This episode is the final chapter of a mini-series focusing on the NEH-funded project "Toward a Pedagogy from Crisis.” Stevie Scheurich guest hosts and shares the personal stories of precarity and uncertainty for non-tenure track and contingent faculty members in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. These participants discuss how the pandemic brought to light pre-existing crises and economic insecurity within academia and share how they are navigating these challenges as instructors. 

 

Announcer:

From Bowling Green State University, and the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society, this is BG Ideas.

Musical Intro:

I'm going to show you this with a wonderful experiment.

Stevie:

Hello, and welcome back to the Big Ideas Podcast, brought to you by the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society and the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University.

Stevie:

I'm Stevie Scheurich, a PhD student in BGSU's American Culture Studies program, and a graduate teaching associate in BGSU's Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies program. I'll be guest hosting this episode, which is part of a mini-series focusing on the National Endowment for the Humanities' sponsored project, "Toward a Pedagogy from Crisis: Adaptive Teaching and Learning at Bowling Green State University during COVID-19."

Stevie:

Due to the ongoing pandemic, we are not recording in the studio, but from home via phone and computer. As always, the opinions expressed on this podcast are those of the individuals involved, and do not necessarily represent those of BGSU or its employees.

Stevie:

Bowling Green State University is located in the Great Black Swamp, long a meeting place of the Wyandot, Shawnee, Lenape, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Fox, Pottawatomie, Erie, Miami, Peoria, Chippewa, and Seneca Indian tribes. We honor the rich history of this land and its indigenous inhabitants, past and present.

Stevie:

For today's episode, we will be doing things a little bit differently. Building on our previous episode, featuring members of the grant team working on Toward a Pedagogy from Crisis, today, I will be talking to the non-tenure track faculty members who participated in the summer camp devoted to reflexive teaching and learning. Campers were comprised of graduate teaching associates and contingent faculty who experienced differing levels of precarity due to their positioning within academia.

Stevie:

Since we here at Big Ideas are big believers in the transformative power of storytelling, this episode will feature members of the Summer Institute sharing their personal experiences of precarity and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 pandemic.

Stevie:

I began by asking everyone about how the pandemic has brought to light preexisting crises and precarity within academia. These crises are disproportionately experienced by people who are Black, Indigenous, people of color, disabled, queer, and working class folks at all levels of academia.

Stevie:

I asked everyone how they saw these inequalities affecting their students and themselves as non-tenure track faculty. Everyone immediately began by reflecting on how their students were being affected. Megan Rancier, an Associate Teaching Professor of Ethnomusicology was concerned by major gaps in access to internet and technology.

Megan:

I think I've definitely noticed those inequalities kind of more outside the university than within it. But I think you're absolutely right that once we kind of all went into crisis mode, all of these obstacles, all of these inequalities, suddenly became much more obvious to people who previously probably were oblivious to them, like me.

Megan:

For example, I'll talk about one thing with faculty and one thing with students, and I'll start with the students because obviously when we shifted everything online, there was this massive assumption that the internet would just solve everything. It won't be any problem. Students are using internet all the time. They're good at it. They know how to use all of these different things. And of course they'll have access, because why wouldn't they?

Megan:

Then, come to find out, everybody was using the university wireless. Well, not everybody, but a lot of people were using university devices, people living in urban spaces, rural spaces, it didn't matter where they were, if they were not on campus, there was no guarantee that they were going to have access to a device or access to a reliable internet, and, in some cases, internet at all.

Megan:

In retrospect, it seems completely bizarre that we would have just made that assumption that everybody would be fine. Within a few days. It became obvious that everything was not fine and students started to fall through the cracks. So that was a huge challenge for everybody. And then you start looking around and realizing how many other challenges students are dealing with. Of you're in an apartment with eight other family members and they're all sharing the same device, or maybe you live in a situation that is not healthy or safe, you have that added challenge.

Megan:

All of a sudden the focus totally shifts from, "we need to make sure the students are doing what they're supposed to be doing, completing their assignments, doing what we ask them to do in our course syllabus, et cetera, et cetera," and all of a sudden we, faculty, are more placed in a situation where we're like, "Hey, are you okay? What do you need? Talk to me. Are you there? I'm worried about you."

Megan:

Suddenly it became a lot more human than I think a lot of faculty are used to being with their students. And that is very challenging, I think, for a lot of faculty, because I think sometimes we go into this sort of default mode of almost a little bit of a oppositional relationship with students, as if they're always trying to outsmart us and we're always trying to anticipate what they're going to try to do to get out of what we're assigning them, blah, blah, blah. And so there's this kind of Tom and Jerry dynamic a little bit.

Megan:

But when we get into that mindset, we forget about each other's mutual humanity, and I think that the COVID crisis and shifting everything to online and realizing the real problems that our students were dealing with outside of coursework, was a real wake-up call for faculty, that I think we needed.

Stevie:

Christopher Witulski is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the College of Musical Arts who teaches ethnomusicology and world music. He's noticed that both the pandemic and the summer's protest for racial justice have prompted a broader discussion about how curriculum design can be used to either promote or push back against colonial and white supremacist structures.

Christopher :

Maybe that's telling that it's not very often that I sit back and think, what would the dream structure be for a system that is more equitable for everybody involved. The fact that that's not a conversation that we have is telling in its own right, and perhaps that's part of the conversation itself.

Christopher :

But no, in my department, we're actually trying to make some changes. I think there are a lot of things that we've noticed related to the COVID crisis in the spring, the shifty online learning too, and then also the issues, the obvious foregrounding of racial disparities and inequities that happened over the summer, obviously that extended far past that, but that became really clear and really focused in the national consciousness over the summer.

Christopher :

That's turned into, I don't know about other fields, but across music studies that's been something that every part of musical studies has been grappling with, this history of white supremacy, why we value what we value, what we teach, why we teach what we teach, how we do it. Because at the end of the day, it's all choices that we're making. We're valuing certain ideas and valuing certain content.

Christopher :

I personally don't care if you know Mozart's birthday, but this is a conversation I've been having with my students for a different class, how can you take these ideas about history and thread them into something that's relevant and compelling and helps us to understand the experiences that we are having here and now? How do we understand? When I teach world music, how do we look to other people around the world and see how they're interacting with music and each other, and use that to understand ourselves?

Christopher :

Maybe that's a little selfish, but how can we look at something that feels different, because that's what a lot of teaching is, you're introducing new ideas, and then using that to better reimagine ourselves?

Stevie:

Some of the people I talked to focused on how the pandemic's highlighting of existing inequalities has given us an unprecedented opportunity for improvement. Tiffany Scarola, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the English Department sees the pandemic and the major shifts in educational approaches that it requires as an opportunity for expanding and accelerating the work that has already been done to build just and equitable classrooms.

Tiffany:

I feel like for both me and my students it's been equally set, but I mean, there's always going to be issues in any form of education, whether it be higher education or K-12 learning, because people are becoming more comfortable with embracing their identities, which they should. We have accessibility now as opposed to it being disability previously, and we have the LGBTQI community. Especially BG, it being a safe zone, safe campus, things like that.

Tiffany:

It's just the fact that people are becoming more comfortable, but it's still this slow moving arch, because we just don't know what people are going to become comfortable with once they kind of define their identity. But before I definitely feel like a lot of those particular issues that students struggled with, especially with regards to identity, not just so much as in gender or binary identity, but in terms of having disability requirements and stuff like that, students with dyslexia, or I have a student who requires to be able to actually see my mouth physically to be able to listen to lecture, because I forget what it is that causes that, but that kind of need is something that I never would have thought of, especially now with having to wear my face partially covered when I do a physical lecture.

Tiffany:

But I definitely think some good has actually come out of the pandemic because now we're kind of, and I don't want to use the word forced, but it seems like the only term I can kind of use. We have to confront it and we have to realize it in a real way and in an immediate way. And some of the stuff that we've had to do to accommodate just kind of the general student population has very much had a positive effect.

Stevie:

While everyone was mostly focused on how the crisis was affecting their students, with a little encouragement I was able to get them to share how the crisis was affecting them as non-tenure track faculty members.

Megan:

Of course faculty were going through their own challenges. So shifting from the students to the faculty themselves, I think most of us are in the privileged position of not having to worry about equipment and reliable internet as much, although that is still a challenge for a number of faculty, especially part-time faculty who don't enjoy a full-time salary, let's face it. And they also have job precarity, as you mentioned, to worry about.

Megan:

I saw numerous examples of people trying to teach from home, but they had their kids there. Their kids were home from school and they're trying to juggle 50 different things. I mean, I realized how incredibly lucky I am to have what I have, just a quiet space. I don't have children so I didn't have to worry about that. And I completely sympathize with people who do because that just seems like such an impossible task. But yeah, a lot of pressure placed on faculty to suddenly come up with this completely new way of teaching that a lot of faculty just really were not prepared for.

Megan:

It makes sense. I mean, so many things you take for granted, just sitting in a room and talking to another person, you don't realize how easy it is until you're trying to replicate that experience through a screen with buttons and apps, and all of a sudden you realize, oh my gosh, I took this simple thing so much for granted, where I could say something and look at the other person to see if they understand, and now I can't even do that. That's such a simple thing, such a human thing, that technology really cannot fully replicate.

Megan:

The pedagogical experience, like pedagogy itself, is so dependent on that basic human interaction that I think a lot of us are still kind of struggling to figure out how to replicate that.

Stevie:

All of the campers I spoke with noted that the COVID crisis and the summer camp have encouraged them to bring a vulnerability and approachability that has helped them build stronger community in both their virtual and face-to-face classes. Here's Elena Aponte, Adjunct Instructor of Women's Studies and Academic Writing.

Elena::

I think struggling with community was kind of an issue beforehand. It still is now, but I think post pandemic, we're a little more in this together. And I think difficult in terms of personal issues, my teaching persona and being a teacher has incredibly changed since the pandemic. And that's one of the things that the summer camp really helped with too, is just allowing us to be more vulnerable and allowing us to really engage more as a community with students, whether that's making sure to let them know that this is a safe classroom or just simply reaching them on a more personal level with the different things you can do as a teacher.

Stevie:

And here's Chris Witulski.

Christopher :

I think I have, but I'm not sure if it's a change from the student side or if it's a change that results out of my own thinking as I shifted during the camp. There were a couple of elements of the camp that I really appreciated, especially starting... The idea of creating a space for learning is not a super novel idea for online teaching. But for instance, I remember there was a moment in the camp where some of the assigned listening was about vulnerability and humanization and sort of humanizing yourself and trying to allow the students to be human as well. And that goes beyond the basic, here are a handful of strategies for icebreakers and building communities. It gets beyond that in a way.

Christopher :

For many students, maybe it doesn't. Maybe it doesn't matter. But I feel like I hope it does. Sort of being more human, being a real person, being vulnerable, being comfortable with that, sort of sitting within that and existing there. So yeah, in that sense, I do feel like there has been a change. I hope it's something that's reflected in the way the students are perceiving things.

Stevie:

Some campers have also noted that as much as technology can be a barrier, it can also help build a relaxed and supportive learning environment. Here's Elena Aponte again.

Elena::

I think allowing them talking via chat is often really fun too. Because if you spend a lot of time online or interacting with each other like that, it is really fun. So it's been fun to teach that way too. And they are kind of way more supportive. I know in my office we have the motion sensor lights and sometimes if I'm lecturing my lights will just turn off. So they're used to me waving my hands at some point during the lecture to turn the lights back on, and they're really supportive about that.

Stevie:

Speaking of technology making and breaking barriers, Tiffany Scarola shared with me how she used Snapchat to help reach students who only have access to classes through their phones.

Tiffany:

In the spring, when we were first to go all remote, I had one of those students who was using his phone a lot for schoolwork, and I decided to use Snapchat as a mode of communication with my students. And I kind of sent it as a joke, "You guys can hit me up on Snapchat." And a bunch of them were like, "No, I really need it, because I have terrible internet, or I have unreliable internet, but my phone data works so much better."

Tiffany:

At the end of the semester, several of them remarked to me, "If you hadn't used Snapchat to send out messages about class, I never would have known when some stuff was due or I never would have known class announcements or never would have known these updates."

Stevie:

I concluded all of my interviews by asking the campers to share with me their wildest dreams about how this crisis could serve to restructure academia into a more just and equitable environment for both instructors and students. Answers ranged from changes in individual teaching practices to broad changes at every level of education in the United States. Tiffany Scarola emphasized the radical importance of bringing transparency to academia.

Tiffany:

This is something that I truly do value, pandemic or no, but definitely the pandemic I think would provide us the opportunity to embrace this, is transparency for real and not the manifestation, the falsity of it. I mean, because transparency is a real thing and people say the word, but they don't live the word sometimes with certain things. And I just feel like, if not now, when are you going to do it?

Tiffany:

Because that's how we break the barriers and realize that all of those members of those underrepresented groups can participate. If we are truly embracing transparency, then those groups will feel included. Of course, people identifying by their proper pronoun, all those things are so acceptable and great and I love that and let's keep doing that, but that's not all we need to do to create a completely equitable society, either in academia or outside of academia.

Tiffany:

I just hear the word transparency used in meetings and it's just like, but you guys don't fully embrace it, and that's part of why there's still a disconnect and why your students aren't getting the material, is because you aren't fully being transparent.

Tiffany:

I, for as long as I've been teaching, I think I've been teaching now at this level since, I want to say, like 2013 was my first year teaching academically at college level, and I have always tried to embrace the idea of transparency before it was a thing. Letting my students know about the things that I struggled with in school and the things that I struggle with as an instructor, letting them know, "Guys, I really messed up this one lecture thing from the other day, so forgive me. Let me backtrack on this," and stuff like that.

Tiffany:

Just being actually open with them, even down to how I design my Canvas shelves. When I do it, I put everything out there for them all at once, and I tell them, yeah, it's going to be scary and intimidating, but at least you know everything that you're getting into. And I try to make it so everything is just in the modules and they can just go on down the line and there's no, here's your to-do list for the week, here's this separate window where you can get all these readings from. It's like, here's all the readings and they're listed in the schedule in this order, so literally all you have to do is go down the line. Here's the assignment for this week and just go on down the line. As opposed to making them dig for the content.

Tiffany:

There's a time and a place where they should be doing that for source acquisition and stuff like that, but a truly transparent classroom means that we recognize all of those things and we allow our students to see that we are not infallible, because that's a big part of the problem with not just the underrepresented groups, but with the groups that are widely represented. They still feel that there's this really big distinction between the fact that we're in front of the room and they're on that side of the room.

Tiffany:

At one point, we were all on that side of the room and we need to recognize the real struggles of what happens on that side of the room, regardless of race, gender identity, any of those things. And it starts with us acknowledging the things that we have struggled with ourselves.

Tiffany:

Right now, people are more willing than ever to talk about things that they're struggling with, but we still could do more. In an ideal utopian society, yeah, it would be to not just say that I believe in transparency and to say that I create a safe space, to actually live up to saying the words. Because there's a big difference between saying that you embrace it and actually demonstrating it to your students. That's how you get through to them, and that's how you overcome crisis, whether it be in your education or in the real world. It's all the same.

Stevie:

Chris Witulski focused on the need for universities to build flexibility into their structures to encourage experimentation and to make systemic change easier.

Christopher :

This is something that I wish we were better at, but there are a lot of structural, really firm, multi-level structural boundaries to being able to make the kinds of changes that I think would be really helpful, whether it's in the area, in the department, in the field of study, in the classroom, at the university.

Christopher :

I think the hardest part... See, I don't even have an answer to what I would imagine a dream situation to be, because I'm having a hard time imagining beyond the boundaries that exist, you know? But I feel like oftentimes there are solutions that seem really clear and really straightforward, but then there are boundaries to implementing those that are frustrating and I think the sheer degree of frustration that exists keeps those boundaries in place. Those things prevent people from being able to carry out the kinds of changes that would make a difference.

Christopher :

In terms of a structure, I would love to see a more flexible university. I would love to see a more flexible system. We're trying to do that a little bit in our area. I would love to see stronger online systems. I would love it whenever I take an online class, I learned a lot because there were good things that I wanted to use instead of, I took this online class and I learned a lot because being a student in it was really awful for some reason. The camp was actually was an excellent example of something that gave a lot of models of how you can do this better. But a lot of times when I've taken online classes, they've been really painful.

Christopher :

I would love to see more flexibility for instructors, for the university, for structures, for students, more options, more ways to engage things, more ways to understand the ideas that we're trying to get across, more opportunity for choosing your own adventure, but not in a way that just sort of fits you within a different administrative structure instead, which is what it often turns into. You know what I mean? So a way to do that in a real powerful way at the core of imagining what the school is.

Christopher :

What that looks like, I don't know. I'd have to sit down for a little while and jot some notes down.

Stevie:

Elena Aponte emphasized how hiring more Black, Indigenous, and POC instructors will positively impact Black, Indigenous, and POC students.

Elena::

I think the sense of humanity is really important, and if I was going to look to the future, I would definitely hope that that sense of humanity is put to the forefront too. And again, going back to my personal things in terms of justice and equity, making sure not to teach students a history of anything that's whitewashed.

Elena::

Because in the Pathways Program, I do have quite a bit of students who are students of color, are first-time, first-generation students, and they may not be expecting their professors to even acknowledge that or understand that, and so I want to be able that I can.

Elena::

It does frustrate me that I am, even though I'm half Puerto Rican, I'm still white, I'm also half white, so it's frustrating that I do have to teach students of color their history in some way. That is frustrating. So my hope for the future would be that there's more opportunities for professors of color to teach everything they want to teach, but also to teach students a history from their own perspective too.

Elena::

I know we're seeing stuff with like the University of Chicago is offering, it's been a while since I've read the article, but they're offering this program specifically for Black scholars and they're getting a lot of pushback for it because they're saying, well, you're shutting out a huge demographic of students, et cetera, et cetera. But if we're looking at the world around us, it makes sense for them to want more Black scholarship, especially if we need to understand these issues for those of us who can't, or didn't before. So that's also something I'd like to see moving forward in terms of justice and equity, recognizing the Black, Indigenous, people of color, and that community and making more opportunities for them without making them feel guilty either.

Stevie:

Elena also pointed out the importance of equitable pay for non-tenure track faculty.

Elena::

From a completely personal standpoint, more opportunities for adjunct professors as well. Better pay. Access to healthcare. I think adjunct professors do a lot of the majority of teaching core classes for universities. Same thing with graduate students. Graduate students teach a lot of core classes as well. They just need to be more publicly recognized for the work that they do.

Elena::

We're well-educated individuals. A lot of us have masters degrees as well. And we're doing this because we love to teach, or we love the discipline that we've learned in, so it's only fair that we should get a little more recognition over what we do at the university, which I think will happen in time, for sure.

Stevie:

Finally, Megan Rancier pointed out the importance of equitably funding education at all levels.

Megan:

Now, if we're talking about my wildest dream, I would want to make university education free. I would want it to be accessible to everybody. And that would also require all the K-12 schools to be adequately resourced and equitably resourced, so that students come in with the same levels of preparation. Which, if you teach in any university, you realize that they are not. So that would be my wildest dream. Equal resource allocation to all K-12 schools, free college for everybody, adequate funding.

Megan:

My God, if you look at the decline in the state share of instruction to public universities, the institutions that the state is supposed to be supporting so that it has an educated workforce that can then go into good jobs so that they can then pay their taxes and fund everything that we need in the state, it's shocking how that funding has declined over the past few decades.

Megan:

I would love for this crisis to be a wake up call to state legislators, and even federal legislators, to reinvest in public education, because we need it. And we've seen how the pandemic has highlighted all of these inequities.

Megan:

But what my fear is, is that it might do completely the opposite, because we've had this economic downturn as a result of the pandemic and the knee jerk reaction seems to be, well, we've got to cut this, we've got to cut that. All of a sudden we're in austerity mode, when that is very short-term thinking. If we're thinking in the long-term, we need to be investing in education even more.

Megan:

Not to get on a soapbox or anything, but because of what I saw with inequal access to technology and resources during the shift in spring 2020, I would just like for that not to be an issue, those just simple barriers to an education. And again, it's true at the K-12 level as well.

Megan:

Every child, every student should have equal access and equal opportunity to the tools and resources that they need in order to have a shot at being successful. Because otherwise the inequalities will simply compound on each other and the gaps will become wider. We need to change the direction of the funding situation in education. So I don't know if that was a dream or a dystopia that I just painted for you.

Stevie:

With that, I'll leave you all to mull over your own dreams and ideas about what can be done to build a more just and equitable academia and educational environment for all.

Stevie:

I want to thank everyone who spoke with me for this episode. Listeners can keep up with the Tour to Pedagogy from Crisis Project and other ICS happenings by following us on Twitter and Instagram @icsbgsu and on our Facebook page.

Stevie:

You can listen to Big Ideas wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred platform.

Stevie:

Our producers are Chris Cavera and Marco Mendoza, with sound editing by Marco Mendoza. Support for this episode was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funded the grant project, Toward a Pedagogy from Crisis: Adaptive Teaching and Learning at Bowling Green State University during COVID-19.

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