Thoughts on the absurdity of teaching on campus in the Fall


Over the past several months, higher education has been a theater of the pragmatic and the absurd. At this writing, most colleges and universities in the US are planning to return students to campus and hold classes in person, with some kind of fig leaf precautions. At least, that what they’re saying they’re going to do. Looking at the landscape of the COVID infection rate, this makes absolutely no sense.

In sizing up the pandemic plans of most universities, I have no idea how to identify the boundary between denial and deceit.

Bringing people together on campuses is a recipe for spreading the disease. It doesn’t have to do with the dorms, or frat parties, or any of that. It’s just that teaching in classrooms will circulate the virus. This is known.

And it results in administrative absurdities like this:

It doesn’t have to be this way. Back in May, the California State University system announced plans to teach (almost*) wholly online in the fall. This was a strong piece of leadership. While I think this is a hard time to be any kind of educator, I feel like being a professor in the CSU is about as reasonable as it can get during These Times. Since May, we’ve been prepping to teach fully online courses, and it looks like it’ll stay this way for the whole academic year and perhaps beyond. Looking at the facts of the pandemic, to me at least, the only reasonable course of action is to continue to teach virtually. (I get that CSU campuses are at lesser risk of financial collapse as a result of online teaching, particularly in comparison to low-endowment private institutions, which made this act of leadership less of a leap into the unknown.)

Fall is approaching and universities are playing a deadly game of chicken with their on-campus teaching plans. It took a few months, but other schools such as USC, Rutgers, Harvard, and Georgetown have finally blinked, and have followed suit with the lead set by the Cal State system. I imagine (and hope) the dam will break and most places will go principally online in the Fall, and I should note that I’m not alone in this prediction.

It’s a shame that it’s taking so long for institutions to wise up about the dangers of returning everybody to take classes on campus, because it’s not giving faculty much opportunity to prepare for teaching online. The emergency teaching in the Spring came off poorly because we were wholly unprepared for it. But this time, we have had several months and no university should be putting their faculty in a situation where they are asked, yet again, to switch an on-campus course to an online course on short notice.. (On my campus, there’s been ample professional development, and since we’re off contract in the summer, there are stipends associated with the training for online teaching).

Can you imagine being told, in mid-August, “Whoopsie, we said we were going to force you to teach in person, but now we’re going online, so be sure to get your classes ready for that. We start next week!” I suspect I’d be relieved at the reduction in harm, but also fuming at being placed in a situation where I’m not ready to teach in the online modality, again. It’s not fair to the students or to the faculty.

People who run universities aren’t stupid. They also get advice from other non-stupid people. Everybody was fully aware how and why the CSU chose to go online in the Fall. But, nonetheless, most universities steered in the other direction, fully aware of the circumstances. Even though it was abundantly clear that the virus would continue to be a problem throughout 2020. And even though they know that it transmits particularly well in classrooms.

So, then, why is it that so many universities chose a path that is clearly dangerous to the members the campus community? Were they in denial, or were they trying to deceive us? Are they dupes or are they duplicitous? I honestly don’t know.

I can understand how really smart people can be in denial about the duration of the pandemic in the United States. Many private universities are already on the financial brink, and we are facing a major drop in the number of college students in the next decade, and many places can barely weather a single bad year. If folks are paying a lot of money for the college experience, are they really paying just to take a class online? Why not take a year away from college, or take classes at the community college, or defer enrollment, or something else? Because a lot of the college experience isn’t about being enrolled in classes, it’s about being in the non-virtual college environment. So I understand how universities are terrified of a drop in enrollment, which could send them into an unrecoverable financial tailspin. I get this.

Here’s another thing I wonder about: Is the fear of institutional collapse for want of tuition dollars actually driving administrators to make false plans about teaching in person, that they never really intend to keep? Or are these institutions actually so hopeful that the pandemic might actually clear up enough to make college campuses safe for students, staff and faculty? Are they that naive? I’ve heard cynical folks quip that all of these institutions never really planned to teach in person, but they needed to pretend as much because that was the only way to get students and their families to commit to enrolling in the Fall. If that’s true, that would be an impressively grand feat of duplicity by the entire higher education community. Less cynical folks might surmise that universities are trapped in delusional thinking. Maybe they didn’t actually believe the lies coming from the White House, but they also were hoping that maybe, somehow, some way, with a bit of luck, things would work out?

Perhaps it’s an amalgam of self-delusion and deceit. They just didn’t know what to think, and it’s scary to show the leadership and pull the trigger on an online Fall semester, so they’re just following the flock of all the other universities that are equally afraid of scaring away enrollment.

Another thing I don’t understand why universities are more fearful of economic collapse because of low enrollment, when they might experience greater economic liability for deaths and chronic illnesses resulting from bringing everybody back to campus. No matter what kind of waiver you make people sign, you can bet that once a student, faculty member, or staff member ends up being hospitalized, that’s a huge institutional liability, not just in terms of exposure to lawsuits, but also repetitional harm. I imagine that lost revenue from going online (which is a complex issue) might be dwarfed by the costs incurred once employees die.

It looks like most of you are working somewhere that wants to put you and your family at risk in the Fall, not to mention the students and their families. My heart goes out to you. I hope you find a way to keep yourselves safe. You deserve better. I hope the Powers That Be in your institution wise up in time. As things exacerbate and more universities “pivot to online” for the Fall, I hope it goes more smoothly for you.

As you can see, this whole situation has me confused, because universities acted so quickly and responsibly — essentially spurring the entire country into action when this all began. And now, they’re slow-walking major decisions that can be putting so many of us at risk.

*On my campus, 96% of instruction will be online. There are a few things happening on campus. I don’t know if they measured that 4% in terms of FTEs, units, butts in seats, instructional hours, or whatever.

25 thoughts on “Thoughts on the absurdity of teaching on campus in the Fall

  1. Back in May my school made the decision to go online for Summer and Fall 2020. That decision has removed a lot of stress for us faculty, and knowing that we have to teach online in the fall gives us time to do it properly. We all have to take a 2-week Distance Ed Academy to learn how to teach online. And we get paid for that. But many of my friends who teach at other schools still don’t know what the plans are for this fall. Or their schools are planning in-person classes, as you mention. For the most part, the colleges and universities are really bungling this decision, and risking the health of students, staff, and faculty.

  2. It’s FTES percentage-wise. One of the more interesting dynamics is that the campuses with a more access orientation (like CSUDH) are making proposals below 5%. The more selective CSUs are asking for MUCH higher percentages in part, I think because there is a different expectation of parents and students at, say Cal Poly, as to what “college” is and it’s more aligned to the privates.

  3. I think the idea of going back to in person teaching right now is utter lunacy. In my neighborhood they were talking about getting the local elementary schools in class by Aug. 13. However “saner” minds have prevailed and pushed that back to the week of August 20th. We have so far been relatively untouched so far in my neck of the woods but the numbers are going up. These are crazy and scary times and smart people do stupid things when they are scared. I truly hope though that these people remember they are actually smart and come to their senses before it is too late. Stay safe.

  4. We’re going halfsies. Some students will be on campus, others online. All in person classes (smalker than 19 people) will also be available fully online for those who can’t attend or if we shut down. All profs can teach online if they want. Some students need to be on campus as they have unstable home situations, or international.

  5. Thank you, Terry. Particularly distressing in this has been the degree to which the scientific evidence (to which you allude) has been ignored by administrations who otherwise trip over themselves to brag about the scientific accomplishments of their faculty. How dare research universities craft their recruiting to stress our emphases on critical thinking but when it really matters – like life-and-death matters – they push this ‘reopening’ garbage on us?

    Somewhere there’s a spreadsheet that indicates how many wrongful death lawsuits our budgets can absorb. It would be gross negligence if this hadn’t been factored into each institution’s decision process, so we know that number exists.

  6. Sounds a lot like privilege to me. Health care workers, those working in the food chain, Home Deport………. But well payed faculty want to stay home and teach online……A hybrid system may be best for BOTH students and faculty.

    • Wow, privilege, huh? First of all, college faculty are underpaid, sometimes dramatically so, relative to their qualifications. The fact that many workers are treated even worse isn’t a justification for treating faculty badly.
      Second, the students are at risk too, and not just because of potential transmission in the classroom. When students are on campus, they socialize and hold parties. There’s been a spike of cases where I am exactly because of this.

  7. As a student this fall going into a healthcare field I need to have in person classes for most of my classes. I don’t think it’s fair to not have classes only online, especially for those going into healthcare. I have a friend who is going into laboratory sciences, and her labs are supposed to be online. How is this going to help her in the real world? Yes it’s a pandemic, but we can’t keep living in fear. I agree with the comment below there are plenty in healthcare and other well underpaid essential workers being asked to work. Get yourself an n95 mask, a face shield and plenty of hand sanitizer and you should survive.

    • I don’t think someone with your attitude and perspective should go into the field of healthcare. “To do a good job, healthcare workers must focus on others. When providing care, it is important to center the patient and his or her needs, rather than your own role. “

  8. Some vital classes cannot be done online. (Lab sciences. Most performing arts.) I’ve been reading that some med schools are doing online only. Remind me to never consult a doctor who attended med school this year.

    College towns will be decimated if students stay home. There are countless businesses that depend on the presence of large student populations.

    Most schools that are planning to reopen are planning a hybrid program, and changes in student life to minimize risk. (Surely if you are smart enough for college you are smart enough to wear the damn mask.)

    • “(Surely if you are smart enough for college you are smart enough to wear the damn mask.)”

      One would think that young people who are smart enough for college would be smart enough to not binge drink or do the various other stupid things that college students routinely do…but, no. I trust many (most) of my students, individually, but I’ve been around long enough not to trust the whole campus full of students, collectively. They will party. And drink. And not wear the damn mask. And we’ll be heading back online once the infections start to spread on campus, which they undoubtedly will. I hope nobody dies along the way.

  9. Some people want online classes and some want in person classes. There is no need to malign the motivations of those with whom you disagree. You are not more virtuous because you are willing to work from home.

  10. This is a great post. Here’s something alarming–our campus is actually trying really hard to do the right thing. They consulted with a local hospital, and the hospital told them, “oh, it’s fine, go ahead, as long as you have 50% capacity in the classrooms, you’ll be safe!”

    A hospital. Told them that. Luckily, we have good leadership, and while they haven’t made the commitment to go all online, they are listening to faculty and staff, and allowing a lot of flexibility.

  11. I think every school has to decide for their community (teachers, admin and students). It’s not a once size fits all. Have you read Cornell’s plan on going back to campus? They are planning on doing Pool Covid testing on a regular basis to track and trace any instances of the virus. It may turn out to be a good model for other campuses. Each school needs to figure out what could work for them for their needs.

  12. Succumb to fear. Destroy lives by shutting down everything. Loss of lives from depression, domestic violence, loss of health care, lack of income to buy food, etc. Good result for the janitors, secretaries, food and retail workers, etc. Or maybe the professors are going to take a pay cut to share?

  13. Use online where possible (it can’t be too long before an actual lecture with questions works just as well)

    Give 55+ sabbatical if desired
    Give compromised (including fearful) layoff with no loss of seniority until Sept 2021
    Forget sports, drama, music except where online or physical distancing can be maintained
    Close the damn bars and casinos
    If you pay a fare a mask shall be included in the price and shall be worn

    Is this really such a challenge idjits?

    • Third and fourth year students get tuition halved (waived?) for marking first and second year papers. Random checks ensure quality.

  14. It is so hard to learn online for some students it wouldn’t be fair to just stay online! Especially for freshman, students need to learn and get used to college along with actually develop social skills which they are not able to learn through a computer screen. Space people out, wear masks in class, add sanitizer stations. You can’t live in a bubble, things happen and life needs to get back up and running

  15. You are correct in every claim. Your logic is sure. Thank you.

  16. Doctors, nurses, cashiers and people who stock the shelves at the grocery store work all day exposed to the virus but it is too dangerous for a college professor to appear in the classroom for an hour three times a week to teach. Please give me a break.

  17. If they can test every student every week it seems reasonable to try and start back up. Leaving everyone at home is not without risk, altho certainly less. I don’t disagree, it is not guaranteed to work.

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