I’ve noticed in various conversations on Twitter that there are some issues with setting boundaries in the context of pandemic teaching conditions. In this post I address a particular issue with asynchronous teaching.
Never in class and never not in class
When you taught synchronously in a particular kind of space, the time and space contributed to your sense of the boundary around teaching. That schedule also probably influenced the choices you made about preparing for those synchronous sessions. You had to have material ready for your Tuesday afternoon seminar, so you planned time to prepare that on Monday or the Thursday before, or whatever.
This structure gave you a certain amount of control over this work. It created deadlines that prompted you to make decisions about how much you could do and to evaluate whether what you have prepared is good enough. The work of responding to student contributions happened within the boundaries of the allotted time and space. Some of the work of responding to student queries also happened in that time or at the margins of that time, perhaps as you walked back to your office after class.
While this structure of time and space was externally imposed, you were able to use it to control the amount of time you spent on teaching and teaching related activities. That work may have routinely spilled out of the container you created for it but a significant proportion of the work remained contained. The radical reduction in the size of the externally imposed container may leave you feeling, as one person said on Twitter, as if you are never in class but also never not in class.
Lack of control is a major contributor to stress.
While the change in how you teach has probably also meant that you have more preparation to do than you might have in “normal” circumstances, it isn’t just the quantity of work that is stressful. Decisions require energy. You now need to make decisions that were previously made for you. You are making those decisions in a context where your uncertainty about how they will be received by your students, your colleagues, and your institutional superiors is high. As Katherine Firth pointed out back in April, your standard academic disaster script, ‘rise to the challenge and over-perform and push through’, is not sustainable especially now that we know this particular disaster isn’t going to end soon.
Making a decision and sticking with it unless there is a very good reason to change it is the most effective way to regain some control and free up some cognitive capacity. In the absence of clear and sensible institutional guidance about how much time to spend on these activities, you need to set your own boundaries. Try to figure out what would work for you to feel like there’s a boundary between being in class and not being in class. Use the scheduled contact hours, and average time spent preparing, from the Before Times as a guide to what might be reasonable.
It is objectively reasonable for you to limit the time spent on each module/course you teach. At a minimum students in one class should expect that you are not available when you are teaching another class. Every activity that directly involves students requires a certain amount of activity that is generally invisible to them to function smoothly, whether that is preparing content or more mundane administrative tasks. The fact that your employer may remain vague about how many hours you are expected to devote to this work, while also vaguely proclaiming the importance of excellence, does not mean it is unreasonable for you to limit the time and effort you put into teaching.
Focus on the essentials.
List all the kinds of work you need to do for the classes you teach: preparing materials and class plans, leading discussions, providing feedback (and grades), helping students navigate the system, etc. Figure out how much time you can devote to each class each week. Decide when you will do that work. Adjust your expectations for what is possible based on the constraints of time and energy. You may need to experiment a little to figure out a good compromise between your ideals and what is sustainable.
Adjust student expectations regarding response times. Asynchronous teaching does not mean the students get to do the work whenever they like but they get responses from you promptly regardless of when that is. Asynchronous teaching means that things happen asynchronously. They do their work when they do their work. You do your work when you do your work. Part of your work is responding to them. You need to do that work regularly. When you do that work does not need to be driven by when students are contributing to discussion boards, emailing questions, or whatever.
Be realistic about student expectations. They are also struggling to set boundaries around how much time and effort to put into their classes. Your class is only one of several that they are taking. They may be interpreting your practices (as much as your words) in determining if they are doing enough, too much, or too little. Most of them are likely to be fairly forgiving as you all figure this stuff out. Consistently meeting expectations that are lower than you’d like them to be (and occasionally exceeding them) is much better than consistently failing to meet more ambitious expectations.
This will not be easy. It will feel uncomfortable. The trick is to work out what is useful discomfort and what is discomfort that’s telling you that something is wrong. Taking control of your timetable and your activities will help you feel less stressed even if you still have a lot to do.
How does teaching make you feel? (while the source of the anxiety is different, the main points are still relevant)
An earlier version of this post was sent to the newsletter along with the monthly review prompts on 25 September 2020. Sign up for the newsletter.