The pandemic scatters a vulnerable college community in new graphic novel – The 74

When the pandemic crippled Adam Bessie’s classroom in March 2020, the longtime California community college instructor was teaching a course aptly titled “The End of the World As We Know It: The Literature of the Apocalypse.”

Better yet, his students were discussing “The Machine Stops,” a 1909 story by E. M. Forster in which future humans live in isolation, even from family members, forever in fear of toxic air and human contact. The characters only see each other through screens.

Forster’s story frames the narrative of Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey, Bessie’s first graphic memoir, along with artist Peter Glanting, which offers a surreal, often grim take on the pandemic and its impact on Bessie and his students. The book also laments the “diaspora” that the pandemic has spawned, concluding that while it has not created “inequality, standardization and corporatization” in public education, it has made it “more painfully visible” than ever .

Going Afar (Seven Stories Press)

So far the book has received widespread praise: Publishers Weekly gave it a coveted “star” review, calling it “poignant” and including excerpts from one of the chapters. It was also named one of the Top 10 Adult Graphic Novels and Comics of Spring 2023.

Bessie entered the Spring 2020 semester in the midst of a personal crisis, returning to campus while recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumor. He has long enjoyed the contagious energy and “electric current” that flows through a good classroom, citing educator Bob Moses’ observation that students are “the power in space.”

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So he naturally mourned the loss of face-to-face classes and feared the leveling off that was taking place on Zoom. Once distinctive, quirky individuals, his students quickly became “identical in size, dimension, proportion, equal tiles in a perfect grid”. They often showed up with their cameras and microphones off, “black boxes on mute.”

This sudden absence gave Bessie an opportunity to take a step back and see the transformation taking place not just in his classroom but in his life as he continued his cancer treatments. He began to see himself as an experimental subject whose primary role was to guide his own students through a different kind of experiment as his college expanded its reliance on pre-pandemic technologies like Zoom, Canvas, and Google. While these tools held the community together during the crisis, he writes, they also came with their own stringent requirements: access to a computer, stable Wi-Fi, and a quiet study area, all parameters “specified by the software requirements,” not the Pedagogues. These demands soon overwhelmed many students, some of whom never returned.

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In an interview, the longtime English teacher said that giving in to these demands could jeopardize the community colleges’ open-access mission and displace the students most in need — the very students they are designed to educate. In a way, he said, the book is an exploration of this question: “To what extent are we ceding public control of the commons to corporations?”

Adam Bessie (Photo by Sharrie Bettencort)

The narration in Going Remote, Bessie said, “was immediately comic. I knew from the start that I wanted to express this story in a graphic form.” As soon as the pandemic started, he found himself “writing and drawing about it because I said, ‘After that, there’s going to be something new. ‘ … I had this feeling, ‘This is going to be a big change.’”

He’s always been drawn to comics, largely for their ability to translate abstract, complex concepts into visual form – Glanting, the artist, illustrates Bessie’s ongoing brain cancer as a tiny, white-eyed blob leaning against a stack of books on a shelf in Bessie’s office.

Going Afar (Seven Stories Press)

Bessie was also inspired by the graphic adaptation of University of Illinois scholar William Ayers’ memoir To Teach.

Like Ayers, Bessie writes from a distinctly left-wing perspective, arguing that from the beginning community colleges have been both deeply democratic and “permeated with the virus of class and racial contempt” for their students, both part stepping stone and part gatekeeper.

Community colleges figure prominently in Bessie’s own family history: His father, a penniless Korean War veteran who suffered a “profound hearing loss,” enrolled at a California community college and found educators who, despite his disability, believed in his potential. Eventually he found his way to the University of Southern California, trained as a physical therapist and embarked on a successful career.

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“When I come into the classroom, I still have this feeling: Each of these students is someone who could have been my own father, someone who society didn’t think was literate,” he said.

However, he also warns that there is a dark side to the legacy of community colleges. Founded more than a century ago, the system began with a deliberate design, he said, that, just as often as it singled out marginalized students like Bessie’s father, excluded others from the mainstream of elite higher education.

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So when in the winter of 2020 his students — starting with his “most marginalized” and ending with his best, most open-minded students — began disappearing from Zoom entirely, in a way, Bessie wasn’t surprised. Whether victims of technical problems, work and family commitments, or something else entirely, he concluded that they were actually victims of a type of long-standing neglect that systematically robs them of opportunities.

Going Afar (Seven Stories Press)

Even now, three years after the initial lockdowns, with students slowly returning to campus (Bessie never reveals the name of his Bay Area institution, Diablo Valley College), he said he and his colleagues need to take on more responsibility and ” Becoming emotional frontline workers for students in crisis: As of late 2020, he has been working on his on-campus CARE (Campus Assessment, Response, and Evaluation) team working with students suffering from homelessness, mental health issues, family crises and even suffer adultery. Since the pandemic, he said, CARE reports “have gone through the roof.”

He sees this as a key function of institutions like Diablo Valley.

“As I look at the future of community college, I want us to put as much energy into these systems of care as we do into these systems of technology. … We have all been trained to use online technology. But none of us have been trained on what to do when a student says, ‘I attempted suicide.’”

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Now, about halfway through, back in the classroom — Bessie teaches two fully face-to-face classes and two hybrid classes — he’s “more optimistic than I am about the book’s completion.” The classes, he said, have “amazing energy” with stimulating conversation about readings similar to those he and his students enjoyed before the pandemic.

And he does his best to stay open-minded about technology. The string of distance learning, he said, actually forced him to think not only about how students can excel in an online classroom, but also about the limitations of face-to-face teaching. For example, when he teaches online, students who don’t hear something the first time — he’s a very fast talker, he admits — can go back and watch the lesson again.

Excerpt from Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey, published by Seven Stories Press

But he still has concerns. For one, enrollments have “precipitously” declined since the pandemic, forcing the college to reduce supply. Ironically, while Zoom has proven difficult for many students, a fair proportion are now clamoring for remote, fully asynchronous classes. He worries that given the hybrid curriculum, many new students will never “get that campus experience… of being drawn into the community.” Between lower enrollment and online coursework, he estimated the college appears to be about a quarter as populated as it was in 2019.

In the end, however, it’s “more alive than the end of the book,” he said. A few days ago, for the first time in months, he caught the odor of someone vaping tobacco outside his office building. And then he heard someone playing music a little too loud. “And I was just like, ‘Yeah, we’re back!'”

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