There is No Such Thing as “Going Back”

The following was originally published in APSA Educate’s Pandemic Teaching series. The views expressed below are the guest contributors’ and do not represent APSA’s views. To contribute to the series, please send pitches or drafts to Bennett Grubbs, bgrubbs@apsanet.org. This article was featured in the November 2021 issue of Political Science Today, a new member magazine of the American Political Science Association. To read and share the full article, click here.

Left: Kerry F. Crawford, James Madison University; Right: Leah Catheryn Windsor, The University of Memphis

There is No Such Thing as “Going Back”

by Kerry F. Crawford, James Madison University and Leah Catheryn Windsor, The University of Memphis

Colleges and universities in the United States are desperate to “return to normal” after three semesters of teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty, staff, and students have weathered all the disruptions, challenges, and stress that accompany the effort to carry on with higher education while everyone grappled with the effects of local and global trauma brought on by the pandemic. This includes contracting COVID-19 themselves, losing family, friends, and loved ones to the virus, adapting to the stress of virtual education, and adapting to myriad family, social, financial, and caregiving crises and responsibilities.

We don’t think colleges and universities should make a “return to normal” the goal. The pandemic has laid bare the dysfunction in society and in academia with regards to accommodating scholars and students with caregiving burdens. Such an effort to restore or reset campuses to their pre-pandemic versions ignores all that we have learned in the past eighteen months and obscures the reality that we are still very much in the midst of a global public health crisis.

Let’s start with a few reality checks:

1. Parents and caregivers, especially of children under age 12, are not out of the woods by any stretch. Many parents are caught between school boards, governors, and students in quarantine where masks are not mandated. Young children cannot be vaccinated yet, but we are now expected to work, teach, create scholarship, and learn as if the pandemic were over. For many, the flexibility of remote teaching, which made it possible to care for children displaced from school and daycare, is no longer an option. Because the vaccines are miraculously effective so far, those who are fully vaccinated and do not live with or care for young children or medically vulnerable loved ones are better able to compartmentalize the pandemic and carry on.

2. We must remember that faculty, staff, and students who have unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or high-risk people in their households are not yet free to return to normal and are grappling with anxiety and daily risk calculations. Accommodations vary widely for faculty and students who have been exposed to or who have contracted COVID-19: some faculty are prohibited from teaching remotely; some are quietly encouraged to teach virtually while in quarantine.

3. People at higher risk for complications of COVID-19 themselves are not back to normal. Again, the return to pre-pandemic expectations for teaching, learning, and work modalities fails to recognize that the pandemic in some ways poses a greater threat now that many are abandoning precautions in the midst of a more transmissible variant than it did before when most people around us were taking public health precautions.

4. The COVID-19 pandemic is aptly considered a “triple pandemic” or a syndemic. Black and Latino households have been disproportionately affected by the virus and economic insecurity stemming from the pandemic, with both effects linked to systemic racism and structural inequality. Anti-Asian violence and xenophobia have surged in the United States and around the world throughout the pandemic. To return to normal without redressing these harms and their effects on the students, staff, and faculty in our campus communities would be a grave mistake.

5. International faculty, staff, and students have likely been unable to travel to see their families since before the start of the pandemic, their connections impeded by travel restrictions. The emotional burden of this long-term separation is intense.

6. Finally, the job market for political scientists is bleak, and will be for years, as a result of the pandemic. The backlog of talented scholars competing for limited permanent positions is daunting, and our discipline needs to do more to prepare students—from undergraduates to PhDs—for non-academic employment. The academic job market is dominated by contingent positions, instructorships, adjunct faculty, and visiting assistant professorships. Faculty in these positions are in precarious positions, with more professional demands and fewer protections, like health insurance and job security.

We can’t simply return to normal. Keeping in mind that parents, caregivers, and those with medical conditions that place them at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 are not able to return to normal, that international faculty, staff, and students are still separated from loved ones, and that the pandemic has placed a heavier burden of disease, death, violence, and economic hardship on People of Color, pandemic teaching and learning in fall 2021 has to be different.

Such an effort to restore or reset campuses to their pre-pandemic versions ignores all that we have learned in the past eighteen months and obscures the reality that we are still very much in the midst of a global public health crisis. We offer a few key recommendations for managing the coming semester as deftly as possible, with the reminder that none of us is likely to get through this semester without disruption. The fall 2021 semester is going to be challenging and we all long for the pre-pandemic days. But in our longing we cannot ignore the realities of the world in which we currently reside, a world that demands empathy, flexibility, grace, creativity, and communication.


Kerry F. Crawford is an associate professor of political science at James Madison University. She is the author of Wartime Sexual Violence (Georgetown University Press, 2017) and Human Security: Theory and Action. She is the mother of three young children—a dissertation baby and tenure dossier twins.

Leah Cathryn Windsor is an associate professor in the Department of English (Applied Linguistics) and the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis. She studies language patterns in international relations and is a non-resident fellow of the Krulak Center at the Marine Corps Academy. She is the mother of two young pre-tenure children.
Their book, The PhD Parenthood Trap: Caught Between Work and Family in Academia, is available from Georgetown University Press as of October 2021.

Political Science Today  is a new member magazine of the American Political Science Association. The magazine includes news about the discipline, member spotlights, association updates, and other content previously featured in PS: Political Science & PoliticsPolitical Science Today is released quarterly in February, May, August, and November in print and online. All APSA members will receive a print copy of the first issue in February 2021.

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