Despite the many drawbacks of life during COVID-19, it would seem that working from home has afforded some luxuries. Rolling out of bed, fixing breakfast, and commuting to work can all be done in one fell swoop, and we can now start our days in just five minutes. Yet, the numerous calls to reinstitute in-person classes point to the fact that we ultimately need separate work and home spaces to protect us from the greater insanity of living constantly in the same place in which we work.
Columbia may thank us for our patience—and perhaps there is satisfaction to be had in being able to recover some sense of normalcy in our academic lives this year. However, the push to return to traditional patterns of instruction and examination from before the pandemic is symptomatic of a toxic cult of productivity that we need to address, condemn, and get rid of if we truly mean to serve this world with respect, humility, and purpose.
There are some advantages to working from home. For the sake of convenience we were compelled to invite our work into the spaces that had been solely ours before the pandemic. We condensed our lives into quarantine bubbles. As a result, the distinctions between the spaces in our lives have come blurred.
Imagine spending a night in your classroom—wouldn’t it be absurd? But that’s what many of us are forced to do now, sleeping in the same places where we stress and subsist.
We must acknowledge that our professional and academic lives are not and cannot be normal for the time being. However, we don’t often talk about how it is normal to want to rush back to work. People’s livelihoods are dependent on work in a much more urgent and existential way than on their social lives, especially now as the economic situation has robbed people of the right to live. Work, for better or worse, enables life in a capitalist society, so it’s natural that society hasn’t looked down upon a hasty return to the office in comparison to a hasty return to the city’s clubs. However, there’s a critical difference between enabling work that allows us to live and urging an early return to work that unrepentantly denies the public health crisis around us—this is the difference between productivity as a virtue and productivity as a cult. And I find Columbia, a supposed bastion of academic virtue, to be a potent fomenter of this latter notion of toxic work.
Last semester was, of course, incredibly unusual. I had difficulty processing that an administration that loathes giving a snow day had suddenly made all classes pass/fail. Yet this semester, it seems as though Columbia is somehow fine with pretending that everything is academically normal again. There is a difference between trying to reimagine what normal looks like in an abnormal time and trying to artificially impose normality.
Why, for example, must the economics department insist on administering live exams with Proctorio? Is this not the time, perhaps as some of my professors have realized, to do away with the ruthless nature of the typical college exam? When is it natural to share ideas or finish writing a theorem in half an hour? Testing or no testing, this obsession is demonstrative of a university that claims to society that its self-worth is in intellectualism and education, but internally, perpetuates a system which evaluates that self-worth through competition and elitism with no authentic pedagogical end.
Universities are supposed to be imbued with intangible academic and moral values. But Columbia’s continuous demands on students to continue working as if nothing has changed exposes it to be of a far more callous institution. It resembles the institutions—whether they be corporations forcing their workers to come back in hazardous conditions, or a government that has eschewed its sense of civic duty—that have utterly absolved themselves of any idealistic mission, and instead have become obsessed with reinstating the exploitative norms of toxic productivity that allow them to maintain power.
Of course, a few Columbia students, myself included, view the University as an unconflicted agent of social good. Yet, in this critical period, to make our time here truly worthwhile, we must not compromise our ideals. Let us judge why we consider whether academic institutions and rituals to be like high-pressure test-taking and excessive work are not just appropriate in our current time, but whether they are fundamentally appropriate to our educational and social mission at all.
For Columbia to serve its global mission with a modicum of authenticity during this pandemic, it first needs to prove that it can attend to the needs of the students by not exploiting or enforcing, but really educating so that we’re back even better than before.
The author of this piece has abused the power of the snooze button countless times this semester. Please send all questions and grievances to firstname.lastname@example.org. Nowhere, Somewhere, Everywhere runs every three weeks on Thursdays and Fridays.
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