At a recent CAS Faculty Meeting, faculty were provided with a presentation on the results of a recent “midterm” survey of CAS undergraduate students concerning their experiences in their courses this semester. Unsurprisingly, the survey focused on experiences with Learn from Anywhere. Questions raised by faculty in the meeting brought out that the survey contained a significant flaw. The survey questions failed to distinguish at any point between students who are taking LfA courses remotely, and students who are taking fully remote courses remotely. This is highly significant, because many faculty have for months now been contending that fully remote courses offer much better experiences, for students and instructors, than LfA courses taken remotely do (with some possible exceptions, of course). One of the survey questions was “Have you encountered any difficulties learning 100% remotely?” (this was asked only of students who reported attending no classes in person). Data associated with this question is particularly susceptible to being interpreted in a misleading fashion.
Yesterday, BU Today published an article “BU Students: Zoom vs In-Person Classes? It’s Complicated.” The article admits that a great many students living on campus are no longer attending LfA classes in person, but still tries hard to put a positive spin on LfA, claiming that it is a success. It’s a complicated article, but when all is said and done, it is basically a public relations exercise. I wish to comment on just two small passages here.
‘It’s a little bit of a conundrum,’ says Suzanne Kennedy, associate provost ad interim for undergraduate affairs. ‘Fewer students are going to class than we had expected.’”
This is not a conundrum! Faculty have been telling BU leaders for months that this is what we expected to happen. If our leaders are surprised that’s because they haven’t been listening to faculty. See, for instance, my “False Advertising and the In-Person Experience” (originally published externally, in Inside Higher Ed on August 12).
This new BU Today article skirts completely around the option of remote only classes, which a great many students are taking (sometimes from the beginning of semester, and sometimes because everyone has decided to attend the course remotely, even though it started in LfA mode). Fully remote courses avoid the serious problems that LfA courses have when it comes to trying to juggle the needs of students in the classroom and the needs of students attending remotely. Instructors who have been forced to teach in the LfA mode have been pointing out that their experiences reveal that the hybrid model generally doesn’t work at all well (the decision to use the LfA model was not made in any democratic fashion that reflected decisions by or the expertise of faculty; it was imposed on us).
Why is the university so concerned that students are opting to attend remotely more than our leaders expected they would? Why should students feel they need to return to in person classes during the pandemic? Harvard and other universities recognize that students live on campus for many different reasons, and have opted to allow (some) students to live on campus, while undergraduate courses are taken in a fully remote fashion. No serious attempt is made in this article to provide an argument for why students should return to in person classes during this pandemic if they don’t wish to attend classes in person. Perhaps the university is simply concerned about the LfA model collapsing completely. We have not been told why that would be a bad thing, given the remote learning alternative.
…higher ed leaders, like BU President Robert A. Brown, acknowledge that the success of the hybrid experiment will force colleges to ask some hard questions about whether some aspects of the technology, such as the ability to Zoom into large lecture classes, could become a permanent part of higher education.”
There are two problems with this. To start with, it contains what philosophers call a presupposition failure. It treats a false claim as an assumption (“…that the success of the hybrid model will force…” presupposes that the hybrid model has been successful, just as “The present King of France is bald” presupposes that there is presently a King of France). The hybrid experiment in universities has not been a success. More to the point, it signals that our university president is taking seriously the idea of students being able to Zoom into large lecture classes becoming a permanent matter. Many faculty will feel that this is extremely worrying, for reasons to do with teaching sensitive content, privacy rights, and pedagogy. I do not mean to deny that there can be good reasons for allowing a video feed in some cases, such as when providing access for disabled students. But we should and would be very concerned if it were ever seriously suggested that the LfA hybrid teaching model ought to be continued in any widespread fashion beyond this pandemic (this is not needed to meet the accessibility concern just mentioned). If that were to ever happen, faculty would need to do everything they can to draw a line in the sand.
On a personal note – but highlighting an issue that should be of general concern – BU has informed me that that my workplace adjustment request for the spring, based on meeting a CDC-recognized COVID health risk criterion, has been approved. However, I have been presented with a forced choice to either agree to be classified as teaching in a “partially remote” way that involves in-person interaction with students, and thereby be allowed access to my office on campus and the testing program (Category 3), or to forego any access to the university and university testing (Category 4). This is a widespread issue for a presently highly vulnerable group of employees. Why does BU insist on treating employees who are vulnerable because they are in COVID health risk categories in a way where they deny them access to COVID testing and their offices unless they agree to meet students in person!? Category 3 does not need to be defined this way. The university is doing this, at least in part, so that it can pressure vulnerable employees into teaching in person, knowing full well that this raises an already significant risk of catching a virus that may kill them (since they are in risk groups). I know this isn’t a new policy, but I can’t resist pointing out once more that it is morally outrageous to exploit vulnerable employees in this way, as well as morally outrageous to leave many vulnerable employees out in the cold by not providing them with testing (those in Category 4).
All of the issues discussed above point to a continuing failure on the part of the university to allow faculty to properly (rather than just nominally) share in governance of our institution. What can faculty do about this? We can’t and won’t form a union. But there is a pressing need for faculty to have a new channel through which faculty interests and concerns can be effectively promoted (in addition to more formal channels that presently exist). I and a number of other employees and students have been sharing ideas about this subject recently, and we may have some news to share on this front quite soon.
It would be remiss of me not to mention here that infection numbers at BU have reached record heights this last week, averaging 9.7 positive results a day for the last week. Yesterday we saw 11 positive results announced for the preceding day. Today, we saw 15, which is a new daily record. This is terrible news.
Finally, there is a report on Reddit of BU seriously mishandling the quarantining process for a student in BU housing who is presently unwell and has tested positive. He was informed when he received his positive test result yesterday morning that he would be contacted soon and moved into quarantine housing, but has been left in his apartment for a day (as of this morning). Is this an indication of a more general problem with an overloaded quarantining system at this point, or is this merely a single (but still significant) mistake of some kind? I don’t know. If I hear more, I will update this page accordingly.
UPDATE, November 15: I have been contacted by a concerned BU staff member who reports that their whole department of more than 200 staff members is being forced to return to work on campus in January, with exceptions made only in a limited number of cases for employees who have workplace adjustment requests approved. According to my contact, this is happening despite the fact that nearly all the work done by this department can be done remotely. Apparently, pretty much all of the regular staff members in this department are opposed to this plan, and decisions are not being left up to lower-level managers to make, but are being imposed on the whole department by upper-level management. Morale is extremely low, and a culture of fear is preventing people from speaking out. Quite understandably, no staff members wish to risk losing their jobs. My contact says that no proper justification has been provided to these staff members for why the people who work in this department all needs to return to work on campus; instead, things like “President Brown is a scientist, so he knows best” are asserted. Assuming the report I have received is correct, the university is behaving in an extremely irresponsible manner in this case by imposing unnecessary risks on staff members.
UPDATE, November 21: On November 19, The BU student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, published “Faculty and students criticize testing policies, professor access to campus,” which included quotes from interviews with myself and other BU employees and students. As I indicated in my interview with student journalist Nick Kolev, I have heard from a person in a leadership role at BU that the original reasoning behind the decision to not permit people in Category 4 to receive testing was at least in part driven by a concern with testing capacity. However, it is not at all obvious that testing capacity at this time could not feasibly stretch to including people in Category 4, especially if the university were to do more to stop over testing, which is apparently a problem at this time (perhaps this could be prevented by checking that people haven’t had too many tests in the last week whenever IDs are scanned at the testing center). This morning, College of Arts & Sciences faculty and staff were sent an email whose content originated from Human Resources. It included the following text: “Faculty/staff in Category 4… are not eligible to receive any COVID-19 testing at BU… Managers are NOT to honor a faculty/staff member’s request for a change of testing category to enable receiving a COVID-19 test at BU. Faculty/staff having their testing category changed by their manager to enable COVID-19 testing, or bypassing the system to have a COVID-19 test performed, may be subject to corrective action. Managers who change the testing categories of faculty/staff for non-business reasons may also be subject to corrective action. COVID-19 testing at BU is not an employee benefit, it is an essential part of maintaining a safe and healthy campus.” I won’t comment on the punitive measures mentioned in this email, except to say that I think they are unjustifiable and make for an especially tone deaf communication.Regarding the last sentence quoted from the email (italicized above): Why can’t testing be both an essential part of maintaining a safe and healthy campus and an employee benefit for a highly vulnerable group of employees (both because the university should care about the wellbeing of these employees, and as a matter of justice, given the unfairness involved in only a comparatively less vulnerable group of employees being provided with testing)? Note that it can not be said that the present policy represents a reasonable public health policy, because employees who are not being tested are still part of the public at large (and may therefore also unwittingly spread COVID-19 if they are asymptomatic carriers not receiving tests).