On the first day of June 2020, Romila Verma’s daughter was very sick. Verma, a sessional lecturer in the Department of Geography, sat on her daughter’s bed with her computer — she had a remote quiz to administer. In the pit of her stomach, she had an unsettling sense that something was going to go wrong.
At 1:00 pm, the quiz went live to 200 students. For the first five minutes, everything looked normal. Then, all at once, Verma’s email inbox was flooded with notifications. She had accidentally given her students the correct answers.
“My daughter was throwing up, so I had a bucket for her throw-up, and I was looking at the computer. I had no idea what I did.” As she was trying to fix the quiz, her students lost access and began panicking, worried that they might get a zero. Verma’s older daughter, a second-year student at McMaster University, helped her troubleshoot. Ultimately, she had to postpone the quiz.
In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic forced U of T to move nearly all of its classes online, instructors of all kinds — including tenured and tenure-track professors, sessional lecturers, and teaching assistants — have needed to adjust to the demands of a new mode of work. As Verma’s experience illustrates, that adjustment has not been easy.
While learning the ins and outs of online teaching, service work, and research, some instructors have been juggling child care and elder care, attending to health concerns, or worried about their job security. Many are shouldering more work than ever before. As one headline from Inside Higher Ed reads, “Faculty Pandemic Stress is Now Chronic.”
As these challenges have arisen, many U of T instructors have been delivering classes in innovative ways while striving to make their virtual classrooms equitable. They’ve supported students through mounting difficulties.
All the while, the pandemic has been making chasms out of the existing cracks in an academic system characterized by inequality. So, of course, the heaviest consequences of the last 10 months have been borne by those already among the most vulnerable: women, racialized, and precariously employed instructors.
A ballooning workload for instructors
According to Terezia Zoric, President of the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) — which represents teaching stream professors and instructors and librarians at U of T — a majority of faculty found their workloads “excessive” as early as 2006. Now, as Zoric told The Varsity, up to a third of faculty call their workloads “crushing.” Some, she said, are “trying to square the circle by doing a lot of the work in the middle of the night because it’s impossible to do it during the day.”
That experience isn’t unique to U of T. Lynne Marks, President of the University of Victoria Faculty Association, told CBC that instructors “are doing at least one-and-a-half times as much work, if not two times as much.” In July, Juliet O’Brien, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia, tweeted that between adjusting to online teaching and coordinating large multi-section courses for the following year, she was engaging in a “gargantuan quantity of learning.”
“I’m probably surviving on adrenaline,” she wrote, noting that she worked as late as 2:00 am in the morning and woke up around 4:00 am.
Similarly, Verma estimates that in the switch from regular to remote work, her workload rose by around 40–50 per cent. Recalling the initial adjustment, she said, “Most [professors] that I know felt overwhelmed.”
Franco Taverna, a seasoned online instructor at the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Online Learning Academy for Instructors, told The Varsity that many of his colleagues struggled with the technology of online instruction, especially at first. “What you might think is just the little trivial entry-into-the-field stuff was the biggest problem,” he said.
But instructors have strived to adjust. Now, instructors who taught in the winter 2020 semester have been teaching online for nearly a year, and others familiarized themselves with digital classroom tools over the summer or fall. Recently, Taverna has observed that instructors are grappling less with basic technology and more with the logistics of remote teaching.
For example, testing and assignments needed to be “revised and adapted” to minimize issues of academic integrity. That includes “creating more collaborative versions of assessments,” he said, as well as redesigning tests to target research and analytical skills rather than memorization.
Furthermore, instructors like Amny Athamny, a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, have needed to navigate the new expressions of inequality springing up in students’ lives. For example, Athamny noted that not everyone can afford high-speed internet. Similarly, other students may have relocated to cramped or populated living conditions that they might want to keep private.
It’s important to her that “all students have equal opportunity” in her classes, so she asks that students keep cameras off — a decision with a tradeoff, since it means that she teaches to a sea of anonymous Blackboard Collaborate icons.
Navigating emotional support for students
In the months since classes moved online, Verma said that she has also “noticed an uptick” in students seeking emotional support.
Verma has always kept her doors open — now, metaphorically — to students seeking non-academic advice. She’s no stranger to students in distress, since she teaches about the environment, and eco-anxiety is a significant component of that.
But she said, during the pandemic, “I’ve had students completely stressed out” — not just because of their workloads, but because the future feels so uncertain. It’s heartbreaking, she said, to watch them struggle. She can only offer comfort and a listening ear.
Athamny told The Varsity that sometimes she gets a sense that “something is going on” with a student. She tends to look into and resolve what she can on her own, but she’s had to consult her supervisor, Professor Christian Caron, about at least four students’ cases so far. “It’s draining,” Athamny said. “I kept thinking about these students… you want to do the best for them.”
But it’s not always easy to identify when a student needs support. In the fall, Megan Frederickson co-taught BIO120 — Adaptation and Biodiversity to a group of 1,900 students, which was her first foray into remote teaching. Due to the size of the class, instruction was delivered asynchronously.
“Since I never saw or heard any of the students, I really would have no way of knowing… who could really use additional supports,” Frederickson said, though she remains concerned about their stress levels.
“This semester I am teaching live over Zoom,” she said. “I’m hoping I’m going to be able to foster more of a personal connection with my students, but it’s only the first week, so it’s hard to say how it’s going to go.”
Verma, Athamny, and Frederickson demonstrate an attentiveness toward student needs that, as a work responsibility, can’t easily be measured in hours or impact. There are growing indicators that this kind of care work — work that remains largely invisible — is shouldered mostly by women instructors. This disparity is not because women care more about their students; sociologist Maike Philipsen told The New York Times that students “disproportionately come to women faculty for advice.”
Zoric pointed out that some instructors are also experiencing added stress: “If you are a racialized woman or a racialized faculty member… there’s often the added stress of when students come looking to you for additional supports.”
“In particular, Black women faculty are often expected to be nurturing and giving,” wrote Frances B. Henderson, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. “During the pandemic, I have found that this expectation has increased exponentially as senior administrators ask faculty and staff members to exercise compassion and grace for students due to our collective circumstances.”
These inequities, as with many of the inequities in academia, predate the pandemic and have their own consequences. In 2015, in an article about the gendered burden of care work in academia, a professor using the pseudonym Myra Green emphasized that “listening, empathizing, problem solving, and resource finding take an enormous amount of time and energy. And there’s no place for any of that on a CV or in an end-of-the-year report.”
That becomes problematic because, according to a 2018 study, women and racialized contract instructors reported working more hours than their white men colleagues. These positions have less job security than tenured faculty. Those instructors represent a large proportion of the academic community: in Ontario, approximately 60 per cent of faculty are part time or on contract.
Of course, all this is combined with the issue of untenable workloads. “We can’t take good care of our students if we’re overloaded,” Zoric said. “Students need support from their teachers and instructors, and teachers and instructors need support from the central administration.”
Instructors need more consistent support from administration
As Zoric put it, “There’s a heavy strain associated with working and learning at the University of Toronto.” Structural adjustments — like reducing class sizes, providing better technological support, and carving out clearer paths to accommodation — could help offset that strain.
Athamny and Verma both expressed gratitude to their respective departments for providing sufficient online teaching support and said that they were now well-adjusted to the new nature of their jobs. Still, that may not be a universal experience across divisions.
Zoric noted that faculties with bigger budgets, like the Rotman School of Management, have provided enhanced technical aid, but overall, the distribution of support is inconsistent across the university. According to Zoric, a common complaint among her members has been that “they don’t want a list of hyperlinks of more videos they can watch or more websites they can visit.” Human-to-human support, like “somebody to be monitoring their chat,” would make a greater difference.
As faculty have struggled in the absence of these supports, Zoric said that she has “heard some very generous responses from students.” Still, as she emphasized, “Our students shouldn’t have to let us off the hook. We should have really great tech support available, not just in the wealthier faculties but University of Toronto-wide.”
Wider provision of support staff could also help lighten instructors’ loads. Frederickson explained that teaching online increased her workload in part because students could no longer ask each other questions or stay after class to chat with her. “The course generated a huge amount of [emails]… much more than in previous years,” she said. However, the size of the class meant a large staff was allocated to help administer the course, for which she considered herself fortunate.
Streamlined accommodations, too, could make a difference. Frederickson has a seven-year-old child staying at home due to school closure, and she is now juggling working full time with taking care of her son. “I think the university could do more to recognize and address the really extraordinary caregiving demands that many faculty have faced both for child care and elder care,” she said.
Zoric echoed that sentiment and told The Varsity that the UTFA is currently trying to negotiate a memo that would clarify accommodation guidelines, grouping people into particular categories so that instructors have a better sense of their rights.
“A streamlined accommodation process means those people who need accommodation get it sooner, and the standards are fair,” said Zoric.
She noted that many faculty are struggling to navigate accommodations. “What’s ended up happening is that those who are most vulnerable” — again, part-time and contract faculty — “asked for exactly nothing,” she explained. “They want to make sure that when it comes time to [renew] their jobs, no one’s saying… ‘she wasn’t pulling her weight.’ ”
In addition, as the pandemic continues, planning accommodations for COVID-19 long-haulers, or those who experience long-term health consequences after contracting the virus, could be valuable.
When The Varsity reached out to U of T for comment about these accommodations, a U of T spokesperson wrote that currently, “If an employee is ill due to COVID-19, regardless of the length of illness, the University’s usual processes for sick leave apply. This includes an accommodation process where the individual is able to work but requires accommodation in the workplace.”
Before the pandemic, academia was already a deeply difficult and stressful field to work in, particularly for minoritized and racialized people. Now, a Course Hero study on faculty mental health has found that over 40 per cent of respondents had thought about leaving academia due to pandemic-related changes. The study indicated that help from the administration — in the form of technology support, staff support, increased compensation, and changes to teaching workload — could make faculty jobs more satisfying.
“Only 15 percent of faculty agreed that administrators understand the difficulty that faculty face in managing their workloads,” the study’s authors wrote.
What happens next?
“In many cases, professors and scientists are what they are because they’re good at taking on challenges,” Taverna observed. Even as they continue to weather new difficulties, U of T’s instructors are looking to the future, aware that the nature of their jobs may be shifting. In some ways, our new normal could be here to stay.
To begin with, some modes of assessment could remain changed. In some cases, Taverna is not sure he’ll return to traditional examination methods. “I kind of like the take-home exam,” he said. Methods of course delivery may not fully return to what they were, either. “I think there’s going to be more courses offered online in the future, now that we’re comfortable with it — or at least more sections of courses.”
An evening section of BIO120 is usually offered so that students with other commitments, like a day job, can still fulfill the program requirement. Frederickson has wondered whether an online-delivery course might be preferable to that two-hour evening lecture. But so far, she hasn’t made any long-term plans. “I think we’ve been just too busy… trying to get through the present semesters.”
Now that vaccines have been developed and approved, we can look forward to a world in which the pandemic and its disruptions have ebbed away. But it’s clear that, much like an outgoing tide leaves ripples in the sand, the COVID-19 pandemic will leave its traces on postsecondary education — and, of course, the world at large — when it retreats. When it does, Verma has a question: “Are we going to address inequity in education?”
“We have to look ahead,” she said. “What is going to happen three years down the road? We cannot just say, ‘Hey, get over this, go back to work as usual.’ Now, we have to say things will change drastically.”
“We need to build a better world,” she said. “It starts with education.”