The end of community college?

Censored by Adam Bessie / Project

On Friday, March 13th, 2020, the community college system as we knew it ended – and I’m not sure it will ever return.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

The day before the pandemic forced our San Francisco Bay Area campus to close, I taught my last face-to-face class. Appropriately, it was a science fiction/fantasy course where we had just completed a unit on The End of the World As We Know It: The Fiction of the Apocalypse. This is no joke: we were investigating the apocalypse when it seemed to be coming. And to add to this cosmic prank, we had just read a 1909 story by EM Forster, The Machine Stops, about a distant future where people live underground in bunkers to escape the toxic air of a poisoned planet, with the only source of human contact being via TV-like screens. But that day there was no banter, no discussion, no fun – we were just planning our exodus from campus.

A week later, taking shelter in our bunkers, we met again at Cloud College, a community in exile held together by a patchwork of big tech platforms – Zoom, Canvas, Google. What was intended as an emergency measure became our new reality as our public “classroom” was a virtual space created by Silicon Valley for-profit giants.

But not everyone has joined us.

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Many students did not make it to Cloud College due to technical and financial hurdles. In fact, it seemed that it was the most vulnerable students—the student community college is meant to open doors, the students I wanted to teach—that were left behind in the online brain drain.

So were the community colleges’ most at-risk employees — associate professors and graduating staff who make up the bulk of the workforce that directs our institution. As a tenured member of the English faculty, I was able to transfer to Cloud College, but many of my colleagues were dismissed without ceremony or even recognition of their services. Associate professors were not even formally dismissed, they were simply not offered teaching positions.

But when I came back to earth last year, it was still a dystopia — no New Deal passed to turn community colleges into educational leaders, even though we need such a program even more now. The campus felt dead: silent classrooms, silent hallways, silent ashlars, and a few masked survivors sauntering across the empty expanse. No, many of the students did not return to the ground — or to online classes. And many of those lost colleagues never came back, and worse, they were thrown down a memory hole like 1984, as if they had never been a part of our community at all.

While the Covid-19 state of emergency has now been declared over, the crisis in our community college system is not yet over. Although enrollment has increased and I’ve noticed a new vibrancy on campus and in the classroom, many students are still struggling. Since the pandemic began, I’ve received several emails a week from students reporting on personal crises — anxiety, suicidal thoughts, homelessness, food insecurity, domestic violence — that pushed me into the role of a counselor, a therapist, or a social worker. I often feel less like an English teacher and more like an untrained social worker. As I’m neither trained nor empowered, my only option is to send tons of reports to the campus crisis team, which is designed to support students in such emergency situations. In fact, I’ve sent out so many crisis reports during that time that I was invited to be the team’s faculty representative and had a front row seat to what the American Psychological Association has dubbed the “Youth Mental Health Crisis.” This crisis has roots that predate the pandemic and is being exacerbated by a lack of resources, leaving too many young people untreated and unsupported.

In the face of this mental health crisis, in the face of pervasive learning loss, in the face of rapid advances in digital technology, we cannot go back to the old system. We must envision and fund this utopian vision, a New Deal to develop a community college that treats students – and staff – as full human beings, with comprehensive services that can only be provided by dedicated human staff coupled with carefully deployed technology.

But more than three years after the outbreak of COVID, I’m afraid Naomi Klein was right in her May 2020 Intercept prophetic essay “Screen New Deal,” saying that this disaster is “a living laboratory for a lasting — and highly profitable — non.” -Insurance” had been. Touch the future.” The “Screen New Deal” is a corporate takeover of key democratic functions, such as schooling. In other words, I worry that our community college — a vibrant, public, democratic space — will be replaced by Cloud College, a privatized corporate space run by for-profit algorithms and now AI like ChatGPT. Rather than this crisis being a moment to design human, community-centric solutions, built from the ground up by students and educators to meet their needs, I fear we are turning to purely technocratic and technological solutions that address this to meet the demands of shareholders.

But don’t worry: ChatGPT has assured me that community colleges will not be replaced by AI anytime soon.

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