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Some lecturers face pandemic-related challenges, but online instruction going better than expected

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This article is a part of a two-part series investigating the effects of the pandemic on lecturers at Stanford. See the data referenced in the article here.

Some sources were granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation by the University. 

Lecturers report that, while teaching has gone relatively well amid the pandemic, the past year it hasn’t always been easy to navigate challenges in domestic responsibilities and institutional support.

While all faculty and staff are facing COVID-related obstacles, having “so much facetime with students” can make it difficult for some to take advantage of University accommodations — such as having flexible work hours or avoiding meetings on Fridays when there are fixed class times, Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) advanced lecturer Jennifer Stonaker said.

Despite the privilege that Stanford lecturers may have, they are not immune to the negative impacts from the pandemic. Last spring, some reported worrying about their job security. One year later, most lecturers — especially women and caregivers — reported higher levels of stress in an independent survey by The Daily, a trend consistent with findings from a previous survey of professoriate faculty and national observations on the uneven impacts of the pandemic.

The University has offered programs and resources to assist eligible faculty and staff, including COVID flex hours, quarantine pay, the Child Care Subsidy Grant Program and Employee Emergency Assistance Programs: “We realize that the pandemic has placed unprecedented personal and professional stress on every member of the university community,” University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote.

Caregiving difficulties 

Stonaker explained that it has been challenging taking care of two children — one in elementary school and the other in preschool — while they pursue online classes. “Even if she was technically in school, I would just be interrupted constantly,” Stonaker said of her elementary school daughter. “Little kids — they can’t just entertain themselves constantly by themselves. They need stimulation; they need to have interaction with other people.” 

While she was able to split childcare responsibilities with her husband on a daily basis, Stonaker recognizes this option isn’t available to everyone.

Similarly, a female lecturer with two elementary-school-aged children said that both the quality and quantity required of childcare has increased since the pandemic began. “It’s a higher stress type of caregiving than pre-pandemic,” she said. COVID-19 has adversely impacted children’s mental health, as they are unable to attend school and face increased stress levels.

While she said she was lucky to have a relative nearby who could help, it’s still difficult balancing responsibilities. “We’re constantly renegotiating, sometimes hour by hour, every day,” she said. 

She was able to get her department’s permission to work from her office on campus, so she’s able to have some quiet space. Teaching has gone much better than she expected, and she has been able to connect with students online. 

She remains unable to conduct research as planned, however. She hopes that the University will allow people — especially women and parents who have been disproportionately affected — to get more time in facilities to conduct research.

Others found positive aspects to being at home. Computer science lecturer Christopher Gregg’s daughter was born right before the pandemic, and he was able to spend more time with her than he would have otherwise.

Over a year of virtual teaching, however, has not always been easy. “I feel burned out a little bit, and I think a lot of instructors feel a little bit of burnout,” Gregg said. “But the teaching itself has been very good.”

But instructors aren’t just caring for their children. María Cristina Urruela, a Spanish language lecturer at the Language Center, has been taking care of her 91-year-old mother. While the fear of catching COVID remains, the pandemic has brought some silver linings for Urruela, such as being able to spend more time with her mother because classes are on Zoom.

“I’m very lucky that my caregiving is, if you will, for an elderly parent who is by and large okay,” Urruela said.

But she recognizes that others may be facing more challenges: “If you had a parent with dementia, with a lot more demands than my mother has at this particular point, that would be very difficult — and I feel the same way about young children.”

Institutional support 

Stonaker added that while the University has made efforts to support employees, lecturers can be left out. “Academic staff are really like an afterthought — they don’t really consider us as an important category in the University,” she said. “That’s really demoralizing for those of us who are academic staff and who are still working really hard during the pandemic and always.”

Unlike professoriate faculty members, lecturers are ineligible to be on the Faculty Senate or Academic Council, leaving them without direct representation in these bodies.

The Provost’s Committee on Lecturers issued a report in 2018 that found close to 750 lecturers taught over a quarter of the total units at the University during the 2016-17 academic year, yet faced a multitude of obstacles ranging from career advancement to compensation — the “primary and most urgent concern” at the time for benefits eligible lecturers, according to the report.

The 2018 report also found that some lecturers felt they were treated as second-class citizens at the University, and to improve working conditions the Committee recommended “setting the tone from the top” that lecturers are valued.

Many of the recommendations from the Committee are being incorporated into the forthcoming Academic Staff Handbook, including longer appointment term lengths, an advanced lecturer rank, regular performance reviews and greater clarity around appointment renewability, Miranda wrote. 

While the gap between lecturers and faculty existed before the pandemic, it has become more pronounced over the past year, said one lecturer who asked to remain unnamed for fear of professional retaliation. He added that long-standing issues surrounding lecturers have “not been dealt with honestly and forthrightly.” 

He believes that there is a difference between what tenure-track faculty and lecturers bring to the classroom. “You need both — one’s not better than the other,” he said, emphasizing that lecturers can speak to unique experiences and provide expertise that can lead to real-world outcomes for students.

He loves being at Stanford: “I think many of us have continued to teach our classes because we’re devoted to the students, which is 99% of why we’re doing what we’re doing.” But he believes that the University should recognize the challenges lecturers face, and take action.

The University is “profoundly grateful” to all faculty and academic staff members for their hard work, flexibility and understanding as they continue to support students, Miranda wrote. “There is more to do and we continue to develop ways to support our faculty, instructional staff and all members of our community through the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic.”

Teaching experiences  

Lecturers interviewed by The Daily shared that despite technical difficulties in teaching online for the first time, virtual instruction has gone surprisingly well.

While preparing class materials has been a lot of work, “given the circumstances it’s worked out as well as it could have,” Gregg said.

Gregg added that the computer science department helped instructors feel supported during the pandemic. For example, the department let instructors co-teach some of the larger classes, which allowed him to share some of the duties as online class sizes swelled, Gregg said.

Similarly, Stonaker added that PWR has been supportive of lecturers: “Without the support of our program, we would be in a much worse place than we are.” She added her project-based class, capped at 15 people, worked relatively well for students and allowed them to interact with one another.

The Language Center provided voluntary training for online instruction, according to Urruela, which helped with the transition. She added that, while she misses in-person teaching, online instruction has allowed for greater flexibility and increased attendance at office hours.

Spanish lecturer Citlalli Del Carpio said that teaching during the first virtual quarter was challenging without the tools to accommodate online instruction, but also that the situation improved over time.

She added that the pandemic experience has helped teachers “to be more compassionate, to be more flexible, to be more open.” Instead of a hierarchical structure typical in a classroom, Del Carpio said her students became like a team in the face of difficulties.

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Anna Milstein ’23 is a desk editor for Vol. 259 Academic News and a Staff Writer. Contact her at amilstein ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.