How Colleges Can Better Help Faculty During the Pandemic

We need support to manage this transition, writes Vicki L. Baker, who offers institutions some suggestions for how to begin.

March 25, 2020
 
 
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These unprecedented times in higher education have required action -- a coalescing of functional areas across our respective campuses at a rapid pace. As a result, colleges and universities have disseminated online resources, surveys to assess students’ access to and comfort with technology, and online teaching tool kits, as faculty members -- many of whom have limited to no experience teaching online -- scramble to re-envision their courses with a 72-hour runway.

The focus of those efforts, and understandably so, has been on the student experience. Questions abound about how to ensure a smooth transition on educational delivery and the impact on student learning. Such a move also highlights the challenges our most vulnerable student populations face when not within our immediate care. The shift to online learning is challenging, to say the least, for them as well as everyone else taking classes.

But one thing remains evident: faculty members need support to manage this transition, too. Here are some recommendations that extend beyond access to training and resources to ease the shift to online learning. They include opportunities for social and emotional support, along with peer-to-peer learning.

Create a faculty community. Many faculty members are active on social media. They are posting offers to help, to share resources and to communicate lessons learned. They are also testing out ways, such as going live, to deliver their educational content as a means of engaging their student populations in a medium in which they are already well versed, even if other faculty members are not. This type of sharing provides a crucial source of faculty support and knowledge sharing from which others can benefit.

Communities also provide a forum to express concerns and frustrations in a safe environment. One colleague commented on our peer’s post, “Thank you for letting me vent. Didn’t even realize I needed to do that!”

Such communities could, and should, exist on two levels. First, a formal digital community should be established on campuses so faculty members can exchange ideas, ask questions, share resources and seek guidance. An academic dean or the person in charge of faculty development could spearhead such a forum. All community members, including instructional technologists who can provide related expertise, should have access to post and respond to questions. In addition, it should be a safe environment where people can express concerns, frustrations and trepidation without the need to engage in impression management.

A few faculty members should also organize a second digital community that is for faculty members only. Such a community would allow faculty members to, for example, critique the level of administrative communication in times of crisis, pose questions that impact the well-being of the faculty community and strategize together as a collective. Colleges and universities of all sizes should consider implementing both levels of online communities.

Facilitate divisional exchanges. Relatedly, higher education institutions should not underestimate the importance of facilitating connections among faculty colleagues within a given divisional area. The support, experiences and needs of your STEM colleagues differ from those of your peers in the social sciences, humanities and fine and applied arts. Given the push to practice social distancing, these types of exchanges can be facilitated with technology. One of the crucial divisional differences that has arisen when implementing a move to online courses is how such a shift impacts science labs, field experiences and studio art classes. In-person course experiences are paramount when it comes to educating students in these fields. Faculty members need a forum to brainstorm and exchange ideas about how to mimic these such curricular experiences in an online environment.

A colleague in consulting who works with larger corporations on improving internal communications recommends moving away from email given the accompanying productivity drain. As many faculty members know and experience, emails from a variety of stakeholders, covering a range of topics, flood our in-boxes. We often have to spend hours responding to those messages and organizing them accordingly. In times of crisis, time is even more limited, and relevant information needs to be filed in a targeted way. Resources such as Slack or Microsoft Teams provide a more efficient way to communicate among team members (e.g., department members), saving time and energy.

These tools facilitate engagement by organizing conversations by topic, project, role or team. They can also help you manage files and video calls. It’s about working smarter, not harder, as faculty members push to move online and communicate with relevant departmental and institutional peers.

Re-envision career development policies and practices. A move to online education surfaces the needs and experiences of vulnerable students that we in higher education must be diligent to address. At the same time, it also highlights the needs and experiences of vulnerable faculty populations, like non-tenure-track, part-time faculty members and early-career colleagues on the tenure track.

Non-tenure-track and part-time faculty often already feel like outsiders, despite the important contributions they make to the institutions in which they are employed. Their voices are frequently not represented in policy and practice discussions, and they often have limited opportunities to engage with other people on the campus. At some institutions, they are not eligible to participate in faculty development programming, limiting the resources they have access to. The growing move to online education has the potential to further exacerbate those challenges.

Campus leaders, including administrators in charge of faculty development, must make an intentional effort to more substantively engage non-tenure-track and part-time peers during times of crisis. Such actions can be as simple as scheduling meetings with such faculty members to ensure they have a voice in relevant campus discussions, receive invitations to attend key meetings and have access to online resources, training and communities -- both formal and informal. I also urge full-time faculty members to look out for nontenured and part-time peers, making sure they are aware of key campus conversations and have the support they need to carry out their responsibilities.

Early-career colleagues on the tenure track are also facing obstacles as a result of the move to online education. As they look ahead to interim and tenure and promotion reviews, in which teaching evaluations and scholarly productivity are paramount, such policies and practices should be altered to account for significant changes to educational delivery like the ones we are experiencing.

Many disciplinary conferences -- which are vital to professional networking, knowledge exchange and dissemination, and visibility (not to mention job search opportunities, referring back to our non-tenure-track and part-time faculty peers) -- have also been canceled. That means a loss of opportunities to present research, receive immediate feedback on scholarly efforts and meet with current and potential collaborators -- not to mention to connect with dear friends and colleagues. Such cancellations are demoralizing and a hindrance to productivity. (Some professional associations are working to move to a virtual format as a means of minimizing some of these noted losses.)

As a result, it’s not a reasonable expectation to ask faculty members to completely re-envision their courses and educational delivery methods and maintain and manage a scholarly agenda until we return to a “new normal” -- we don’t know what that will look like. For example, we need to ask ourselves, are teaching evaluations necessary this semester? And if you or your institution believes they are necessary, what modifications should you make in light of these industrywide changes?

I am a member of a Facebook group of other academic women in which one shared a communication from her dean about this very issue. That communication, among other things, noted that personnel committee members and campus leaders will now include language in letters of invitation to reviewers reminding them that the COVID-19 outbreak has been disrupting faculty production. The letter also encouraged faculty members to attend to their health and safety as well as their emotional well-being. It was an example of leadership in service of faculty members and should be applauded and modeled.

Consider new partnerships. As a working mother, I am now tasked with managing professional responsibilities while also working to educationally engage my school-age children, who are now also home from school. Colleges and universities could work to partner with K-12 schools as a means of supporting faculty and teachers alike. Sharing of grade- and age-specific resources to support student and faculty learning could be considered. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to think strategically about partnerships and how higher ed and K-12 instructors can support each other in mutually beneficial ways.

These are extraordinary times for everyone, including those of us in higher education. We need to keep in mind that the individuals who deliver the educational model -- our faculty members -- also need support in their careers and their lives.

Bio

Vicki L. Baker is a professor of economics and management at Albion College and the co-author of a number of books and articles exploring faculty development. Her most recent work, Charting Your Path to Full: A Guide for Women Associate Professors, is forthcoming by Rutgers University Press.

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