“Communication and collaboration are thus key features of our institutional culture. Indeed, the very nature of our community is inherently collaborative and collective, not isolated and insular.” - Dean Boyer to students and parents during a COVID-19 Town Hall, July 15th
While Dean Boyer is correct in saying that collaboration and communication underlie and define the UChicago community, his implication that isolation inherently stagnates these foundational elements of community is poorly founded and underestimates UChicago students’ adaptive capacity for collaboration.
In so doing, Dean Boyer is nurturing a prophecy that I fear may be self-fulfilled. Rather than drawing attention to how isolated our community has become, Dean Boyer should prompt students to find ways to alleviate this isolation, to develop a new collective community come autumn. During the remote spring quarter, I discovered that this is possible.
Take, for example, a group of friends that I met in one of my classes this past autumn. We got along nicely on campus, but frequently our full schedules prevented us from spending time together. At the start of spring quarter, we agreed to hold a Zoom meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 12:30 CST (even though none of us resided in that time zone). At first, I was a little skeptical about how long these meetings would persist. Now after talking multiple times a week for the past 18 weeks, I’m beyond grateful we managed to do so. We planned a surprise birthday delivery for one of the members of the group that ended up being neither a delivery nor a surprise because the Doordash driver never arrived, forcing our friend to pick it up himself. We watched as one friend made everything from cinnamon rolls to deep dish pizza. We planned a wedding for one of the members of the group… when she wasn’t there. We got tours of each of our childhood homes and met family members. We pranked each other, helped each other, and struggled together. We found unity despite a separation of four time zones and three different countries. Yet, if we weren’t driven off campus and forced into quarantine, we wouldn’t have become as close as we are now. Yes, we are in a time of isolation. However, my friends and I are far from insular. We saw physical separation as a reason to collaborate, to develop our community further.
For me, the spring quarter also brought academic and extracurricular connections, more so in some ways even than on campus. Despite the quick adjustment, the university made nearly everything available online and I found myself discovering things I would have most likely overlooked or not have given a second thought to if I still were on campus. I submitted to and was published in Post-X, streamed a live Jazz concert from Chicago while on my roof, and had more time to read the UChicago News.
Professors also encouraged the UChicago community to come together. In one of my classes, Witnessing Medieval Evil, we were sorted into groups of four people and were assigned a collective writing project each week. To plan for this post, we had to meet once a week. I ended up learning about the ambitions and passions of the people within my group, information that I worry I would have had less exposure to had class been held in person.
I’m not saying that virtual learning has no downsides. Students fail when their internet does. Our ability to focus diminishes quickly, if it even existed in the first place. For some, the time change can lead to uneven sleep schedules, messing with brain chemistry and mental health. There are technical difficulties and professors encounter challenges utilizing online platforms such as Zoom. It favors those who have stable households, those who can find a quiet place to study and don’t have to help support their families. Since most professors in larger classes disable the video function and don’t take attendance, our presence is not valued as much as it was in person, if it’s even valued at all.
Despite the undeniable downsides to virtual learning, if approached correctly, there are hidden upsides, both academic and social. These benefits will continue to be valuable during the autumn quarter, especially given that (after glancing at the course catalog) the majority of classes will be remote. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the fixed mindset posited by Dean Boyer; it will hinder all attempts to make something meaningful out of one of the most difficult challenges we will likely face during our time in college. Yet, as we all well know, the vast majority of UChicago students pride themselves on overcoming barriers placed before them. There is little we can do about our current situation, yet the way in which we react to it can make all the difference.
Maya Ordonez is a second-year in the College.