Written by: Dr. Sonja Knutson
The responsibility of Canadian universities to support academic freedom has perhaps never been more keenly felt than at this time of the Covid19 pandemic. The new remote learning environment has moved our pedagogy out of the relative privacy of in-Canada classrooms, into makeshift office spaces in homes around the world: into the kitchens and living spaces of our students and their families. What does this shift mean to our values of academic freedom and how do we support global students dealing with course content that may be illegal or taboo in their country or in their homes?
Recently, several like-minded colleagues from across Canada gathered for a conversation on emerging concerns for students studying remotely from their home countries. The concerns are related to geopolitical sensitivities, surveillance of content and illegal or taboo topics that can arise in class discussions over virtual learning platforms. The conversation did not address technology-related issues or solutions but focused instead on an exchange of experiences by the faculty members and administrators present.
Themes that arose through the discussion include:
1. Scope of the issue
It was noted that this is not just a Canadian university concern but that the issues of remote learning and academic freedom are international in scope. Universities globally are openly communicating and reporting on concerns they have about their students who are still stranded in their countries and unable to travel to their destination university.
2. Guidance issued by senior administration
Some institutions sent out guidance to faculty to consider regarding accommodations for students that, due to their physical location, may not be able to engage with certain content. Some are also tracking potentially contentious course content. In addition, it was noted that national media attention was high, but slanted to focus solely on geopolitical concerns and not on other topics such as academic freedom.
Overall there was a sense that senior administration needs to do more to institutionalize the protection of students abroad from threats to academic freedom, and support broader ongoing conversations.
3. Process of raising the issue to faculty
In many cases, the process of raising the issue to faculty was accomplished within departments. Virtual meetings organized by Graduate Studies and Teaching and Learning offices, webinars for instructors, departmental level conversations, and individual conversations between faculty members are some of the ways institutions are raising the awareness of this issue among faculty.
The issue was also raised about future travel safety of professors who openly discuss topics in virtual platforms that are contentious in some countries.
4. How faculty are addressing issues in class
It was noted that in university academic culture we invite frank and open conversations, yet our ability to support vulnerable students is now compromised. Many universities never previously considered how private an in-person classroom setting is, and our tendency has been to use this same paradigm of privacy (and safety) in the switch to virtual platforms.
Even when faculty address risk issues clearly, putting the onus on individual students to self-report risk is problematic. Instructors are advised to consider that not every student will respond to requests to let them know if they are at risk. Some professors have engaged student researchers on this topic, to share their findings with the class.
Participants in the discussion also shared syllabus information and Scholars at Risk videos on academic freedom as instructor resources. A few practical suggestions were made, for example instead of providing material for download, taking screenshots to show on screen, and avoiding sharing documents virtually.
5. Supports and accommodations for students
Some institutions have asked for student input, for example inviting graduate students to speak and share experiences. Some faculty members directly addressed their students, often using the initial discussion of the syllabus as the starting point to address the wide range of possible topics that could arise and opening conversations with students to convey that engaging with these topics could pose a risk.
The topic of “what happens if” an instructor is unwilling to give an accommodation over contentious content was explored, and it was suggested in that case to involve the university’s human rights office or similar on-campus entity.
Concern was raised about putting the onus on the student to mitigate their own risks. Some faculty worry that the young people in their classes may not internalize or comprehend the extent of the risk, and may not take it seriously. The group wondered whether professors may be feeling the risks more than students, and balancing our sense of risk with students’ sense of risk is a challenge. The question of whether or not institutions should be more systematically involved in protecting students that could be at risk through stronger guidelines was raised
6. Specific topics of concern
The topic of LBGTQ2S studies was raised as one of the more difficult to address and those class discussions could put students studying in their homes at risk, both inside and outside of Canada. Universities have worked hard to create safe spaces on campuses, however, private home spaces do not necessarily have that same built-in safety.
Surveillance was also raised – not only big “S” surveillance related to geopolitical issues and government monitoring of content and class discussions – but also the vulnerability of students to other students reporting on them, recording what they are saying, or taking screenshots.
7. Allyship on academic freedom between faculty members and students
Faculty members discussed dealing with their anger over these new threats to academic freedom, wondering, how do we balance all this without self-censoring or imposing self-censoring on students in order to keep them safe? The importance of continual affirmation publicly and in classes of preserving academic freedom cannot be stressed enough.
Some faculty members noted that during discussions of the syllabus and potential risks that domestic students seemed to tune out. They pointed out to all students that while many have academic freedom now, it is a shared responsibility to ensure this value is maintained.
In summary, Covid-19 has changed how students and faculty interact with course content, and how we understand our role to support and protect academic freedom. While none of us have expertise in this new normal, having conversations with stakeholders on campus and with trusted colleagues across the country has helped us to determine some arising themes. We continue to monitor and support our institutions on this topic.
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