At this point in the semester, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t feeling burnt out by the conditions of online learning.
Both students and faculty have struggled greatly to adjust to virtual classrooms, heavy screen time and business-as-usual expectations within the midst of a global pandemic. As students, it can be hard at times to sympathize with faculty. This is especially true when we experience instructors who directly contribute to our feelings of powerlessness and marginalization within the institution.
However, in the time of COVID, it is critical to realize that these cyclical harms will continue until we understand that the under-resourcing and over-extension of faculty is fundamentally a student issue.
Faculty burnout isn’t just anecdotal — we have real evidence of increased workloads and stress levels. At the Board of Governors meeting, we learned through the tenure track faculty COVID-19 survey that faculty are experiencing substantial increases in teaching and service workloads, as well as caregiving responsibilities. 73 per cent of faculty respondents also reported that stress, anxiety and sadness have reduced their ability to work through the pandemic.
We also learned recently that insurance claims for anti-depressants for faculty and staff have increased by 15 per cent within this pandemic. These rates could easily be attributed to simply existing in a pandemic and fielding endless requests for academic concessions from students in distress, but it’s most certainly exacerbated by individual teaching loads currently at 145–150 per cent of standard for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.
Recent examples of university ‘support’ for faculty — like the hurried announcement and submission deadline for a long-overdue $400 desk/chair reimbursement or the insinuation that the employee & family assistance program is a main source of support — demonstrate that it has been trying to reach a comically low bar.
What these findings don’t tell us is the ways that these conditions and stressors have manifested in the classroom for students. Student social media platforms, like the UBC subreddit, are full of screenshots of harsh emails, complaints about unreachable professors and untimely assessment feedback.
With the information we have about the conditions faculty are working within, this should hardly be shocking. We need to move beyond interpreting faculty short fuses and shortcomings as a personal offence and understand it as what it truly is: an unavoidable human response to structural squeezing and exploitation of labour. When faculty members are being spread unreasonably thin by the university, this exhaustion subtly manifests in the classroom and unintentionally impacts students' learning experiences.
This isn’t to say that unreasonable and uncompassionate behaviour from faculty is ultimately excused — far from it. There will always be lines that are crossed and using a systems approach does not absolve individuals of the harm that they have caused. However, if we want to be able to stop reproducing the same harm, it’s time to move beyond pointing fingers at individual faculty members and instead consider sharpening our focus on poor working conditions and executive decisions that have exacerbated them.
Especially in our isolated COVID contexts, student and faculty advocacy cannot exist in separated silos. It’s time to gather in our shared experiences of powerlessness and unite to create an academic community built on the pursuit of knowledge, and most importantly, the necessary resources and support to do so.
Julia Burnham is a graduate student in the Department of Educational Studies, student senator and former AMS VP Academic and University Affairs. She is also a former writer for The Ubyssey.