halls, having to negotiate independence and university in these terrifying times? How dare ANYONE say that their degrees are being handed to them on a silver platter if they don't always want to put their bloody cameras on and type in a chat box? What kind of sociopathic nonsense is that? I thought that the arseholes complaining about essay extensions being handed out more freely than usual were bad*, but this is some dystopian shit. I have demonstrated that I empathise with lecturers no enjoying talking to black squares, I have demonstrated that I empathise with students who cannot turn cameras on. It is possible to empathise with both, and you should try to. Misery is not a competition. As for those people who are keeping cameras off and staying silent because they're lazy? Fuck 'em. They'll get the grade they deserve and struggle on the job market accordingly, paying the same loan repayments as you and your shiny 1:1. You don't need to worry your pretty little head over their actions, the consequences will follow soon enough. Because whilst you're worried about fairness, we already have a neat little way to make everything fair - they're called grades. Shitty students, of which there will always be a supply, should be nothing to you; you are not their lecturer, they are not your problem.

It doesn't matter that Plato didn't say it, the saying still holds water: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Battles tend to be made exponentially harder to fight during global pandemics, and if you're not going to actively help people who are struggling, the kindest thing to do is shut your bloody mouth and leave them the fuck alone.

And so, in this case, perhaps you can see why I had to call this dreadful opinion out. Because apart from being chillingly heartless, it is discriminatory, patronising and damaging. There is a difference between not grasping the difficulties other people experience and wilful ignorance. As soon as this gentleman suggested that my empathy surely meant that I was a freeloader being handed an unearned degree, well, that stubbornness and callousness revealed a rotten core that nothing I write will alter. But I am damn well going to state my case, for myself and for anyone else who has had a pandemic piled onto their already brimming plates.

Even when making refusing to make extra allowances isn't illegal, it still makes you a bit of a dick. Refusing to make allowances in a global pandemic is so much worse. Demanding that your lecturers make the lives of your classmates more difficult just because you think they aren't pulling their weight, weight that doesn't affect you? Find a mirror, and take a good look in it.

*I needed extensions for the first time ever during this pandemic, it doesn't make me lazy, it makes me human. I am eternally grateful to the lecturer in charge of granting mitigating circumstances to my department, they never judged and never scolded. They were a decent human being. Solidarity to my friends at other universities who searched for a decent human being and found none.

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