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The university won’t love you back: The UW System’s pursuit of normalcy in the time of corona

What happens to a failing system when you assume that there is no need for alternatives?

What happens to a failing system when you assume that there is no need for alternatives?

The illustration by Rachal Duggan shows a sketch of UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall surrounded by floating faces wearing masks and coronavirus particles.

We are in the sanctuary of our shared office—the only place we are told we are safe from the virus that has killed millions—when another ding comes through our computers. With lesson plans and handouts littering our desks, the alert hangs in the less-than-six-foot space between us. Another student has written that they are feeling under the weather, unsure of what it might be, are scheduled to get a test soon. Overly apologetic for their impending absence, for being an inconvenience, for starting off the semester on the wrong foot, they ask if there is anything they can do to make up for missing class. Often, we pause, needing to remind them that we are amidst a global pandemic; this has not changed.  If their own illness—their own inability to keep up—is not their fault, then whose is it?

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This has been the landscape of our last month and a half as teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: for six weeks, our inboxes have been flooded with one panicked email after another, and our classrooms, which should be filled with eager and curious students, are studded with empty seats session after session. Six weeks into the semester that was supposed to give everyone what they have been craving for so long—human interaction, a renewed motivation to teach and learn, a restored faith that things could maybe (finally) go back to normal—we instead find ourselves in a semester far more warped than our year on Zoom.

Suddenly rejecting all of the science we had spent a year and a half trusting, we now spend our days crammed into lecture halls with hundreds of students who trust that we, the people in charge, have the ability to safely and efficiently deliver the in-person education that they paid for. But the only thing we’ve been able to deliver thus far is nothing short of a charade: while we know that there is little safety in physically being together, we are forced to sell the narrative of normalcy when we know it is the last thing we can grant.

UW cashes in on a facade of normalcy, while leaving students and staff to fend for themselves

In pushing its goal of having 90% of classes in-person (with a similar trend happening across the UW system regardless of student population vaccination rates), the university has characterized itself as an institution that cares and puts the needs of its students first: primarily, the need to have “the best in-person experience” possible. But the care UW leaders are extending halts when there is no longer a transaction at stake, no longer a thing to chase after. Because students’ financial obligation has been fulfilled, the institution steps out of the role of caretaker and its exploited laborers are forced to step in.

By prioritizing profit over people, the UW’s neoliberal construction of its students—as customers that have been promised a product—has come at a sacrificial cost. By returning to in-person instruction, the institution puts itself in charge of deciding who gets sick and who does not—put plainly, it holds the power to choose who lives and who dies. Not only are we, the employees of the university, risking our lives to carry through on the administrators’ sale, but so are our students. Polished into catchy phrases like the “Smart Restart” and pressured into being responsible for the entire campus community’s well being through The Badger Pledge, students have been put in the impossible position of trying to keep each other safe when they are not the ones who have created the conditions of their own precarity. Through gimmicks and gaslighting alike, the student body has been made to believe that they themselves should answer for the consequences of the administration’s myopic greed.

Who does UW’s prioritization of profit leave behind?

At the center of the university’s flimsy, delusional action plan lies the burden of those who are tasked with carrying out the institution’s everyday functions: its educators, its staff, the people who keep the wheels turning. Because of the obsession with maintaining courses’ set modalities, educators with concerns (medical or otherwise) about in-person teaching have been denied the option to offer their classes remotely, despite submitting formal requests. Those who have yet to do the same have chosen not to follow through with seeking accommodations due to “discouraging conversations” between instructors and resource offices.

While UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has denied allegations about refusing to speak with disability representatives, it is obvious that in the context of in-person teaching, the institution’s pursuits of normalcy are blatantly ableist. A “return to normal” is only ensured for those who meet such criteria. To distinguish between who fits this tight mold of the ideal student and who does not, we are forced to ascend what Dr. Jay Dolmage refers to as the academy’s “steep steps”: the idea that universities and other such institutions can be accessed, but only if students can and are willing to make the climb. Remaining behind means falling behind, and often it is our most marginalized and disabled students who are left on the stoops. 

Despite the wealth of educational alternatives that we know are possible given the ways we were made to adapt in the worst of the pandemic, we are prioritizing exclusivity and profit to the detriment of people’s wellbeing and safety. The UW’s inconsideration of its educators’ and students’ diverse needs aligns neatly with President Biden’s six-pillar COVID-19 response plan, released this past September, which vowed to keep schools open as long as possible, no matter the cost. Like Dolmage’s steep steps, Biden’s pillars uphold a desire to keep the so-called undeserving out. 

In this university necrozone, the burden of care falls on TAs

The violence of this semester has necessitated the compliance of thousands of people to maintain a delicate ecosystem steeped in denial and disregard. Those of us at the bottom have been shoved to its frontline, forced to respond to anything that comes our way. We have been shaped into our students’ caretakers day in and day out. But if we are made to care for our students’ lives, who cares about ours?

The emotional labor of being a teaching assistant at the university level far exceeds the demands of regular instruction. With such close contact with anywhere between 15 to 80 students, both physically and emotionally, we have been deemed the essential workers of the university: we are the bodies students interact with the most, the bridge between the institution and the instructor, existing in the in-betweenness of being staff but also students ourselves. And while we are relegated to the front, we are drowning, given less flexibility and power than the instructors that we work under, with little to no say in the conditions of our labor. 

Every day, we are asked to do the impossible: lead class in rooms so small that they almost guarantee contagion, provide learning continuity when new and large numbers of students are missing every week, and adapt courses for students faced with long-term illness, death, and other extenuating circumstances. There is a difference between the adaptability required of a good educator and the bending backwards we are made to do under insurmountable conditions, with nothing but empty reassurance and the hollow refrain of taking it “one day at a time” to fall back on.

And then there are the demands that preexist the pandemic: we are tasked with creating safe spaces for our marginalized students while teaching at a predominantly white institution (PWI), curating lesson plans and activities with no logistical support, adapting our conversations when technology is not available to us, and holding the burden of the intimate stories our students share. While we encourage our students to be vulnerable and open with us, we find ourselves unable to direct them to adequate resources—we either don’t know them or have been told that there are issues of availability, confidentiality, and finances. 

Of course, if you ask the higher ups, those who do not spend their days in the trenches of our semester’s sorrow, they would tell you another story, one of joy and prosperity. To assume we are fine is to ignore the glaring truth: the UW administration has curated a false sense of success to ensure that those of us who have experienced intimate loss are not able to mourn, and instead, are forced to extend the lifespan of this ailing institution. The university is sick: buildings are collapsing, departments are struggling to keep afloat, and its people, overworked and under-supported, are ready to jump ship.

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Trapped in this cycle of surviving, we are not given the space or time to grieve our own losses. Between us both, we have lost loved ones during our time in the academy, and we are not alone in this. The arrival of COVID-19 has ruptured the bounds of what we thought possible, in sickness and in grief. Though death is present everywhere we are told that to stop and mourn is not possible. We must work through deadlines and modules and abide by false timelines of productivity. Though our department is more sympathetic than others, the institution does not forgive us when we do not deliver.

As education scholar Dr. Esther Ohito argues in her article about the neoliberal academy as necrozone, at the core of university life is death and decay. Like many women of color, we came to the academy to heal, to find ourselves through our own scholarship, to liberate ourselves from the shackles of our minds and carry our new knowledge back home. Faced with the constant threat of our own demise—materially and otherwise—the university has neglected to invest in our prosperity, and has instead beaten our passions out of us until we are left to decay.

In a space where this mode of violence is normalized through a process of aestheticization—the glory of the grind outshining our human needs—our suffering is packaged neatly into the idea of resilience, applauded and made to be emulated. But resilience is not something to be admired. To fulfill our role in this relentless machine, we have become the walking dead. This is what we mean when we say that the institution will never love us back. If it cannot profit from us, would it rather have us killed?

If there is no such thing as a caring institution, then what options are we left with? Though the toxins of the academy are as pervasive as the air we breathe, we are choosing daily to divest of its wounded empire. We are not interested in being co-creators of a world in which we maintain an illusion of benevolent dehumanization. The longer we continue to uphold the conditions that lead to our disempowerment, the more we shut out opportunities to build meaningful community with one another. The more we lose interest in interrogating the university’s shortcomings and offering alternatives, the less we are capable of bringing others into our healing. And like Maya Angelou, we’ll keep on dying. Not because we love to live, but because we must.

What can you do? Banting and Fierro suggest supporting the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA). You can follow the TAA’s work through their website and on Facebook. The TAA is also accepting donations for their Mutual Aid Fund to support graduate student TAs. 


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