Thinking about Corona and Academia

13 March 2020, 1736 EDT

The Duck has been covering Corona in a variety of ways over the past several weeks with posts including Josh’s coverage of the early outbreak, the early international dynamics, past and present epidemics, the role of money and of international cooperation, how different types of political systems are handling the crisis, and so on. But thus far, we Ducksters haven’t considered here what it means for us. As the resident narcissist, my time has come.

While it might seem narcissistic to consider the impact on the academic world while people are dying around the world, well, ok, it is narcissistic, but we will have to figure out ways to manage the current crisis and deal with its long-term implications.  As always, the professor’s job involves at least three areas–teaching, research and service, so I might as well use those categories to figure out the impact and likely implications.


Not all schools have closed their classroom and pushed stuff online yet, but that seems inevitable.  Carleton has not yet, but by the time I finish writing this, maybe? (UPDATE: yep, campus classes are cancelled)  The announcements by universities that they will be moving immediately to online classes shows that not much has been learned over the past twenty years by the efforts to teach online. 

That is, administrations haven’t learned much since those who do that stuff well can and have told us how hard it is to do right.  And deans don’t get it as one of my friends’s dean is insisting that the online courses be taught exactly at the same time as it would be in person, even as folks scatter across time zones.

I understand that this move to online classes is an emergency effort to save semesters, so let’s keep expectations low.  While most profs didn’t get much training to teach seminars and lectures when they were in grad school, they at least had experienced both good and bad teaching in those formats so they could figure out how to do it AND improve over time.  Few of the current profs out there have had much experience taking online classes except for human resources training modules … and I am pretty sure that only teaches us what not to do.

The good news is that there is much help on twitter as the experienced profs have been sharing their lessons.  The bad news is that taking that advice and adapting it on the fly is going to lead to a lot of trial and error with our students paying the price of the errors.  If we do this badly at first, students may not bother to come back once we get our act together.

The other bit of bad news is that profs are going to worry that universities are going to see this as the long awaiting opportunity to push most courses online—the MOOC-ization of academia.  Not that we need the encouragement given our abilities and also the abilities of our students.  Not all students have the technology to make this work, bandwidth is going to be a problem, working from home can be really hard for students with families, etc.

The impact is going to be the worst for our students:

  • seniors have their last term abruptly ended, entering a broken job market, 
  • whatever systems we have to deal with anxiety and other mental health issues are now turned off for most,
  • students may be losing medical coverage since their fees for coverage at university may not cover them at home
  • some students may not be able to go home,
  • and on and on.  

Closing campuses hurts two sets of people the worst–students and staff.  Profs have salaries and mostly longer time horizons.  And we can do most of our work from home. Of course, adjunct/sessional profs are in a world of hurt–they don’t have long time horizons–they get paid per class and paid poorly.  The time it takes to turn something to an online class will make their $/hr rate even more awful than it currently is.  Let’s remember that we should be kind to staff in this time.  Of course, we should do that all the time as it is rule one… but not all of our colleagues are kind to those who do most of the heavy lifting on campus.

We will have plenty of time to think about the long-term consequences, but we will have to think about them–how to interpret the grades of the spring of 2020, how to teach in the fall with students whose education has been disrupted, how to make sure universities don’t learn the wrong lessons from all of this, etc.  I would appreciate any suggestions on what the long term implications might be.


While the quarantines and social distancing will not stop us from writing, they will stop us from fieldwork.  They have already caused conferences to be cancelled, and those events are quite important for getting feedback on research projects.  Grants have timelines that are going to be interrupted so:

Which raises the other time-sensitive thing for professors: tenure clocks.  For most tenure-track profs, they have five to six years to produce research as an assistant professor, and then they go up for tenure based on that record.  For those whose fieldwork is disrupted, or their writing is disrupted because they have to take care of kids who are home due to closed schools, what do we do? 

Two answers seem obvious, but will not work for everyone: add time to people’s clocks–give them an extension so that they can complete their research programs after this wave of closures/travel bans subsides; or re-set expectations so that a year of no conferences does not count against someone.

I don’t think there will be one perfect solution to this, but we will need to have empathy and sympathy and adjust our standard procedures.


Great news: no committee meetings!  Ok, maybe meetings will continue online.  The hard part of the service component is that we will be working with great uncertainty.  How do we plan events for where we are uncertain that they can take place?  I am working on the CDSN Summer Institute, set for August, but will people be traveling by then?

I am reminded of an old Alistair Maclean novel, Fear is the Key, where the bad guy’s major strategy is to create uncertainty, as uncertainty hampers action.  Well, the markets indicate that we can still sell in a time of uncertainty, but planning?  This is going to be hard–to make plans, to revise them endlessly until we start to get to the other side of this.

I have much sympathy for my friends who have kids who are school age or below, as they are going to have spend most of their time keeping their kids busy and out of trouble, which will get in the way of getting their courses prepped and getting their writing done.  I recommend Mary Poppins on repeat as that worked for us when our kid was ill at the age of two–not only does it have comedy and music and animations, but also handy info about women’s suffrage and the dynamics of bank failures. I am lucky in that my kid is fully grown and self-sufficient.  I just have to worry about her not having enough food if she has to self-quarantine for a few weeks.  Oh wait, damn.

Anyhow, focusing on our stuff–our jobs, our teaching, our research–can help distract us from the horrors that are going on around the world as a result of this pandemic and also those that are independent of this pandemic.  Good luck to you and yours as we all go through this.