By MARTY LEVINE
Teaching this fall has created a whole new level of difficulty, said members of the University Senate’s Faculty Affairs committee at the Oct. 5 meeting.
“All of us are teaching hybrid courses and are not allowed to call them hybrid courses or get technological support” — at least not of the variety offered in the previous academic year, said committee co-chair Lorraine Denman, faculty member in French and Italian in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.
She records her classes on her older laptop that can neither capture nor facilitate classroom participation, she said. “It’s incredibly unsustainable,” she said of the teaching conditions. “I’m largely teaching courses that rely on participation. How do I assess this? I can’t assess attendance” thanks to presumably healthy students taking advantage of the recording and staying home to watch.
“This is driving us back in time pedagogically,” said committee member Suzanna Gribble, biology faculty member in the Dietrich School.
“I’m just quite disappointed by the University’s response,” Denman added, pointing to a letter that she said had arrived from her dean just before the semester started, passing on instructions and advice from the provost.
The letter, although undated, references that enforcement of building access restrictions for those not complying with COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandates had begun “this past week.” It tells faculty that:
“Instructors are expected to work with students who are unable to come to class” for any illness
“Students should not be asked to provide medical proof of a COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine order”
“Students who miss in-person classes due to an illness (or other University-recognized reason, such as a religious observance) and have communicated with faculty about their needs should not be subject to academic penalties, including having to resort to ‘drop the lowest grade’ options or receiving zero class participation points on those days”
“Whenever it is pedagogically reasonable, instructors should record their classes and make those recordings available to their students” … and “may, at their discretion, live stream from the classroom” … but instructors should not “encourage healthy students to stay home to engage in the live stream rather than attending class in person.”
“There is language in here that makes your syllabus null and void,” Gribble said, explaining that in past years dropping the lowest grade “is how we make it through one of our large courses,” while adding that this practice had recently been approved again for biology.
And without the ability to ask for conformation of a COVID-19 diagnosis, “you have no idea how to handle it” when judging whether an absence is excused, she said. “If there is any way we can get communication (earlier) before the start of the (spring) semester” that would be very desirable, Gribble added.
Faculty Affairs established a subcommittee to look at ongoing issues around teaching to prepare for the spring semester, Denman told Faculty Assembly on Oct. 6. Senate President Robin Kear urged people to reach out to her or Denman with any concerns they have about this issue.
“I believe that we will continue to have these struggles until we come to a better understanding for the classroom that works both for students and for faculty,” Kear said.
Policy debates renewed
Objections to the previous, unapproved draft of a policy on discrimination and sexual harassment — now under redevelopment by a new committee — arose afresh when Tom Diacovo, pediatrics faculty member (and a member of both Faculty Affairs and the committee developing the policy) announced that mandatory reporting of alleged incidents would likely remain in the new policy.
Committee members immediately balked, emphasizing that their main criticism of the original policy centered around such mandatory reporting requirements.
Committee co-chair Irene Frieze, emeritus psychology faculty member in the Dietrich School, said mandatory reporting would eliminate any chance for students to speak with faculty confidentially about issues, as they sometimes do. If “any student came to faculty members because they feel they can confide in them,” she said, “I would immediately have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you, because I am a mandatory reporter.’ ”
Seth Weinberg, committee member on the School of Dental Medicine faculty, said the mandate to report would mean that anything overheard or witnessed, without any understanding of context or relationships among the people, would need to be reported and result in investigations of possibly innocent or completely inapplicable incidents.
Diacovo noted that a University panel will be established to review what is reported and whether it rises to harassment. Lu-in Wang, vice provost for Faculty Affairs, said it was “kind of premature” to debate the policy — “especially the things that were controversial last time … This is not a report on the finished product,” she said of Diacovo’s description of committee debates, “and the procedures still need to be worked out.”
Diacovo also cautioned that the new committee is “still having discussions about this. I think there is still a lot to be worked out” about the definitions of terms and what the process is going to be like for complaints.
“Anything about mandatory reporting” is still going to be a problem for the committee, Frieze said.
Wang also noted that the term “harassment” is being taken out of the title of the policy. While harassment based on categories of discrimination (such as race, age, religion and sexual orientation) will still be covered by this policy, another committee at the University is discussing how other types of harassment should be dealt with in perhaps a separate policy.
Representatives of Pitt’s policy office attended the meeting to get preliminary comments on another set of rules under development, the Protection of Children from Abuse policy.
The committee developing the policy is charged with establishing “measures to detect child abuse and to protect children from child abuse, including the clearances required for any person who has or will have direct contact with children in connection with their affiliation with the University.”
Asked to highlight the changes to be created by this policy, Victoria Lancaster, vice chancellor of business operations and a member of the policy committee, said: “The biggest change in the policy is that there’s a policy — and procedure.”
The other large change, she said, is that those who work with minors now have to have clearances before they start their work with children, rather than applying upon arrival at their jobs.
She noted that students who work with minors in classrooms also will need to get child protection clearances, except under special circumstances; that those with only virtual contact with children will still need clearances; and that even those faculty who only supervise researchers who work with children will have to obtain clearances.
“If there is a potential opportunity for you to have contact with minors in your research, we err on the side of caution,” Lancaster said.
Yolanda Covington-Ward, chair of the Africana Studies department, said that a fellow faculty member had gotten discouraged from community work involving children due to shifting regulations and lag times between applications and the awarding of clearances. She suggested that the policy warn those seeking child clearances to apply farther ahead.
Asked how the separate policies of Pitt and UPMC would govern dually appointed faculty, Lancaster said the committee is working with UPMC to see how policies can align, but in the meantime Pitt will accept UPMC’s rules and clearances.
Pitt will not accept clearances from a previous job unless that job is in Pennsylvania, she said, since this Commonwealth and that of Massachusetts have the most stringent clearance requirements.
Policy committee members are still aiming to clarify who must pay for clearance fees, Lancaster said, but Human Resources has just hired a new staff member to take charge of facilitating child protection clearances.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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