Thankfully, the long trudge through 2020 is almost over, and the promise of a new year, however symbolic, cannot help but inspire hope and fear for the coming winter of our discontent. Brandeis has faced some drastic changes—transitioning to a mostly online learning environment, implementing new software and attempting to hold a campus community together without everyone physically being on campus. Looking to 2021, it’s important to keep in mind both the successes and failings of our university and our student representatives to make 2021 the best it can be despite the circumstances.
The greatest lesson we can take away from 2020 is the importance of empathy. The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways, exacerbating existing challenges, like heavy workloads, mental health struggles and access to crucial resources. Simply having a stable Wi-Fi connection is a privilege, one that not everyone has access to away from the Brandeis campus. Professors and students alike need to be kind to each other, and we must be kind to ourselves. Everyone has been hurt by the pandemic, and the best we as a community can do is be good to one another. As the pandemic will drag on into 2021, professors need to remain flexible and empathetic to student concerns and challenges. While we as a student body may be more used to the electronic life that the pandemic has forced upon us, that does not make this new existence any easier.
One action professors can take to make next semester go as smoothly as possible is having a consistent and clearly explained schedule. It is already very difficult for students to navigate this new online environment, and with the lack of an organized syllabus or the sudden addition of new assignments, it can feel impossible to keep track of every change. While adjusting a syllabus will certainly be necessary for some, unexpected changes and an unknown class schedule adds to a semester’s already massive stress. We would like to encourage professors to keep a set number of lectures and assignments: an organized class provides a necessary anchor to a learning environment that has become radically decentralized.
We also encourage students to remain committed to preventing the spread of the coronavirus in the Brandeis community. Compared to many other universities, Brandeis’ number of coronavirus cases was low throughout the fall semester. By the time classes resume in the spring, this pandemic will have been a major fixture in the United States for almost a full year. It may be tiring, and we all may be getting frustrated with the precautions, but these precautions are necessary. This semester has demonstrated that they can be effective in keeping our community safe and healthy.
We also hope that the Student Union will see next year as an opportunity to be more transparent with its student constituents. Given that the current president and vice president jointly ran on a platform of transparency, it has been alarming to see how often the union has refused to discuss matters before the public. Particularly, the weekly calling of “executive session,” a closed portion of the union meeting during which reporters and members of the public are not allowed to be present, has been used in nearly every Student Union Senate meeting this year.
The Senate has, in the past, used executive session to avoid admitting to the public that the Union cancelled its diversity, equity and inclusion training after Union members failed to attend, according to a previous article by The Brandeis Hoot. This year, executive sessions were used to privately discuss controversial issues like white affinity spaces—spaces for anti-racist trainings available to students, staff and faculty offered by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI)—and accommodating international students taking courses abroad. (The ODEI’s site for the affinity spaces has since been taken down but can be viewed on an internet archive site). These discussions, which were about important issues that affect the lives of Brandeis students every day, occurred in the shadows, away from the eyes and ears of the Senate’s constituents. Senators and other members of the Student Union must never forget that they are elected to serve the public and its interests, not their own.
We encourage the Student Union to be transparent through senate meetings and more generally as well. While executive session is allowed according to the Union constitution, the practice’s use severely limits the student body’s ability to evaluate the work of the Student Union. It is critical that the Union upholds its promise of transparency. Open communication is crucial to a functioning government. As Louis D. Brandeis himself once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
The nation dances upon a razor’s edge, but with a successful vaccine on the horizon, it is easier than ever to indulge in a little healthy optimism. We cannot slip, however. If we hold fast to the measures that worked this semester, the spring semester can pass with equal, if not greater success. Zoom technologies are almost comfortable to us now, and it is our hope that professors will continue to learn and adapt the software to their best teaching methods. Beyond that, the possibilities are endless.