• Quirk NLS

Coping With COVID: Faculty Survey




This article was written by Chetan (Batch of 2024), Jwalika (Batch of 2023) and Sreedharan (Batch of 2024). It is based on a survey circulated amongst the faculty about their experience teaching during COVID. We thank Prof. Saurabh for his inputs, comments, and the foreword and conclusion to this piece.

Saurabh Bhattacharjee is an alumnus of NALSAR, Hyderabad and University of Michigan. Before joining, NLSIU, Saurabh taught at NLU Jodhpur and NUJS Kolkata. In his spare time, Saurabh spends his time dabbling with crossword puzzles, maps, cricket stats and listening to Ennio Morricone.

The illustration is by Kajal Jamdare (Batch of 2025).

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a life-changing instance for most of us. Our college experience has taken a 180 degree turn from living in the lush, green, and open campus of Law School to being confined to a room all day, every day. Quirk has so far only chronicled the various aspects of student experiences in the pandemic, with respect to their mental health, dealing with the administration, the comfort of home, online classes, and missing Law School.

However, Quirk also wanted to understand the flipside of the same – the experiences of professors teaching online. We have all heard the requests from professors for us to turn on our videos, have experienced the internet fluctuations from their end, have seen sick and tired professors still teach enthusiastically in class, and have heard snippets of their lives from one or two stray comments. But we don’t really know the extent of the impact of the pandemic on their mental health, teaching, family life, care responsibilities, etc. Therefore, this survey was sent out in the month of May to over 90 professors – all faculty at NLSIU and all visiting / seminar professors who have taught here, and/or are teaching here. We received around 15 responses and while we cannot draw conclusive results from these responses, we feel that they qualitatively cover a good range of different faculty experiences in the pandemic. We have collated the responses to the survey in this piece, hoping that it will be a starting point for students to better empathise with those on the other side of the screen.

To make the piece more personal, we invited Prof. Saurabh Bhattacharjee, who recently joined Law School as an Associate Professor, to include his experience of starting at Law School online, and also comment on the various questions that we asked in the survey.

Foreword by Prof. Saurabh

“…Being a teacher in India is to be a deeply fractured, deeply wounded being, constantly being in throes of transition…” – Upendra Baxi, Teaching as a Provocation in On Being a Teacher (Amrik Singh ed. 1990)

Even though Professor Upendra Baxi had written these more than three decades before the world had heard of COVID-19, one can scarcely think of more appropriate words to describe the experience of teaching in the wake of the pandemic. As various state governments and then the union government imposed lockdowns to slow down the rapid spread of the pandemic and the most quotidian facets of our lives were brought to a halt, educational institutions scrambled to move their academic programmes to online platforms. Not surprisingly, teachers were caught in this maelstrom amidst the uncertainty, stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

I must confess, though, that I had initially welcomed work-from-home and online teaching. In fact, in an uncharacteristic act of foresightfulness, I had purchased a second internet connection at home a week before the announcement of the closure of educational institutions by the West Bengal Government. Saving the time on commute meant that I would have more time for writing and my physiotherapy regimen. I had also experimented with project-viva, consultations, and group discussions over Skype in 2014-2015 while caring for my father who was terminally ill. So, I had felt that online teaching would be nothing new. But it soon became evident that I could not have been more wrong. Indeed, my assessment turned out to be as far off the mark as that of the US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Lewis Strauss, who had optimistically said in 1954 that nuclear power would soon be ‘too cheap to meter.’ As the national lockdown was imposed and classes and exams began on online platforms, it did not take too long to appreciate the numerous technological, pedagogic, physiological, and psychological challenges posed by online teaching – and that was exacerbated by our household responsibilities. Indeed, as a neuro-divergent person, the need to multi-task and simultaneously handle care-work at home while also cope with the demands of work-from-home became a source of cognitive and sensory overload.

The questions and the responses in this survey provide us with a rundown of the myriad hurdles that professors had to cross in the transition from the classroom to Zoom. Even though there may be legitimate methodological concerns about the number of responses, they do provide a very vivid snapshot of the diverse sources of anxiety and difficulties confronting teachers and constitute valuable material for the University community to reflect on as it moves toward re-opening of physical classes.

Coping With Covid: A snapshot of professors’ experiences in the pandemic

  1. How are you doing right now?

  1. How easy was it to transition from physical to online classes?

(1 being very easy, 5 being very difficult)

  1. How does it feel to teach students online? Please use three words/phrases to describe the same.

  1. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the transition period / continue to face now?

Majority of the professors believe the lack of student-teacher interactions to be the biggest challenge they face in an online form of teaching. These interactions are the essence of the experience of teaching. Instead of walking around, using the blackboard, reading the students’ faces and engaging in natural free-flowing dialogue, professors are forced to sit in front of a blank screen without having any idea as to who the students are and whether they are understanding, keeping up or even paying attention to the class. It becomes very difficult for them to connect with the students, motivate them and ensure participation and interaction in the class. This makes teaching a very mechanical process and takes away the joy of its human experience.

Moreover, due to COVID’s impact on the health of the professors and their family, it becomes all the more difficult for them to teach in such a detached manner and stay put for two hours. They are forced to push through and teach the students, while grieving a death, enduring physical discomfort, looking after their family’s health and responsibilities, managing connection and technical issues, etc.

“I have had days where I have felt the strong urge to give up in the middle of the lecture hour, turn off my video, and take a break from the pressure to keep up the performance.”

  1. How have your energy levels been since we first went online (March 2020) to now (May 2021)?

(1 being very low, 5 being very high)

  1. How has your efficiency been from March 2020 to now, May 2021?

(1 being very poor, 5 being very high)

  1. How has it been balancing your personal commitments and your home life along with teaching online? Please factor in changes in working hours, concentration levels, communication with students/other faculty, and especially COVID situations.

Some professors mentioned that they found it easier to teach from home as they could avoid the tiring commute within Bangalore, and also had more time to themselves to focus on their writing. However, most commented that it has been very difficult balancing their personal commitments and home life working online. One professor said,  It’s like the meme, “It’s no longer work from home, it’s living at work’’. Some of them mentioned that they had kids who were also attending online classes. Keeping the kids entertained and helping them with their schoolwork, while navigating both their and their partner’s work commitments at the same time was next-to-impossible.

Mainly, professors indicated that especially when any family members or even the professors themselves were down with COVID, they felt stretched out physically and emotionally with care responsibilities, looking for hospitals, arranging medical assistance, and managing fear, anxiety and stress from all quarters. Many professors also had to deal with deaths in the family, which was very taxing because classes had to be navigated alongside coordinating funerals, making payments to the hospital, informing relatives, etc. Apart from all of this, almost all professors identified anxiety and stress as crippling, especially during the time of the second wave. “The second wave, and just knowing what is going on around you just killed my enthusiasm to do anything.” However, understanding these feelings and experiencing them also made some professors more empathetic to students. “My priorities have changed. I communicate with students only if they feel the need to, I have not set any deadlines without consulting them.”

Two professors remarked that they failed to find words that could articulate how they were feeling. “I wish I had the strength to speak about the sense of helplessness that has crept in with the second wave and the impact that the losses have had. I do not think I have processed that yet.”

  1. Were you or any of your close friends/family members affected by COVID?

  1. If yes, how did this impact your work as a Professor? Even if the answer was no, do tell us if you and your work were indirectly impacted by COVID.

Very few professors felt that their work commitments were minimally impacted by COVID. For most, work was hugely affected during the times when people fell ill.

First, the impact was immediate in the sense of all the regular management responsibilities that come with COVID positive members at home. One professor mentioned that they couldn’t engage in a lecture for three weeks due to COVID and care responsibilities, but luckily the co-professor stepped in and managed the class. Second, the impact was compounded by the fear and grief that continued when one or more of their family members got admitted to the hospital and unfortunately passed away. Especially for professors not staying with their families, it was even more stressful monitoring their family’s health from afar. Those who lived abroad experienced a sense of dissonance between their physical and virtual locations. “I struggled to cope with the fact that life outside my room was forging ahead, whereas the life in my phone was coming crashing down.”

A term that was used in response to this question that we think captures the crux of the various answers is ‘destabilising’. Professors write that besides teaching, there is a lot of emotional work involved when they are dealing with students. The impact was especially intensified by the news of students and their families getting affected. Some felt almost incapable of being of any help – in offering solutions or even lending an ear. “To be honest, nothing would make sense and I couldn’t get myself to do anything.”

To sum it up, as one professor said, “COVID in general made me question, what are we really trying to do in a University, pretending everything is normal…”

Note from Prof. Saurabh: We were fortunate that NUJS was on a break during the peak of the second wave. I lost an aunt, and an uncle was admitted in the ICU for several days. I would not have been able to take any class then, had the term still been on. Nor would it have been fair to expect students to be there when they were experiencing similar losses.

  1. What forms of support do you have access to – in terms of your mental health? Please mention both formal and informal support systems?

Friends, family, and supportive colleagues are the most common responses to this question, noting that they provided both emotional and physical support. Some professors sought professional therapy outside of work, which helped them personally.

Those professors who teach abroad and are merely visiting faculty here, mentioned that their universities played a huge role by offering free counselling services, and medical insurance, and reducing the academic burden during the pandemic. The foreign colleges also provided ample leave, for sickness, care responsibilities, as well as bereavement.

Note from Prof. Saurabh: I felt that the support structure that NLSIU administration has been able to institute during the pandemic is an impressive step forward. Being a neurodivergent person, the transition from Kolkata to Bangalore worsened some of my sensory issues and I, for one, am very grateful for the arrangement the University has with InnerHour. While I understand that this is largely aimed at students, I am sure, as I have, many Faculty would find it useful too.

  1. How much did your teaching style change online?

(1 representing very little change, and 5 representing great change)

  1. If the answer to the previous question was between 3 and 5, how did you formulate this style?

Most of the professors found their suited method of teaching through trial and error. They revised and changed their pedagogy throughout the pandemic by mainly relying on: (a) student’s feedback forms, (b) articles regarding online teaching, and (c) advice shared by teaching faculty from around the world on social networking sites. Many professors also felt that, unlike offline classes, which are more in the form of discussions and open lectures, online teaching was like a performance. They had to devise ways to suit the online platform while at the same time keep it interesting and relatable in order to grab and hold the students’ attention. This involved the use of a lot of visual aids, like power-point presentations, videos, movies, remodelling courses to mainly address the COVID pandemic itself, etc. Certain professors even had to resort to taking attendance and cold calling students to determine whether attention is being paid to their lectures. In spite of this, many professors felt that they still couldn’t bring in a personal touch to their teaching. They had to spend a lot of time with these logistical and technical issues due to which they could no longer make small talk, joke around or even informally interact with the students.

“Now that I have to sit in one place, I’ve started taking copious notes to keep my brain active throughout the class. So these are the two big alterations in my teaching style. A third minor alteration that I’m beginning to adopt now (with good results) is to cut the small talk and get straight to the discussion.”

  1. How would you evaluate your online teaching style as opposed to the physical classes, in terms of learning outcomes/student response?

(1 being poor learning outcomes/student response, 5 being great learning outcomes/student response)

  1. Please rate the following.

  2. Effect of the pandemic on students’ performance.

(1 being the pandemic affecting students’ performance negatively, and 5 being the pandemic affecting students’ performance positively)

  1. To what extent have you changed your expectations from students?

(1 being no changed expectations, 5 being completely different expectations due to the pandemic)

  1. What are three things you miss most about physical college?

The most common thing that professors miss about physical college is the same thing that everyone around the world has been deprived of for the past year and a half – physical, human interaction, not just limited to human interaction, but also with the college campus.

First, almost all professors miss their interactions with students both inside and outside the class. Professor-student interactions not only build the class rapport as a whole, but also greatly improve the quality of learning and discussion. The absence of ‘warmth’ is a recurring theme in the responses to the different questions asked in the survey. Professors miss live student reactions to jokes, questions, comments and their lectures generally. “Being able to know if my audience appreciated my stand up performance – I miss the real time feedback.”

They find it difficult to comprehend the level of interest and understanding correctly in online classes. They also miss the out-of-class interactions such as one-on-one engagement with the students, particularly with those who feel more comfortable asking questions and giving comments privately instead of speaking up in class. “Interacting with students face-to-face; monitoring of class performance easily; immediacy of interaction i.e., there is no one to laugh when you tell a joke.”

Second, they miss interacting with their colleagues – from having academic conversations to random chit chat to drinking chai/coffee with them in the canteens.

Third and final, our professors miss everything about the NLS campus, like the classrooms, canteens, open spaces, trees, lawns, the walkway to the academic block, and especially our iconic library.

Note from Prof. Saurabh: For me, University had been one of the few social spaces where I have been comfortable. The office had also acted as a refuge from sensory overload. The absence of that safe space was very debilitating for me.

  1. What changes would you like to see from the administration and the students’ side to make this process easier for you as well?

With respect to students:

Many professors mentioned that students keeping their videos on would help greatly – it would be more personal, and professors can take cues from students’ expressions. These professors did acknowledge that we are in classes from morning to evening and may not feel like turning on videos, but their request was for at least 25% of the class to turn on their videos if data permitted. Professors also felt that more student participation would be encouraging even for them to continue teaching enthusiastically.

Professors also mentioned that there should be more formal student feedback mechanisms and constant meetings with student representatives so that they can understand concerns and brainstorm solutions together.

With respect to the administration:

One professor mentioned providing a dongle for all faculty members would be helpful so that videos can be on which is necessary for classes. They also requested the administration to help all individual faculty (including those not in research centres) for fundraising for research. A book allowance to buy books which cannot be accessed from the library or allowing books to be couriered to teachers would also be useful.

Several professors have commented that the marking scheme should be re-thought during these times. One professor suggested a radical solution, “Reduce teaching hours; reimagine assessments by scrapping exams; increase peer support arrangements for faculty and other staff; give short mid-trimester breaks for recuperation.”

Note from Prof. Saurabh: There was indeed a need for greater creativity and flexibility in redesigning the assessments and teaching load. I suspect that both at NUJS and NLSIU, more could have been done on that front. Though, to be fair to the administration, the regulatory directions from UGC and BCI did tie their hands.

A few professors also talked about the university introducing a faculty/staff support emergency fund and increasing the medical insurance cover.

One professor has succinctly captured the spirit underlying all these suggestions, “Kindness and empathy towards oneself and others. I don’t know about changes but when everyone is just trying to survive and coping at so many levels, maybe that’s the most important thing one needs.”

  1. Any other suggestions/feedback/comments? Any message you would like to convey to the students?


Conclusion by Prof. Saurabh

If there is one thing that this survey throws up, it is how exhaustion and anxiety have been almost universally felt. Whereas interaction with the students during in-person lectures and seminars would often energise teachers, the impersonal nature of virtual teaching and the stress of managing erratic internet and slow computers left many of us completely drained by the end of our lectures. The detached and mechanical nature of the exercise not only impeded dialogue that is essential to a classroom but also took away some of the most gratifying elements of teaching.

The responses also show the different levels of comfort (or the lack of it) with the digital medium and the anxiety it caused for professors. As the Faculty Coordinator of the IT-Network Support at the NUJS, I had witnessed the struggle that many of the senior Faculty had in adjusting to the demands of technology. Not that it was significantly easier for those more familiar with online tools. Despite my own previous experience with the online medium, evolving appropriate methods for core courses and seminar courses took considerable experimentation, time, and patience. Further, the move from NUJS to NLSIU during the pandemic also entailed a transition from Google Meet to Zoom (and Microsoft Teams for a few Executive Education programmes.) Additionally, the switch also entailed adapting to different protocols that had been instituted around online classes and meetings in the two universities. The I-T support team at NLSIU was very helpful and I was pleased to learn that some of the soul-sapping tasks like the creation of meeting/class links and records of attendance had been taken off the shoulders of the Faculty. Yet, I must confess to some bit of diffidence caused by the automatic recording of Faculty meetings as also the instances of IT staff intruding into online lectures.

The challenge of adapting our pedagogic methods to the online format has perhaps been more formidable than the technological constraints was. The oft-repeated quip that teaching is a lot like a performing art has never been more apt as teachers had to evolve methods of hold the attention of students. However, many of these challenges also provided new opportunities. While the task of adapting our teaching methods to the online format was daunting, it also made us reflect much more deeply about pedagogy. As it became evident that online classes cannot mimic physical classes, we had to dig deep, think about different pedagogic techniques and experiment with a variety of tools to identify the method that was best suited to the objectives of the course as well as the constraints of digital format. Admittedly, some of the experiments turned out to be spectacular failures. Nonetheless, as this report notes, through a process of trial and error, most of the professors did evolve methods that worked the best for them. Consequently, the shift to online learning and teaching has opened up new spaces for those seeking to reimagine learning and pedagogy in law school.

One of the most exacting parts of teaching during the pandemic was balancing professional responsibilities with care-work at home. While the absence of the commute to campus was genuinely liberating for many, those with kids or ageing parents, struggled to straddle the professional and personal sphere. As this report shows, managing work at the time of the second wave of the pandemic when many of us lost family members and friends to COVID-19 was particularly harrowing. These difficulties have also foregrounded the need for institutional support for mental health. At a time when access to mental health professionals in India is expensive and uneven, institutional arrangements on part of the Universities would be critical for the well-being of their faculty and staff.

However, what has been truly agonising as a teacher is the challenge of working out the right mix of rigour and relaxation of academic expectations during online teaching. As the responses show, many teachers understood the need for greater empathy and kindness towards students who were also struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic and were worn out by online learning and the isolation of the prolonged lockdown Yet, the imperatives of academic rigour also meant that many difficult decisions had to be taken. Did we work out an appropriate modus vivendi or did we swing from one extreme to the other? One hopes, to borrow from the former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, that the posterity will judge us kindly on this.

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