Disruptive Forces Trigger Productivity

By: Sharif Mowlabocus
Reading Group Participant
Associate Professor, Communication & Media Studies

Health crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are (to say the least) disruptive forces. The eerie silence of Times Square and Lincoln Center masks the chaos that the virus has brought to daily life in New York. Meanwhile, the human and economic cost of the Coronavirus will not be fully known for months, if not years. But crises of any kind are also productive. They produce new forms of social control; they produce new social norms and cultural practices; and they can even produce new ways of thinking, including how we learn, teach and train.

Set against the human impact of the virus, it might feel wrong to contemplate how we might benefit from this global pandemic. At the same time, requests for things to ‘go back to normal’ ignore what the pandemic has exposed, not to mention the social, economic and health inequities many students and staff face.

For example, when Fordham suspended face-to-face instruction, some students shifted seamlessly to asynchronous learning, Zoom classes and the more atomized educational experience that remote teaching invariably produces. Yet, others struggled to balance their studies with caring for siblings and relatives (some possibly in the healthcare industry), supplementing their household’s income, or even living with abusive or substance-dependent parents. The pandemic did not create student inequality, but it has underscored the emotional, financial and psychological burden some students carry on their shoulders as they attend classes, work on assignments and do the various other things that students are expected to do.

As a member of the ReIMAGINE Reading Group, we spent the first half of the spring semester sharpening our understanding of these burdens, while exploring the latest scholarship on diversity and inequality in higher education. Collectively, this work explored three distinct but interrelated challenges:

  • the economic and social challenges that some students face coming into higher education,
  • the challenges of updating higher education for the 21st century,
  • the challenges that students face upon graduation as they enter the world of work.

In the second half of the semester, the pandemic prompted us to test our learning and to reimagine higher education. Responding to the Provost’s call for ‘creative and resilient approaches to delivering a Fordham education’, the group collaborated on a suite of proposals designed to support learning in a post-COVID environment. Our previous engagement with scholars such as Cathy Davidson, Anthony Abraham Jack and Jeffrey J. Selingo, meant we rejected the ‘return to normal’ mindset. Instead, we saw this as an opportunity to design new modes of learning that challenge normative methods of instruction and advising, which can often be methods that privilege the mainstream at the expense of more vulnerable and marginalized students – and faculty.

From team-teaching and new community-focused core courses, to a re-fashioned advising program and regional Fordham ‘meet-ups’, the ReIMAGINE Reading Group embraced the chaos caused by COVID-19 and used it as a chance to prioritize the kinds of changes Davidson and others have been calling for. In doing so, we were able to re-invest in the Jesuit principle of Cura Personalis and reimagine how Fordham can continue to invest – but also bring the out the best – in its students, its faculty and in its staff in the 21st century.

The ReIMAGINE Reading Group has been a transformative experience for me, irrespective of the global pandemic. This has been my first year at Fordham and the Reading Group has connected me with colleagues from across the university; people who I might otherwise not have met for a long time, if ever. Through my interactions with the rest of the group, I have been able to gain a deeper understanding of the values upon which Fordham is built, its philosophy and its mission. I have also witnessed the genuine commitment many at Fordham have to ensuring that we continue to evolve and challenge ourselves as we work to deliver a meaningful, equitable and ethically-focused educational experience to our diverse body of students.