This is a hard time—an unbelievably hard time—for all of us. We are now eight months into unprecedented disruption due to the ongoing public-health crisis. Renewed and widespread calls for social and racial justice have been met with resistance and additional instances of brutality rather than compassion and unity. Western states experienced devastating fires and apocalyptic skies. Remote instruction for school-aged children and lack of childcare alternatives have wreaked havoc on family schedules, work, and household dynamics. Weeks after the presidential election we are still embroiled in high-stakes political uncertainty. Covid cases are now increasing faster than ever.
As difficult as our own individual experiences have been, we can recognize that it has been an even harder time for others, including for many of our students. With dozens or hundreds of students it is more likely than not that some—or many—of them are experiencing challenges that we ourselves haven’t faced. Lack of (reliable) access to needed equipment, materials, or the internet. Unfamiliar learning modalities. Quarantine. Insecure housing. A work environment with greater exposure risk to Covid. Significant health challenges. Fear for the health of parents, relatives, and friends. Loss of a loved one.
Remember all of this as students approach us with requests for adjustments or accommodations. We cannot observe everything that our students are dealing with, and we are not in a position to judge their capacity to deal with whatever challenges they feel comfortable sharing with us.
Wherever possible, be open to extending compassion and flexibility to our students. Accept late assignments when feasible. Consider dropping missed assignments and re-weighting other ones. Allow for exams to be rescheduled or dropped (again, possibly through re-weighting others). Move course content around if that will simplify things. Perhaps slow things down. Maybe drop some content altogether this term.
These ideas may be far out of step from our years-long habits. Our instinct is often strict adherence to policies and topics set forth in the course syllabus, and with good reasons. We’re concerned about the potential for abuse by unscrupulous students. We’d prefer to maintain a reputation for rigid observance to stated guidelines to reduce the number of unwelcome requests for adjustments in the future. We want to hold up our end of the bargain struck in the syllabus so that we can feel more empowered to ask students to hold up their end of the bargain.
This is an unprecedented set of parallel crises—hopefully never to be repeated in full. It is altogether fitting and proper for the set of our responses to be unprecedented— and also, perhaps, never repeated in full. Our future credibility isn’t forever imperiled if we make adjustments under the present—unparalleled—circumstances and couch such accommodations accordingly. The risk of abuse by unscrupulous students is real, but it must be weighed against potentially dire consequences of withholding support from students who legitimately need it more than they ever have or ever will again.
This is all, of course, easier said than done. We may need to be innovative when crafting alternatives for students. All of this will take time and energy. Whatever we do, it won’t be perfect. That may be the hardest part for some of us.
Some of us may already be extending flexibility, signaling care, and providing emotional support to students. This can be a heavy lift, but know that your efforts are appreciated. The more that all of us can collectively lift a burden from students who may be falling through the cracks, the lighter that burden will be.
Regardless of course size, it’s hard to scale empathy. Fielding and gracefully responding to messages from students who are scared—for their health, grades, both, or more—takes effort and patience. The emotional labor is real, and it’s natural for our reserves of kindness to dwindle as pleas for help continue to trickle or pour in. Depending on our state and mood, there will be moments when we will be tempted to fire off a curt reply. Before doing so, pause first to reflect on our shared humanity and collective burdens in a situation that none of us have chosen. If need be, return later and re-write a more uplifting response. Above all, be sure to respond to any and all students who reach out!
While responding positively to individuals who reach out is the right approach whenever appropriate, not all students who need this support will feel comfortable asking for it. That comfort is likely correlated with structural advantages conveyed by attributes such as identity, household wealth, or college attendance by previous generations. To an extent we can build relationships of trust that might help overcome those barriers, but our time with students is short within the scope of a single term, and it’s more difficult to manage in larger courses.
With heterogeneous student comfort and these larger structural issues in mind, wherever feasible consider a more proactive approach, implementing policies that create more flexibility (or options for flexibility) for all students in addition to responding to individual requests.
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. An extension of grace on an assignment or an assessment may be, in the big picture, a small thing for us as an instructor, yet allow a student to perform better not only in their course with us but in their other courses as well, with ripple effects on their ability to progress within their respective programs of study. Our reactions and decisions now will shape our students’ trust in, perceptions of, and relationships with faculty for years to come.
Against the backdrop of uncertainty, fear, and isolation we have the opportunity to extend a hand of support, to offer encouragement, and to restore some measure of calm.