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Last week "Transforming Teaching and Learning" published an opinion piece by Norman Clark written from the perspective of a student at a college that chose to return to in-person teaching in the fall. This piece attempts to put faculty at the center of those calculations. This is compiled from conversations with faculty members about the preparations, consultations and new policies at colleges and universities -- public and private, big and small -- in 11 states.
You arrive on campus and walk across the quad to your building. Along the way, some of the students and faculty members you pass are wearing their masks properly, while others’ hang loosely in front of their noses and mouths. Students gathered in a group near the door are crowding their heads together looking at one of their cellphones. At least everyone is outdoors.
You use the door pull to go inside and walk up a narrow staircase as dozens of students pour past. It’s the mad rush between classes. You usually time your arrival so this doesn’t happen, but you were delayed this morning.
Arriving in the department offices, you clear out your mailbox with the hand that didn’t touch the door pull, use the other to open your office door and immediately clean your hands and the door pull with sanitizer you’ve bought yourself. The dispensers on campus aren’t refilled fast enough to keep up with the demand.
A student comes into your office, which isn’t large enough to keep six feet between the two of you. So you wear your mask while helping them. You wear glasses, which keep fogging as you try to look at the student’s work online. Over the course of an hour, you have three similar visits from students. One wears a bandana across their face, another a paper surgical mask and the third a vented mask that limits the inhale of particulates but not the exhale.
You anxiously look at the clock and realize that if you want to avoid the crowds between classes, you need to leave now. Your class is in another building, so you walk there, wait outside in the rain until the crowds clear, then go inside.
Before social distancing rules were put in place, this wide, shallow classroom held 45 students in nine rows of five. It was known as a cramped room. There are fewer than six feet between the front row of chairs and the whiteboard. You try to stand as close to the front wall as possible to put distance between you and the 15 students in the room.
When the decision was made in May to return to campus, faculty members asked to have Plexiglas shields installed at the front of each classroom, but the university couldn’t source that many; they were in short supply and too expensive.
The university spent precious funds installing cameras and microphones in each class so students who couldn’t or wouldn’t come to class could watch from home or from their dorm room. There were also questions about whether the HVAC vents would render shields useless as protection anyway. However, because you now have to wear a mask for the entire 50 minutes, you are yelling to be heard. And students commonly complain that the mics aren’t picking up everything professors are saying because of the masks they have to wear.
The class is supposed to be a discussion about documents the students were asked to read. You conduct the same discussion three times in a week, with a third of the class each time. As was often the case, a handful of students haven’t brought their books -- but now they can’t share with others, so they aren’t contributing.
The rest of the students participate, but not in the lively way they would if they weren’t wearing masks. Over the course of the conversation, students keep having to adjust and readjust their masks with hands that have touched the desks and door pulls but that can’t be cleaned because the wipe and sanitizer dispensers are empty. The cost-cutting has meant that no new staff was hired to meet the sanitation demands, and the custodians can’t keep up.
Thankfully, the student who believes the pandemic is a hoax and started the semester ostentatiously wearing his mask dangling from his chin has finally stopped coming to class. It took three weeks and the involvement of the administration, the union, the campus police and the university’s legal counsel before it was finally determined that you had the right to insist that he wear a mask correctly or bar him from the classroom. You’ve heard from other students that he has now started a smear campaign against you on social media using memes created from screenshots from your recorded lectures.
When class is over, you are exhausted and hoarse. But you can’t wait for the halls to clear because you need to get to a meeting. The committee room was deemed large enough for the members to meet in person, even though CDC guidelines recommend that any gathering that can be held online should be.
When you questioned the choice to hold in-person meetings, you were told that you could participate online. But it was clear when you tried that if you wanted your views to be heard, and if you wanted to clearly hear the people gathered in the room, you had to be there, too. It’s obvious the room has not been disinfected before the meeting because you can see the ring from a mug on the table surface.
Returning to your office, you walk down the department hallway past colleagues’ doors that are usually open. Instead of collegial hellos and conversations, all the doors are closed except those of faculty who, like you earlier in the day, are trying to advise students while keeping a safe distance.
Officially, office hours are being conducted online this semester. But needy students “drop in,” and you and your colleagues know that if you turn them away you risk a poor evaluation for not being available when and how they want. The administration has made it very clear that student evaluations will continue to be considered in tenure and promotion decisions, despite the extraordinary circumstances.
You teach five days a week, so your teaching day ends early enough that in a normal semester you’d be able to leave now, work from your home office for the rest of the day and be there to meet the school bus.
But there is no school bus anymore, so your mother (who has COPD) is picking your children up and caring for them this afternoon. She has to do this because you need to record two lectures before the afternoon is over. Faculty members can’t take their university desktop computers home because they are networked. And you need its higher-quality camera and microphone.
The course you taught that morning now has all of the contact hours taken up with the same discussion repeated three times. So you have to create online lectures to cover all the content material. You don’t receive any additional compensation for this despite the fact you are clearly exceeding the three contact hours standard for a lecture course.
Because the start of the semester was moved up to the middle of August, and you were teaching summer classes, you didn’t have time to prerecord all your lectures. Now it’s October and you’ve run out.
The other lecture you’re recording is for a Tuesday/Thursday class that was moved online at the last minute because no classroom could be found that was large enough to allow for social distancing even if each day only had half the students in attendance. Now you find yourself creating an online course while you are teaching it.
Back in May, faculty members were asked to declare whether they wanted to teach completely online in the fall. Instructors were assured that if they made that choice, it wouldn’t affect their performance evaluations. But the unpopularity of online classes (made very clear by the end of the spring semester) meant that you felt a responsibility to teach in person in case the enrollment numbers for your department dropped. Tenure lines and adjunct positions were already being eliminated.
When your dean told you in late July that your class would have to be online after all, you offered to teach another course online, as well, to free up classroom space. You had created an online version and taught it before. The university’s position was that you made that choice in May and any classes that don’t have to be online would remain in person because students prefer to be in the classroom. One section of that course only has 10 students coming to class now anyway, because three others are sick and those who sat closest to them are now in quarantine.
Arriving back home, you thank your mother without getting too close and send her home. Between you and your kids, your mom is potentially getting a lot of exposure to the virus. You put your mask in the laundry so that it’s ready to use tomorrow. You wash your chapped hands for the 10th time today.
You go online again, on your slow, personal home computer, to finish responding to all of your emails, modifying assignments and due dates for quarantined or sick students, and dealing with glitches in your suddenly online course. Eventually, your day of being a professor in a “hybrid,” “multimodal” semester is over.
No wait, it isn’t. Your dean is calling. Another faculty member is sick. (This makes eight so far in the college, all of whom were teaching three courses each.) Would you be willing to take over teaching a college writing course even though it isn’t your discipline?
After all, the dean reminds you, classes can still go on with students out sick. But they can’t continue if the professor isn’t there.