Faculty Want a Say Whether to Teach Online or Face-to-Face!

Higher Ed Needs a Long-Term Plan for Virtual Learning

Dear Commons Community,

Faculty around the country are beginning to debate whether they teach online or face-to-face in the fall in those states  where officials are allowing the colleges the option. The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article this morning describing this situation at several colleges.  Here is an excerpt of the debate that is going on at Notre Dame.

“In announcing its plans to resume in-person instruction as of August 10, the University of Notre Dame became one of the first major institutions to answer the question on higher education’s collective mind: How will we approach the fall semester? Weeks after that announcement, Notre Dame’s president, John I. Jenkins, doubled down on the importance of face-to-face education in a New York Times op-ed, writing that “the mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.”

But in doing so, Jenkins and the administration raised a second, equally thorny question: What if faculty members don’t want to take those risks? That’s the concern shared by 140 Notre Dame faculty members who have signed a petition asserting that “all faculty members should be allowed to make their own prudential judgments about whether to teach in-person classes.”

At Notre Dame and colleges across the nation, faculty members argue that they’re not being given a say in a decision that could have consequences crucial to their own health and livelihoods. Even on campuses where administrators have solicited faculty members’ thoughts about a return to face-to-face education — often through surveys asking about how they’d prefer to teach their fall classes — those efforts have generated a backlash. The way administrators try to gauge faculty opinion, many instructors say, feels coercive.

In South Bend, the plan is clear: “The university expects faculty to be available for in-person classes, unless an individual’s circumstance results in an exception,” Paul J. Browne, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications, told The Chronicle in an email.

Eileen Hunt Botting, a professor of political science who signed the faculty petition, took issue with that stance. “This is a matter of civil rights and social justice,” she said. “Faculty members are not soldiers. Faculty members are, first and foremost, civilians, and civilians with basic civil rights to protect their lives and their health in the workplace.”

Health and safety may not be the only reasons that faculty members opt not to return to the classroom this fall. John Duffy, who directs the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and signed the petition, said courses like his are “incompatible with recommended social-distancing practices” and would be better suited pedagogically to online instruction.

Faculty members who are parents and whose children’s schools will move online for the fall may face extra child-care responsibilities, especially if class sessions extend into evenings and weekends to allow classrooms to be cleaned, said Karen B. Graubart, an associate professor of history at Notre Dame who signed the petition.

“I’m not refusing to teach face to face, but I want to have a conversation about what that would look like for me,” she said. She got her wish — at least in part — when the dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters asked department chairs to survey their faculty members’ fall preferences with a “nonbinding straw poll.”

Graubart’s chair shared the results for the history department, which revealed that more than half of the faculty members there were willing to teach either in-person or using a combination of in-person and remote instruction. Graubart said a “fairly small percentage” expressed a preference for fully online teaching.

Faculty members at Notre Dame can fill out a COVID-19 Reasonable Accommodation Request Form to request permission to work remotely, explained a letter sent Monday night by provost Thomas G. Burish, provost-elect Marie Lynn Miranda and executive vice president Shannon B. Cullinan. The form, like several others reviewed by The Chronicle, asks faculty and staff members to disclose if they belong to one of the populations that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as being at high risk for Covid-19.

Respondents are asked to indicate if they are “requesting an accommodation because you are 65 years old or older.” They can check boxes for underlying conditions such as cardiac problems, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and severe obesity. (The university also requires faculty and staff members to submit medical documentation for such conditions.) Respondents can check another box to request accommodations for online teaching if they have a family member who is at risk, and an “Other” field allows for written responses.”

The Chronicle article goes on to discuss examples at other institutions such as Vanderbilt and Yale.

The issue of fear for one’s personal safety if required to teach face-to-face even if social distancing is practice, has to be taken seriously.  There certainly can be a legal liability if one becomes infected with Covid-19.


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