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Notes to Our High School Students – Part 2 of 3: Distance and the College Experience

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During the current COVID-19 crisis, one group in the biggest limbo – at least socially – is high school students (mostly juniors and seniors) engaged in the college search, application, and acceptance process.  How the virus will affect those students’ paths isn’t completely clear yet, but Windsor Square resident and former UCLA writing professor Bruce Beiderwell (recently retired from the university for the second time), has graciously shared some thoughts in a three-part series for the Buzz.  This is part two. (Part 1 is College Choice & Coronavirus, and Part 3 is Loss and the Big Picture.)

My last day as Director of UCLA Writing Programs (a brief call-back to the job I retired from 3 years ago) was March 10.  On March 11, the university shifted into a distance mode of operating. Classes weren’t cancelled, but class meetings in the usual sense were.

Teachers and students have scrambled and will continue to scramble as UCLA, like schools public and private at all levels nationwide, addresses the threat of Covid-19. The small personal story (my second retirement) and the huge public one (education adjusting to demands of the moment) are unrelated. But the proximity of the two has prompted me to think about the “college experience,” both as I’ve known it and as I’ve seen it change. I’ve thought in particular about the shape of things to come, when current practices of retreat and seclusion can be relaxed. While there is no predicting specifically how (or when) that will unfold, it does appear likely that college life—teaching, learning, and socializing—will never fully return to the pre-pandemic world I worked in for roughly 40 years. That’s because the current crises accelerates instructional initiatives and social changes—whether promising or problematic—already in motion.

Distance learning isn’t, after all, a new idea for a young generation of educators. Lectures once delivered to hundreds of students in a theater like space are being replaced by on-line presentations. And even small discussion groups designed to supplement these lectures have been moving to digital spaces. For teachers and administrators, the coronavirus has prompted a required crash course in the latest on-line methods. Those skeptical of such new modes of instruction have no choice now but to learn and practice what they have resisted.

UCLA’s immediate response to the public health crisis, like the response of many institutions, is responsible and impressive. Faculty, with support from staff and administration, are working hard to rethink ways to teach. And students seem ready and willing to test new ways to learn. Everyone understands we cannot disregard new tools to address new threats. Still, long term, it will be important that we not learn the wrong things from the urgent demands of the moment—that we not double down on past mistakes.

Such doubling down has happened before. Leaders in education across the country have often invoked distance learning as budgetary magic; surely a wave of the digital wand both cuts costs and increases revenue. This sadly misguided notion displaces an individual instructor’s expertise. It frames instruction as a delivery system; knowledge becomes a thing that can be packaged and transported as opposed to a process that’s always being created.

As for social distancing, we should remember that it, too, has been happening for more than a decade. We shop online, obsess over social media, and work from home. Many remain tied to the phone during meals, at the expense of other people sitting around the table.

Now we’re pressed by necessity to quickly adopt digital pedagogies that may exaggerate troubling behaviors.

In our shut down mode and in days ahead when the world reopens, we’ll have much to think about. There are good ways forward of course. But history has brought us to a dangerous crossing of distance learning and social distancing. An uncritical embrace of the two together will leave us with plenty of distance, but little that concerns learning and less that sustains our social fabric.


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Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell
Bruce Beiderwell was Director UCLA Writing Programs from 2000 until his retirement in 2017. He was called back to that role in November 2019 on an interim basis. He is now again retired and, of course, staying at home.

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