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.

general suggestions for adjusting expectations

  • Acknowledge the challenges students are facing. Ask your students how they’re doing. Read research and news reports and blog posts that offer insights into these challenges. Talk about those challenges with your students. Reassure your students that their health and well-being are more important than the work they’re doing in school.
  • Don’t expect students to ask for help. Remember that the most vulnerable students are often the most reluctant to ask for help—usually because of how they’ve been (mis)treated when asking for help in the past. Recognize that what might seem like a lack of motivation or effort (e.g., not showing up for class meetings, not completing assignments) might actually be a silent signal of struggle.
  • Offer support to students, even if they don’t ask.  Show your students you care. Share information about resources students can access through the Dean of Students Office, through your department, or through national, state, or local organizations. The Crisis Text Line, for example, offers free 24/7 mental health counseling and can be reached by texting CONNECT to 741741 (in the US, or 85258 in Canada, or 686868 in the UK). Encourage students to reach out to you if they need help or just want to talk about what they’re experiencing during this crisis.
  • Give students the opportunity to keep learning. Make course content accessible in multiple ways. That might include real-time class meetings, videos and transcripts of class meetings that can be watched or read later, and complete copies of lecture notes and slides. Offer alternative options for assignments that might prove challenging for students with limited technology or limited time. That could include allowing students to write short paper assignments instead of taking online exams or doing group projects. Opt for universal accommodations when possible. That means making flexible options available to all students and not just those who ask.
  • Avoid inequitable and unrealistic expectations. Don’t expect real-time attendance. Don’t expect in-class participation. Don’t expect that students will be able to complete online assignments or take online exams, especially if those assignments or exams have specific timeframes attached. Students might not have the technology needed to do the work, they might be in a different time zone or have work or caregiving responsibilities that conflict with scheduled class times, or they might be struggling with grief and loss, with illness, or with high levels of stress.
  • Avoid making more work for your students (and yourself and your TAs). Cut as many assignments as possible or make them optional, giving students flexibility around which ones they complete. Don’t create new assignments or modules to substitute for assignments that don’t work in a new format. Don’t feel compelled to use new technological tools beyond what you absolutely need to teach the course. Essentially, keep this transition as simple as possible for your students, for yourself, and for any teaching assistants you might have.

  • Consider grading students on the work they completed before courses went online. In my classes, the lowest grade students can get is the grade they had before campus closed. Any work they do from here can only raise their grade. That way I’m not penalizing students for any challenges they might be facing this semester. And I’m not relying on students to prove they deserve individual leniency.


my message to my students

Dear Students,

I’m writing today with a heavy heart – saddened to know that I won’t be seeing you all in person again soon.

In the wake of President McRobbie’s decision to hold classes online for the remainder of the semester, I wanted to reach out to offer words of reassurance and also to explain the decisions I have made about how we will proceed with our course.

Please know that if you are feeling anxious or upset right now, you are certainly not alone. Many of us are trying to figure out how we’re going to move forward amidst serious disruptions to our normal routines. Many of us are concerned about our own health or the health of people we love. Please be kind to yourselves in this difficult time. And please know that if this semester is not your best, if your grades do not reflect your full potential – it will be okay. What you learn in your courses should ultimately matter more than the grades you earn.

That said, I understand that grades do matter. And I understand that many of you are concerned about how this semester’s disruptions might impact your eligibility for opportunities at IU and in your future careers.

Along those lines, I have decided to make changes to our course requirements that will, hopefully, reduce some of the pressure around grades. My goal in making these changes is to support your health and well-being and ensure that you can all complete this course without being penalized for any challenges you might face. To briefly summarize the key changes:

  1. Attendance will no longer be taken in class. That said, I strongly encourage you to continue engaging with the reading and listening materials and with our weekly course meetings, which you can do by joining us for the live-streamed classes, by watching the recorded videos after class, or by reading the written transcripts of those videos and following along with the power point slides.
  2. All remaining reading quizzes and in-class activity reflections will be optional. If you complete optional quizzes or in-class activity reflections, and you score higher on those assignments than on assignments previously submitted, I will count the higher grades.
  3. You will have the option to either complete the final exam or the final project. If you complete both, I will only count the higher of the two grades.
  4. The grading rubric has been updated to reflect the restructured assignments.
  5. The course schedule has been updated to reflect the extended spring break.

You can find more detailed information about these and other changes in the revised syllabus and in an announcement (titled “ALL THE THINGS RELATED TO IU COURSES GOING ONLINE”), both of which are posted on Canvas. The syllabus is also attached here.

My hope is that these changes will give you the support and flexibility you need to continue learning and succeeding in our course. That said, I also understand that some of you are facing particularly challenging constraints. To that end, I have decided that no student in this class will receive a final grade lower than the grade they had when courses went online. Work you do for the remainder of the semester can raise your grade, but your final grade will not be lower than what it is right now.

If you are at all concerned about your ability to complete the work for this course, please let me know. I am happy to work with you to develop an individualized plan that accommodates your needs and the challenges you face.

Please take time over break to rest and breathe. Please know that I am thinking of you and hoping you are well.

With gratitude and respect,

Professor Calarco


a template for teaching statements

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 created tremendous challenges for me and for my students. During that time, I was teaching [LIST YOUR COURSES]. In those courses, I would normally expect students to [BRIEFLY EXPLAIN YOUR NORMAL EXPECTATIONS FOR STUDENTS]. In the wake of the pandemic, I was required to shift those courses online.

My students, however, had not signed up to take online courses. Thus, I could not reasonably expect that all my students could seamlessly make the transition to online learning and meet my normal expectations for the course. During the pandemic, many college students lacked the technology needed to succeed in online courses, particularly with campuses and public libraries closed. During the pandemic, many college students also faced housing and food insecurity, physical and mental illness, and additional work and caregiving responsibilities that made it difficult for them to remain engaged with coursework.

Given those challenges, I opted to adjust my expectations for students to center empathy and equity and reduce the potential for further harm. Specifically, in [COURSE 1], I opted to [EXPLAIN HOW YOU CHANGED YOUR TEACHING AND EXPECTATIONS]. Furthermore, in [COURSE 2, 3, 4, etc.], I opted to [EXPLAIN HOW YOU CHANGED YOUR TEACHING AND EXPECTATIONS].

The changes I made to my courses also allowed me to continue teaching and supporting my students despite the challenges I was facing during the coronavirus pandemic. During that time, [IF YOU ARE COMFORTABLE DOING SO, BRIEFLY EXPLAIN THE CHALLENGES YOU WERE FACING, SUCH AS CAREGIVING OR WORK RESPONSIBILITIES, ILLNESS, GRIEF AND LOSS, AND STRESSES RELATED TO THE UNCERTAINTY OF THE SITUATION].

Not surprisingly, the grades and student evaluations in my courses looked somewhat different during the coronavirus pandemic than they did in previous and subsequent semesters. With respect to grades, my students earned [HIGHER/LOWER] grades than students in similar courses in other semesters. [IF HIGHER] This is understandable, however, given my explicit decision to avoid grading students in a way that might reward them for their privilege or penalize them for challenges they were facing during the crisis. [IF LOWER] This is understandable, however, in that students were likely facing challenges that made it difficult for them to succeed during one of the most disruptive events in their lives. With respect to evaluations, my students gave me [HIGHER/LOWER] evaluations than did students in similar courses in other semesters. [IF HIGHER] This is understandable, however, in that students likely appreciated my efforts to support them during an incredibly difficult time. [IF LOWER] This is understandable, however, in that students were likely feeling frustrated with the disruptions to their education and to the kind of experience they had expected in my course.


*cross-posted at*

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