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Working in Academia During the Pandemic

 

Universities take pride in the fact that, amidst the pandemic and even as the university buildings became off-limits, university as an institution kept going, churning out lessons and degrees, patents and publications. Despite everything, education has continued, only in a distant teaching format. From a student perspective, the key difference is that we study from home and either take courses as book exams or participate in classes via video calls. What does the pandemic reality look like from the other side of the classroom, from the point of view of university research and teaching staff?

I had started a work contract with the University of Helsinki two and a half months before the pandemic hit. Things had been going rather well: I had my spot in an office, becoming friends with my office mates and getting to know people better in the coffee room. Then, in March 2020, along with everyone else, I took my work back home. While I popped in at the office in January 2021, as I am writing this I have yet to return.

All things considered, university employees were mostly lucky – at least when compared to all the service worker jobs that have been affected. Compared to universities whose finances rely on tuition fees especially from international students, Finnish universities have not faced the same kind of recession, though external funding has somewhat suffered. A survey by the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers found that most university employees did not face unemployment, lay-offs, or fewer work hours due to the pandemic. The closing of campus facilities did impact laboratory research or research that requires in-person data collection (e.g. interviews and observations). This meant the revision or delays of entire research projects. Fortunately, much of teaching and work such as reading, writing reports or funding applications were relatively painless to move to the home office. Less fortunately, work ergonomics have suffered and separating between work time and free time has been challenging – something that is no doubt relatable to any office worker transitioned to working from home.

Yet the transition was not necessarily easy. Distant teaching was a new thing even for teachers. In the spring term 2020, they had to adjust their course plans without preparation. Over the summer holidays, teachers tried to plan their fall courses to fit a Zoom environment. Pedagogically-minded staff tried their best to keep lessons interesting and suitable for different learners by providing varied activities and learning platforms. The push for every student to meet the course learning goals was balanced with students’ increasing stress and fatigue. The equation was not always perfect. Especially in spring 2020, when everything was still new, some of the discourse still argued against softening learning criteria and performance expectations. With experience, and perhaps with teacher’s own fatigue, the focus has shifted to students’ energy.

Comparing in-class teaching to online teaching, one source of grief that teachers often express is not being able to see their students. I felt this myself as I taught a course last year, and I have heard the same sentiment from other teaching staff. Teachers try to be understanding of students who do not want to show their face or living space to strangers. They know that some students lack an internet connection strong enough to support Zoom calls with video. But talking into a void is tough. Not only because it feels awkward to monologue without any audience feedback, but also because it is difficult to tell if students are actually following and understanding what you are saying. During academic year 2020-2021, everyone has learnt to cope with the situation, even if few enjoy it.

Not being able to see colleagues in person is another cause of stress. Isolation from students and colleagues has increased stress: not only is work from home a lonely job, it lacks stimuli that are essential fertilizers for conducting impactful research. The department office and coffee room area give natural opportunities for catching up with colleagues, for sharing thoughts, advice, and a laugh. Email does not allow for spontaneous information flow, nor are recreational Zoom meetings enough to fill the gap. Naturally, seeing colleagues from other universities has also come to a halt. Academic conferences scheduled for 2020 were for the most part cancelled, postponed or moved online. For researchers, conferences are important not only for sharing their research but also for networking – finding out about ideas and potential collaborators in their field. Networking usually happens during coffee breaks, not conference presentations. Everyone agrees that networking in an online conference is difficult. As an early-career researcher still finding my way, I have found that the threshold to reach out to interesting researchers is higher when I have to send them an email instead of just approaching them in person after their presentation.

It is easy to see that – compared to underappreciated essential workers or laid off service and tourism industry workers – academia has been given good circumstances for weathering the pandemic. As the academic year of 2020-2021 comes to an end, we can but hope that normalcy will return next year. Even as an increasing proportion of adults are getting vaccinated, it will take a while for everyone to get their second shot, so spring 2022 seems to be the earliest estimate possible. There are discussions on whether some teaching – mainly huge mass lectures – could be held as distant teaching even in the future, but university teachers and researchers long to return to their familiar offices and classrooms. As the academic year comes to an end, remember to give course feedback and let the teacher know your thoughts – they’ll be sure to appreciate it!

 

Ylva Biri

Helsinki '18

Ylva is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki researching the linguistics of social media discourse. When not studying, procrastinating and overthinking, she enjoys shonen anime and trying out new foods.
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