The global pandemic that started in 2020 - and its subsequent upheaval of the higher education landscape - has had a range of outcomes for university staff and faculty, and the way they teach.
I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Amanda Bittner, a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in Canada, about how she and her colleagues were impacted by 2020, and what the key takeaways and learnings have been so far. Amanda also directs the Gender and Politics Lab at Memorial, and studies elections, voting, and public opinion, with one of her main research interests being the role of gender in public opinion and voting.
This interview formed part of the context for the Symposium session "Staff in mind: creating a new normal for university staff wellbeing", which you can watch in full.
Lockdown life and perpetual guilt
It's been quite a year. Like everyone, I faced tons of challenges, just in terms of basic everyday living. In my case, I'm working at home for various periods of lockdown, trying to homeschool my kids while teaching classes, pivoting things to go from face to face to online, and then having tons of students who are struggling with this as well. My kids (now 8 and 7 years old) are frustrated with being locked down, hating school, not knowing what to do, and I don't know how to teach them - I'm not a grade three teacher!
So I'm trying to negotiate and deal with all of that, and then feeling guilty that all of the projects that I had been working on before, the research projects, the things that supposedly motivate us to get into this job in the first place, the research and the teaching - I felt like I wasn't doing any of those things particularly well, certainly not to the level that I had been doing them before. But then I'm feeling guilty on all fronts. "I'm a terrible mom. I'm a terrible teacher. I'm a terrible researcher. I can barely text my friends. I'm so tired. What am I good for anyway?" It was not just me that felt that way, I have a lot of colleagues and friends who expressed similar kinds of sentiments.
"...the research and the teaching - I felt like I wasn't doing any of those things particularly well, certainly not to the level that I had been doing them before."
The loss (and gain) of interpersonal interaction
Then there's the isolation that comes with it, too. You're in your house, you're not having the casual conversations, meeting with a colleague at a coffee shop to chat about some issue. You're not talking to students, not seeing each other by the photocopier. All the basic day to day interactions that we took for granted before, and didn't even like that much before, suddenly seem like a real loss. So one of the things that I did with some colleagues early in the pandemic, was we created an online writing group every day. 9am- 11am Eastern time, we would log in and we would say hi, and then we'd work together in silence for two hours every day.
It has become quite a community that's really helped everybody deal with that pandemic anxiety, that need for communication, to kind of bounce ideas off one another. These are scholars from around the world, they're not all political scientists, so I've gotten to know people who do communications studies, or religious studies, or all kinds of different things that I don't know anything about. Having that group of people has been really fabulous and has made a difference, certainly for me in terms of my mental health, my emotional wellbeing. My job is better with colleagues.
There's a part of me that thinks, even when we go back to "normal life", I don't want to give this part up. It has actually really added to my work life, which I never would have guessed, in this way.
Extra care for students
The 'pandemic survival' has been really hard on students, in ways that they didn't expect. Even the best students struggled extremely hard, with a kind of existential dread, where just basic functioning seemed impossible. So for me, I have focused more over the last year on student well-being and student wellness. I have been routinely checking in with them, on asking them, "OK, how are you doing? Have you gone outside today? Have you gone for a walk, or are you reading any books for fun? Is there any fiction in your life?"
It's important to remember that my colleagues are people too, students are people too, we are not just our work. Our work is important; I love my job, I love research. I do it because I love it. But at the same time, I can't only exist for that one thing, and I can't run myself ragged, because I'm no good for anybody if I do.
"...my colleagues are people too, students are people too, we are not just our work."
Pandemic lessons - uncovering problematic 'norms'
There are some lessons from the pandemic, that I'm hoping we can bring forward into the future. Things that I don't think we fully knew were problematic about our jobs beforehand, but certainly the pandemic has laid bare things that have been problems for a while. You can look around the world at the disproportionate weight that it has added to women's list of things to do, for example.
The extra caregiving, the extra management, the extra time, the reductions in research output, the reductions in productivity in general, and the increase in anxiety - all of these have disproportionately affected women. The people that are most "essential" in the workforce tend to be women, tend to be underpaid, tend to be minimum wage workers and part time workers. So they're managing all these multi-front wars, every day.
The same is true for academia broadly. Women tend to be doing most of the 'care work' for our departments, things like sitting on committees, doing a lot of the equity, diversity and inclusion work, taking care of our students in a way that our male colleagues don't - e.g. keeping boxes of tissues in our offices to be able to help those who come in crying because they've got issues. These things are still happening, only now it's virtual.
"Women tend to be doing most of the 'care work' for our departments, things like sitting on committees, doing a lot of the equity, diversity and inclusion work, taking care of our students"
There are a lot of things that we really want to remember, once we're back to "normal". The idea that maybe we're giving people too much work and not enough breaks in the first place. And we can see it now in the pandemic because we're just all so overwhelmed. But this was actually a problem before, that workloads were not appropriate, that this 'publish or perish' motivation is really toxic and damaging, and that it privileges certain kinds of careers, and certain kinds of work, and certain kinds of individuals, more.
Those are the same individuals who have been able to publish throughout the pandemic, because they're not doing that care work. The inequalities that already existed in our staff are made worse now. Job precarity, for example, for faculty who are untenured, or on temporary contracts. If you're being paid a small amount for one course, how do you take that course and pivot online and do all this extra work without any job stability?
Questions for academia to address now
What are we asking of our colleagues, and what are we expecting of our colleagues, when there is consistent and continuous downsizing, reductions in staff, reductions in resources? How much are we supporting the people that are doing this work for us, and to what extent are we valuing that extra care work that's going on? To what extent are we being realistic about what people can do and what people are doing, under very challenging circumstances?
The responsibility lies with those who have the privilege of tenure and seniority, full professors, to push back and to take it seriously when we hear, "in 2020 during the COVID pandemic, I was home with children for 10 months, therefore, my productivity has been lower and I haven't published as much".
"To what extent are we being realistic about what people can do and what people are doing, under very challenging circumstances?"
When we're on promotion and tenure committees, how do we evaluate those who are are working towards promotion? To what extent are we really pushing the line of "OK stop, what do we expect of this person under these pandemic circumstances, and what do we expect of the person under normal circumstances? And is that appropriate?" Pushing back on the bean-counting, the high expectations that are not realistic and not sustainable - but also extremely gendered and racialized - and highly problematic for that reason.
I don't think that the pandemic has been good in any way whatsoever. But if we can learn lessons from it, at least that's something we can take into the future.