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Faculty on Fall

Stop Bailing and Build a Better Boat

The fall semester of 2020 is the Titanic, and we are plugging the holes with chewing gum. As universities scheme about ways to resume in-person classes, we as faculty members feel increasingly alienated from the very institutions we serve. Aren’t we educators in large part because we care deeply about the students? Then how can we bear putting them in harm’s way? Instead of playing our violins as the boat sinks, why don’t we build a new boat that will sail us into the (hopefully) safer horizons of 2021? Instead of awkwardly attempting to mold an outdated model that just won’t yield, why don’t we radically restructure the system while continuing distance-only learning for fall 2020? Yes, this will require tough decision-making and temporary discomfort, but it’s also the only option that prioritizes the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff.

An institution of higher education should be a bastion of ethics, not a dinghy navigated by a questionable moral compass. Let’s stop comparing this moment in time to last semester’s manic pivot into online delivery and, rather, look at the upcoming term as an opportunity to build on what we learned and make grounded, mindful choices that benefit the widest number of people.

Here’s how:

  1. Discount tuition. You heard us. Give the students a break, not because distance learning is less rigorous, but because there is a pandemic and students and their families are struggling financially.
  2. Accept more students. Granting access to a higher number of students who need an education can help make up for the shortfall in the discount. (Yes, we know that means our class sizes go up.)
  3. Combine synchronous and asynchronous learning to prevent faculty workload from increasing two- to three-fold as a result of taking on extra students. Maybe that means that one class a week is recorded and one is in real time. Maybe the faculty member teaches two or three sections of the same class, thereby reducing their class hours and devoting that extra time to the additional students.
  4. Reduce all extra faculty responsibility: service, research, tenure requirements, administrative load, etc. Allow faculty to focus their time and attention wholly and solely on the classroom.
  5. Stop hiring high-ranking managers with fabricated titles who create unnecessary administrative work and need more assistants. Divert the money from those salaries to hire additional essential faculty and e-learning support staff, and to save the jobs of at-risk adjuncts.
  6. Alter the curriculum to focus on classes that will thrive online and/or check off requirements that students are eager to get out of the way. In theatre, this could include theatre history, play analysis, intro to design, the business of acting (building a website, writing a cover letter and crafting a resume, pitching yourself and your projects, industry market research, sideline and parallel careers, finances and taxes), improvisation, one-person shows, playwriting, audition technique/self-taping/building repertoire, voice-over, and grant writing.

Let’s stop comparing this moment in time to last semester’s manic pivot into online delivery and, rather, look at the upcoming term as an opportunity to build on what we learned.

If these courses don’t already serve as credits towards students’ degrees, adjust the requirements. And yes, we know that making even minor changes to curriculum normally takes years of meetings and planning and approvals by multiple committees. Isn’t it time to rethink that archaic process? Aren’t we smarter and more efficient than that? Use the summer to coordinate and fast-track those changes rather than allocating precious time and resources to taping out six feet of distance on every available surface. Isn’t that more ethical than luring students into circumstances that cannot be assuredly safe? Isn’t that more reasonable than literally putting your faculty’s lives on the line?

Other options for valuable remote courses/topics outside of theatre that may be of particular interest now are gardening, cooking, nutrition, yoga, meditation, tai chi, qigong, navigating relationships, psychology, writing, the stock market, taxes, personal finance, coding, web design, social media marketing, film, digital photography, graphic design, politics, current events, Black history, gender studies, LGBTQIA+ studies, and the history of activism. Why not teach subjects that are relevant, immediately useful, and will better equip students for the world as it is?

This isn’t the only way forward for fall 2020. Maybe we need to completely upend the model, like replacing courses with one-on-one or small group sessions with a faculty member throughout the semester. Have them meet once a week and work on a student-centered thesis project. This could be an extraordinarily unique opportunity for personal attention, relationship building, and mentorship.

We know that making even minor changes to curriculum normally takes years of meetings and planning and approvals by multiple committees. Isn’t it time to rethink that archaic process?

There may be other, better, more inventive ideas out there. Maybe if the faculty were consulted about creative ways forward, they could proffer the originality and brilliance they were hired to provide in the first place. And in truth, in some instances, faculty have been consulted. But the reality is: the faculty voice is awfully faint in the increasingly blustering big-business bark of education. Any call by faculty for real change in response to a real pandemic is met with the incredulous: “But what about sports and Greek life and the social experience of incoming freshmen?”

It seems like universities are trying to salvage the idea of the idyllic fall semester as it always has been. But that’s just it… College life as we know it is now a has-been. At least for the foreseeable future. The machinations surrounding reopening are costly financially (has anyone even done the math on installing touchless faucets, automatic doors, medical personnel in every building?) and, more importantly, they are costly in terms of actual human life. In clinging to the business-as-usual fantasy, we not only fail to protect the students we serve, but we also miss an opportunity to make lasting changes to an institution that’s barely keeping its head above water.

Why not create something interesting and exciting and unprecedented from this unprecedented mayhem? Offer practical courses like nutrition and taxes and civic engagement. Present an opportunity to mentor one-on-one with a professor all semester. Put the “higher” back in “higher ed.” If universities are meant to be forward-thinking, innovative, and trailblazing, why are we still bailing water? Maybe it’s time to build a new vessel—or maybe it’s time to just dive in. Either way, the safer shore is waiting.

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The first institution that assigns theatre professors to teach the list of subjects itemized here as relevant, useful, and likely to better equip their students for the world as it is will have some serious explaining to do to their accrediting organization. We are recognized for a specific expertise, and that is what we were hired to teach. Moreover, I happen to believe that the theatre courses my program offers ARE relevant, useful, and likely to equip our students for the world as it is.

I imagine that you too hope to stay healthy and safe during the coming term and find it interesting that your first concern is with accreditation while studies now show that even asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus are suffering lung damage.

I am unclear as to whether you think that courses like play analysis, theatre history and the business of acting are not germane to a theatre degree or if you are saying that the second list of options is not relevant? Should we discount nutrition while there is significant comorbidity between metabolic diseases and catastrophic coronavirus outcomes? Should we dismiss yoga and Thai Chi when our undergraduate population suffered from anxiety and depression at an alarming rate before the pandemic? Or maybe you are referring to gender studies, Black History and LGBTQIA+ courses? What more has to burn down for us to see the light? Subjects such as these seem not only necessary but critical to cultivating our next generation of global citizens.

Also, while all of our areas of expertise may be relevant, it does not seem safe to instruct students to shake their jaws in person this year, or tongue stretch or articulate given the fact that vocalizing in close range is one of the easiest ways to spread viral particles. And I doubt anyone will be capable of actually sighing with relief while in a constant state of fight or flight.

In any event, theatre people are the most resourceful people there are. I imagine every educator reading this is knowledgeable in many facets of the genre and equipped to teach a variety of topics, not only a singular expertise. I also imagine everyone reading this wants to live to teach it another year.