Bike Privilege and the Pandemic Assist
Anyone who is trying to understand the concept of white privilege should ride an electric bike. For those who don’t know, electric bikes, or e-bikes, provide an electric pedal assist that boosts whatever effort you are making to pedal. E-bikes are not mopeds. You have to put out effort in order for the pedal assist to have any effect. If you are riding an e-bike, especially for exercise, you can be working very hard and pedaling like crazy. It is easy to think that your effort is everything. But the pedal assist always sits under you, helping you go faster, farther and up and down much more difficult terrain. It is all too easy to forget that the electric pedal assist is there and assume that your progress is really all just you.
I think what has made such a strong impression on me about this is not merely the tangible experience of the invisible assist I’m getting from the bike’s battery. It is the way that this feeling has also changed me. I started looking for bigger hills, assuming that there was no challenge I couldn’t take on. I am not a strong rider. I used to spend a lot of time scoping routes where I knew I wouldn’t get into a situation I’d have to trudge my way out of. Now I’m fearless. I’ll turn on any street or try any route, knowing I can negotiate it—with the assist. And with the assist and that fearless feeling, I’m getting stronger. My confidence is feeding off my success; and my successes are expanding because of my confidence.
As a white male in the academy, I have spent a lot of time and energy in the last few months, as have many others, thinking about my own white privilege and what role it has played in my life. It strikes me that what makes white privilege so hard to comprehend personally is that we don’t have any intimate access to the contrasting case. We don’t know what it would have felt like to have lived our lives without the assist. The e-bike offers me that contrast every time I ride. I don’t just remember generally how it felt riding my regular bike; I remember how a particular hill on Williamsburg Boulevard felt. That kind of contrast is not available to me and others with the same privilege as we seek ways to understand the diverse life experiences of our campuses—to understand, for example, Black lives and to be an ally to Black colleagues and friends. We have to rely on listening to voices, and studying the data, to try and understand what we can’t experience.
By working this metaphor I do not mean in any way to trivialize the root causes or consequences of white privilege. I do not mean to simplify or mystify the assist that comes with racial privilege, or to minimize its roots and ongoing effects in the trauma of structural racism. I only use it as a means to suggest how difficult it is to fully feel, comprehend and accept the truth of something you cannot experience. This difficulty strikes at the heart of the moment that we are in right now, as a society, and in higher education in particular.
The year 2020 has brought us the convergence of two powerful forces: the Covid-19 pandemic and the coming of structural racism to national consciousness arising from the violence to Black lives and the protests that followed. These two forces together have provided higher education a kind of power assist in confronting the challenges of equity and transformation. Much like how my e-bike has helped me, in the midst of so many serious conversations about white privilege, to feel the truth of how this works—and shift my perceptual understanding—the pandemic seems to have shifted perception and practice in the academy around educational change. What used to be ‘innovation’ rapidly became business as usual. What used to be a latent and uneven awareness of structural inequality has risen profoundly to the surface. These two large-scale shifts in perception—growing awareness of structural racism and white privilege, on the one hand, and the necessary embrace of educational transformation, on the other—offer extraordinary potential. The salient question then emerges: can we convert our capacity to respond into the will to transform?
Many of us who identify as educational developers and advocates of educational innovation feel as though we have been pedaling uphill for decades. Centers for teaching and learning, and many other related units on campus, have been advocating for inclusive and engaging pedagogies for a long time. Despite a growing body of evidence and models of good practice, progress has been utterly incremental: workshop by workshop, initiative by initiative, always seeking to get beyond the early adopters and the already inclined. And then the pandemic. Forced to pivot in the Spring and subsequently prepare for the best possible virtual or hybrid experience in the Fall, all of higher education has demonstrated what is possible.
More importantly, the forces of adaptation have brought inclusive and effective education to the forefront of nearly everyone’s consciousness. Needs that had been only partially understood or recognized on campuses are now visible to most faculty. These include: attending to the inequitable contexts of our students’ lives; prioritizing community, care and relationships in the delivery of courses; widespread interest in quality active learning and engaging pedagogies; new awareness of the role of instructional design; and new and broader appreciation for what is possible and not possible in virtual environments. While acknowledging the considerable unevenness of resources and diverse institutional experiences, I think we should appreciate the ways that the powerful assist of the pandemic pivot has amplified and accelerated the good practices, effort and values that have been intrinsic to our campuses.
The question is, how will this experience change us? Will the experience of our heightened capacity, sourced by this rapid and comprehensive adaptation, lead us to take on bigger challenges, especially the ones associated with structural racism and systemic injustice? As with the interaction of the e-bike assist and one’s personal confidence in taking on new challenges, will our institutional successes at adaptation lead to striving for a more just, inclusive and effective higher education? There are no single answers to this. On the one hand, higher education needs to shift investments to deal with the roots of structural racism. On the other, higher ed needs to prioritize resources and structures that address quality teaching and learning. Both of these imperatives can be advanced by new models of professional development, organizational learning, and educational change—models that bring together fierce commitments to equity, community, and sustainable innovation. These have been imperatives for a long time but their recognition and address seem more possible now than ever. The roads to positive transformation have not gotten any less steep. But we now have an assist. Where will that take us?
Randy Bass is Vice President, Strategic Education Initiatives at Georgetown University, where he directs the Red House and the Designing the Future(s) Initiative. Among his current projects is the national dissemination of The New Learning Compact: A Framework for Professional Learning and Educational Change (Every Learner Everywhere; 2019), with Bret Eynon and Laura Gambino; and Higher Education’s Big Rethink, in behalf of Georgetown’s Program in Learning, Design and Technology.