The CUNY Distance Learning Archive (CDLA) was a group project developed as part of Matthew K. Gold’s Spring 2020 “Knowledge Infrastructures” seminar in the Ph.D. Program in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in partnership with the CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA) and The Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program. Student contributors to the project included Stefano Morello, Nicole Cote, Travis Barley, Zach Muhlbauer, and Michael Gossett. The goal of the project was to resist or trouble the discourse of catastrophe around the shift to online learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by documenting the lived experiences of students, faculty, and staff across CUNY’s 25 campuses. Further, we wanted to document the moment of crisis response from a critical approach to educational technology. We hoped to collect different forms of data from a wide range of sources to produce a multi-perspective narrative that includes both the institutional and the lived experiences of multiple actors occupying different positionalities and identities as events unfolded during the Spring 2020 semester. 

On March 11, the CUNY administration decided to switch all CUNY classes to distance learning to mitigate the health risks posed by the pandemic. The news of this decision broke just a few minutes before what turned out to be our last in-person class of the semester. As a final project for the course, we had already been considering making what the syllabus described as a “collective intervention” in the knowledge infrastructures of CUNY. Facing imminent closure of our shared classroom space, and recognizing that the lives of CUNY students, faculty, and staff were about to change in significant ways, the members of the class decided to make the work of our class, from that point forward, the collective documentation of the pandemic on CUNY communities. Over the rest of the semester and through the spring of 2021, the CDLA was developed as a crowdsourced archive that allowed students, faculty, and staff from across the CUNY system’s 25 campuses to submit personal narratives about the experience of moving online; to submit emails, photos, and communications related to the decisions to move online; to provide documentation of online learning experiences (e.g., photos, narratives, screenshots); and to submit links to digital media artifacts that captured the event in real time. The CDLA also sought to preserve social media posts and reactions (Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram) of the CUNY community to both the crisis and the shift to remote learning. 

Under pressure to capture this moment of transition, the team quickly developed the CDLA website, which featured an online submission system, as well as a social media presence via major digital platforms, and partnered with the Core 2 Interactive Technology and Pedagogy class of the ITP Program, whose students devised a number of suggested writing prompts for potential CDLA contributors. Over the following months, the CDLA collected dozens of contributions (in the form of personal narratives, correspondence, official email communications, and learning resources) and its social media collection efforts resulted in the scraping of thousands of social media posts. 

Beginning in the Fall of 2020, the CDLA team began working with the CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA) team to create three public-facing digital exhibits using a selection from the large number of digital artifacts collected. We focused primarily on three narrative threads that highlight some challenges common across the twenty-five CUNY campuses starting in March 2020: 1) “The Shutdown: CUNY Responds to the Covid-19 Pandemic” collection documents the uncertainty of the weeks immediately preceding and following the official March shutdown of the City University of New York system;  2) the “Teaching and Learning During the Time of Covid-19” collection offers an additional record or trace of the ephemeral and often unseen dimensions of CUNY’s educational landscape during the pandemic; and  3) the “#CutCOVIDNotCUNY” collection aims to document the fight against CUNY’s austerity politics during the COVID pandemic. 

Through the juxtaposition of artifacts showing different perspectives and experiences, the CDLA team hopes to enable future researchers, students, and members of the community to understand, learn from, and engage critically with the consequences of the pandemic on CUNY, the largest urban public university system in the United States. A central goal of our project was to provide materials that will help readers better understand the particular means through which the accommodation of distance learning has in some ways troubled educational instruction, especially given the possibility that distance learning practices may become instituted as the norm for higher education. We hope that the collection serves as a record of a transitional and traumatic moment that provides insight into the lived lives of students, faculty, and staff during this tumultuous time. We hope that the collection will assist in the future development of pedagogy that meets student needs in conscientious and compassionate ways. 

Members of the original course: Travis M. Bartley, Nicole Cote, Matthew K. Gold, Michael Gossett, Jean Hyemin Kim, Charlie Markbreiter, Stefano Morello, and Zach Muhlbauer.

Curatorial Team: Travis M. Bartley, Nicole Cote, Matthew K. Gold, Stefano Morello, and Zach Muhlbauer.