In response to students’ requests for class adjustments, United Academics released a statement Nov. 17 aimed at University of Oregon instructors, thanking them for their work and encouraging them to make flexible accommodations when needed.
“Our responses and our approach in this crucial moment will have outsized impacts on our students’ mental health and their academic success during this term and beyond,” the statement read.
Mike Urbancic, UA’s vice president for non-tenure-track instructional faculty affairs, said that the idea to write the statement came at around week six of fall term, with the election and pandemic stacked on top of midterms.
“It became this issue where like, this is dramatic and hard not just for the students, of course, but for the faculty and everyone else,” said Urbancic. “[We thought] it might be a good reminder to faculty to say, ‘let's approach this in a way that will be sensitive to those needs.’”
Urbancic, who is also a senior instructor in the department of economics, said that while teachers are able to make accommodations, this year has provided exceptionally challenging situations for teachers which makes these adjustments more difficult to work around.
When a student has a family member who is ill, or if they’re ill themselves and are being quarantined and might not have the necessary resources, Urbancic said the adjustments they need to make “go above and beyond the slack that was built into the course.”
Making these accommodations while keeping the course worthwhile can be a challenging balance to find for instructors. In its statement, UA suggested actions such as dropping and re-weighting assignments. Urbancic also said teachers can allow students to finish the course at a later time.
“It isn't appropriate to cut away and truncate the course to the extent that we don't feel comfortable offering credit for it,” said Urbancic.
And while it’s already a strain on instructors to make these adjustments, there is also an added emotional toll. Avinnash Tiwari, an instructor in English and composition, said that hearing about issues that were piling up for students was tough. “I put out a lot more emotional labor than I normally do,” he said.
“I had several students who had older family members pass away because of COVID,” said Tiwari. “That was unique in the sense that I've never seen things compound so much for so many students, school, and work and family, and then potentially their own health.”
For winter term, instructors might have a better understanding of how to make appropriate class adjustments for students, but Tiwari said he is worried about the mental health struggles continuing. He believes the dark, rainy Oregon weather will stack up on existing issues and heighten the dreariness.
Tiwari said that it’s going to be a challenge to keep students engaged without overwhelming them.
“When are students gonna just hit that kind of level of diminished utility, where it's just not going to be useful to be piling on more stuff for them?” he said. “I think I'm just gonna have to be ready to continue to be flexible.”
However, the added emotional toll on teachers doesn’t deter them from wanting to help students who need it. Urbancic said he understands that not every student may be comfortable asking for help, but if they are, UO faculty is there to help.
“Even though we might design some structures to try to build some flexibility in there, ultimately we won't know what students are dealing with unless they tell us,” he said.
“I can almost guarantee you that if you'll benefit from it, others in your class will as well,” said Tiwari. “You'd be helping them out too."