Dillard Alum Wins Pulitzer Prize, and What if HBCU Students Don't Want to Learn Online?

Jericho Brown Awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Dillard University alumnus and acclaimed poet Jericho Brown was named as a 2020 Pultizer Prize winner for excellence in poetry.

The 1998 DU graduate and Emory University professor and director of its creative writing program, won for his collection “The Tradition,” which Pultizer organizers described as “A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”

“I’m happy to bring this prize back home, and by that I mean back to black folks, back to the South, back to Louisiana, and back to my alma mater, Dillard University. Dillard is where I first took creative writing workshops as classes toward my major, and it’s where I first began to envision a life for myself as a writer,” the Shreveport, Louisiana native shared in a statement. “These are not easy times for any of us, but I’d like to believe that this prize in this particular instance can show that there is still possibility for us no matter how rough the terrain may seem. And I’m grateful to have gotten the education necessary to make it to this moment.” 

The Pulitzer is regarded among the nation’s highest honors for work in journalism, literature, drama, history, and music.

What If HBCU Students Don’t Want to Learn Online?

A lot of conversation is swirling about how colleges and universities swiftly moved to distance learning in the early days of the global pandemic response, and what that learning will look like in the fall as campuses attempt to reopen with hybrid models of onsite and online learning.

But one possibility that we never imagined in the 21st century with a generation of students born into the Internet Age is quietly emerging; what if HBCU students really do not want to take classes online?

Students at more than 20 colleges and universities across the country are suing their institutions for what they describe as dramatically different cultures and environments of teaching and instruction. From the Christian Science Monitor;

Grainger Rickenbaker, a freshman who filed a class-action lawsuit against Drexel University in Philadelphia, said the online classes he's been taking are poor substitutes for classroom learning. There's little interaction with students or professors, he said, and some classes are being taught almost entirely through recorded videos, with no live lecture or discussion.

"You just feel a little bit diminished," said Mr. Rickenbaker of Charleston, South Carolina. "It's just not the same experience I would be getting if I was at the campus."

A recent survey of more than 3,000 college students shows an overwhelming dissatisfaction with distance learning and a longing for the campus experience. From Campus Technology:

Three-quarters (78 percent) called their online class experience "unengaging," and a similar share (75 percent) reported missing face-to-face interactions with others on campus…

More than half of students (52 percent) said they were feeling "anxious," half were worried about passing their classes this semester and four in 10 were concerned about finishing the semester altogether. They especially missed contact with others; 86 percent said they missed socializing with other students, and 85 percent said they missed face-to-face interaction with their instructors. They also missed aspects of the campus experience, among them study spaces (mentioned by 76 percent of respondents) and fitness and sports facilities (58 percent).

Many of us criticized HBCUs for years for moving slowly to integrate online learning. We looked at the explosive success of for-profit institutions and the astronomical number of black students they enrolled as a glaring signal of missed opportunities for black colleges, particularly as they struggled to maintain enrollment and manage their debt.

But what HBCU presidents and chancellors knew is that our criticism was steeped in privilege and convenient amnesia about the essence of the HBCU ethos. Students come through their doors because they are missing something. Black role models, cultural affirmations, knowledge of self is what we always assumed, but we never put a formulaic approach to just how many students were coming to college from homes without computers, without Internet access, and without easy proximity to either.

In talking with several presidents and chancellors in recent weeks, there is serious concern about the number of HBCU students who won’t return in the fall not simply because of public health fears, but also because they do not have the resources to continue learning on digital platforms. Even if social distancing rules are relaxed, for students whose primary online access is a cell phone or tablet, effective studying, learning and working cannot be effectively done on these devices.

So where does that place HBCUs? Should they purchase all students laptop computers with COVID-19 stimulus funds? Should they broker deals for in-state and out-of-state students to have Internet access for a semester or a full academic year? Should they reopen to new levels of capacity in the hopes that enough students will fear online learning more than they fear contracting the coronavirus and return to campus?

Resources have always been the number one challenge for HBCU students, but now that public health has vaulted over money and technology as the key element of college access, the resource question requires new answers for institutional and community response.