Participants in a virtual meeting with over three hundred faculty, staff, and students shared their thoughts and feelings about the most recent public killings of Black people and the resulting protests and violence. One Black professor asked white people to think about their current experiences of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a mask feels uncomfortable and hot and makes it not so easy to breathe. Wearing a mask takes effort. Remembering which mask to wear, in which context, and then constantly adjusting the mask based on the particulars of the situation uses significant cognitive capacity, what I call bandwidth. His point: Black people wear a mask every day in the United States. And these masks are literally “breath-taking.”

This historic period of global contagion and socioeconomic disruption has forced colleges and universities to confront challenges that have been festering since the Great Recession began in 2008. The question today is how higher education can accomplish its enduring purposes of protecting democracy and creating engaged citizens as campuses have been shut down in varying degrees and as pedagogical uncertainty is paired with an economic crisis. I propose one answer: affordable, high-impact civic engagement.

Since my discovery of AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, I have adapted their framing language and rubric dimensions into assignments and assessments to complement my curricular goals in the high school classes I teach. By thinking about the larger categories of skills that underlie student performance in individual tasks, I’ve also been able to tell students, much more explicitly, what they do well. As students leave the twelfth grade and matriculate to college and university study, these are the skills—and the self-awareness—that will support their academic success and, I hope, their joy of learning.

Something amazing happened in the days that followed the start of distance learning. As a department chair, I saw camaraderie among faculty and students alike. In many cases, it was reverse mentoring. Junior faculty took pride in teaching senior faculty the ins and outs of online teaching, and senior faculty who see themselves as mentors were open to learning new techniques and pedagogies. What took me by total surprise was that some students even respectfully guided faculty through technical glitches. This teamwork made it possible to do the heavy lift of switching from teaching 2 percent of our classes online to 100 percent within a week.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented change to higher education. The implications of moving pedagogy online raise significant concerns about traditional student evaluations of instructors at many institutions. These surveys, usually administered at the end of each semester, allow students to provide feedback to help faculty inform teaching practices. In addition, these surveys provide institutions with information that can be used, in part, for annual reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions. If instructors are evaluated in classes that are substantially different from the ones they’d planned, it may be unfair to administer these evaluations in an environment that is primarily beyond their control.

In the midst of calls for an end to state violence against Black people, white faculty, staff, and administrators at colleges and universities across the United States want to be helpful, but many of us don’t know where to start. Some of us worry we’ll make mistakes and make the situation even worse for our Black colleagues and students. This uncertainty, which steals our bandwidth and makes us even less capable of acting, is understandable. Allyship is full of paradoxes.