While COVID-19 has altered our pedagogical approaches to many of our course designs both positively and negatively -- particularly with the early pivot from in-person to online teaching -- it is having another large impact on professorial work. Some faculty members are now feeling the weight of the instructional shift not only emotionally and physically but also financially.
Before the pandemic, many faculty members resisted teaching online due to uncertainties about intellectual property, ownership, quality of instruction and enrollment. Those conversations seem to have been sidelined now that teaching online isn’t a choice.
In the old version of distance learning, we instructors could load information onto a dedicated site for students to read, review and complete their assignments. We could essentially deliver our courses from anywhere without needing much beyond our computer and perhaps a scanning device at the office to upload readings and assignments. But current online teaching, particularly from the privacy of our homes, has forced us to retrofit our living spaces into professional offices.
Recently, several colleges and universities have issued guidance on how to appear professional while teaching online. Many of the recommendations have to do with lighting, the actual space where you’re teaching, your appearance and so on. And sometimes, depending on where faculty members live, any of this can pose challenges. For many faculty members, the redesign has been far more expensive than we envisioned, with little to no financial support from our institutions.
Being on camera and teaching synchronously intensifies the pressure to invite students into our homes. The challenges can be endless: the dog barks in the background, the UPS delivery person rings the bell incessantly, the next-door neighbor decides to play music in his backyard, the ice cream truck parks right below our window. Some of us have converted a bedroom into a makeshift office by way of a Pinterest hack, complete with the purchase of materials to build a desk into a small wall. Meanwhile, the expenses of offering a better-quality online experience quietly yet steadily increase.
One faculty member I spoke to over the phone found that the sudden extra costs incurred from teaching remotely were so high that she thought about resigning from her teaching post altogether. “Sure, I save on the commute, but now I need to make three meals a day because there’s no school lunch or summer camp to help support meals. I don’t live near the locations where they are giving away meals, and if I did, I’d have to find time in the schedule to get there and back. I also have to get stuff for my kids to do while I’m teaching. This adds up over time.”
To her point, virtual summer camp costs were just as expensive in some places as in-person programs. As they continued to offer virtual activities, the camps required a device, internet/Wi-Fi and sometimes supplies, as well as enrollment fees per child.
An acquaintance of mine who is a part-time adjunct working at multiple institutions found himself in need of a new computer because the one he has can’t handle all the digital requirements, such as Zoom and Google Classroom; headphones; a desk chair; chair mat; router; and keyboard. It cost him a total of nearly $2,000 in a single purchase. “At the college, the wait for a device was too long, and they aren’t brand-new,” he told me. “Who’s going to service it if something should happen while I’m working on it from home?” His wife, also a faculty member at a different institution, needed her own set of equipment because their teaching schedules have collided, requiring them to use multiple devices each day.
Another faculty member explained over an exasperated phone call with me that, had she been working from her office, supplies would be included in the work she does. Now she finds herself purchasing reams of paper as digital reading negatively impacts her vision. “I need basic things to get through my work on a daily basis, including simple stuff like highlighters, hole punchers, binders and paper clips. I had to buy all that just to finish up the spring term.” Now that the fall semester has arrived and is in full swing, she, like many of us, has more than 25 students in a class. Those of us teaching multiple classes find ourselves with additional financial impacts as our classes meet different days across the week and have different requirements in terms of books and other supplies.
While these supplies are the basic tools necessary for remote teaching, broader financial strains can also impact not just faculty members but also our families. One faculty member described how her “electric bill skyrocketed to over $600 across the summer months,” because she has been home and using much more electricity while teaching. No doubt this will also take place once the winter sets in and we are home needing much more heat than usual for longer periods of the day. Her husband’s university ran short of computers to distribute and “stopped approving these kinds of purchases,” requiring him to personally buy a computer, printer, scanner, and Wi-Fi service just to effectively teach his two classes. They have both increased their mobile phone packages to include more minutes, further coverage and more data capacity.
Further, faculty members who are also now at home alongside their children often have to deal with countless childcare issues. Administrators who call meetings during school hours fail to realize that faculty parents aren’t in a position to hire sitters or nannies. And in some cases, it’s too dangerous to send children to a grandparent or have one come over to help out. How faculty tend to older children, who are also remotely learning for parts of the day, is also a major concern. Depending on your salary scale, and where you live, after-school program costs might be feasible, but they are out of reach in some places for faculty members with children.
Many colleges and universities now confront budget cuts and fiscal crises, and many faculty members are having to shoulder additional teaching loads and teach larger classes as others have been laid off. At this juncture, institutions should allocate funds to help serve the needs of students as well as the current faculty, supporting the best delivery of instruction possible. Here are a few ideas that I recommend they consider.
Supply stipends. Since many of us will not be returning to our offices, colleges should provide a stipend for, as one faculty put it, “simple stuff that we need to get through our jobs, like printer paper, books that are in our offices that we now need to replace, paper clips and folders to keep track of student work.” Transforming a personal office into a working office that is visible to others requires some semblance of organizational appearance. Otherwise, institutions might consider allowing all faculty members to go asynchronous and off-camera.
Equipment stipends. When equipment is unavailable for loan, colleges should allow faculty members to purchase devices that help them design their courses most successfully. To that end, they should also allocate funds for accompanying equipment like printers, printer ink, scanners, computer cameras, ring lights, headphones and video drivers. In addition, since not every faculty member is teaching from a well-lit home office or soundproof room at our houses or apartments, and digital backdrops do not work on every device, colleges should provide support for what’s needed to improve the instructional location. Ideas for this might include the purchase of screens that divide rooms, cubicle covers that can create privacy or materials from the local hardware store to build out spaces where possible.
Childcare support. Colleges would do well to assist faculty parents with stipends for eligible child dependents to take online classes, engage in extracurricular programming or purchase other intellectually supportive tools and games. Faculty parents should not be forced to spend $300 from our own pockets for video-game devices to occupy our children while we tend to the needs of our students during classes, office hours or (often lengthy) faculty meetings. In addition, as faculty members are called away from caring for their children during these times of teaching and meeting, we should be compensated for any additional hours spent working (that are not contractual teaching hours) where we might need to pay for additional support in the home.
Utilities support. As one faculty member shared over a text message about her electric bill, utilities use at our homes has increased much more than normally would be the case if we were in our offices. As we teach and perform other work from our home “offices” all day, air-conditioning, heat, phone, gas, electric and light bills have all climbed higher.
While we recognize that many of our colleges and universities are struggling financially, the kind of stipends and support this essay describes would be an investment well spent. After all, this isn’t just about teaching in the time of COVID, although the goal is for us all to be as safe and healthy as possible for as long as we can. And it’s not solely about remote teaching, either. It’s also about maintaining the intellectual quality of an invaluable college education.