Dump “Hybrid Learning”: A critique of the #SFUCovidWalkout demands

Two years into the global pandemic, the BC Provincial Health Services Authority’s strategy has become defined by its contradictions. All social gatherings that depend on and feed voluntary community energies are banned. All social gatherings that feed for-profit business markets are encouraged. All industries that drag workers into harm’s way are exempted altogether from restrictions. The buck stops not with the government or business, but with the individual. Each of us bears the responsibility to wear masks, to rapid test, and to bear the cost and burden of self-isolation.

The SFU administration’s “return to normal” is no different – it bears all the marks of neoliberal policy set by the Thatcherite slogan of individual responsibility. The bean counters have packed classrooms to the rafters. The administration offloads the responsibility of managing these everyday mass spreader events onto individual instructors and individual students. In my classroom we took a vote and decided there’s to be no water drinking in the classroom so no one lowers their mask. We’re desperate to do what we can even while anything we can do feels futile, like spitting to irrigate a desert. The university administration and all levels of government are organizing, with their limitless resources, against our best efforts.

So I was heartened to see SFU students standing up and walking out, fighting against the market-driven logic of the university administration. On January 24th, an ad-hoc group of students called a walkout and rally on the SFU Burnaby campus under the slogan, “SFU Covid Walkout.” The basic critique made by the action was that, by forcing a return to in-person classes, the SFU administration is sacrificing the health and safety of students, teaching faculty, and staff at the university. But I was disappointed to see the same familiar contradictions of government Covid policy, where all health and safety policies break against the hull of the ship of capitalist markets, here also in the #SFUCovidWalkout demands

The SFU Covid Walkout demands are split. Some are redistributive demands that focus on the state, including the university-state of SFU administration. Other demands are neoliberal because they line up with the income-seeking agenda of that administration against campus workers.

The redistributive demands are those that target the state to increase what Marxist feminists call the “social wage.” Free N95 masks means that the university must spend its resources to increase the relative safety of those it is forcing to come together in classrooms and on campus, putting its money where its mouth is. Free and accessible rapid testing means that the university and Provincial health authority must expand health care resources and infrastructure to people in the ways that we need. Extending tuition and course withdrawal deadlines demands that the administration change the rules to support students to participate in the university in the ways that suit them, based on their particular circumstances, which are universally shifting and unpredictable. These redistributive demands don’t change the fundamental problem, that the bourgeois state is forcing us into a cynical “return to normal” dance that brings us into the path of sickness and harm. But they can make a small difference by outfitting our people, who are trying so hard to do whatever we can, with some of the tools we need.

The other demands are neoliberal because they have a different class character, by which I mean they are demanding action of working class people rather than ruling class institutions. “Extension of remote learning” is a demand of mixed consequence, because it demands that the administration continue to allow (some) classes to be online. It could be a redistributive demand if it meant demanding separate online as well as and apart from in-person options for all classes – essentially doubling the amount of classes available for students, as well as doubling the number of instructors hired to teach these classes. But the framing of the most neoliberal demand, for “permanent hybrid learning,” makes it seem that this is not what the organizers of the SFU Covid Walkout have in mind. Rather than demanding the increase of education resources for students and instructors, the “hybrid learning” framework calls for an intensification of work for instructors, and could result in a two-tier classroom for students.

Instructors and students at SFU and Fraser International College, SFU’s private partner international feeder school, have borne the logistical and practical burden of organizing the turn to online learning demanded by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In just days and weeks, in real time, instructors accomplished in practice what administrators have failed to mandate for decades: we created online classes that sort of worked. We rewrote our syllabi and lesson plans, scrambled to figure out how to make breakout rooms work on Zoom, and made awkward (and occasionally good) pre-recorded lectures. And students crafted at-home offices and call-in stations out of the most improbable spaces, created WhatsApp groups to compensate for their sudden loss of organic social spaces and study groups, and pried their eyelids open to somehow pay attention through the most grueling and boring classes imaginable. International students did it all while battling depression, social isolation and loneliness, and terrible and often terrifying distance from their families and loved ones, including across closed and locked down borders.

The university administration did not help. They did not increase the pay to instructors for their many hours of course adjustments. They offloaded infrastructure costs of buildings, electricity, cleaning, and photocopying to individual workers but never moved funding to pay the costs of instructors’ home offices. At FIC, during these semesters of massive cost cutting, the administration actually raised tuition on international students – twice, in both the fall and spring semesters.

Whether at public institutions like SFU and UBC or their private subordinates like FIC, administrations are interpreting and applying the direction of the government. In December, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, sent a letter to the presidents of post-secondary institutions telling them to “maintain in-person instruction on post-secondary campuses and ensure students continue to have in-person access to their instructors.” The Province’s “Covid-19 Return-to-Campus Guidelines,” updated January 28th 2022, said, “there are no limits on the number of participants for in-class educational activities. Classes can be scheduled without physical distancing requirements (e.g. a classroom with 30 seats can be scheduled with 30 students; a lecture theatre with 150 seats can be scheduled with 150 students).” The government offloaded responsibility for safety from institutions to individuals. The BC Centre for Disease Control’s “Return to Campus Public Health Guidance” of January 25th 2022 said:

Physical distancing (consistently maintaining 2 metres between people) is no longer required in indoor public spaces by public health or required by WorkSafeBC. People on campus can be encouraged to spread out within available space and to consider and respect others’ personal space (the distance from which a person feels comfortable being next to another person).

Limiting the number of people within indoor public spaces is no longer required by public health or required by WorkSafeBC. People can be encouraged to spread out within the available space and normal room occupancy limits should not be exceeded (where applicable).

Post-secondary institutions are not required to manage the flow of pedestrian traffic within buildings or confined areas, or post occupancy limits for spaces such as elevators or washrooms.

The BCCDC and Provincial Health Office told administrators that the sole responsibility for transmission of Covid-19 rested on individuals, who must complete “a daily self-administered health check,” “stay home when sick,” and “get tested when recommended.” Finally, they recommend, “[h]and hygiene should be actively promoted.” None of these provisions require anything from university administrations, every provision requires exceptional action by individuals.

In this context, and as a sessional instructor (i.e. precariously hired on a semester-to-semester basis), the concept of “permanent hybrid learning” is my nightmare. Teaching an online course effectitvely is fundamentally different from teaching an in-person course effectively. They require totally different syllabi, different lesson plans, different lectures, different workshops, and different assignments. Hybrid learning would mean that individual instructors would have to run two separate classes for the paycheque of one. Hybrid learning would remove the bricks-and-mortar limits on class sizes, opening the logistical possibility for administrators to do what administrators love to do: increase class sizes, also increasing the workload on overburdened instructors.

For students, any proposal for hybrid learning would also be a nightmare. The pandemic turn to online classes proved that administrations don’t lower tuition for reduced services or crappier classes. For students, hybrid learning would mean two tiers of students: in-person students who can get involved in an education relationship with instructors, and online students who are reduced to spectators of that education. The difference between these two tiers of students would be drawn along lines of ability, class, and nationality. Students with disabilities will be more likely to accept online learning rather than a campus that has never really accommodated them. Working class and low-income students, disproportionately Indigenous and Black students, will be more likely to accept online classes where they can stay with their families and not have to deal with high campus rents (after SFU destroyed the non-market family housing at the Louis Riel House), and where there’s more time to work a job while taking classes.

More than 20% of SFU undergraduate students are international students, who pay a higher tuition than domestic students, and who are a particularly attractive crop of potential online-students for greedy fund-chasing administrators because these students could take online classes from their home countries.

“Permanent hybrid learning” is exactly the direction that SFU’s neoliberal administrators already want to go, piling-on the work for the most precariously employed instructors and deepening the divide between classes of students while increasing revenue streams with ever-larger class sizes that can withstand the instability of coming global crises. It demands more from workers and eases pressure on the state. Let’s stick to demands that put the blame and the burden of responsibility where it belongs: on the corporations profiting from the deaths in our communities, and the governments that spin, lie, cover-up, and manage the crisis so it never ends.