Graduate student instructors express concerns about in-person teaching

Monday, June 29, 2020 - 12:08pm

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Courtesy of Cara Jhang

As the University of Michigan community begins to adjust to the hybrid in-residence fall semester announcement, Graduate Student Instructors told The Daily they are concerned about decisions being made for the fall semester because of minimal communication between the University and its graduate student employees.

Rackham student Nick Seewald has taught Statistics 250 for five semesters and is planning on teaching again this fall. Despite his desire to teach in-person, Seewald said instructing this semester presents challenges and concerns because of the lack of representation he has during the decision-making process.

“I'm honestly nervous,” Seewald said. “I think a lot of people want things to be back to normal. I would like to be back to normal. I like teaching in-person, but the idea of that right now does make me nervous, and I’m even more nervous given the fact that I don’t seem to have any say in how I will be teaching in the fall.”

Seewald’s concerns were also expressed by members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, a labor union that advocates for improved wages and working conditions for graduate workers at the University. Rackham student Sara Morell, GEO’s grievance committee co-chair, shared her frustrations with the lack of transparency between the University and graduate students amid planning for the upcoming semester.

“We were frustrated both by the fact that neither the grad student union, GEO, nor the lecture student union, LEO, were allowed at the planning table for this process,” Morell said. “We’re not able to find out how they make these decisions, what is the public-health information they are using to determine what number of students is appropriate in a classroom, what types of safety and cleaning procedures are necessary. Our input was sort of requested, but without knowing what processes they were using to make these decisions, we couldn’t even know what kinds of information we needed to collect from our members about the types of things they needed.”

University Public Affairs did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment in time for publication. 

Seewald further explained how the structure of his classes, which are small lab sections with around 30 students per section, would not be well suited for maintaining a distance of six feet apart from his students. He said teaching in-person this fall could potentially hinder his ability to provide quality instruction for his students, given the multiple factors he must focus on to follow public-health guidelines.

“The way that I interact with students is to kind of help them over their shoulder, and physical distance is not super conducive to providing feedback on a graph that somebody made on their computer,” Seewald said. “I can imagine myself not teaching well, if I’m also worried about making sure students’ masks are on, making sure my mask is on, making sure that I’m staying physically distant from students. There's a lot of cognitive work that has to go into all of that extra stuff, and so if I'm focused on that, I can imagine that I will not be as focused on actually providing quality instruction.”

Rackham student Sharmi Sen, a sixth year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology, is also planning on teaching this upcoming semester. However, with much of the COVID-19 pandemic outcome still uncertain, Sen said she is worried about being exposed to the virus because as an international student, she is isolated.

“I’m also an international student here, and I have basically no family in the U.S., so I’m by myself here,” Sen said. “Getting super sick is not ideal, even if I know I'm not in the age range category that’s prone to risk. But there's a lot of other complications health-wise, and also just the stress involved with knowing that you're exposing yourself to risk is not a productive environment to be in.”

With U.S. embassies suspending routine visa services amid COVID-19, international students like Sen are faced with greater challenges such as travel restrictions and visa renewals. Sen said she was disappointed to not find any mention of support or concrete decisions regarding international students when University President Mark Schlissel released fall plans. 

“When his email went out about fall plans, it didn’t address anything about — I know a lot is happening — but about visa extensions and international students who are planning to come back or may not even be able to come back,” Sen said. “So I just feel like a lot of important pieces of information are not being relayed. They’re just kind of putting that conversation aside, but there is a significant number of international students here who are really struggling with the COVID pandemic. And with all the travel restrictions and everything that's going on, it's just not fair for him not to address all of this.”

On June 25, GEO hosted a bike and car rally through Ann Arbor to protest for safer campus reopening. On Sunday afternoon, GEO released a statement that a participant at the rally tested positive for COVID-19. Participants at the rally are encouraged to contact their medical care providers to determine next steps.

One of the main policies GEO has been pushing for, Morell explained, is the option for graduate workers to teach asynchronously. For international students who are not in the country, this would be critical for their ability to teach at reasonable hours of the day, Morell said. Additionally, Morell explained how many graduate workers are parents and having a flexible schedule will allow them to be both parents and teachers. 

“We are under the impression that we will not be allowed an option to teach remotely,” Morell said. “They have told us that is not going to happen. There will be some sort of process for determining who is medically unable to teach in-person. But our concerns are really about making sure that that’s not a process that is going to leave people who really do need — for their own health and safety — to not teach in-person.”

Rackham student Ryan Glauser, GEO's COVID-19 caucus co-chair, noted the repercussions of not being able to be a part of the conversations surrounding fall decisions. He said the lack of transparency with University administrators made it difficult for him to gauge the specific needs for graduate students employees.

“We have asked, we have had meetings with administrators and have asked for this information, so that way we as a union can begin to prepare our own membership for what is going to come this fall,” Glauser said. “Their response has always been ‘Oh we don’t know this information. Oh we don’t have this information.’ And that is very telling and also causes alarm for me as a COVID caucus co-chair because then my question is: how are you then making decisions for the fall (and) what is your basis for it?”

Rackham student Leah Bernardo-Ciddio, GEO’s communications committee co-chair, also commented on the logistics of bringing back students from different areas of the world and said COVID-19 has impacted everyone differently. The danger in travelling to and from Ann Arbor, Bernardo-Ciddio explained, is the primary concern with fall break. However, Bernardo-Ciddio said this concern also applies to traveling to Ann Arbor to begin with. 

“We’re going to have tens of thousands of people coming from states where they have not contained this, and where the situation is severe,” Bernardo-Ciddio said. “There’s a lot here in the logistics of coming back that they’re not considering. The other thing that I think is ridiculous is, from what I understand, the plan is basically to have in-person classes until November 20, and after that, after Thanksgiving, it’ll be online only. I think it’s ridiculous because that structure indicates that they believe travel to and from Ann Arbor is dangerous and increases risk, so if they’re worried about that in November, the same risk is there in September.”

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.