It’s midterm at universities across the United States, and students and teachers accustomed to three semesters of online learning are adjusting to the engagement that in-person learning requires. Even as academic institutions are celebrating a return to campus, the last weeks have made me wonder: Have we grown so far apart that we no longer know how to be in community, face-to-face?
As an English professor at the University of Indianapolis, I’m seeing students who remained enrolled during the pandemic drop out of classes. New first-year students are likewise struggling with attendance or withdrawing from college altogether. I’ve experienced more incivility in the classroom than ever before, and I’ve also filed more student concern forms with our retention coordinator in the past five weeks than in the previous five years combined. For me, this semester feels disconnected, despite students’ reported desire for in-person camaraderie and classroom experiences.
Eager myself for connection, I come early to each of my classes to greet arriving students and offer low-stakes chit-chat, and I always offer partner or small-group discussion activities during class. I even require office hour visits for students enrolled in all my first-year courses. Over 30 years of teaching, I’ve learned that these interactions with professors and classmates foster positive interactions in class, as well as provide academic support. But many of my students skip office hours or class, especially on days assignments are due. On campus and in the classroom, I see young people who are paying significant tuition to be there yet consistently tune me and their peers out.
To be sure, today’s undergraduate students are connected, as demonstrated by their active presence on social media. They inhabit worlds curated by niche interests and idea exchanges that past generations could never have envisioned. Yet Frances Haugen’s recent whistleblowing reveals that Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms rely on users’ anger to maintain engagement. Further, the effects of 19 months of pandemic-related disruptions have taken a profound toll on students’ mental health. Online connections and remote learning have not offered a suitable panacea for students’ physical and virtual dislocations – and have, in many cases, only exacerbated them.
Among the many casualties in this scenario are international students. For those whose dreams of in-person study in the U.S. have been realized, detachment from their American peers can be especially painful and confusing. In the past few days, a few international students have shared with me that their classmates seem uninterested in their backgrounds, and they are dumbfounded by Americans’ geographic illiteracy when they mention their countries of origin.
Recalling that informal polls at my university showed a majority of students wanted in-person learning, I asked my class what they might need to engage more with each other. Many offered that they want instructors to take the lead. They suggested teachers use before-class time to capture students’ energy to engage the group in informal conversations. If that time isn’t used, one suggested, phones become a security blanket and a permission to disengage. One student reminded me that meeting people in real life can be disappointing after getting to know them online. Their comments suggest that striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know anything about can be intimidating. Conversation can also be a let-down. And we all risk losing face when interactions take place in person.
Yet I wish my students knew how much opportunities for connections and engagement with the unfamiliar matter. More than two decades of research from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reveals a strong correlation between students’ sense of belonging and likelihood of persistence with their studies, and ultimately, with their academic success. Dropout rates remain at a crisis level throughout the U.S.; at four-year institutions like mine, the dropout rate for students within six years of starting college is 56%.
Connections lead to trust. They also allow students to form working relationships with professors and classmates that will serve them throughout their college careers and beyond, expanding their personal and professional networks and linking them to alumni. Reports suggest that who you know really does matter, particularly when entering the workforce. Relationships with international students – or people with different beliefs and interests – can be particularly important.
Last year, students and instructors longed to escape the isolation of their devices and bid adieu to the Zoom classroom’s Brady Bunch-like squares. But as we forge ahead with the great experiment of in-person classes during an ongoing pandemic, disconnection appears to still be a facet of the college educational experience. Students continue to disappear behind screens. And the masks we wear for our own safety seem also to symbolize detachment from the real life experience of being in college.
Karen L. Newman is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.