Take a Sabbatical for Teaching This Fall

Nicholas H. Snow offers a suggestion to his research scholar colleagues: navigate this perfect storm by making teaching and serving undergraduate students your highest priority.

August 26, 2020
 
 
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Like the 2000 film and 1997 novel The Perfect Storm, which depicted a 1991 event in which three major weather fronts combined to cause havoc across the Atlantic Ocean, higher education confronts its own perfect storm trifecta. This fall we face a global pandemic, a nationwide social justice and inclusion movement, and an economic recession. Any one of those is a disrupter for higher education, and we must grapple with all three.

Nobody really knows what the next academic year and the future after that will hold for academics at all institutions, from the wealthiest flagship research universities to the smallest liberal arts colleges and professional schools. The only thing we do know is that fall 2020 will be much different from fall 2019, and all of us have very different jobs.

To my research scholar friends and colleagues, I offer a suggestion: navigate this perfect storm by making teaching and serving undergraduate students your highest priority. For this year, take a sabbatical for teaching.

Our institutions have supported our research careers from the start. Recall your own experiences in introductory classes, undergraduate research and graduate school. As faculty members, recall your institutional support, with generous start-up packages, reduced teaching loads, direct support of research, travel funds and sabbatical or research leave time, among many forms of research support. Most of us have enjoyed the highest honors and privileges of academic life. Some of us have become famous and even rich as a result. Now is the time to pay it forward to our undergraduate students.

Our institutions and our undergraduates, especially our incoming first-year class, need us. They need all of us. They need us to be accessible and inclusive. They need us to be there in whatever teaching modes are available. Ideally, they need us in person, but for sure, they need us even more online. They need us to answer their emails quickly. They need us to know how to use all of the available technology to help them and to help them learn how to use it.

My institution had chosen the “HyFlex” model for reopening campus in the fall. I had planned to be teaching general chemistry in my usual amphitheater but with about half of the students in the room and the other half online at the same time. I learned several new functions in our course management program. We just switched to starting lectures all online with a possible pivot to HyFlex later. The main requirement is still the same: practice, practice, practice. Online, HyFlex or in-person, the student experience must be as close to the same as possible. Although I am highly experienced in presenting webinars, preparing to give both in-person and online students outstanding classes is challenging and time-consuming. I am now figuring out how to give my now fully remote students a personalized experience.

Students also need us to think deeply about inclusion, social justice and equity in our classes. Beyond content, they need us to think about delivery and processes. How inclusive are your processes and evaluation methods? Today, we must deliver so much more than information. I used to give long multiple-choice exams using 10-point type until I realized that some students seemed to have trouble just reading through the whole exam, much less answering the questions.

More recently, during a protest rally on our campus, I was looking at my own grade sheet and found too many of the names at the bottom were difficult for me to pronounce. That motivated me to become more sensitive to the needs of students from varying backgrounds. I teach chemistry at a Catholic institution. I am grounding the spirit of changes to my content, delivery and assessments in the liberal arts, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and 1 Corinthians 12: 12-26 (not the 1 Corinthians often quoted at weddings) -- which reminds us that all people are part of the body of Christ, deserving of love, respect and consideration.

A Top Priority

Making the necessary course changes to navigate the perfect storm generates its own trifecta of examining new instructional technology, new content and new assessments all at once and in the context of your own institution’s mission, traditions and goals. The success of each of us in navigating this educational trifecta is crucial for our institutions to attract and retain students and overcome the third element of the higher education perfect storm: finances and the recession.

All of our undergraduate students, especially first-year students, need to see that the most senior and famous professors are working together with colleagues, postdocs and graduate students to assist, welcome and include them. Undergraduates are the life blood of American higher education and the future of our disciplines.

Make teaching your top priority this year. Go to your funding agency; get a no-cost extension. Ask them to support you and your graduate students to assist with undergraduate teaching. Ask them to allow your postdocs to join with us in the classroom. Build professional development plans for graduate students and postdocs that support teaching and inclusion. Unless your research directly relates to COVID-19, it can probably stand some months' delay. Social distancing, online teaching and inclusion are here to stay in all of our courses.

The days of cramming 500 students into a lecture hall and reading slides to them are over. All classes will have online components. All classes must be inclusive. These transitions are happening immediately; to do them right, they must be a top priority of all faculty members.

Enable junior faculty colleagues to know that it is OK to put extra time into teaching without damaging their chances for tenure or a tenure-track job. By being a greater part of teaching efforts ourselves, we support our tenure-track and contingent colleagues, who often shoulder a greater burden in undergraduate teaching, especially in introductory courses. Senior colleagues can be a much more powerful voice in supporting our junior colleagues to the administration. Back this up down the road when making hiring and promotion/tenure recommendations over the next several years; honor the teaching they are doing now.

Let us not forget the service that our tenure-track and contingent colleagues are doing this year for our students, our institutions and us. When prospective students and the public see us all working together to navigate the pandemic and address inclusion, even in a recession, we can provide the value and demonstrate the values that attract students.

I am not the first author to use a “perfect storm” analogy to describe challenges in higher education, nor will I be the last. The storms facing us this fall are a greater threat to all of us than any in the recent past. For higher education to weather the storms, each teacher/scholar must navigate their own successful path forward through them -- with our top, most privileged scholars leading the way by example.

Make undergraduate teaching the first priority for yourself, your postdocs and your graduate students this year. Be welcoming and inclusive to undergraduates. Master new technology tools that allow you to teach both in person and online. Look closely at inclusion in what you are delivering both in person and online. Help and be a voice for junior and contingent colleagues. With classes online, undergraduates will have many more options for their education.

Remember The Perfect Storm and think about what happened to the boats that tried to sail through “business as usual.” Like the Andrea Gail and the Mistral from the movie, if we do not make undergraduate teaching our first priority, many of us may not have universities, departments or labs in the near future. For everyone’s good, navigate a course through the perfect storm by taking a sabbatical for teaching this year.

Bio

Nicholas H. Snow is founding endowed professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Seton Hall University.

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