Martin Regg Cohn and the mystery of the empty classrooms (Armchair quarterback edition)

In this morning’s Toronto Star, columnist Martin Regg Cohn presents us with a puzzler about the pandemic issue of the moment, university students and online teaching:

How to explain the incongruity of packing thousands of students into university dorms — with shared cafeteria meals (no masks) and shared showers (no clothes) — only to refuse them entry into classrooms on the pretext that professors might feel too close for comfort?

Regg Cohn blames this incongruity mostly on university administrations, for being slaves to “institutional inertia” and not bringing online courses back into the classroom once “provincial authorities gave the green light” in August for universities to allow students and faculty on campus, even as they allow students to live in residence. He also has a few choice words for us “aloof” university professors and our faculty associations for failing to get everyone back to in-person learning right this moment, at a time when the rest of society is mostly open and daily infection rates are relatively low.

Online teaching sucks

As a university professor at an Ontario university (Brock), please believe me when I say that I would like nothing more than to be back teaching in the classroom. Online teaching straight-up sucks. It can leave students adrift: last year a shocking number of my second-year students just didn’t bother to hand in their major end-of-term assignment. Our department’s teaching assistants reported similar difficulties in engaging students in their seminars. Zoom fatigue is real: teaching online is exhausting on a level I’d never imagined possible.

Most disturbingly, our graduate student teaching assistants reported problems with undergraduate students acting aggressively toward them in email communications. They attributed this behaviour in part to a lack of face-to-face interaction, since their students weren’t required to turn on their cameras. Unsurprisingly, our women TAs, themselves students in our Master’s program, bore the brunt of this abusive behaviour.

(Incidentally, improving the learning experience and making the online classroom more humane for everyone is one reason why, as Regg Cohn dismissively puts it, “professors can be heard hectoring and lecturing discouraged students to turn on their Zoom cameras, rather than logging on with a disembodied avatar.”)

Teaching online sucks. This whole pandemic sucks. Nobody – students, teachers, administrators – is having a good three years. Nothing about our current situation – nothing – is ideal.

Monday morning quarterbacking

So while I get Regg Cohn’s inchoate anger about this whole situation, his whole column smacks of lazy Monday morning armchair quarterbacking.

Regg Cohn’s entire argument can be boiled down to, “It’s late November, the government gave permission for universities to open up as cases were trending downward, and a big Fall wave didn’t materialize, so universities should’ve opened up.”

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

Predicting the future

Why are so many classes online now and why does it vary from university to university, when the pandemic, for the moment, seems to be receding? Three reasons:

First, back in May 2021, when we were planning the upcoming school year, none of us had any way to know what the Fall COVID season would look like.

Back in May, the Delta variant had yet to be named. Access to vaccines wasn’t yet open to everyone, and the federal government was still signalling that everyone who wanted a vaccine would be fully vaxxed by September. Given the two weeks needed for the vaccine to kick in, this would have meant immunity by mid-October. Right there, that’s half of your Fall term with less-than-full protection.

Also in May, the complete insanity of the anti-vaxx movement in Canada wasn’t yet on full display. And in the previous month, parents across the province rose as one to protest Doug Ford’s ridiculous, panicky attempt to close the province’s playgrounds, and also to give police so much power that even the police objected.

That was the context in which we were making decisions about how to teach in 2021-22. Those of us who moved our classes online are not “aloof”: we’re doing our very best to keep our students and ourselves safe, based on the information we have in front of us. Some people, programs, and universities chose in-person, others chose online, based on a combination of pandemic-related health concerns, an overwhelming desire to get back to the classroom, and – for administrators – budgetary concerns (on which more below).

Also, and Regg Cohn might be unaware of this, but faculty associations like Brock’s had to put enormous pressure on our university administrators to get them to implement the vaccine mandates that have made our campuses safe for his child, well ahead of the eventual Provincial directive. Even after Seneca first announced their vaccine mandate, university administrations mostly had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. And even these mandates were not always as tight as they could’ve been, with some universities opting initially for attestation over proof of vaccination. This wasn’t the province acting to keep your child safe. It was university faculty associations and, eventually, university administrations. The Province was the last to the party.

Despite the underlying sense in Regg Cohn’s column that the pandemic is pretty much over and we can now get back to normal, the pandemic is very much still on, and this uncertainty still exists. Winter’s coming, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time in closed classrooms, facing a highly contagious airborne disease, with a still-substantial unvaccinated population. How many students and faculty do you know with underlying health issues that even now make them vulnerable to COVID? Should we throw them under the bus in the rush to get back to in-person learning in the midst of a pandemic? Whether or not to teach online isn’t the clear-cut issue Regg Cohn makes it out to be.

Full disclosure: knowing what we know now about how the pandemic has progressed, I would’ve taught in-person this semester. But if I were able to decide today how to deliver my Winter 2022 course, I’d take it online for the simple reason that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and I can’t predict the future. I don’t want one of my students, or myself, to be the last person to catch COVID during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, I understand that in at least one university, instructors won’t be able to ask students to mask up or to confirm any medical exemptions. I look forward to Regg Cohn’s late-January follow-up column.

Changes are easier to make when you’re not the one making them

Second, regardless of what Regg Cohn thinks of universities’ ability to move classes on a dime, it’s a real challenge to schedule thousands of classes for tens of thousands of students, both in terms of when they’re going to take place and where. At Brock, we had to make our final timetable and mode-of-delivery (online, in-person, hybrid) decisions in May.

For my part, because I assumed the pandemic would be winding down about now (ah, the innocent pre-Delta days), I asked to teach online in the Fall and in-person in the Winter.

At any rate, redoing these schedules in August, a week before the school term begins is, to be frank, an insane demand. Let alone once the school year’s begun.

And not just for administrators, but for teachers and students. I’ve tried to keep my lesson plans simple in the pandemic age, but for other professors, moving an online class offline would require completely revamping their entire teaching plan at the last second.

As annoying as this might be for teachers, it’s equally problematic for students. Students like, and deserve, to know what they’re getting into when they sign up for a course, and a big part of that is how the course will be delivered. This is why I only make in-course changes if it’s absolutely necessary, and only ever in a way that advantages all students. Students plan a large part of their lives around their course schedules, and any changes, no matter how popular with some students, will inconvenience others.

The Ford government doesn’t inspire confidence

Third, to be blunt, the Ford government has a terrible, terrible, terrible track record when it comes to sound COVID policy. So, why would anyone think that “well, the Ford government is opening up the economy, so things are probably okay” clinches any pandemic argument?

Remember the whole playgrounds and police powers thing?

Even when the Ford government gets it right, they get it wrong, doing the right thing weeks or months after they should’ve done it. They move only after the damage has begun to mount. We might be about the see the latest example of this destructive tendency with their lackadaisical approach to third shots.

This is not, in short, a government that deserves anyone’s trust around pandemic policy. They’ve consistently opened the province too early and instituted sane mitigation measures too late. They’ve pandered to anti-vaxxers rather than respecting the rights of the vast majority of Ontarians to be able to move freely without fear of contracting COVID. They waited until the last second to announce how a university system with hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of workers should run in the Fall.

So you might understand why I don’t take Ford allowing universities to open up without social distancing as a sign that Ontario universities got online teaching wrong.

(Also, universities are mostly self-governing institutions, so it’s really not a surprise that different universities would take different approaches to dealing with the pandemic.)

All this is to say that online classes have persisted due to a mix of uncertainty, the bureaucratic and personal difficulties associated with upending an entire semester at the very last second, and the utter incompetence of the Ford government.

Is this ideal? Not in any way. Is it understandable? I think so. Given these limitations, if you were a teacher or university administrator, would you have acted any differently?

Packed residences: It’s all about budgets and survival

Things get really interesting with the mystery of the packed residences next to unoccupied classes. Regg Cohn blames bureaucratic inertia for this incongruous state of affairs. But it really comes down to money and a survival instinct.

I don’t know what it’s like at other universities, but when my school, Brock University, did the right thing last year and closed the campus, they also blew out their budget. Residences, food services, and parking fees account for a substantial amount of the university’s revenues. With those ancillary fees gone, Brock ended up running a deficit of millions of dollars.

Now, imagine you’re a Brock administrator in May 2021. You don’t know what the pandemic holds for Ontario in November 2021, but you do know that it would be tempting fate to run another monstrous deficit. You’re facing a provincial government that just let an Ontario university go bankrupt and that, two years previously, cut tuition fees by 10%, effectively reducing your overall budget. In these circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to wonder how the government would treat your university should you continue to hemorrhage money.

You have no way of knowing if the pandemic will get worse or better. But in addition to the pandemic, you’re also facing an existential threat that could be held at bay if you can get students enrolled and have faculty, staff, and students back on campus. Such situations can lend themselves to wishful thinking, or, put more positively, hoping for the best.

And so we end up in November 2021, with full residences and half-empty classrooms.

I’m much more understanding than Regg Cohn is of the choices university administrators have made with respect to residences. They’re not just responding to the pandemic or acting like a bunch of isolated bureaucrats: they’re trying to manage a dual financial and health crisis in the context of a government that is incompetent when it comes to health policy and actively hostile with respect to post-secondary education.

Again, is this an ideal situation? Not in any way, shape, or form.

Are “aloof” university professors to blame? Only to the extent that we lack Regg Cohn’s prescience.

Are befuddled, inert university bureaucrats to blame? I doubt you’d act much differently in their shoes.

If Regg Cohn is really interested in the effect of the pandemic on universities, he might want to think a bit more deeply about this wider context. And to remember that this pandemic isn’t over, and that none of us can predict the future.

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2 Responses to Martin Regg Cohn and the mystery of the empty classrooms (Armchair quarterback edition)

  1. Tori Smith says:

    I’m a parent of a second-year student at Carleton and a long-time sessional instructor at U of T. I’ve been teaching in-person since September, With masks, ventilation improvements, double vaccinations, and the low infection numbers* in Ontario, I’m beyond frustrated & saddened that my son is spending a second year of online education (he has one in-person class.) So, I welcomed Martin Regg Cohn’s article. Even if you disagree with him, public discussion the confusing situation on Ontario campuses is long overdue.

    My first question for you is how is possible for some schools to be largely in-person (U of T, Queens, Trent, McGill** and others to remain indefinitely mostly online? Is it a question of money? Leadership? Facilities?

    You mention in your post that you regret not teaching in-person but then refer to the continued uncertainty as a reason to continue on-line. Since it may remain uncertain for quite some time, shouldn’t we plan for the best-case scenario – teaching in person, knowing that we can fairly easily switch to online? We’ve already shown that switching to online quickly is possible – we did in back at the start of the pandemic – and that was before any of knew what zoom was.

    My last question, is what do you think has to happen before you think we are ready to reopen campuses? It’s unlikely that we’ll get to a point where there is zero risk of getting COVID; so, if we’re not ready yet, we need to set some benchmarks so that students, parents, staff, and faculty have some sense of what’s going to happen. Right now, I am totally in the dark about when – if ever – my son will spend any significant time on campus. I would have predicted that once schools, restaurants, bars, and sports facilities were open most of us would be back in the classroom. I was wrong. (Does this mean universities and colleges present unique risks and if so, how can we address them?)

    Generally, I think we are not serving our students well at all. We’ve underestimated the cost to their mental health and their education (and we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s anything but mediocre.) And we’re overestimating how much risk we would be adding to their life by bringing them to campus. Most students work: they wait tables, stock store shelves, work in hospitals etc. If we open up in-person learning it will be up to them to gauge the risk of assembling in classes with other double-vaccinated people.

    I’m a cautious person – I’m 58 and have asthma and I take COVID seriously. But I also know that if I go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office, a restaurant (not likely!) or even arrange a delivery I’m asking someone else to incur risk on my behalf. And even though I feel very safe on campus, I believe it’s reasonable to ask faculty to accept the very small risk involved in order to give students the education they deserve. And if the situation changes, well, we can always renew our zoom accounts.

    * I’m aware that infection rates in Ontario are increasing, but the risk of masked, vaccinated people contracting COVID from other masked, vaccinated people is still very low.
    ** This list is based on talking to friends at other schools – it is ridiculously difficult to find out what is actually going on at campuses across Ontario! This is another reason why I hope more journalists turn their attention to universities and colleges.

    • bhaggart says:

      Hi Tori:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      I agree that it’s frustrating that students (and instructors!) are still doing so much online teaching. But I also think that there’s a whole lot of hindsight bias in play at the moment. I don’t know about the University of Toronto, but Brock’s administration only updated us about their improvements to our ventilation system a few weeks ago. Before that, faculty were flying blind. And this on a topic (improving ventilation in businesses) I recall being raised in Germany back in the summer of 2020. In August 2021, credible experts like the U of T’s David Fisman were worried about an explosion of numbers. Even once it became clear that Canada would be awash in vaccinations, our university administrations were slow off the mark to mandate vaccinations for those on campus. As a result, people were allowed onto campus (at least at Brock) without being fully vaccinated until mid-October.

      This is why I said that if I had known that administration would come through on the ventilation and if I had known that the feared fourth wave wouldn’t materialize, then I would’ve been (mostly) okay teaching in person. But I couldn’t, and I had the choice, so I didn’t, for the safety of both my students and me. As well as their and our families, since COVID is highly contagious, and until just a couple of days ago, children weren’t able to be vaccinated.

      Next semester will be different in some ways. We know these things now, although we can also expect that rates will rise overall, especially in the absence of third shots. But even though infections at Ontario universities have been blessedly low, I’m not sure how much of that was a consequence of the high levels of online learning. How will this play out in the Winter term? Anyone who says they know for sure is bluffing. For my part, I’ll be teaching in-person, fully masked.

      You have a lot of other questions in here: Shouldn’t we set things up so that we can easily go online if things go pear-shaped? Ideally, yes, but we’re already had two-plus years of experience showing us that our government acts only after things have already gone off the rails: they don’t understand exponential growth. It’s also not at all easy to switch to online teaching: We did it quickly in March 2020 because we had no other choice. Also, not all students are champing to get back to the classroom. A lot of them understand that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and should act accordingly, which means reducing our movements, if at all possible.

      I think a lot of people underestimate how hard it is to get large organizations to change paths on a dime. That’s just a fact of life, because neither our schools nor our governments are run as dictatorships. Which is a good thing.

      As for why different universities took different approaches, as I note in the post, it’s because they’re run independently of each other, and there were (and are) legitimate disagreements about how to draw the line between safety and the benefits of in-person education. As I said in the post, we don’t have the gift of foresight.

      Re benchmarks: I don’t know. I’ll leave that to the medical professionals. I’ve found Drs. David Fisman, Andrew Morris and Isaac Bogosh, among others, to be worth listening to.

      I’d also note that, in a lot of cases, students don’t have a choice of whether to take classes in-person or online: they have to take whatever we offer them. Same, for that matter, for a lot of sessionals.

      I think a lot of people, including Regg Cohn, have lost sight of what it means to be living through a global pandemic. As much as we might wish them to be, these are not ordinary times. In ordinary times, my primary obligation as an instructor would be to provide the best possible education to students like your son, and your son’s primary obligation would be to go to school and do the best he can. In a pandemic, however, his and my professional obligations come second to our duty to keep him and those around us safe and not to spread COVID to the greatest extent possible.

      If I were a medical professional, my job would be to tend to the sick, and work to end the pandemic. But I’m not, and so my primary job – until the pandemic is over – is not to do anything to spread the plague. That the Ford government is actively taking steps not to keep people safe makes this much more difficult for individuals than it needs to be, but it doesn’t change our obligation. This is what it means to live during a pandemic: we’re forced to consider what is best for others, and not just ourselves.

      Sometimes this obligation not to spread this plague can lead us to overshoot or undershoot, based on our own understanding of the context. This is because the future course of the disease is uncertain. Nobody, not least Regg Cohn knows what tricks COVID has in store for us. Writing this, on November 26, 2021, we can’t say who will look more foolish in four months: the columnist calling for a complete return to in-class teaching, or the voice cautioning against too-soon a return in the midst of a pandemic. This uncertainty should make all of us a bit more humble when second-guessing universities’ decisions in this area.

      Staying online, even when one understands it as stemming from an obligation to others, is definitely harder for some than others – just as being forced to attend class in-person makes life difficult for immuno-compromised students and teachers, or parents with children, people who never feature in these news stories.

      If I could offer one suggestion, it would be to read Albert Camus’ The Plague. I recommended to my parents, who found a surprising degree of solace in it. Not least because it helps to know that we’re basically repeating beat-for-beat what Camus wrote about 70 years ago, from governmental incompetence to an overworked medical system to people desperate to pretend that the plague wasn’t happening. And Camus reminds us that this plague, like all plagues, will eventually end. Our lives will resume.

      But I’ve also found it helpful because Camus offers us a north star to guide us through these uncertain times, namely that we have an obligation, rooted in kindness, not to spread the plague. That’s our job. I’ve tried to live by that maxim. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is necessary.

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