Are you ready for the return to in-person teaching?

A new term is beginning in the northern hemisphere, and many campuses are reopening. But are academics relishing a return to relative normality or fearful of unvaccinated students? And what has the Covid experience taught them about their approach to teaching? Six scholars offer their perspectives  

September 16, 2021
Person removes social distancing sticker as a metaphor for returning to university as will be able to reopen
Source: Getty

Late Sunday evening

So, how was your pandemic?

I have not written a novel. I have not learned to bake sourdough. I have not done “Couch to 5K”. I have quietly beaten myself up for being unproductive. I have been subjected to a brutal “staffing exercise”. I have cried with exhaustion and anxiety. And now, in the inexorable way these things happen, mists and mellow fruitfulness are in the air and I’m gearing up for a return to teaching. But what that “return” looks like is desperately unclear.

I had my vaccinations in the spring. For a while, they formed an imaginary little force field of optimism around me, giving me a sense of progress. Now, though, the necessity for boosters is being mooted in the news, and those things – not least the universities – that had promised to open up, are once again careening away.

I have been forced to re-evaluate the career I love – and the only career I think I’ll ever be able to do well.

It’s no overstatement to say that my students, even corralled into little shining rectangles on my laptop screen, have saved me. I’ve been there for them, and they’ve been there for me, too. But everything else about the sector is broken. Management in numerous universities and colleges have treated Covid as a good pandemic for burying bad news. They’ve forced out decent people through “voluntary” severance or compulsory redundancies. And, now, those whose jobs are safe know that they’re only safe for the time being.

Fatigue gives way to outwardly enthusiastic offers to volunteer for more “service” roles – open days, clearing, upbeat marketing videos about what a jolly happy and exciting place higher education is – because people are frightened about what criteria may await them come the next performance review. Burnout has morphed into a state of hypervigilance and paranoia.

The pressures of the coming academic year take many forms. Students, themselves angry, tired and apprehensive, have been treated as consumers for so long now that it’s little wonder many of them see “value for money” only in face-to-face teaching. The relentless march of the marketisation of the sector is continued by management teams determined, in an unseemly, orgiastic frenzy of neoliberalism, to shut up shop on the humanities in all but the “elite” universities their own offspring attend.

I want to be back in the classroom. I miss the serendipity of snatched conversations in the interstices of lectures and seminars. I miss people-watching – seeing new students literally and metaphorically navigate campus. I even miss the abysmal coffee in mandatory meetings. I want those rectangles to burst open into the messy, complicated, exciting physical spaces we used to inhabit. I want to be back in the classroom. But I also want to know that it’s safe to be there.

As a child, Sunday evenings – the last hurrah of the weekend – were rarely unequivocally enjoyable. They were haunted by the sullen, lead-weight certainty of the Monday morning to come. My entire summer has been a Sunday evening – but the certainty now is merely a wearying continuation of the uncertainty we’ve all been living with for the past 18 months.

I’m going into the new academic year armed with distress and a whole vocabulary – “blended learning”, “lateral flow”, “social distancing” – that I wish I’d never had to learn. I acknowledge my privileges – I live in a dual-income household with no school-aged children. No one I love has got seriously ill – or worse – and I have a study space with fibre-optic broadband. But having it easy has never felt so very hard.

So, how was your pandemic?

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

A woman dressed as Superwoman sleeps next to her partner dressed as Mr Incredible as a metaphor for unwinding the madness

Unwinding the madness

This fall I have a year-long fellowship to work on a writing project dear to my heart. It is a dream come true, but I am not celebrating yet.

For one thing, the spread of the Delta variant might mean another long stretch of homeschooling for my son. Covid-19 has put question marks next to all the best-laid plans. My bigger challenge for the coming months, however, is to think and write in a sustained way while also recovering from the most intense 17 months of my career. I am facing the realisation that I have lost much of my ability to find deep focus. My attention span is not shattered, but it is showing cracks.

For a brief period at the start of the pandemic, it seemed that enforced isolation might allow more concentration than my regular working life does. Without the constant hustle of an overbooked agenda, I thought, I would be able to think again. For a while, I did. No trips, no activities, meetings pared down to the minimum as colleagues tried to avoid Zoom fatigue: all this relative emptiness allowed me to read and write at a pace I had not known before.

As my workplace adapted to online conditions, however, the tempo sped up. In the year that followed, I often found myself doing two or three jobs at any given moment. Blending full-time childcare, online teaching, increased household tasks and administrative duties meant that I could never give my full attention to any one activity. One day my son wandered out of the house with a friend while I was teaching, and I spent the rest of the seminar distracted with worry. Another time, I had conflicting meetings and wondered if I could attend both at the same time by setting up my desktop computer and laptop next to each other on my desk. Then I realised I had reached the point of madness.

In all of this chaos, I did do one thing right. Recognising that my students were struggling with distraction too, I sliced my reading lists in half. I asked my students to read the Old and Middle English poems I teach at a pace that would have seemed glacial in the past. Then I devoted ample time in class to excruciatingly slow work with the texts. We read the poems aloud, translated them, and spent as much time as necessary discussing each line.

While we did not cover as much material as in a normal semester, this process allowed us all to focus on the same words and unfold their implications. Sometimes, four lines of poetry led to half an hour of rich discussion. There was a sense of community and shared contemplation that I rarely see in my live seminars.

As I prepare to spend a year writing, I want to take a lesson from what worked in my teaching. I am cutting out all unnecessary activities and, for once, thinking hard about what counts as “essential”. I would usually take the opportunity of being in a new city to sign up for courses and offer to give talks at nearby universities. Now my only plan is to sit at my desk, day after day, getting bored if I am so lucky.

I plan to focus on a little bit of work each day, setting ridiculously tiny goals for my writing. And I will continue making writing dates on Zoom with colleagues and friends, since community has been the best weapon I have found against distraction.

In preparation, I have begun learning the most difficult art of all for a perfectionist workaholic: forgiving myself for all the things I cannot do, and planning on merely human, rather than superhuman, productivity as a baseline. It’s a tough skill, but I have a year to practise.

Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.


Craving intimacy

When it comes to teaching and the pandemic, I write from a space of preventive privilege. There are clear and strict mask and vaccination mandates on my campus, which translated into nearly 94 per cent of students, faculty and staff being fully vaccinated even before the start of the semester. Those unvaccinated either have medical conditions that prevent them from getting the vaccine or are returning from countries where the vaccine is not yet readily available; the expectation is that the vaccinated percentage will climb even higher once those latter access jabs in the US.

In addition, I live in a state with one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. At a time when geography is an indicator of vaccine hesitancy or access, it is a space of double privilege to be located in Massachusetts. I mention this because too many colleagues in other states are teaching to classrooms of maskless students with little administrative support for implementing mandates.

Despite all this, I would be lying if I said I had felt wholly reassured to go back to in-person teaching during a persistent pandemic. The Delta variant has made Covid-19 more deadly for the unvaccinated. Exhausted nurses and doctors are walking out of overwhelmed hospitals, and more children are getting infected. In short, there is still too much we cannot control – even with a mask mandate.

Recently, at the grocery store, for example, I saw an older man slide his mask down so he could heartily sneeze. He then ran his hand under his nose and continued to the vegetable aisle. I stood frozen, unsure whether I should call him out or leave the store.

In this new ambiguous world, what I do know for sure is that after nearly two decades of teaching, Covid has forced me to hit the reset button. I’m now wondering what I will lose after more than a year of pandemic teaching.

Let me explain. After years of doing a job I love, I knew the lecture rhythm and how much material could fit into one session. I could read when I was losing the room or, conversely, when students were gripped. I responded, adjusting to their cues. Like everyone else, I lost this ability when we moved to Zoom.

But, like my peers, I adapted. Indeed, I surprised myself by actually thriving: growing to, if not love, at least heartily embrace Zoom teaching. It wasn’t a single thing but an accumulation of small factors. For example, I enjoyed the unexpected intimacy of seeing students eating cereal on unmade beds, lounging in tattered sweats or, in at least one case, compressed in a laundry closet. It was endearing to see these glimpses of students in the act of bending an upturned world into a semblance of normalcy.

I started watching for a young mother’s toddler son, who seemed to relish catapulting on to her head while she was intently listening to my lecture. I was also absorbed by a graduate student’s constant fight with the elements (bugs, cold, the dark), causing her to sit in a different place for each seminar. I bonded with my students at a level I had not anticipated.

We were all, for the first time in my lifetime, experiencing the same vulnerability. Although we were physically apart, and generations removed, I could fully identify with a student’s worry about a lingering cough, concerns over an elderly relative, or the dramedy of not finding toilet paper in stores. I forged deeper, unexpected connections with dozens of young adults whom I have yet to meet in person.

Even before term began, though, it seemed a little decadent to worry about whether I would be able to forge that same deep and immediate connection with my new, masked students in person. And, sure enough, it took only one class in a windowless seminar room with a visibly and audibly sick student to confirm that staying safe will be the greater challenge this semester. Despite my gentle and discreet request for her to go home, the student chose to remain in class.

It will be mentally taxing to try to avoid getting infected by the very students I so love to teach.

Gabriela Soto Laveaga is professor of the history of science and Antonio Madero professor for the study of Mexico at Harvard University.

Early morning tube station platform London as metaphor for, mind the gap

Mind the gap

When reflecting on how the new academic year might play out in the UK, my initial thought was that with vaccines providing a decent level of protection against serious Covid disease, things might be returning to how they were in October 2019, drawing a line under what has been the longest academic year (I know there were two, but they sort of merged into one).

Yet I immediately realised that I was wrong. The truth is, I don’t really know what the new term is going to be like – which is a pity as the predictable turning of the academic clock is one of the things that keeps me going.

I foresee still spending at least one and probably two days a week at home. This is undoubtedly a good thing; I get more time for deep thought at home and I get to see more of my family. At the same time, as a science academic whose research mostly takes place in a wet-lab, I need to be on campus for a significant proportion of my time. I found during the past 18 months that if I am not there, projects tend to slow down: not through lack of application by my team, who are all fantastic, but through small snags that, if not caught early, can lead to bigger problems later.

And, of course, I am looking forward to resuming in-person teaching. Staring into the void of an online lecture is not an experience I have enjoyed – although I expect us to maintain some kind of mixture between face-to-face and online instruction for at least the next six months.

Another uncertainty is travel, both locally and further afield. There have been benefits to not going anywhere: pre-2020, I spent much of my week racing around London Underground between meetings – clicking on Zoom links instead has been great.

Likewise, some international trips were more beneficial than others. My last one (March 2020) involved flying to the Netherlands and back in a single day for a five-hour meeting. I don’t think anyone wants to see the return of those. However, I do look forward to the return of proper scientific conferences. In-person events are so much better than online ones because most of the benefits come from the spontaneous interactions and chats at the edges, rather than from listening to people talk through their already published work.

To add further complexity to my new year, I am not the only person with changing working patterns in our household. My wife’s employer is also looking for its new normal, particularly around how many days to be in or out of the office. My youngest child has just started secondary school, so we are no longer in the nursery/nanny/afterschool club stage, which means in some ways there is more flexibility – but in other ways less.

In other words, we are stepping into a(nother) new unknown, and getting the balance right is going to be tricky. And, of course, we can’t rule out some further disruption. However, I am an optimistic immunologist, and in spite of my reasonably poor track record of predicting the twists and turns of the pandemic, I think/hope/pray that widescale shutdowns are probably behind us.

John Tregoning is reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College and author of the upcoming book INFECTIOUS.

A woman looks at books in the window as a metaphor for feeling unemployed

Anxiety, illness and hope

I finished my PhD with not so much a bang as a whisper. Or, rather, with the push of a button, a selfie and (a few weeks later) an online viva. It wasn’t what I had anticipated and although the celebratory likes rolled in on social media, I felt the absence of other people keenly that day earlier this year.

As I submitted, I moved from the category of paid graduate student to unemployed academic. (Can you be an academic if you’re not employed as one? Maybe I’m just unemployed, full stop.) I hope I will teach again, but I am not fooling myself about the state of the job market, so who knows: it’s possible that that sea of black, silent screens facing me down as I spoke into the void will be the last class I ever teach.

I am glad for my students that on-campus teaching is returning. We have all found online learning hard, for different reasons. It was sudden and scary, and that is no way to pivot to a new model. Back in 2020, I found myself sending my students weekly poems I was reading: it was my way of saying, we are all in this together; I am just as frightened as you. When – if – I do find my way back into the classroom, I think I will be a kinder, better teacher because of the past 18 months. But there is a reason the Open University spends time, money and expertise on online learning: it is a special skill, and one that we could not learn in the time we had, but merely emulate as best as we could.

Of course, I have concerns. The reluctance to mandate masks and social distancing, or vaccines, means that teaching in person will unavoidably be a risk. Even with those provisions it would be a risk, albeit a lesser one: we cannot prevent this disease and even the young and healthy can get seriously ill. I am especially worried, though, for those among my students and colleagues who live with vulnerable family members or have pre-existing conditions themselves. And I am worried that by asking students to come in in person, we will be putting those who decide they cannot take that risk at an unfair disadvantage. There will be anxiety and illness.

But there will be anxiety and illness either way. I don’t claim to have a solution to that. Living through a pandemic means making difficult, impossible decisions; we have all learned that by now. For now, I think the overwhelming feeling is a concerned, tentative relief. It has been lonely, teaching and writing alone; academia, despite its reputation, is a social beast. It thrives off solidarity, brief chats in the department kitchen, bouncing your research off a friend in another department. It is worth it for those moments you see students get the point you’re making, or when the conversation of a break-out group sparks connections they wouldn’t have made on their own.

In those early, terrified days of lockdown, I reached out to my students to assure them we would remain a community, and it pains me that I won’t be back on campus this year to join them. Some of them won’t be back, either. Some have lost family members, or been ill themselves. We have not come through this unscathed and there is a collective grief to work through.

I hope that they will be able to work through some of it together, through the poetry and literature my colleagues will be risking their health to talk about. There is anxiety, there is illness and there is hope. I wish it could all be otherwise, but – and isn’t this the ultimate truth of the pandemic? – right now, it cannot. We just have to wait and see, together.

Alice Wickenden recently completed a PhD in English at Queen Mary University of London.

Pro-democracy protesters march on a street as they take part in a demonstration on December 8, 2019 in Hong Kong, China to describe up to 2019 the mask was a symbol of resistance, worn by protesters

The end of an era

There was, in retrospect, a terrible irony to the theme of the last face-to-face lecture I gave at the University of Hong Kong: “Horror: The Inhuman Face of War”.

This was on 23 January 2020 to a jittery class of some 25 face-masked students enrolled on my “War and Medicine” survey course. Walking into the classroom, the atmosphere of apprehension was palpable. Weeks earlier, stories had begun to drift down from Wuhan, some 600 miles to the north, about a highly pathogenic disease spreading through the city. Rumours of the Sars-like infection were soon confirmed by official news channels and Hong Kong prepared for the worst. On the day of my class, Beijing cancelled public Lunar New Year celebrations and the first imported case of “Wuhan pneumonia” was confirmed in Hong Kong.

The coronavirus was a gift for a beleaguered government struggling to deal with mass protests triggered by plans to introduce a new extradition law – which was viewed by many as evidence of Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed approach to the city. Public health interventions doubled as expedient political tools. The introduction of social distancing policies provided an effective means of banning demonstrations.

In October 2019, a colonial-era emergency ordinance had been invoked to prohibit the wearing of face masks in public gatherings. Back then, the mask was a symbol of resistance, worn by protesters to preserve their anonymity and protect them from the tear gas fired by police. Post-Covid, the mask transformed into an emblem of silence. This was, colleagues whispered, a new era of the no-speak. With lockdown came clampdown.

The challenges of teaching in Hong Kong aren’t just logistical, they are substantive. Covid has helped to hasten central control over a once flourishing civil society. When I began working at the university in 2008, anything seemed possible with vision and energy. I was able to build up an interdisciplinary centre that bridged the humanities with medicine, the first of its kind in Asia. With some justification, the university could claim to be “Asia’s global university”, just as Hong Kong could plausibly brand itself as “Asia’s world city”, a tagline dreamed up by the government in 2001.

Two decades on and the city’s extraordinary dynamism is in jeopardy. The vaguely worded National Security Law introduced last June criminalises collusion with foreign forces and “subversion”. Schools and universities, identified as incubators of pernicious liberal values, now find themselves on the front line. The closing down of a popular Hong Kong newspaper and the removal of books from public libraries have gone hand in hand with the detention of protesters and the denunciation of unpatriotic legislators.

The shift to online teaching, precipitated by the protests and intensified by the pandemic, has led to new constraints on academic freedom as the insidious pressure of self-censorship seeps on to campus. In the months after the new security law was brought in, anxious teachers deliberated on what course material they should remove to avoid possible recrimination. Staff meetings were held behind closed doors to discuss the formulation of university-wide guidelines. Senior management remained largely silent.

Online teaching is further blurring the boundaries of the classroom and eroding the trust and safe space required for learning. Students are increasingly reluctant to speak out in group discussions or to show their faces. Instead, they hover incognito on the edges of the virtual platform. Some students, particularly those linked-in from mainland China, vanish suddenly from the screen as soon as “sensitive” topics come up.

After more than a decade in Hong Kong, the rapidly changing political environment, compounded by Covid, has forced me to rethink my role as teacher and researcher. Freedom of expression is being squeezed out of the post-Covid classroom. How can the humanities thrive in the face of these constraints on critical thinking?

I left Hong Kong in June to give myself space to grapple with this dilemma. But while I won’t be teaching next term, this is just an interlude: teaching matters now more than ever. As the academic and poet Tammy Lai-Ming Ho writes in her poem Laid Bare, “Now it is no longer possible/to feign innocence.”

Robert Peckham was the MB Lee professor in the humanities and medicine, chair of the department of history, and founding director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

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Reader's comments (2)

I have been teaching in person for over 1 year with no restrictions (no masks etc) in China.
Get back to the classroom sounds to be the best thing, you have been vaccinated and s o have the students. Try to look and be productive to keep the management axe at bay. They are ruthless and out of control in academia these days.