Asking staff to teach both online and face to face will tear them apart

Lecturers are being denied the flexibility they are compelled to offer students, despite being more vulnerable to the virus, says an anonymous academic

October 1, 2020
Lecturer in classroom, half pixelated
Source: Getty (edited)

On seeing two paths diverge in an autumn wood, Robert Frost was famously “sorry [he] could not travel both/And be one traveller.”

The Road Not Taken reminds us that some choices shape our identity and shadow us with the imagined alternative. Not all choices are binary, but as the leaves turn and I prepare frantically for this term’s teaching, I envy the simple choice faced by Frost. My institution is forcing us to do what he deemed impossible and take both paths at once.

As a lecturer, I am ostensibly contracted to teach, research and administrate. Covid-19 has changed all that. For now, teaching takes precedence. Against the backdrop of a voluntary redundancy scheme, research has been explicitly relegated and all research budgets removed. This deficit will apparently be recovered in the future – although, for many temporary staff, that future does not exist, of course.

Everyone understands that this horrible pandemic demands exceptional efforts. The devoted work to adapt to life in a pandemic, support students and keep going is remarkable. Our collective love for our role as educators is more palpable than it has felt for a long time. Yet our management’s insistence on teaching both in person and online places extraordinary pressure on all of us, and many are starting to break.

The stated rationale is to make all teaching “Covid-resilient”. Behind that, however, is the desire to offer students the best possible experience. Indeed, students are allowed to choose between in-person and online learning. Management have somehow convinced themselves that staff have a “responsibility” to teach in person if the students want it.

This has overwhelming implications. Consider MA teaching. Traditionally, courses are largely based on self-study and focus on a long weekly seminar. Under the new system, we are compelled to offer students a choice between a synchronous in-person seminar and a synchronous online one: a move that doubles our weekly teaching hours. In addition, we have to create online introductory videos for each week and offer extra resources for students who might miss a week, requiring months of extra work.

More perversely, each module is to be carved up between different academics. Before, we would create, teach, assess and take responsibility for courses as individuals. Our teaching was personal, not produced by committee. Now we have to share it, at short notice, with at least one and occasionally two other people – with a third, an “understudy”, lurking in the wings.

Staff are agonising about how to divide up the work. Many are splitting courses in half, undermining their Covid resilience as half the course will be lost if the staff member falls ill. Others have devised Byzantine schedules that are exhausting to implement and vulnerable to disruption.

Adding to the workload are the deadline extensions to last year’s assessments. The 2019-20 academic year continues for staff reading long theses or marking hastily concocted transitional coursework while struggling to prepare for the new term.

We also face new pressures in our pastoral roles. We are told that our presence can “make or break” our students’ “university experience”, so we have to provide weekly group tutorials in addition to our termly check-ins. The workload proliferates.

These changes have been so complicated that our timetabling algorithms imploded. Having just adapted to the blind logic of a centralised system, the task of resolving the mess has fallen back on our shoulders, as the scrabble for breezy rooms is pushed to the limit. Two weeks before term, staff were still unaware of when or where they were supposed to teach. This uncertainty is especially difficult to manage for staff with childcare commitments or who rely on public transport for their intercity commutes.

To add to the pressure, the university’s Covid flexible-working policy has been revoked, despite the growing threat of another full lockdown. Months into the pandemic, we have had no financial support to assist in the swerve from tech-filled lecture rooms to the kitchen table. Nor did we get the promised honesty about existing cases of the virus on campus. Instead, we were sent pictures of warning signs and disinfectant, and we are promised a branded face-covering.

Staff here are adamant that teaching physically in the winter term cannot be justified. Covid resilience is being pursued at the expense of our resilience. We are being asked to teach double or triple what we were expecting, to cover unfamiliar material at short notice, using new methods, in collaboration with other people, all at personal risk to ourselves and our families. We are denied the choices and flexibility we are compelled to provide for our students, despite being more vulnerable to the virus.

The attempt to tread both teaching paths risks tearing staff apart; they – and our vibrant university community, too – will struggle indeed to “remain one traveller”. Some will undoubtedly become sick with Covid; many more will burn out with stress-related illnesses and frayed mental health.

As they contemplate this fork in the road, universities must choose the path of sanity.

The author is a lecturer at a UK university.

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Reader's comments (10)

new
Well instead of ranting about your workload why not get on with doing your job ! Also some of your exagerration does not help your case: "In addition, we have to create online introductory videos for each week and offer extra resources for students who might miss a week, requiring months of extra work." Surley you should have enough material or knowledge to do some interesting material for students without it requiring extra months of work. I manage to produce interesting new material with relatively little extra work and so shuld most academics. So stop moaning and whinging and try to give the students the best possible experience.
new
Being kind to our colleagues and students takes very little effort and can have a huge effect in supporting the sector through the pandemic.
new
Maverick2, I am going to assume that you are the line manager of this anonymous author. Get the job done at all costs is your mantra.
new
Experienced professors write textbooks over a course of several years, sometimes decades. It's is of course nice to hear you can create some materials in a couple of hours. But it is for your students to decide how helpful and interesting these materials really are. All academics I ever worked with agree that creating teaching materials is a major time investment. Creating video recordings may be particularly time consuming since many academics were never doing anything like this before, and don't instantly know which equipment and software to use. Finally consider that most of us are not lucky enough to have a spare room in a house to convert it as office and studio room. University administration expects us to travel between our home offices and university premises to deliver both online and face to face sessions, sometimes several times back and forth each day. Excellent teaching is delivered by frontline academic staff, and our wellbeing is absolutely critical to excellent learning experience of our students.
new
Your comment suggest that you are not an academic. Perhaps you are also very stressed. I cannot find other possible explanations for your very unkind comment.
new
An extraordinarily illiterate comment. 'Relatively little extra work' speaks volumes here.
new
Maverick2, I am an experienced Academic (since 1980) and the arguments given in this article are all sound. This is not a rant and yes, the Academics are being asked to do (much) more with less. Research does suffer and teaching quality too. It is simply not possible to have face-to-face using University rooms and maintaining the 2m distance unless we give the same lecture 4 or 5 times to 1/4 or 1/5th of the cohort. Preparing good synchronous and asynchronous lectures does take considerably more time than simply showing up in a Lecture Theatre with 200+ students and delivering a lecture. To add insult to injury, due to several factiors (including the disastrous handling of the A-level results) several UK Universities accepted more students than their capacity. That means more money in fees, of course (so University administrators are happy), but someone has to teach these inflated classrooms and, I repeat, unless Universities buy, rent or build Lecture Theatres that are 4-5 times bigger, we will have to deliver the same lecture several times to smaller cohorts to respect the 2m distance. Put yourself in the shoes of lecturers and think.
new
A number of senior academic administrators have a simple response to the complexities of teaching in this pandemic: "You don't have to work here".
new
Senior management are stressed because most universities face financial problems yet dealing with the pandemic requires more cash input- extra cleaning, signage, etc. They’re passing the stress down the line. What we need is openness and honesty with students- they’re not going to get a university experience. Universities have overheads that online providers don’t have so demanding refunds isn’t tenable.Make most courses online and don’t offer face to face teaching.
new
It's all about the money. Now the students have paid their tuition and hall fees, senior management seem a little more relaxed. Sadly, they simply don't care about the wellbeing of teaching staff. It's a disaster waiting to happen in terms of long term health implication for older lecturers (like myself, 63).

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