How did it go? Reflections on teaching college math during a pandemic, by Allison Henrich and Matthew Pons




This is how math faculty were doing as they finished up their fall terms in one of the most challenging years that many people on this planet have ever endured. We asked several math professors to respond to a survey reflecting upon their teaching experiences and, more broadly, their experiences working in the middle of a pandemic. Twenty mathematicians responded. Here’s what we learned.

The most common challenge that more than half of our respondents acknowledged was the blurred lines between work and other aspects of life. Many of us are parents, working from home with our children and perhaps a partner who is also trying to fulfil the duties of a full time job. Others of us don’t have children or other family members to care for, and work expands to fill all of our time.

“My biggest challenge was making lecture videos with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old playing in the background and interrupting me. To deal with this challenge, I went to the car to make videos, borrowed a colleague’s basement to make some videos, and timed making videos with my husband taking the kids to the park on weekends.” 

“My biggest challenge was having enough time to devote to my job while also having a toddler at home. The time I would usually commit to work changed dramatically and lessened quite a bit.” 

“The biggest challenge for me is work life balance. Being in a support role to so many people through such a stressful time takes its toll. Sometimes I feel like the giving tree.” 

Whether or not we have a full or an empty house, working from home means there are no natural boundaries that separate work from non-work. As a response, one casualty of these blurred lines is our self care.

“I built up my body up through healthy habits over the summer, and then I coped with the challenges this fall by slowly destroying it through numbing booze during the semester.” 

“The combination of teaching more than normal, trying to be as flexible as possible with students with regard to due dates, and no longer having separate “work” and “home” spaces has made it more difficult than normal to turn off “work mode” and focus on self care.” 

Another casualty is our scholarship.

“To manage the reduced hours available (and the increased time teaching online demanded), I had to step back entirely from research, which meant papers not written, promotion not applied for, projects not started or continued. I had no choice—there are simply not enough hours in the day when the kids are not in school. Though it’s really frustrating and depressing, I’m on the other side of tenure, so restarting everything once the kids are back in school is not as fraught with pressure and panic as it must be for my junior colleagues in the same time-stricken situation.” 

Survey respondents were also challenged by either having too many people around at home, or too few.

“Working from home for me means that I don’t leave the house much. It is lonely.” 

“My biggest challenge is social isolation of self, friends/family/colleagues, and students.” 

“My biggest challenge is living and working from home with a husband also working from home, two kids in remote school, two pre-school aged kids, and a baby. I don’t sleep and the house is a mess.” 

The dearth or wealth of housemates aside, people found it difficult to mentally juggle work and thoughts about the pandemic, politics, and social justice issues.

“My biggest challenges have been no child care, no breaks from working, and worrying about my health and my family’s health. I don’t have pre-existing conditions, but since I’ve had bronchitis/pneumonia at least four times, I don’t really want to experiment with getting Covid. Plus, my emotional response to national events has been a challenge. Sometimes I read the paper and want to vomit.” 

“I’m not well. Family politics plus terrible teaching conditions are heartbreaking.” 

“My biggest challenge has been my grief (and sometimes anger) at the foolishness of people in this country.”

“My biggest challenge has been staying sane while loved ones and students make questionable decisions to gather and ignore science.”

Working at home during a time of national and international turmoil creates a variety of challenges, but for math professors, teaching mathematics remotely poses its own special set of problems. Some people are teaching face-to-face, some online, and there are some who teach using both modalities, or need to be prepared to pivot from one to another mode of instruction at a moment’s notice.

“My biggest challenge is the uncertainty from day to day. How many students will be in class today and how many out due to quarantine or isolation? What if I or anyone in my family wakes up sick? Can I quickly pivot to online class?” 

“I tried to set up course formats that would allow me some leeway (and the students  who might get sick or quarantined). I recorded lectures, realizing that some things would just have to be flexible during this semester. Amazingly, some of my colleagues were shocked when students started getting sick and quarantined. Some of my classes got moved to e-learning and some streamed. I had to do *stuff* to get my school to let me teach online. Being forced to teach face-to-face would have been a disaster because my kids had a grand total of 6 days of face-to-face school this semester.” 

For those teaching in person, fear of getting sick and potentially passing on the coronavirus to a family member is a significant factor in their lack of well being.

“(I have) anxiety over getting sick or bringing this home to my husband and kids.”

Regardless of how people are delivering content to their students, teaching in a pandemic has required a major redesign of courses and learning new skills. In some cases, this has had some positive results.

“I am proud of my decisions to (a) remove nearly all timed assessments from my courses, (b) incorporate a feedback and revision process into all written homework assignments in my courses, and (c) implement standards-based grading for the first time in a course (despite the pandemic). I feel like this helped reduce some of the increased student anxiety this term and helped us shift our focus away from grades and towards learning.” 

“One silver lining is that all of the remote stuff has really forced my hand to adapt some new uses of technology.  I have a shared spreadsheet setup (using the “importrange” command) that allows me to share my homework grade book with students.  I will definitely use this again in the future!” 

“I am most proud of learning the new video technology, especially when I am teaching remotely to students in quarantine at the same time as teaching to the in-person students.  I also feel I am mastering the “art of the Chat”!  For example, the freshman engineers in Calculus who were hesitant to speak up in a Zoom classroom would answer questions readily in the Chat, and would post some really funny comments, too. The nonverbal banter was a delightful surprise!” 

A common complaint both about teaching in a remote setting or teaching in person with social distancing is that building community in a classroom and forming relationships with our students are incredibly difficult tasks.

“I’m relearning the basics of student-teacher interaction, as though I’m back in my first year. Video/Zoom/Email-based relationships are difficult for me, as I normally rely on the communal energy and subtle non-verbal language one receives (and gives) in a physical gathering.” 

“My university managed to stay in-person for the semester (masked and socially distanced, of course), so my biggest challenge in the classroom was the loss of group work for the in-person classes.  I love having students discuss the concepts and collaborate together, whether planned or spontaneous, and my classes felt empty without this communication.  The energy that comes from those interactions was gone, and I couldn’t read student’s facial expressions well when I was teaching, because of the masks.” 

“My biggest challenge has been student engagement during class. It’s hard to get students to talk during a normal semester sometimes but it’s even harder when 6 ft apart and in masks.” 

“My biggest challenge was the lack of energy that exists in all instructional formats. Remote teaching felt like a clinical means to an end, and in-person was stripped of a sense of warmth by the need for safety precautions and constant state of change and uncertainty.”

Some of us are also trying to chair departments during this pandemic. On top of teaching challenges, those of us who are also administrators lamented the lack of recognition of the massive amount of additional work and the added emotional strain that chairs face at this moment.

“Being a chair, I would like faculty to know that for as much as they are going through, their chairs have to go through the same and still must take on everyone’s issues and problems. If people could just say thank you for doing the job they didn’t sign up for, it would go a long way.” 

But there is more human connection for some during this time. Professors are reaching out to their students in ways that—for many—they never have before. Care for students has taken center stage.

“To help students who felt disconnected from and dispassionate about the class, I had flexible (almost 24/7) office hour availability, and encouraged students to reach out about class and non-class issues they may be having.” 

“I have been responding to student disengagement by reaching out to students who miss classes/assignments and offering sympathy, extensions, etc; using standards-based grading to get students to take ownership of their learning in key areas; and scheduling follow-up “oral make-up quizzes” on Zoom to force one-on-one discussions with struggling students who miss office hours and/or class.”

“I am proud of how I put the students first. I know that the leniency that I allowed in my classes was meaningful to them. I’m glad that I could offer them support in this really strange, stressful time.” 

This care for students is being felt. One of the most joyful experiences people have had this quarter is hearing their students’ appreciation.

“I’m most proud of the fact that the students responded positively in their end of the semester surveys (also known as “teaching evals” at some schools) and in their last emails to me. They clearly understood that I cared for them and saw me as an empathetic and supportive teacher.”

“I’m most proud when I receive emails of gratitude from students (more this semester than ever before) telling me how much they appreciated my effort and how they felt a part of the course, even when remote, or thanks for my patience with their individual needs. I told them on the first day of class that I would lead with patience and compassion, and I hope I was successful in doing so.” 

For many, it is challenging to find a silver lining. They just keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other. There’s something, though, about knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. Sharing our challenges in teaching and in life right now is one of the best things we can do. One of our survey respondents said, “Completing surveys like this and talking to colleagues (especially at other schools) is therapeutic and helps me to feel like I’m not alone in this struggle.” 

You are not alone.

We would like to thank the following people for contributing to this blog post: Robert Allen, Jennifer Beineke, Heather Cook, Mike Diehl, Adam Giambrone, Katherine Heller, Emille Lawrence, Martin Montgomery, Emily Olson, Sara Quinn, Partick Rault, John Rock, Robert Rovetti, Anne Sinko, AJ Stewart, Sue VanHattum, Abigail Wacher, Marion Weedermann, Nancy Wrinkle


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1 Response to How did it go? Reflections on teaching college math during a pandemic, by Allison Henrich and Matthew Pons

  1. philsca says:

    Extremely interesting. Thank you for giving such an informative blog.

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