An Open Letter to Faculty Teaching Graduate Courses During COVID-19

Dear Faculty Member,

We are not okay.

We are the graduate students who don’t seem to have it too bad, who have places to stay, food on the table, and are still able to pay rent. Our basic needs are met, and we are quick to acknowledge this privilege. But we are not doing well.

We’d hoped that the phrase “this is a pandemic” would be self-explanatory. This doesn’t seem to be the case. We have been told to take advantage of this time, to aspire to be modern-day Shakespeares and Isaac Newtons – never mind that these historical figures never had to contend with emails or Zoom meetings. Professors have assigned us extra work for our “extra time” at home, continued with business as usual, and in some cases, barely acknowledged the pandemic at all.

But isolated in our homes, the pandemic stares us down. We are forced to acknowledge, if not its severity and direct impact, then at least its immediate consequences.

Some of us have children. In addition to being graduate students, teaching assistants, research assistants, and hourly workers of various sorts, we have become K-12 teachers and 24/7 daycare providers overnight. We were not trained for these roles. We were not ready. Much of the time, we worry about doing this thing right, about providing our children with the education and care they deserve. We also worry about making it through the day with enough snacks and activities to minimize work interruptions.

Some of us have partners, spouses, or other family members who work on the front lines of this pandemic. Our loved ones work at hospitals, grocery stores, and post offices. Our society needs them. We need them too, but overtime, exhaustion, and quarantine procedures keep them away and at risk. It’s in these times that we could most use that someone to talk to or shoulder to cry on. Being deemed essential for the survival of others has the unfortunate consequence of being seen as inessential at home.

Some of us have moved back home with parents or households with extended family, siblings, or grandparents. Not all of us have good relationships with these family members. Not all of us have bedrooms reserved for us or a quiet room for Zoom calls. We don’t always have spaces to work, good-enough-quality internet, or uninterrupted time that allows us to focus at the levels required for graduate-level scholarship .

Both isolating and moving have also caused complications in gaining the physical and mental healthcare we need. We no longer have access to our physicians, therapists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, or other health professionals in the same way, or at all. We’re having a hard time getting our regular prescriptions filled. Some of the professionals we rely on cannot practice across state lines. Some of us should have seen these professionals more often, to be honest, but now the barriers have become so high.

Faculty member, we sit in your Zoom class, one of many little boxes on your screen. We turn in assignments on time, or sometimes late. We respond to the many, many emails now flooding our inboxes. We are just as tired as you are of the ones from this or that office of the college or provost or dean or someone somewhere. We play along with the farce that things can proceed as normal.

Off-screen, we cry. We have good days followed by very, very bad days. We stress eat. We can’t eat from the stress. We have eating disorders and the new fixation on food and weight threatens to reverse our progress. We pull ourselves together for your class, for our families, for Zoom meetings, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our anxiety, depression, unhealed grief, and traumas join forces with all our emotions about this pandemic, and sometimes they beat us.

So when we sit down to read books or articles for your class, well, sometimes we can’t see the point. Sometimes we desperately want to see the point; we love your class and we’ve enjoyed the materials. But with books in our laps, we think about our grandparents, who we might not get to see again. We think of our mothers, working at hospitals where they check for fevers because they have no tests for the virus. We start to dwell on how many people will actually die during this pandemic, and how many of them will be people we know.

Then we realize we’ve been staring at the same sentence, that somehow it’s already 6:00 pm, and someone has to cook dinner.

Please understand that this is a pandemic. And that we are not okay.


Your Graduate Students

This letter combines the experiences of multiple graduate students from across the US, perhaps a testament to the wonders and community-building potential of social media. Thank you to the individuals who were willing to share their experiences with me.

6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Faculty Teaching Graduate Courses During COVID-19

  1. Dear Graduate Student:
    Don’t you think that all of those things don’t apply to us faculty members as well? We are trying to do the best we can to give you the best education we can in trying times. After all, you paid for it. And trying to sound like we know what we are doing, provide stability and support, keep life going amid the chaos. And we too have families and problems and sometimes no families and nobody to talk to all day every day except during class time. Remember, we are people, too.

    1. Hi Linda,
      I absolutely agree. There is nothing mutually exclusive about this letter. But it is addressed to faculty members currently teaching graduate courses because they have direct power over students and can exercise it in ways that are kind and understanding. I hope someone – whether senior faculty, department chair, or administrators – is able to do the same for you, if that is needed.

  2. Dea Online Student –

    I have posted repeatedly that I am here to help you through this, that I have been a non-traditional student and while I never experienced something like this, I do know that it is difficult to balance work, life, and academics. I have repeatedly asked to let me know if your situation changes (i.e., additional work hours, additional care giving, etc.) so that I know that you may need extra time on assignments. I have reduced the course load for the semester and removed due dates, final exams, and presentations… all within a few days of the announcement that we were moving online, even though this class was already online. I do not expect synchronous meetings. At the end of every announcement (video and written) and lecture, I remind the class that I can be reached via email, that I am at home working and can respond quickly; that if you need to meet with me, there is a calendly link on the front page of the class in Canvas and in my signature in the emails. And while a few students have reached out to me, I do not know that there is an issue unless I am told.

    I am not here to make your life difficult. I am here to help you succeed, whether we are in a pandemic or not. I have done everything I can to let you know that. But as a grad student, heck, as any student… you have to be wiliing to let me know.

  3. I have been in academia my entire career and on faculty for two decades. Academia is not unlike the private sector in its hierarchy and power leverages; student < faculty < department head < dean < vice president < president. When you are struggling you reach out to your peers on the same level and you reach out to whoever you report to / the person responsible for your education, training, work. In the best of times, faculty instruction and mentoring of graduate students is inconsistent in quality and sensitivity to the needs of the individual student. Cost of education has increased exponentially, causing troubling declines in the value of undergraduate and graduate education. In the best of times graduate students struggle; we all struggle. Now is not the best of times; it is the worst of times. Students should be encouraged to reach out to their instructors, faculty, mentors when they need extra support and understanding. It is the responsibility of the faculty to respond to the student’s needs in the best of times, and especially in the worst of times, with a prompt open mind and, when necessary, some extra sensitivity and flexibility. This is what my own close colleagues and I are now doing more and better than ever. This is why the director of the training committee in my division circulated Ms. Heilman’s very important open letter to the faculty. If I am struggling I will go to my Division Head and she will listen, and she will care. She will not tell me to suck it up because she is struggling, too. So, graduate students, most of us faculty are here for you, please reach out, most of us (I hope) will care, listen, and help. Stay safe, do what you can, and ask for help and guidance.

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