How did Covid-19 Affect Emergency Remote Teaching by Precarious Instructors?

Nicole Stewart, Anis Rahman, John Hughes, Philippa R. Adams

Covid-19 brought about tumultuous changes for the academy. First, we look at how higher education instructors transitioned to remote teaching. Our findings illustrate a diverse array of experiences and frustrations around technological challenges, racial and gender inequalities, and the transformation of home/work spatio-temporal relations. Second, we look at labor, economic, and social issues amplified for short-term instructors, which led to stress and mental health challenges. Contexts we identified as specific to short-term instructors include lack of access to equipment, software, and support for teaching teams, increased hours without increased pay, uncertainty surrounding prep time, and job insecurity.

1.0 Meet “the laborers”

Four Simon Fraser University (SFU) contract educators came together to uncover themes specific to precariously employed instructors as the Covid-19 crisis unfolded, using autoethnography (Hamdan; See also Butz et al.; Ellis et al.; Dutta; Alexander; Reed-Danahay; etc.) and semi-structured interviews. As short-term instructors, we are members of what Indhu Rajagopal calls “hidden academics,” whose labor receives minimal recognition and support. Philippa Adams (33), is a Lab Instructor responsible for teaching SPSS software to 140 students while orchestrating an emergency move to a nearby island to assist her mom. John Hughes (49), a former journalist and self-proclaimed technophobe, is a temporary instructor at SFU dealing with a constantly changing target for his dissertation defence. Former PR gal Nicole Stewart (35) is a contract educator at SFU and another local university. She is now balancing a four-course teaching workload with two small children in tow. Anis Rahman (39) is a dad to two preschoolers and a term lecturer for two courses at SFU. Even after teaching 36 classes between Bangladesh and Canada since 2009, Anis finds himself at a racial disadvantage. The quartet shares a similar habitus and social milieu (Reed-Danahay), all current or former doctoral students in the School of Communication and all “founding members” of an unofficial Facebook page that Philippa created to bring together a network of precarious laborers during the temporary shift (Bessette et al.) to “emergency remote teaching” (ERT) (Hodges et al.). This type of social support, as cultivated through the Facebook page, propelled our resilience to stress (Ozbay et al.).

2.0 The transition to emergency remote teaching

Motifs common to all four researchers include the tension between opposing dyads of stress/fracture and relationships/resilience. Technology, race, gender, home/work spatio-temporal relations, and mental health stresses were common narratives.

The abrupt move to remote teaching places “massive demands on tech teams” (Hodges et al. ) and instructors who need fast solutions. Philippa was dealing with the fact that SPSS software is typically loaded onto lab computers and is not free to students. Nicole set up Blackboard Collaborate for digital tutorials, but, with its cap on users, it wasn’t a practical option for large-scale lectures. Zoom usage was restricted in British Columbia under section 33.1 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act until March 26, 2020 when a ministerial order facilitated its temporary use, which prompted Nicole to purchase screencast software to record lectures. John says when he walks into a classroom he is “ready to rock” but with non-existent tech skills, teaching was suddenly a terrible stress with lots of lost sleep: “I was cursing a blue streak trying to get this figured.” John took some classes about how to teach online but these were fraught with technological instructions that made no sense to him. John was reduced to recording voice-only lectures on a smartphone borrowed from his wife, who also helped him transfer the digitized lectures to the course webpage. Mercifully, a solution came in the form of delivering lectures to an empty classroom with a camera rolling.

Anis found the video chats hassle free, just like chatting with friends on Messenger or Skype, but noticed he was at an immediate racialized disadvantage. There was a nasal-sounding, shaky, metallic sound to his voice. The bone vibration in the voice was lost, eye-contact abysmal, and there were no verbal cues from students to help calibrate his body-voice-language in real time. From being a confident, experienced, well-trained instructor who thought he overcame his “accent barrier,” Anis suddenly became an immigrant teacher again within a week, primarily because it was online.

The switch to ERT was in line with David Harvey’s concept of “flexible accumulation” (Goodson), and the erosion of space-time compression between social life, family-time, and work was suddenly amplified by the pandemic. The home became the office, with Philippa at a small desk in a borrowed room with suboptimal WiFi, Anis in a make-shift office, John at his kitchen table, and Nicole in a “roving office” that followed kids around the house. John shared a home office with his wife, which made blending home time and office hours difficult. This wasn’t the only way that life infiltrated work. John’s cat howled at top volume during audio-recordings, Anis’s son ran in on a live lecture, and kids were a regular backdrop to Nicole’s lectures. Students were suddenly in our home through the lens of a webcam.

Parental stress and gender inequality were heightened during the pandemic. Both Anis and Nicole are parents to two small children, and the additional hours required to deal with teaching online necessarily subtracted from family time. For example, Nicole says the experience spread thin her attentions, which rendered her a “failure” in her most important task: that of being a mom. And yet, the additional time spent working online did not, in Nicole’s eyes, improve her connection to her students, it simply maintained it. Anis reports having to create a “childproof” fortress so that he could concentrate on his teaching duties. Occasionally, his children found a way into his office, which provided both welcome breaks and time-consuming distractions. These parental stresses and occasional joys were accompanied by certain gender inequalities. Anis asked John what he thought about the privilege of not having children whose needs had to be met before attending to academic work. Not having any children, John could only imagine what it must be like needing to care for little ones before even considering getting to work. Anis acknowledged his privilege in this regard by describing his spouse Runi’s leading role in childcare in their household. From these two examples, it is clear that parental and gender inequalities have been prevalent in the lives of precariously employed instructors during the Covid-19 pandemic.

3.0 Economic, labor, and social issues amplified by precarity

Economic, labour and social impacts were plagued by our precarity as contract educators. No financial support was provided for the transition, but Philippa bought things to set up her desk, including a cell phone stand, ring light, and printer. Nicole bought a headset and screencasting software. The Teaching Assistant (TA) in Anis’s class didn’t have internet at home and his computer was too old to support the NVivo-12 software needed for class. A school administrator suggested the TA go to campus to use the computers and internet, but Anis feels strongly that a tenure-track faculty member would be better equipped to support teaching assistants logistically without putting them at risk by going to campus.

Tellingly, all of the researchers worked longer hours, at all times of the day, in ERT compared to face-to-face instruction. Anis estimates the transition cost approximately 30-40 additional unpaid hours during those rush two weeks (March 13-27) of online transition, and later 10 hours per week till the end of the semester; and that those extra hours came at a cost: “I had to choose between being a dad and being a teacher to provide for my family.” For John, the extra work related directly to economic concerns: “there is increased motivation to find workable solutions to the problems [ERT] presents, motivation that might not be present for tenured professors…The possibility of being scratched from the next semester’s teaching roster because of a technological misstep is a constant worry—one that tenured faculty do not have to face.” Philippa’s teaching team, led by a permanent faculty member, made a decision to skip a week of instruction – something John, Anis, and Nicole didn’t consider as a result of hire-back concerns.

Mental stress was the most common theme, shading psychological aspects for each instructor’s mental health. Philippa metaphorically describes dragging her students across the finish line. Anis says graduate school prepared him well for quarantine and isolation but he feared being with his family 24/7 would eventually become unbearable. Nicole found ERT stressful, as she was always “mom” first while needing to complete work and recover from a probable case of Covid-19. John liberally doled out extensions to students fighting to make it through, noting a sizable toll on his mental wellbeing. John’s struggles with anxiety and depression, which he is normally able to keep at bay via meditation and exercise, were exacerbated exponentially with teaching suddenly through unfamiliar technological means. “I had a number of meltdowns and, at times, became someone I didn’t want to be.”

ERT was a stressful time for permanent and precarious instructors alike; however, increased hours without compensation, no equipment funds, an inability to support teaching teams, and reduced family time in the wake of unwavering job insecurity were fundamental issues for short-term instructors.

Photo by Leonard Beck on Unsplash

Nicole Stewart is a PhD Candidate and Term Lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She is also a Sessional Faculty at the University of the Fraser Valley. Her research areas include digital skills, domestication of media and technology, and children’s media/tech cultures.

Anis Rahman (PhD, Simon Fraser University) recently joined the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle as a Teaching Assistant Professor. His research areas surround geopolitics of disinformation, Chinese Digital Silk Road and South Asian media, politics, and cultures. 

John Hughes successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, Toward an Understanding of Dreams as Mythological and Cultural-Political Communication, in April 2020. He is a Term Lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. His research interests include the connections between dreams and myth, and the political ramifications of this relationship.

Philippa Adams is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. Throughout her time as a graduate student she has been a Teaching Assistant and a Lab Instructor. Philippa’s research on technology and society includes social media, popular culture, and gendered media discourses.

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