Over the past two pandemic years, we in higher education have been focused almost exclusively on keeping students engaged, interested in learning, and making progress to degree. We’ve shifted teaching and learning modalities several times, moved student services and academic support into online environments, and adjusted our lives and schedules to smooth the way for students to continue their educations. We’ve tried to preserve student bandwidth—available cognitive capacity—so they could focus on learning and development. We have cared about students and their families and tried to provide the necessary flexibility for them to succeed. We have tried to minimize uncertainty in uncertain times. I think we can all feel proud that we stepped up and put students first.
Institutional employees in all sectors, from the library to facilities maintenance to IT to health services to security, have responded to the crisis with imagination and generosity, often working extra shifts and putting their own lives on the line to keep the operation going. Faculty—full-time and contingent—have worked steadily to create and sustain learning environments in which students have been nurtured and supported in the face of the challenges of a global pandemic and social unrest.
Even before the pandemic, one of the things that made caring for students and their learning so taxing for faculty is that it is often work done on top of our regular jobs. The burden (and the joy) of this work is not evenly distributed. In my experience, it disproportionately falls to women, people of color, and other faculty who share marginalized identities with students. If all of us did some of the work instead of it falling on just a few people, we could create a more sustainable system to support student success.
In addition to a fairer distribution, the work should count. If increasing retention and completion of students, especially those in marginalized groups, is an institutional goal—and we all say it is—then work dedicated to that goal should count in tenure, promotion, and career advancement. Part of faculty burnout comes from knowing that caring and student support are often done at a real cost to career as they compete with primary measures of success like research and scholarly publication. Contingent faculty, especially, have experienced unprecedented levels of uncertainty in job security, have received inadequate institutional support for making necessary changes in teaching modalities, and have had to juggle the many responsibilities of already precarious employment situations.
As instructors, how do we care about students and provide reasonable levels of flexibility without depleting our own bandwidth? Here are a few ideas:
Make grace part of the routine as described in the syllabus. Loads of instructor bandwidth is used up when we address student requests for extensions, special accommodations, etc. on a case-by-case basis. Building in flexibility sometimes takes off the pressure enough that most students don’t use even use it and when they do, it is hassle-free. If support structures are built in, most of the less-serious incidents are taken care of routinely, leaving far fewer that need our sustained attention.
[Important note before I go on: Please read this excellent piece by Drs. Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin about the differential effects of equity-minded teaching on the workloads and bandwidth (my term) of faculty/instructors based on their relative power and identities. It’s one of those articles that make salient things we know are true but that some of us can routinely not see.]
Establish reasonable expectations for responsiveness. This will help students and us keep things in perspective. It’s easy for faculty to overcompensate during this time of general uncertainty and try to be there at every moment for our students. Being clear about when we are available and why will help students manage their own expectations and slow the pace a bit for everyone. Some faculty state clearly that after 6:00 in the evening until 8:00 the next morning is family time and that they won’t be checking email. Others let students know that they will mostly not be checking email over the weekend and provide information about where students can find emergency help during times when faculty are not “at work.” Especially now, when “at work” is physically “at home” much of the time, truly stepping away seems critical to protecting our own bandwidth so we have some left for tomorrow.
Create mini-communities even in very large classes by, early in the term, forming small groups that stay together all semester and solve a problem, have a discussion, or otherwise interact during each class period. These students become each other’s people. When a student is absent, their groupmates can usually tell me what’s up—they have a sick child, or they got called into work at the last minute. They share notes and let them know what they missed from the class session.
Check-ins at the beginning of each class. As a full class exchange or in small groups in large classes, students have the opportunity to articulate what’s on their hearts and minds and maybe they can set it aside for a bit, freeing up bandwidth for learning. When students have things weighing on their minds unsaid, the part of their brain that’s worried or fearful or uncertain is not available for learning in your class.
Focus on the learning. In designing any assignment, project, reading, watching, listening, or writing, I double-check its relevance and centrality to the learning outcomes for the class. If the task or criterion is not well-aligned or only loosely connected to the learning outcomes and it takes a significant effort for students, I don’t do it. For instance, if a writing assignment is designed to assess students’ critical thinking about a central aspect of the course—not their ability to write in standard academic English—then I assess their thinking and not their writing style, saving me hours of time and effort (and minimizing stress for the students). Dr. Regan A. R. Gurung at Oregon State University suggests that (among many other ideas about how to be flexible with students and still maintain our own mental bandwidth) “You should also be aware that a multitude of requests for extra time to complete assignments may be an indicator that your course-design calibration needs some work.” Maybe we could have fewer graded assignments and more emphasis on active learning during class?
Mental bandwidth—both the students’ and ours—is a finite resource. When we design our courses (and other procedures and processes in other institutional sectors), we can ask, “Is this how we want students spending their precious bandwidth?” As institutions moving through and beyond pandemic times, we can examine every part of our operation and ask, “Is this how we want to be spending our precious bandwidth?” Bandwidth depletion happens; the degree varies based on aspects of our identities and the realities of our lives. We can attempt to minimize it in the realms over which we have some control, in our classrooms and offices and institutional environments, preserving more of our bandwidth for the work we all care about—helping students learn and thrive.