There’s more to say about the long-running neoliberal hollowing-out of public higher education that weights this scale so decidedly against human life. Here my point is that campus reopening plans aren’t indicators of a covidiocy epidemic nor do I believe they are merely a cagey ruse to secure student deposits before revealing—presto change-o!—that Fall classes will proceed online. “[A] return-to-operation strategy is undergirded by a fundamental conviction that even a phenomenon as menacing as COVID-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life,” wrote Purdue’s Mitchell Daniels, the first out of the gate in the race to reopen. Soon to follow was UVM’s Suresh Garimella (a former Purdue vice president): “The bottom line is that ongoing education is critical, not just on an individual level, but to our state, nation, and society as a whole.” In their pronouncements and others’, I hear the There is no alternative voice of Margaret Thatcher. More than forty years into the neoliberal onslaught against all manner of public provision, I also hear the expression of a capitalist system in such crisis, it must cannibalize the very laboring bodies it requires to survive.
To explain, I’ll turn back to the first weeks in March. In those weeks, across the country and across all educational levels, teachers turned seemingly on a dime from in-person to online teaching. At UVM, according to our faculty union’s calculation, this turn involved 1,606 courses with a total student registration of 23,144, the majority of these students taught by lecturers without access to long-term employment security. Responding to our union’s “Pandemic Pedagogy” survey, these faculty and their tenure-track colleagues described a “Herculean effort” to provision themselves with makeshift home offices, technology to tele-teach science labs and jazz ensembles, and sufficient bandwidth not only for their classes but for their partners’ jobs and their children’s schooling too. They detailed the toll on their bodies—throbbing heads and aching backs.
Women faculty especially expressed exhaustion: “kids at home who need me more than ever since they were infants”; “holding attentive space for students’ emotional experience, grief, and confusion”; “no start or end to the day, just one continuous response to ‘this is needed now.’” From one survey response to the next, colleagues of all genders described how pandemic demands for their teaching and care-taking labor had broken any boundaries around the workday and workweek. Usurped was the time needed for a body to recreate, rest, recharge. Denied too: any time to replenish one’s self as a scholar, researcher, or artist—necessary time to invigorate university teaching; required for continued employment; and, for female and other underrepresented academics, utterly devoured by the crisis’s intensified care-taking conditions. In a case study of women’s potential academic advancement lost to coronavirus care-work, Alessandra Minello wrote in Nature, “I feel as if I am my own subject.” “Oh my god, there is no downtime,” gasped a female respondent to my union’s pandemic survey.