adjusting expectations for empathy and equity in the wake of COVID-19

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, college and university instructors have been asked to keep teaching. Faced with that mandate, some instructors have to tried to stick as closely as possible to “business as usual”—transitioning to online instruction but otherwise keeping their expectations for students the same. That could mean required, on-time attendance, maybe even with checks on active engagement. It could mean keeping all the original assignments and deadlines in place, and maybe even adding new modules and assignments. It could mean online exams held during the normally scheduled times, maybe even with identity verification, browser controls, and live proctoring to keep students from cheating.

Now, I understand that those “business as usual” expectations might give some instructors the sense of normalcy they need to keep teaching in the face of so much uncertainty. At the same time, though, and as I argued in a recent webinar for Indiana University’s Office of Diversity and inclusion, those “business as usual” expectations are no longer equitable—if they ever were at all.

If our students signed up to take in-person classes this semester, then we can’t expect that they’ll be able to seamlessly make the switch online. We can’t expect that students will have consistent access to internet or to a personal laptop or tablet they can rely on to make Zoom calls, download video, take exams, or do assignments online. We can’t expect that students will have a safe place to live, enough food to eat, a distraction-free environment where they can study, or enough time to show up for classes. And we can’t expect that the students who need help will feel comfortable enough to ask.

Given the challenges students are facing, many instructors—myself included—have abandoned “business as usual” and radically shifted their expectations for students. That decision, however, is likely to be easier for tenured faculty—myself included—than it is for grad student instructors, adjunct faculty, lecturers, and tenure-track junior faculty. That decision is also likely to be easier for instructors from more privileged groups—myself included—than it is for instructors from systematically marginalized groups.

If you’re an instructor with a more tenuous status, lowering expectations in the wake of the coronavirus might feel risky. You might worry about being judged—by advisors and colleagues, by hiring committees, award committees, and tenure committees, or even by your own students. You might worry about how those judgments will affect your course evaluations or your chances of getting hired, promoted, tenured, or picked for a teaching award.

My goal in this post is to give you language you can use to justify choosing equity and empathy over “business as usual” in the wake of COVID-19. First, I’ll offer a few general suggestions for instructors on adjusting expectations and avoiding further harm. Second, I’ll share the message I sent my undergraduate students explaining how I would be adjusting my expectations for the remainder of the semester. Finally, I’ll share a template you can use in teaching statements for job applications, tenure dossiers, or other materials to explain how you’ve adjusted your own courses during this challenging time.

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