Remote teaching, health risks and extra work concern faculty


Messages in the past week from Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Provost Ann Cudd attempted to clarify how the University and its faculty will operate as the fall semester approaches.

The three operational postures outlined by Gallagher give basic details of how Pitt will proceed as the coronavirus progresses. But there are still many questions about what will be required for faculty.

The chancellor’s message said that faculty and staff are encouraged to work from home whenever possible in all three operating postures, but the provost’s message on June 26 said, “faculty are encouraged to physically come to the classroom where possible.”

“Per the chancellor, the default mode is work from home. But, there are occasions where university operations require people to be on campus. Teaching is one of them,” said Chris Bonneau, Senate president and a professor of political science. “So, faculty who are able to come to campus (and feel comfortable doing so) to teach their classes, ought to do that. But, department meetings, committee meetings, etc., should be done remotely. Thus, the provost's message about teaching on campus where possible.”

“We all appreciate the immense challenges facing Pitt and understand that the situation is fluid and uncertain,” said Patrick Loughlin, an engineering professor and member of the Senate Faculty Affairs committee, which has discussed this issue at length. “That uncertainty is contributing to anxiety and frustration among many faculty as the fall semester rapidly approaches and they try to understand what it is they should be doing to prepare for classes while keeping themselves, their families and their students safe.” 

“In my conversations with faculty, I have heard two key concerns repeated over and over again: What will enforcement (of health standards) look like? And what will teaching on campus look like, even for those teaching remotely? Until we have very clear answers on these issues, I suspect that anxiety will remain high among faculty,” said Lorraine Denman, co-chair of the Faculty Affairs committee and a lecturer in Department of French and Italian.

In a message to faculty on July 1, Cudd clarified that, “The Flex@Pitt model allows faculty and students to avoid coming to classrooms when they deem it unsafe for their personal circumstances, or when the operational posture dictates. In addition, we are asking faculty and staff to work from home when they are not teaching or when it is possible for them to accomplish their research or administrative tasks remotely. While teaching or preparing a class is a legitimate reason to be on campus under certain postures, being physically present in the classroom is not a requirement.”

And while faculty won’t be required to be in the classroom, a classroom experience must be made available for students, Cudd said, and the faculty member is still responsible for designing and monitoring the classroom experience.

“For instance, in situations where instructors are unable to come to campus, students can still be in the classroom to connect with their peers, with the instructor visible on screen to engage with students, field questions or conduct discussions,” the June 26 message from Cudd said.

While some very large lectures will be fully remote, the latest guidance from Pitt said. “we expect most students will have an in-person experience at least once a week for each class, and for classes with fewer than 60 people, most students will be able to participate in-person every class if they choose.”

Peter O'Dell Campbell, an assistant professor in the English department, said he found Cudd’s and Gallagher’s messaging inconsistent.

“From the University's own messaging, it seems obvious that there hasn't been a lot of meaningful input from the people that are actually doing the classroom teaching,” Campbell said. “And I think because of that, it’s not surprising that messages, not with us, but to us, are kind of inconsistent.”

How much extra effort is needed?

Tyler Bickford, the English department's director of graduate studies, found the messaging from Cudd and Gallagher to be contradictory, confusing, and, at times, “bizarre,” because Pitt administrators usually tout the fact that Pitt is decentralized and that most decisions happen on a school level, giving deans plenty of autonomy.

“But here, they're saying things, or at least suggesting things, like ‘there will be this much in-person activity per week,’ ” Bickford said. “And even if faculty aren't there, they can be on the screen. Those are really the decisions that schools and departments and individual faculty need to be making, to figure out what works best for their class, and for their field and for their discipline.”

The operational postures do say that at the lower risk levels, decisions would be made by schools, departments or units, but if the threat goes to high risk, all decisions would revert to the senior administration.

Bickford also said that the Flex@Pitt model adds a new set of budget and labor concerns among faculty. Chief among them is will faculty have enough time to be trained to use these new systems in time for the start of the fall semester, and how much additional effort will be required.

Bickford, who is also the co-chair of the Senate Budget Policies committee, said faculty have already had to do a tremendous amount of work adjusting to the pandemic. Sometimes, administrators can take that extra effort for granted.

“It really just seems like the chancellor and provost think that faculty always have infinitely more to give, and at some point, that has to give,” Bickford said.

Working remote but teaching in class

What will those classroom experiences look like if the professor is not in the classroom?

“One current anxiety for instructors who are not able or willing to be on campus is that they do not yet know what an in-class, synchronous experience is expected to be like if they are not there in-person. … How do we meet the administration’s expectations? How do we meet the student’s expectations? What kind of experience will that be for students?,” said Robin Kear, Faculty Affairs committee member and liaison library with the University Library System.

Faculty members also don’t want to place others at risk who may be required to be on campus to start classes, such as graduate students or IT staff, she said.

Loughlin said he’s still “anxious to hear what technology will be available and when we will get to test it out. In her message on (June 26), the provost acknowledged that it did not answer all the questions people have and promised to update us regularly. That is welcomed and appreciated.”

“I think that Pat (Gallagher) has done an excellent job on explaining why so many faculty are concerned about the fall and how the partially in-class experiences would actually work for students, faculty and staff,” said Irene Frieze, professor emeritus of psychology and co-chair of the Faculty Affairs committee. “The classroom functioning is still not at all clear, but what happens outside the classroom has not been discussed at all that I have seen.”

Heath risks

Another concern of faculty is the obvious health risks of being on campus.

“Compounding the growing anxiety is the recent news regarding the upward trends in COVID infections in 75 percent of states, and the sudden record-setting spike in COVID cases in Allegheny County with a median age of 26,” Loughlin said. “Our collective safety hinges on not only everyone adhering to the safety guidelines while on campus, but more importantly while off campus. That is a tall order, especially given the well-documented psychology of 18 to 22-year-olds.”

Kenyon Bonner, dean of Students, has said that he and student leaders are developing a Pitt Community Compact that would make clear the rules regarding healthy and safe behavior.

“One of my lingering concerns relates to enforcement,” said Seth Weinberg, a professor in Dental Medicine and Faculty Affair committee member. “The messages from the provost and chancellor make it clear that wearing masks will be mandatory on campus. This will be a major challenge. First, it is unclear if this requirement applies only to University buildings or to the entire grounds of the campus. Obviously, the grounds are not limited to Pitt personnel and students. Are we mandating masks for community members and others who are present on our campus grounds? Second, who will be responsible for enforcement? I think many University faculty, staff and students are concerned about confrontations.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294. University Times reporters Donovan Harrell and Marty Levine contributed to this report.


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