Covid-19, remote learning and work-life balance

30 March 2020, 0900 EDT

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to many useful discussions about public health, social responsibility, and tips for online learning. See the many great posts that have gone up here. One thing that hasn’t been discussed enough, in my opinion, is work-life balance. Given all the pressures of the modern University, how do we ensure the expansive demands of remote learning don’t swamp us and–for those of us with families–undermine our commitments to our kids or an equitable marriage?

I’ll start with my situation. My wife has been home with our kids (2&4) and was actually planning on going back to work outside the home this spring. So technically I could be working full-time, but out of recognition of the difficulties of never leaving the house, and to be there for my family, I switched to a 1/2 time schedule. I work 10-3 with a break for lunch, so I can help get the kids ready in the morning, put them down for nap, and play with them in the afternoon. It’s stressful, and I feel like I barely have time to get work done even as I barely have time to be with my family.

If I were to do more work, it would require one of three things:

  1. Work a full 9-5 schedule
  2. Work in the evenings after the kids are in bed
  3. Work before 7AM (when they get up)

The first would involve neglecting my kids and overloading my wife, the second would involve ignoring my wife, and the third would involve overloading me (6-7 is my only “me” time). So this is basically the schedule I’ll have until this is all over.

Of course, there is constant pressure to do more. Answer more emails, have another meeting with faculty, make more progress on my book. But I moderate it. I had an article accepted to a good journal just before the switch to remote learning, so I feel some breathing room on research. I can tell my Dean or Chair that I can’t meet after 3 because I’m watching the kids. This is all similar to what I’d do if I was in my old job at a DC think tank; setting boundaries and managing expectations for the sake of my family.

The big difference now is the students. In a way, Professors are answerable to no one. But in another way, we’re answerable to everyone; Dean, Chair, Administrators, and (if you’re, like me, untenured) tenured members of your Department . And then there’s the students, to whom we’re answerable as well.

While most of my students have been great–appreciative of all I’m doing and understanding when things fall through the cracks–a few have been kind of…demanding. Now if this was my Dean, I could push back. Ironically, it’s harder with students. There is immense pressure in today’s University to treat our students as customers, and accommodate their demands. In the case of Covid-19 and remote learning, that translates into guidance on being responsive and supportive of students, but little about how to draw boundaries with them.

Basically, how and when do you say no to an unreasonable demand from a student? The usual trick to avoid endless emails–ask them to come to office hours–doesn’t work now. Can I just ignore pushy emails? What is the proper way to push back on them? None of this is clear.

This issue takes on a particular salience when working at home. The usual complaint about demanding students involves taking time away from research. I.e. we want to (and are expected to) produce new articles and books, but that’s hard when we’re also expected to be on call 24/7 for 100+ students. It’s different while at home, though. Spending more time on students (especially on issues that are unnecessary) means taking time away from my family.

That is, if I were to respond to every grade complaint in a compassionate and understanding way, I’d be writing emails all night. If I were to implement ever custom request for my online class format, I’d be swamped.

We need to maintain work-life balance for our own sake. We need to recharge, and find joy in something besides academia.

But for those of us with families (or other home commitments), it is also important for their sake. My kids are too young to know what’s really going on, but they know something’s up; having their Dad to play with each afternoon helps manage anxiety. My wife is dealing with the stress of a pandemic and the more quotidian stresses of watching a 4&2 year old; asking her to take on more of the childcare is unfair, and would also burn her out, leaving her with little energy to prepare her job search.

So what does this mean in practice? A few things:

  1. Be careful about creating a perverse peer pressure to bend over backwards for students, at the expense of work-life balance and marriage equity.
  2. Incorporate conversations about how to say no to students, and how to manage their expectations, into discussions on remote learning tech and pedagogy.
  3. Chairs, be sensitive to faculty with home commitments (kids, friends, parents). Ask first before scheduling a virtual meeting, maybe even check in on your faculty to make sure they’re ok.
  4. Senior faculty, don’t abuse your power. If an important meeting is scheduled, don’t back out because you are “overwhelmed” leaving more responsible and more junior colleagues to pick up the slack (no comment on whether this has happened). If you have flexible home/family arrangements, maybe offer to help out frazzled colleagues
  5. Deans (if any of you read this): discuss, or at least acknowledge, the importance of work-life balance in your guidance to faculty. Providing expansive lists of things we’re supposed to do can create the impression we can’t carve out time for our kids, even if that’s not what you intended.