College Faculty: Forget Next Fall. Assign Less Now.

So much is out of our control right now. From virus transmission to economic stability, there are more questions than answers. In higher education, the biggest question is whether to re-establish traditional university life on campuses in the fall. For those of us who are university faculty, that outcome is largely beyond our control. There is one thing we faculty can control now, however: the experience of our students during these last few weeks of spring semester. This month, nearly half the 2480 undergraduate students at Trinity University answered a “Student-to-Student Academic Stress” survey that a student, Rachel Kaufman (no relation), and I created. Their message to faculty: slow down. In this last bit of the semester, the way to promote the intellectual, physical, and emotional health of college students, is for faculty to ease up on school work.

Trinity University is a liberal arts school in San Antonio TX, with a relatively well-to-do student body. Less than twenty percent of students receive Pell grants — federal monies for students from especially impoverished households — making Trinity low on “economic diversity.” And lucky as most of our students are, even they are suffering. After abrupt ejection from college dorms, students reported unsafe conditions at their families’ homes due not only to COVID-19, but also anti-LGBTQ violence, bullying from family members, and housing insecurity. Those students lucky enough to have secure homes are suffering *only* with the concerns that plague most humans right now; as one student said, they are worrying about “their own health, the health of their families, and the world at large.” Like us “mature” folks, these emerging adults are shouldering increased care responsibilities, employment pressures, and real fear about an unclear future.

And yet, many faculty do not seem to recognize their pain, our students said. “Teachers seem to think that since we are at home with nothing to do that they should give us more work than normal,” one reported on the survey. “But we have more responsibilities and distractions.” “We are not really studying from home,” wrote another; “we are students during a global health crisis trying to still get an education.” If Trinity students are telling us this, imagine what students at less wealthy schools are saying.

The relationship between college students and the adults responsible for their education is a strange one. Faculty are not employers, friends, aunties, or peers. Some universities emphasize the in loco parentis aspect of the faculty-student relationship, that precarious stand in for the parent-child bond, while other universities treat students as consumers with the right to demand their money’s worth. Either way, faculty offer more than knowledge about sociology, physics, or art. We model adulthood, and like it or not, we also model interpersonal relationships.

The sudden shift away from campus life has raised college administrator’s hackles. Especially at places like Trinity, whose brand depends on the appeal of idyllic settings with intimate classrooms, administrators are fearful of students choosing not to return. Some of the campus’s best qualities cannot be reproduced online, and as a solution, even my supportive, equity-minded administrators email us en masse saying things like: Adhere to the high academic standards we are known for! Do not stop teaching! But I fear these are the wrong aspects of faculty-student relationships to emphasize.

The vast majority of the students in our survey pleaded with us to teach less and empathize more. “Learning should be done in a way that doesn’t cultivate more anxiety,” one told us. “It’s really ok to cut down some assignments!” “The university must understand what this type of situation does to our mental and physical health,” said another. “It’s super hard to focus or feel like schoolwork is important when people are dying, so please be kind.” Cut down group projects, research projects, new material, and for goodness sake, please don’t ask us to take timed exams when we have no privacy and over-burdened wifi, they asked. “We’re dying here,” one student said. “Just talk to us. Ask if we’re okay cause we’re not.”

Our students are young, stressed, and exhausted. Like us, there is little they feel that is within their own control right now. So give them less to cope with, fellow faculty. Assign less now.

Sarah Beth Kaufman is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, and author of the book, American Roulette: The Social Life of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials, from University of California Press.

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