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In a typical semester, Rackham student Ryan Glauser is jumping from building to building on any given day. He may have meetings in Mason Hall, teach discussion sections as a graduate student instructor in the Modern Languages Building or conduct research in Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.
This year, Glauser spends most of his time in his room, a space once dedicated as a place away from school that has now become a Zoom background. Glauser teaches a 300-level history course, takes classes, answers emails and holds office hours from his bedroom.
“Everything’s under the same roof, all day every day,” Glauser said.
Many professors and GSIs are in the same position as Glauser. Forced to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, online classes allow instructors to teach in their homes. Yet, this transition has not been easy.
The nonexistent physical separation between work and home has heightened stress for professors with kids. It has posed new challenges for Regina Baucom, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor currently teaching a 300-level biology course, who said it has been particularly difficult having her children learning in the same space that she is teaching.
“There is no work-home balance anymore,” Baucom said. “I have a couple of kids at home, so I’ve been making sure that they’re getting their schoolwork done and even teaching fifth grade in the margins whenever I can.”
Many instructors spent their summers making an in-person class compatible in an online setting. Often, Baucom said, this took far longer than it would have taken to deliver the lecture live — recording an hour of lecture takes her between three and four hours, not to mention the GSIs for the course, who spend an additional 60 to 90 minutes adding captions.
Mary Gallagher, a political science professor currently teaching an upper-level political science course, structured the format of her class to better accommodate international students. In July 2020, as colleges began to roll out back-to-school plans, the Department of Homeland Security issued a policy requiring international students to take at least one in-person class if they stayed in the U.S.
Given that Gallagher’s course, Political Science 339: China’s Evolution Under Communism, often attracted students from China, she opted for a hybrid class format that would provide international students in-person credit, but DHS later rolled back the policy.
Prior to Washtenaw County’s recent stay-in-place order, Gallagher said she felt comfortable teaching in person.
“I feel completely safe teaching in the class,” Gallagher said. “All my students wear masks. There’s tons of hand sanitizer everywhere and there are extra masks in the class. If I’m going to get COVID, I’m probably going to get it from one of my own kids rather than from COVID transmissions in class.”
Gallagher’s hybrid class has now gone fully remote. She said her preparation during the summer made for a smooth transition.
Work on online classes takes place continuously throughout the semester, Glauser said. Instructors are constantly figuring out new ways to make class more engaging, given that online platforms like Zoom deter organic conversations and interaction.
“Zoom creates this weird dynamic where it’s very uncomfortable or students are unwilling to start conversations, which means, as an instructor, I need to do a little bit more planning,” Glauser said. “I need to do a little bit more extra work just to make sure that when we come to discussion, those awkward moments are minimized, and that there’s always a question that the students can be thinking about.”
LSA Anthropology professor Leigh Stuckey said the “unmute” and “mute” buttons on Zoom hinder the development of natural dialogue, discouraging discussion as a whole. Other instructors reported that class participation has taken a hard hit ever since the introduction of Zoom.
“Zoom makes it hard to just have a conversation,” Stuckey said. “If you have more than about 10 or 12 students, it’s really hard because everyone talks over one another. At that point, you really have to call on students. I think being in a breakout room is really nice for providing those smaller group opportunities, but it is not at all the same as kind of sharing the same space in person.”
Many classes also touch upon sensitive topics that require a bit more guidance and supervision by the teacher. An online platform makes it exponentially harder to maintain such control, Glauser said.
“In a classroom setting, I can see if you’re working with a book, and I can see if you’re having problems and I can help you that way,” Glauser said. “But when everything’s remote, I don’t have that visual cue.”
In larger, lecture-style classes, the size poses unique challenges when trying to deliver course materials remotely. For lectures with upwards of 400 students, it is near impossible to facilitate conversation, Stuckey said.
The only format that Stuckey has found that can sustain this large number of students is a webinar. On this platform, students cannot see their peers and questions can only be asked through the chat function.
“When I’m teaching big lectures in person, I really like to have moments when students interact with each other,” Stuckey said. “I tend to talk quite a lot to the students, which gives the lecture and me a lot of energy. The big loss is the day-to-day, face-to-face interaction with students.”
Engineering senior Dean Golan, a departmental ambassador for Engineering 110 who leads weekly discussions for the class, agreed, saying it is difficult to encourage students to participate via Zoom.
“A lot of the time, my students won’t have their videos on or there’s very little participation,” Golan said. “It kind of feels like you’re talking to a brick wall.”
Despite the various difficulties that instructors have encountered, student health remains the utmost priority for teachers. Both Glauser and Stuckey noted the sheer number of students falling ill during the semester.
“So many of my students are getting sick,” Stuckey said. “Some of them are in the hospital and many of them have had parents or family members sick. I’ve tried to be really generous with my students. This does not seem like the semester to come down hard. We’ve had to deal with more extensions, more ‘how can we support you’ emails.”
Several professors said they were giving out more extensions, changing the format of exams to be more manageable and spreading out assignment due dates.
“I’m incredibly open and flexible,” Glauser said. “In the last two weeks, I’ve had about a quarter of my class either test positive for COVID, go into quarantine or go to actually get tests themselves.”
Some professors recognized how accommodations were not offered in all classrooms.
“Some of my students wrote their midterm while they had COVID, and they didn’t tell me they had COVID because they are being pressured by other classes to just do more and more work,” Glauser said. “So for me, when I found out that they had this stuff, you don’t need to do that for me. I need you to tell me that something’s wrong so I can help you.”
In many ways, online coursework has increased the amount of work for students. According to Stuckey, however, professors have faced a host of unforeseen challenges themselves.
“My colleagues and I spent a lot of time over the summer thinking about how we would maintain student engagement,” Stuckey said. “We weren’t spending a lot of time thinking about how we would maintain our own engagement. That’s something I find more challenging without the students directly in the room with me to interact.”
Several instructors said they empathize with students, saying they feel everyone is trudging through an unconventional semester together.
“I really just hope that students know how hard we are working for them and how much we empathize with them,” said Stuckey. “From my perspective, I really feel like we are all in this really not-ideal situation together. I’ve been grateful for how generous they have been with me and I hope they know that they can expect that I’ll be generous with them.”
Daily News Contributor Janice Kang can be reached at email@example.com.
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