November 6, 2020
I am writing to you to follow up on the survey which we administered over the past few weeks. Thank you to the more than 700 members of the faculty who took the time to respond. Your insights are playing a central role in our planning for a spring semester that builds on lessons learned from the fall. In this letter I will share some of the broader themes that emerged. As you recall, this was not a numerical survey. Rather, we asked three open-ended questions,
(i) “What are some of the most successful aspects of the semester?"
(ii) "What were the biggest challenges of the semester?"
(iii) "What other feedback would you offer as we plan for the spring?"
In this letter I will summarize the responses we received from the faculty. On almost every issue, we received passionate responses on all sides, so please understand that when I say that “A majority of you expressed a preference for …” it does not mean that we are not taking seriously the views of those with other preferences. I will generally restrict my summary to issues that impacted the campus more broadly, rather than those specific to an individual school, even if they were quite significant to that school. But I can assure you that I read every response and each of your responses was also reviewed by your school leadership so that your comments could inform the work at the school level.
Before summarizing the survey responses, it is worth mentioning that, as has been said countless times before, this was a semester unlike any others. All of us -- faculty, staff and students -- worked extremely hard to reimagine how the university can continue to advance its ambitious mission of carrying out pathbreaking research and offering a premier education while keeping everyone as safe as possible. Please know that we are aware of the extraordinary burden you are carrying, how hard you are working, and the stresses you are facing. We have the greatest of appreciation for all of you who are going above and beyond to make this semester a success, and we will continue to do our best to support you appropriately.
Overwhelmingly, but certainly not unanimously, faculty are pleased with our efforts to continue offering on-ground education, and listed among the greatest successes (responses are exact quotes except for minor typo corrections) “Being back in the classroom,” “Meeting my classes live and in-person under these challenging circumstances,” and wrote that “The ability for faculty and students to interact in the classroom and to have real and spontaneous dialogues is wonderful.”
Most feel that things are going well. “Face to face classes were engaging despite masks and social distancing,” “Both I and the students have adapted to the social distancing and mask wearing. We can have a productive class meeting” and many more. And you comment that your students also seem to appreciate our efforts, “Students seem genuinely grateful to be here.” “The students seem to be happy to attend classes in person.” “I enjoyed being able to see and teach my students person to person. They are happy to be back in class despite the risks. I feel the same way they do.” And this is consistent with what the students reported in their survey responses.
Others are pleased with their experiences with online classes and said that ”Zoom sessions worked better than I had expected,” and their greatest success was “Mastering Zoom as a way to improve my remote teaching.” A minority of you would prefer a fully online semester, some because of the challenges of the hybrid model, and others because of concern about the role that the residential experience may play in the spread of COVID-19. Overwhelmingly, though, the faculty requested that the spring be structured, in general terms, like the fall. Comments include “Hold on tight to the in person element,” “I hope we continue with this hybrid-model for the spring. Students are enjoying being on campus and doing their best to comply with the guidelines in place,” and “Flexibility in having in-person classes while allowing quarantined students to still attend online was an excellent way to go.” We agree and we will be structuring the spring much like the fall.
The most common topic addressed in these responses is the extensive role that technology, much of it new, is playing in our educational offerings. Many of you responded positively, listing successes like “New tech equipment in the classroom,” and “Tech staff and departmental staff have also been great at listening to problems and seeking solutions.” Many more had IT issues on the other side of the ledger, listing as your major challenge, “classroom tech problems,” “Technology mishaps,” and the like, and identified as your greatest need, “Maintenance of technology in the classroom.” I have been meeting with the deans, as well as the IT and CELT leadership to explore how we can improve our tech maintenance, increase technology support, and better address the issues raised. Several of you indicated that student helpers in the classroom helped both with the technology and with managing the class. We will be improving and expanding this program.
Among the most mentioned challenges are the sound issues in the temporary classrooms on the uptown campus. Some of you commented on the improvements made through the early semester, “the temporary classrooms have worked well,” but many more pointed out that in some of the classrooms, audio problems remain an issue. “The outdoor temporary classrooms remain very difficult for both myself and the students to hear in.” Sound curtains have recently been installed in all of these classrooms which dramatically reduce the echo. In addition, we are adding stronger amps, optimizing speaker placement and angle, and with the cooler weather we will be using the air conditioning at lower levels. We have tested these improvements (with full air conditioning) in one of our loudest classrooms, and the results were impressive, so we are confident that all of these spaces will allow for easy and effective communication and conversation in short order
Some of the most interesting, and potentially important responses referred to the hybrid classes. Of course, every course that is not fully online is hybrid of a sort, since even the fully in-person courses allow quarantining students to attend by zoom. Here, I refer instead to courses that have more of a balance between in-person and online. There are a few different types of hybrid classes. In some classes, all students attended in person on some days, and all attended online on other days, with the schedule set by the instructor depending on the structure of the work on that day. These courses received generally positive comments, with faculty appreciating the “Flexibility in my hybrid course,” and reporting that “The hybrid format of one class a week in person and the second online in zoom works really well,“ and “My technology plan is working to accommodate the Zoom lectures along with my in-person lectures.” You also wrote that “The variance in how I teach my subject (synchronously -- remotely and in-class -- and asynchronously) has opened up more opportunities for creativity due to the multiple platforms in which I can engage and interact with the students.” I note, though, that many students commented that they were overwhelmed with the challenge of keeping their schedule straight when they often learned with short notice whether a class was to be in-person or online, so I encourage you if at all possible to give your students a clear calendar of you expectations for their attendance.
In other hybrid courses, there is simultaneously a cohort of students in class, and a cohort online. In some cases this was the necessary result of beings assigned to a classroom which could not hold all enrolled students at one time in a socially distanced manner (resulting in so-called “A/B lecturing”), in some the hybridity emerged as a necessary response to having a sizeable cohort of students in quarantine, and in some cases, faculty teaching on-ground courses elected to make their courses open to fully remote learners. No matter the origin, these courses generated mixed responses. Some faculty enjoyed this structure and reported “Surprising success with holding both lecture and lab with a mix of in person and online students,” and “The necessity to divide one of my classes into thirds due to space limitations and meet once a week (M, W or F) has allowed us to have strong discussions with a manageable number of masked students, even when one or more students are remote due to illness or quarantine." A larger number, though, wrote about the challenges they faced managing such a class. “Neither of my classrooms is large enough to accommodate my classes, so they’re divided into two groups – half attend on day, the next half the next day teaching in person and zooming at the same time is also very difficult,” and with most simply writing some version of “Hybrid classes are a challenge.” In response, we are scheduling many more of our on-ground classes into classrooms which allow all enrolled students in a manner that satisfies the public health guidelines – including social distancing. This will mean that many fewer courses are required to be hybrid in this form, although faculty may still choose this format. In addition, as mentioned earlier, we will be expanding the training of students who will stay in your classroom for the full meeting period and help you manage the complexities of the hybrid structure. (For example, one faculty member noted the success of “Working with a graduate student grader who also logs into my zoom meeting to ensure that students are able to participate, even while being remote.”)
Several faculty requested to independently select the modality of their classes. “I think all faculty should have the option to teach on zoom if they choose, for pedagogical reasons more than health ones.” On the other hand, many faculty encouraged us to “continue with well-balanced instructing schemes.” Students, especially, emphasized the balance between on-ground and online courses. Faculty insights and preferences certainly play a key role in our planning, but the necessary balance, across the schools, classes and graduation requirements, and within majors and degree programs obviously requires some higher-level coordination and oversight.
COVID-19 was, not surprisingly, mentioned often. While some referred to “fears of exposure” on campus, many more included among your successes that “To my surprise COVID-19 seems to be under control,” and said you “Felt safe on campus. Think Tulane was one of best in nation on Covid procedures.” But no matter how you felt about the safety of the campus, many of you expressed concerns about “burnout and mental health.” You wrote about your concerns about your health and safety and that of your colleagues and students, feelings of isolation and loneliness, the struggle to continue your research, and the pressures of the compressed semester. There is every reason to believe that the weather will pose fewer challenges in the spring, and the election season will be over one way or the other, both major stressors this fall, so perhaps the spring will not be quite so overwhelming, but even with the improvements and enhanced support we plan to introduce, teaching, carrying out research and achieving a work/life balance in this environment will continue pose challenges. We will be monitoring the wellness and mental health support we offer our faculty, staff and students to help our community navigate these extraordinary stresses as successfully as possible. In the academic calendar for the spring, we have canceled spring break, but to ease some of the pressure on faculty and students, we have scheduled five days with no classes spread through the spring semester, Lundi Gras, Mardi Gras and three additional isolated days off later in the semester, to provide more of an opportunity for both students and faculty to catch up with work, or sleep, or simply take a break and catch their breath. (I am referring to the university’s academic calendar – a few graduate and professional degree programs have different schedules.)
Briefly, several other topics received numerous positive comments.
Not surprisingly, the students covered many of the same topics as the faculty, and you can find the summary I wrote to our undergraduates here. I note that one major theme in the student responses is that they reported that their faculty are assigning more work than they have done in the past. Reading between the lines a bit, some students describe what sounds like a flipped classroom, in which they learn much of the course content from asynchronous materials and work on projects in class, and others seem to be describing brief quizzes or other assessments to verify that they have completed assigned readings. So much about this semester is new and confusing, especially for our students. I know that you have worked hard to make your steps clear to your students, but this seems to be an area for improvement.
Many of you expressed excitement in the ways that you have grown this semester, learning new teaching techniques that you hope to use even after the pandemic has passed, describing your greatest success as “New thoughts on creative and innovative teaching, as a result of the CELT course over the summer.” You write that the challenge of reimagining your on-ground course for another format, either hybrid or on-line, has made you a better teacher in ways that will outlast the pandemic. “I believe my teaching has been stronger while remote this semester even than when in person, because I have used a number of technologies to improve student engagement (e.g., flipped classroom, effective use of annotate tools during lectures, first time ever use of discussion threads to help students integrate knowledge),” “This semester has also encouraged me to conference more with students, which is a practice I will bring into future semesters, regardless of pandemic status,” and “Learning how to teach online has improved my pedagogy immensely.”
However, by far the most commonly identified success, and source of joy, is your engagement with your students. “My students are great.” “The students have been amazing,” “My first-year students came energized and ready to work,” “Student participation has been great,” “Tulane students, as usual, rise to the occasion.” In fact, the students identify their engagement with the faculty as their greatest success, “My professors are amazing,” and “I love my professors.” The challenges, frustrations and stresses of the semester are real and substantial, but the respect, affection and appreciation between faculty and students is the core of great university and a great education, and with that intact, I believe that we will finish this semester strong and that the spring will be better than the fall.