College Life in the Viral Age: How are Professors Holding Up?

There has been a great deal of focus on student transitions to distance learning but little on its impact on college professors and their effectiveness in an all-online course delivery model. As we approach the end of an unprecedented semester, we’d like to bring attention to college faculty and staff at our partner institutions. After all, it’s not just the students who are being disrupted.

Educators have been asked to shoulder “an impossible task: to replicate the functions of school for months without an actual school building. And that means millions of teachers…now isolated at home, having to harness technologies new and old to reach and teach every student. America’s schools have never had to improvise like this.”[1] Most college courses were never developed to be offered online. For most teachers, their passion to teach never included a streaming version. 

Though class meeting times and professors’ office hours are generally still the same, many professors have extended their office hours in order to better meet student need. Teaching remotely can in some ways be more demanding than teaching in person. Added to the anxiety of isolation, teachers also face the challenges of quarantine living—such as homeschooling their own kids while continuing to work—and questions of performance and tenure. Professors have been called upon to perform the magic act of balancing uncertainty with expediency while maintaining academic integrity.

Many colleges have adopted special grading policies, are professors afforded the same consideration? Joy Connolly writes in Inside Higher Ed, “COVID-19 has vividly focused our energies on the key question of how to connect with learners — in the first instance, our students. What if we also think critically about other audiences of learners: Ourselves as scholars and the broader public, and about how our connections with these audiences can shape what we most value about scholarship and what work we choose to reward?”[2]

Most educators followed their calling to teach in order to uplift and connect with their students not to meet them on Zoom or in pre-recorded information session. We informally interviewed several teachers to find out how they are holding up.

The biggest challenges across the board were short notice to transition and learning new technologies. Some of their other challenges changed so quickly, it was hard to get consensus. University staff who serve students with disabilities are also hamstrung by the challenges of connecting with students who they normally meet in-person. Some of those students are out of necessity “falling off their radar.”

Whatever their role, educators are dealing with the frustration of not being able to help students who have dropped out of communication. “Teaching is by and large interactive. You can see when someone is confused or struggling. Some of my students are doing ok, but there are some that are stuck back at home trying to balance the idea that they are “at school” while Mom is doing laundry behind them or the only quiet place they can find is in the garage…”

Meeting rapidly evolving institutional guidelines has also been difficult. But now that more structures and systems are in place, educators can concentrate more on delivering good content to their students.

Regarding successes, one teacher told us that some of his students are “working the forum and showing up. I’m not worried about them. I am worried about the ones I’m not seeing. To me success, would be to get them to communicate with me and let me know what they need. “Success” is getting them back into the fold in one piece. I’ve given students my Skype name, my WeChat handle, and some even my phone number for texting so they can reach out when they have a question.”

The professors we talked to expressed exhaustion, though many of them found hope in the degree of collaboration they are enjoying with their peers. “Even when we can’t be anywhere near each other, we are working together and supporting one another better than ever.” Such teamwork is a testament to dedication and resiliency of the faculty and staff at our partner institutions. As Andrew Sullivan aptly summed it up in New York Magazine, “Plague living dispenses with the unnecessary, lays bare whom you can trust and whom you can’t, and also reveals what matters.”[3]