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Caring for Students During COVID

Ending the semester with empathy.

May 12, 2020
 
 

In the weeks leading up to our class’s final assignment, I received a number of emails from students. Some wanted feedback on the drafts they’d created so far, and some wanted to apologize for late work, to ask for extensions, to check in about their grades or the quality of their work so far. No matter the topic, however, each one had been typed with the same tone of sheer and absolute panic.

They were overly apologetic (“I’m so sorry to have to ask this”), filled with unnecessary reassurances (“I promise my work isn’t usually like this”), clearly sent in a rush (“please, if you have the time”) and filled with obvious expectations of rejection and shame (“I understand if this isn’t possible”).

To say that the recent pandemic has been disruptive to academia would be to understate the situation severely. As instructors, we’ve lost precious class time and entire lessons. We’ve had to completely rebuild whole courses, cut and add assignments, create webpages and links and discussion posts, learn online platforms, record lectures, and restructure our pedagogical aims, often without appropriate compensation and all while attempting to maintain an air of business as usual.

We feel this labor and these losses deeply, but so do our students. And while we should mourn the classes, assignments and goals that we began the semester with, our students should not suffer from our unwillingness to let some (most) of these things go.

They, too, have lost valuable academic experiences. Their semester has been upended, they have lost time with friends and partners, they have had to travel under uncertain circumstances, they have been left with little information about their academic future (will classes return? What about their grades?), and they have been sent packing by their university -- many without being able to recover their personal items, many without a viable home to return to, some still trapped, alone, on campus.

During this crisis, our students have been shuffled off campus and into complicated personal situations that are unknowable to us. They have been impacted greatly (and unevenly). And yet, simultaneously, we continue to demand assignments be written and submitted on time, some instructors expect synchronous attendance, and many continue to aim for the lofty learning goals of a typical semester. The damaging effects of such demands are evident in the apologetic and incredibly anxious emails I have seen from students who are being overworked and under-cared-for during a global crisis, during the time when they require the most support.

As we all well know, this has been anything but a typical semester, and as we come to the end of it, particularly as final grades become due, I encourage fellow instructors to step back from your course, from your class’s goals and assignments (all, no doubt, worthwhile), from your usual pedagogical strategies, from your high expectations, and from your typical role as an instructor.

Instead, I invite you to consider your students’ needs -- their circumstances, their struggles, their workload from less sympathetic instructors -- and how you might best support them during all of this. Perhaps that means vastly changing final assignments (or cutting them altogether), maybe it means scaling grades or being more lenient than you would be in typical semesters, maybe it means making assignments or your course pass/fail or ensuring that your students are doubly rewarded for their efforts.

Regardless, rather than mourn the semester that we might have had, instructors have a powerful opportunity to enact care and empathy toward students as they navigate coursework amid a crisis. Many of us deeply feel our responsibility to teach students something (as we should); however, at the end of all of this, what will matter most is not whether students learned proper citation methods, differential equations or cellular structure, but how they were supported, trusted and advocated for by their instructors.

The duty of care that we hold toward our students is more necessary now than ever, and so I invite you to consider how you might approach the end of the semester with care, empathy and concern for your students, their needs and obligations, and what changes you might enact to best support them during a tumultuous and painful time.

Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo.

Image by Pixabay user Tuan86 and used with Creative Commons Licensing.

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