Chaos on Campus

It’s the first day of classes here at BU. Let me begin by wishing everyone a safe semester. One thing we can all agree on is that the less suffering there is this semester, the better. As a BU faculty member, I can also say that we all want students to enjoy the classes they will be taking. I am excited about the classes that I designed to teach online (they start tomorrow), and very much hope my students find them exciting as well.

I am hearing a great many complaints about classrooms. I am providing a space for comments below. From a BU staff member, I have heard this: “As of Monday, there were still 300 classes that did not have space to teach, the LfA equipment had not fully arrived yet, and, as folks are finding the air circulators to be too loud, they are now ordering Bluetooth headsets…” This follows a report of an independent and earlier communication to faculty in one college that said, “Rooms without an effective HVAC system have been outfitted with giant air circulators.  They are working on outfitting them with mufflers because they are quite loud. Not all of them will have these mufflers, so BU is working on getting Bluetooth headsets for faculty to use. … If you’re affected, you will get a notification about Bluetooth headsets.

So, in many cases, classrooms have not yet been assigned to courses. I know of one department (not my own), where this has led to a decision to move multiple courses online. I have also received multiple, independent reports of instructors being assigned small, badly ventilated, windowless rooms. Instructors may request to have a new classroom assigned, but there is, as I have already indicated, a serious backlog, and instructors may need to wait weeks for a new room to be assigned.

How have in-person classes that have rooms assigned to them been going so far? James Uden, an Associate Professor in Classical Studies, writes, “First class complete in the hybrid approach. I had 4 show up in person, 92 on Zoom. Unfortunately, it looks like the camera was trained on my increasingly sweaty armpit the entire time, and my tech ‘moderator’ never even arrived, but at least my voice was audible and the slides were visible, so far as I know. All in all, it was a strange experience. With your attention divided between students behind masks, and students behind blank Zoom screens, it’s hard to feel as though you’re ‘teaching’ at all.”

It’s very interesting to hear that only four students turned up to this class, while ninety two attended on Zoom. Knowing Professor Uden, I would say that if anyone can make a large LfA class work, he can (which isn’t to say he should have been put in this position). It’s possible that at this point a number of students are in quarantine. It’s too early to say for sure whether my prediction as to what is going to happen to LfA this semester is indeed going to happen. I certainly don’t regret writing, “Bear in mind that it will soon become apparent to students that if everyone opts to stay away from the classroom, instructors will be able to remove their masks, and the online alternative will then be more straightforward and relaxed. Indeed, instructors can and probably should begin the semester by pointing this out to students.

It’s also interesting to hear that student moderators might be deciding not to turn up to work (see comments on Reddit that suggest this is happening: here, here, here, and here).

Let me make one thing clear. Ordinary staff members are not to be blamed for the problems that are occurring. They are overworked and sometimes directed to do impossible, or near impossible tasks. When we encounter problems or delays, those of us who are not staff should always communicate with staff members politely, and never forget that the buck stops at a place far above their pay scale.

There is more I could report. Let me instead open comments here. I’d love to hear from instructors, students, and staff. What are some of the problems you have been encountering? Comments are moderated by just myself, so there may be delays before they are posted. Feel free to keep your comments anonymous by not entering your real name.

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UPDATE, September 3: I am hearing that Bluetooth headsets began to be distributed to all that need them on Tuesday, September 1, and that there may no longer be a shortage of them (see also this report, which was published after my post). I have taken out some of the words in quotes above that might have conveyed a false impression. I continue to hear about cases where classroom monitors have simply not turned up to classes, without instructors being informed that there would be a problem. Also, I’m hearing reports of a significant scheduling issue that I did not address in my post: students are finding they don’t have enough time to get back to their dorm rooms to participate in online classes after finishing “in person” classes.

22 thoughts on “Chaos on Campus”

  1. As a student, I think other members of the BU undergrad community won’t actually mind if classes shifted to online because no one is showing up, as I think most students came back to have a semblance of a “normal college life”. By that I mean hanging out, being in a dorm, seeing their friends, and maybe not actually showing up to class in person (even though it may seem like they returned for that reason).

    I do agree though that it’s unfortunate that many classes suddenly had to be pushed online due to tech and LfA capacity issues… which is why I stand by my original point that if classes were 100% online the faculty could instead focus on making it a GREAT experience and not having to simultaneously do in person and online instruction (which may be stressful to them).

  2. A new email from a colleague not in my department: “Another great post! I am also one of those people whose classrooms (both of them!) are not ready for LFA. I am going to meet on Zoom this week because that’s the best thing for the first class sessions when we’ll do introductions, etc. I’m not too hopeful though and may permanently switch to TFA if the students are willing. Let’s see. This has been yet another source of anxiety.”

  3. “ First day of hybrid learning today. In the classroom that wasn’t an unspeakable disaster (locked building hidden by a decrepit dialysis center across an alley from an auto repair shop, in a basement with no windows and no ventilation until they came during class and made a huge disturbance the entire time and turned on an air filter without the vent so we had to scream at the top of our lungs while the room mic created this weird repetition effect for the remote participants, who I projected on the screen facing the students, weird), I tried to use the whiteboard but couldn’t really get a good angle, where it was close enough to be legible and without glare, and it was hard to stay in the shot. It was also hard to see the remote participants. Also, screaming through a mask is weird. All in all, a bit harder than expected.”
    Public Facebook post:

  4. I taught two classes today, and my TF had one discussion section. Two out of three of these are still scheduled to be in basement rooms, with no windows (despite room change requests). We are staying online until we are assigned reasonable teaching/learning spaces. I have repeatedly explained to students (60+ in total) that these classes will be held primarily via Zoom, with some in-person components possible if logistics allow, and most students have said they are fine with this. I’m surprised; I thought more students would drop and try to find classes with the in-person rotations.

  5. I taught my first class on Zoom as I was ordered to quarantine due to allergies looking a lot like COVID symptoms. At present, I’ve been told that the classroom that I’ve been assigned is too small and there’s a request that was just filed on my behalf to swap to a bigger room so that students can attend in person more than twice a semester each. No clue where the bigger room might be, how well ventilated or when/if the swap is likely to occur. Students seem generally happy to attend via Zoom, and I’m hopeful that explaining the benefits might keep the actual physical attendance to the absolute minimum.

    OTOH, minimizing the actual students that can attend physically feels like both the stronger pedagogical and safety option, so I wouldn’t have asked for a room swap at all if it hadn’t been done without consulting me.

  6. I found the LfA teaching much harder than regular teaching in some ways, and easier than online teaching in other ways.

    On the harder front, teaching to two populations while wearing a mask and juggling various technologies is challenging and tiring. The mask is uncomfortable and probably needs to be changed during the lecture.

    On the easier front, I found having even a few students in class makes teaching *significantly* easier than online alone. My teaching is honed to the small non-verbal responses that students produce in person (but less so online), and this significantly improved the teaching experience for me (and hopefully for the students too).

    Long story shorter … I’m happy that we have an in-person element to teaching this semester; it certainly adds to the teaching experience, despite the many many challenges. However, I am also frustrated that we faculty had so little say in how it was carried out (and especially that faculty weren’t given the choice whether to teach in person or remotely). I have been firmly in my place as an employee of a large corporation, and my it stings.

  7. It’s interesting to see comments from presumably tenured profs who are considering moving their teaching online when an adjunct in my college was fired the first day of classes for *requesting* to teach online given BU’s policy of not informing profs when a student of theirs tests positive. This adjunct was slated to teach a large lecture that is now going to be taught by someone with zero expertise in that field — not even someone from the same department, just someone from the same college — and the lecture is going to be taught online after all. The hypocrisy is astounding, and it’s disgusting how they have treated this adjunct. BU should be ashamed, and any profs who can find positions elsewhere should do so. In our most recent faculty meeting, our dean basically told us that there are layoffs and furloughs in the future because BU didn’t meet its residential goals for room and board revenue, and if profs don’t keep teaching in person this semester and make f2f a good experience, that will only increase the number of layoffs and furloughs. I don’t know about the rest of the instructors here, but I’m tired of being bullied and lied to.

  8. I ended up in a room with windows that did not open, which I was locked out of for 15 minutes because no one had been told I’d be teaching there. In the end I was the only one in the room anyway, since every single registered student participated remotely. This means it was just like the fully-remote class I would prefer to have taught, only more impersonal and less engaging because the students couldn’t even see my face.

  9. I’d like public comments from President Brown and/or Provost Morrison about:

    1) The recent loosening of health requirements to be on campus.
    2) The elimination of questions about possible COVID contacts on the daily questionnaire.
    3) The lack of a consistent/coherent/enforced policy with regard to physically entering buildings on campus. **

    ** While BU is indeed surveilling students electronically, there is no physical infrastructure/protocol in place to ensure that the green badge actually means anything: sometimes you need to show it to get into the dining hall, sometimes you don’t; sometimes professors ask for them, sometimes they don’t.**

    Also, while the AVERAGE turnaround time for a test is now 37.6 hours, much longer than the 24-hour period touted by the University a couple of weeks ago, students are reporting waiting 72 hours and more for their results on reddit. Given that the testing program is at the very heart of BU’s justification for re-opening, this is a big problem. If the testing is not working as promised, _especially after a long weekend_, on what grounds should everyone be here?

  10. Things we know:

    There has been partying off campus. (Thanks, Reddit!)
    The COVID testing turnaround time has slowed down considerably.
    The green badge system is full of holes.

    Things we don’t know:

    Why it is currently safe to be on campus.

  11. Still no Fall 2020 Final Exam Matrix posted; I inquired to the Registrar’s Office, 2 days later got a reply essentially to “Watch this space and you’ll see it when it posts.” How can students and faculty plan their Winter Break travel not even knowing their final exam schedule – and why is no one reaching out to faculty at least, to explain what is going on? My email on the same topic over a week ago was not dignified with a reply.

  12. An earlier post complained of parties referenced on BU’s reddit. Not being familiar with aht myself I had to search for it, so let me spare others the trouble:
    For the love of god: Stop. Partying.

    From Reddit:
    “It hurts to see so many people dressed in party clothes walking toward Allston. We all know where you’re going. We’re all bored. We all wanna party and drink and have fun with our friends. But this shit is going to get us all sent home.”

  13. The badge system is completely useless. Sick people who haven’t been tested yet could be walking around buildings. And if you, as an instructor or TA, don’t ask students to show their badges, people with COVID could be sitting in your classroom. So, along with teaching, grading, and every other class-related activity, you have to check the health status of your students. That’s ridiculous.

  14. The administration really needs to address the issues with the green badge system. Depending on individual faculty members to make the ad hoc decision to ask students to show these in class is not a great strategy, particularly when those same instructors are not going to be posted at the entrances of buildings, in the dining halls and library, etc. to make sure that students are in compliance at those places as well. I personally can’t imagine a way to solve this extraordinarily complicated and medically significant problem, but, then again, I wasn’t the one to make the decision to re-open the university for in-person classes and promise students that this was a viable proposition.

  15. Any sufficiently complex system will have many possible improvements and optimizations to control. I wouldn’t mess with the “green badge” system unless there is evidence that it is being abused.

    It is trivial to bypass the system by, say, making a fake picture of a “cleared” badge to show to the instructor … my guess is that the system will be more effective by relying on the goodwill of students.

  16. I respectfully disagree. BU is not trusting students (or faculty) to get tested on their own or to stay home on their own when they don’t feel well: to the contrary, an astonishing amount of electronic surveillance is taking place in order to promote and enforce compliance with these elements of its reopening plan. The point is that none of this electronic surveillance matters in the real, physical world where COVID is actually transmitted if the green badge system is not working efficiently.

    I agree that it would be incredibly complicated and expensive to make the green badge system as effective as the testing and daily attestation systems (to the extent that the latter are effective). However, the conclusion I reach from that premise is that BU was not ready to re-open safely, not that we should rely on the goodwill of students to make up for administrative short-sightedness or cut corners.

  17. It would be interesting to get an update on how classes are going after a week. I work in a staff role at BU and I’ve found it difficult to get much more than a very anecdotal picture, which means I’m struggling to know how best to support the faculty with whom I work. Even people who work in more central university roles don’t seem to have a great deal of data-driven information as of now; I think it would be fair to say that the prevailing tone at meetings I’ve attended is “better than we expected,” in terms of the pedagogical experience (separate from the interrelated safety experience), but that still feels very hazy, and possibly self-serving. I’ve heard both positive and negative comments from individual faculty friends, though the ones here are more negative (perhaps self-selected for that, given the title of the blog post), and I am conscious I’ve only heard from or about a tiny fraction of faculty.

    Many people have noted strikingly low in-person attendance, as with Professor Uden’s class (has in-person attendance picked up?). Based on my own observations, this seems to stem in part from student preference about convenience rather than exclusively from COVID-related concerns — something that concerns me a little in terms of the longer-term expectations perhaps inadvertently (?) created (at BU and elsewhere) in LfA-type models.

    1. I agree it would be better if we had more systematic evidence regarding in-class student numbers (not just what might be seen by looking at the modality formally selected by students online, but actual numbers on the ground), rather than anecdotal evidence alone. That being said, I’m hearing so many stories of very few students attending in person that I would be prepared to bet the numbers/percentages are very low on average. In the article I published in Inside Higher Ed (Aug 12), I wrote of student preferences to attend class in person, “The crucial question is: why should we think such preferences will not shift substantially once students experience socially distanced, mask-to-mask classes…?” I think it is clear that BU teachers generally believed LfA would be a failure, for it was predictable from a pedagogical perspective; the evidence we now have simply confirms this. LfA has failed. The university will not admit this anytime soon, of course, and I do not expect them to publish reliable data indicating what percentage of students are actually attending classes in person.

  18. Four weeks in it seems to me that campus is not so chaotic now simply because campus is a ghost town. Walking through CAS yesterday for my two afternoon classes (a grand total 6 students combined came in person yesterday, three in each class), and it felt like winter break–dark, quiet, and almost all classrooms apparently empty. That’s preferable, frankly; I’m not complaining…but it seems more and more like the “residential experience” is a legal fiction.
    Allow me also to complain about classroom media/AV: I’m not alone in thinking that for years now practically every HDMI port in every classroom sucks. That was a problem long before LfA, but I had hoped that given how imperative media connectivity is this year, the administration might have tried to upgrade or fix these.

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