Students at the University of Chicago are uniquely affected by the complex mosaic of tragedies affecting colleges, communities, and the world at large. Continued escalation and spread of COVID-19 happen alongside rising waves of police brutality. In response to the latter, protests have spread across most major cities within the United States. In the city of Chicago, protests reached Hyde Park in a brilliant display of powerful solidarity between Black and non-Black teachers, students, and community members alike. The combined presence of all of these events is impossible to ignore. The unique experience of being a student during them is simple but massive: We are still expected to continue with school and finals as if everything were normal. In making accommodations, many professors place the burden on students to indicate their needs rather than easing requirements proactively. Having individual students explain their extenuating circumstances is the normal response, and, admittedly, suits normal circumstances.
But the current circumstance could not be further from normal and is unquantifiably extenuating. Digestion of current events en masse is totalizing. We can’t carve out time from our schedules to digest these emergencies. That is fundamentally not how emergencies work. As a Black student, I find myself spending nearly every moment thinking about news or brutality or coverage of protests. As a Black American, I identify with George Floyd and countless other victims of brutality. For the expressive movements happening just blocks from the room where I work, it is impossible and impractical to ignore them. And even if it were possible, who is to say it is correct to ignore protests in the first place?
Even if I tried to focus intensely on schoolwork, compartmentalizing that work would be impossible because the platforms I must engage with for school are the same as those I use to engage with the world at large. I must use my computer and the internet to attend lectures, I must operate social media to communicate, I must keep my email open to receive communication. All of the networks used for school are the same networks used to spread the word about a much bigger issue. There is no possibility for “putting my phone away” to take physical notes during class. A no-screen policy is an abject impossibility during remote learning.
Where do professors fit into all of this? Many are providing accommodations and choosing to lower the demands of their courses in light of the extent to which police violence and its responses affect students. Student organizers have also done incredible work to collect the stories of those students affected. Mutual-aid groups have succeeded where the governance of the city of Chicago has failed, distributing food and providing shelter as Mayor Lori Lightfoot ends distribution of the former and creates logistical impediments to the latter. But professors need to also be aware of the cognitive burden that exists within asking for help. At a university filled with (and perhaps marred by) a focus on perfection and merit, personal circumstance feels like an excuse. This is why the students choose to go to class when their mental health is suffering or feel compelled to hide their need for reasonable accommodation. In these times, it is necessary for professors and administrators to take the first steps. This means proactively easing requirements rather than putting the onus on students, especially Black students, to reveal their emotional state as individuals.
Unless instructors take this step, students will suffer behind a veil of solvency. If professors ask for individuals to ask for accommodations, students will invariably underreport their needs. But, making an effort to reach out requires leaping over a massive emotional threshold. Expecting every student to do this will inevitably lead some to stay silent. Black students who already are forced to navigate their public engagement with race at this university will be the ones who suffer, and the University will be able to tell themselves “job well done” nevertheless. This is why petitions and forms that aggregate support are so powerful, while requests for individuals to reach out are met with relative silence. The emotional threshold to speak out is massively surpassed by collective action, and even further surpassed when the professors in control of grades act proactively.
This is a unique time. While the brutality is terrifying, the response is much more powerful. I don’t think I am alone in saying that the power of public resistance feels different now than it has before. Perhaps fueled by the economic and class disparities made public by COVID-19, these movements feel elevated by a stronger recognition of their justification both domestically and internationally. In terms of scope, this combination of crises certainly passes the threshold for making decisions about the needs of students. When responding to those needs, professors, please make the choice that benefits all of those students, not just those who feel comfortable enough to reach out.
Jay Gibbs is a fourth-year in the College.