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Monday, May 27, 2024

How hybrid learning could reflect a culture of community

What we owe to each other when sick




My last happy sick day was in third grade, spent enveloped in a mess of blankets, watching “The Princess Bride” for the second time that day. Back then, missing a day of school was a fair trade: one day of sympathy ice cream in exchange for missing a game of four-square at recess. Now, getting sick throws a wrench the size of Montana into your week. Before you know it, you’ve missed four lectures, you desperately need to go grocery shopping and you’re haunted by the raging guilt of unproductivity, as if being sick was just a nauseous bout of laziness. 

And it’s not just about you. Maintaining productivity while sick often means balancing your own interests with the health of those around you. PTA moms will wage a NextDoor war if someone brings their lice-ridden child to after school care, but the guy next you in English class who is apparently hacking up a hairball — who’s going to send him home? Honestly, how could you tell him to leave? Attendance is mandatory, the lectures aren’t recorded, the slides aren’t uploaded and the quizzes are pop. If he’s unlucky, missing a day might mean a 5% dock in his grade. 

How we navigate illness is a social contract; one that we’re renegotiating in the fallout of a pandemic. This is especially true in academic spaces. We can’t expect staying home sick to be considered common courtesy and, in the next breath, punish students who choose to vomit in the comfort of their own home. Right now, the U.S. feels itself being pulled back to a culture of brutal individualism at the expense of collective good, but it’s not an inevitable end. Five years ago, asking someone on the train to wear a mask would be unthinkable. Now, we have a window of opportunity to reshape the way we deal with illness, and with it, each other. 

But while COVID-19 has understandably changed our perspective on health, it is worth keeping in mind that there are plenty of ways to get sick, including the cold, flu and strep that have haunted college students for centuries. Campaigning to let people stay home hasn’t translated equally to other ailments, physical or mental, that might be just as debilitating. It’s interesting to see how “COVID” is sometimes all it takes to cancel a meeting that “overwhelming stress,” “period pain” or “personal issues” don’t seem to budge. The grace we’ve learned to extend toward students affected by COVID, as well as the remote learning tools we’ve gained, should be extended to other personal situations.

It’s a wonderful thing when self-interest coincides with the greater good, but it isn’t built into an individualist, workaholic system. We need to actively encourage people to take the breaks they need, and disincentivize students working themselves into a coughing fit in the back of the class. Setting up systems that support this is worth our time, but students and teachers who ask for accommodations are repeatedly met with outcry. 

The pushback against accommodations for and hybridization of learning on college campuses comes from the combination of two flawed ideas. One, that learning is synonymous with showing up, and two, that no one would show up if given the option not to. 

The first premise is easy enough to disprove —- just look over the shoulder of that girl watching “Gossip Girl” in Ochem. Or, conversely, look at the students who manage to snag a perfect score without ever showing up to class. Clearly, there’s a disconnect. 

The impact of showing up to class varies by the class itself. For STEM students, large in-person classes often have everything in common with recorded lectures besides the ability to rewind. Broadly, humanities classes tend to make better use of their students’ presence with activities like group discussion. This is not necessarily a universal application — but it raises the point that the in-person experience benefits different classes to different extents. 

The second belief, that everyone would avoid the classroom if given the chance, is pretty easy to debunk as well. Every hybrid class has at least a few people showing up synchronously or in person. Many students prefer to show up to lecture, and do so regardless of a stress-inducing, inflexible attendance policy. 

Running a university is an expensive undertaking, but UC Davis has the resources required to make learning accessible to a wider student population. If students are paying for their education, it should be available to them even when they get a cold. It should be available to students with chronic health issues, disabilities or mental health struggles. Extending lecture capture to more classrooms is one example of how the school could prioritize well-being over traditional expectations of learning. In-person examinations, creative tests and make-up assignments for those who have to miss class — there are many ways in which professors can monitor and encourage the learning of their students without sacrificing respect for our health and autonomy.

Ultimately, the power should be in the hands of the student. The threat that students may avoid lecture and speed-run recordings without learning anything is an empty one. So what if they do? If anyone spending thousands of dollars to get an education doesn’t invest the time to learn the material, they’re supposed to see the consequences of their actions in their grades. Certainly, this is a better proposition than punishing the students who want to learn but are sick, having caught a cold from a student just like them. By giving students and teachers the tools they need to take care of themselves, we protect and strengthen UC Davis. Let the way we treat sickness in others expose our priorities to be our friends, families and community.


Written by: The Editorial Board