Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this conversation, Na’ilah Suad Nasir (president of the Spencer Foundation) spoke with Cole Edick (program associate, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs), explaining how the expansion of remote learning should be examined critically by social science, and why we need new roles for scholarship in this pivotal moment.

Source: Angie Maxwell / @AngieMaxwell1

Cole Edick (CE): You chose an amusing social media post for your image. What does it have to say about this moment, and how might it help future researchers understand Covid-19?

Na’ilah Suad Nasir (NSN): I think the post suggests that the ways in which we’ve been thinking about the implications of this pandemic for education are a bit reductive and that, in fact, young people are thinking about this in much more complex and sophisticated ways than adults are.

I think about how research has approached issues of technology and learning. So much of the approach has been about providing devices and thinking about inequality as a shortage of devices. What this post makes apparent is that, even if you have the devices, if the medium’s not speaking to what young people need, they will engage it in a way that makes the space for them to take care of themselves.

This kid decided that the Zoom classroom was not worth her time and gamed the system so that she could play with the dog, which was what she really needed. It highlights how emotional needs have to come first. You can’t actually start thinking about teaching online effectively until you understand what learners need. And we’ve talked much less about that in the social sciences.

I felt that the post suggests an approach to education and studying education that is broader, that is more about the people and how systems are meeting people’s needs or not, and that takes into account the sophistication of this generation when it comes to technology.

CE: Your work is about the interaction between identity and education. If the medium of remote learning doesn’t speak to young people under all circumstances, what are the implications of the challenges of this remote-learning moment for different kinds of students?

NSN: That when young people don’t feel connected, they will check out. Some will check out in these sophisticated kinds of ways. Other folks might not log on at all. This has implications for students of color, and African American learners in particular. What we know about schools is that they exclude and alienate on a number of dimensions: race, social class, gender identity, disability status, all kinds of things. What happens when those exclusionary forces aren’t really addressed, but they’re just brought online?

Is there an opportunity in all of this change to systems of education? I’ve written recently that we’ve seen more change to education in the last two months than we have in the last 50 years. Does that open a possibility to think about what structures would engage a wider swath of young people? Is there some mix of ways to do remote learning with open space for young people in their homes and communities in ways that really resonate for them, while still attending to things like AP exams and college readiness? There’s an opening in this moment that I think the social sciences—and scholars of education in particular—could be an important part of redefining.

CE: What might that look like? How might social scientists take advantage of the opportunity available in all of this change?

NSN: Work on inequality has been so important to what we now understand about education. Documenting inequality is really important. We need to know the parameters, the full implications of the unequal systems we’ve created, and how they hit people’s lives and livelihoods.

And we need social science to step into the creative, innovative work of reimagining social institutions like education. How do we push systems to experiment with what those new kinds of equitable pathways, institutions, and organizations might look like?

Scholars want to step into that work. We just don’t have a good blueprint for how to do that, partly because I think scholars haven’t been readily invited to the table. There’s opportunity to bring scholars, policymakers, and practitioners into a space together to envision new kinds of possibilities. 

CE: Who is responsible for creating that kind of space? What kind of resources or leadership do we need in order to create a space where scholars are comfortable taking a role in shaping new social institutions?

NSN: It’s not that this work isn’t already happening in many places. But it could also happen productively at places like the Social Science Research Council or the Spencer Foundation. I also think that the invitation to do this work could sit with some of the professional societies and associations. Scholarly associations could think about convening people around creative designs for the future of institutions and create platforms for people to engage that work together. This isn’t work any one scholar is going to do sitting in their office. This is really important, collective work.

University researchers do play key roles in policy and practice shifts, but I think deepening that work, making it more pervasive across the fields, and supporting scholars in developing those skill sets is important. It’s exciting to think about what that PhD training would look like. What scholars do we need for this generation? For this iteration of the world’s problems and challenges? Universities and scholars need to be engaged differently as we think about working toward an equitable, just society.

CE: Once we reach a more manageable place with regard to Covid-19, what lasting effects do you think we’ll see in society more broadly?

NSN: Other than that we’ll all be germaphobes? The hopeful part of me thinks that this is a crack in our understanding of the functionality of the social infrastructure. What we’re seeing is that inequality and racism are rampant and the social safety net is weak. Access to health care matters, not just for people who don’t have health care, but for all of us, because your health is intertwined with my health. There’s this moment of realizing that we are connected. Systems of inequality don’t just damage those at the bottom. They damage all of us and our strength as a nation to combat something like a national pandemic. Unemployment, lack of health care, lack of basic income, lack of access to housing and the extreme racial stratification in this access—all of those things combined are fraying the very core of what it means to be in a dignified society.

My hope is that those are lessons that will become really apparent. Just as the New Deal came after the Depression, perhaps there’s something coming next that acknowledges how important it is to maintain a humane standard of living and an equal standard of education, housing, and health. I hope for a shift from a deeply divided and profoundly unequal society to a society where people can count on having a basic living—and one that honors humanity, and educates young people to their full potential.

This conversation was conducted on May 20, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.