Helping faculty — and students — navigate a pandemic

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Our faculty really pivoted in remarkable ways last March when the pandemic required us to change our approach to education. Sarah Projansky, the U’s associate vice president for faculty in Academic Affairs, has been at the forefront of efforts to help faculty navigate this new “normal,” develop best teaching and support practices and keep their own careers on track. In this episode, Sarah explains some of the lessons learned, why we’ve added mental health days and a return-to-remote learning period this spring and offers advice to make the semester run smoothly. Recorded on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley. Read the full transcript.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. The U's faculty really stepped up last March when we had to move swiftly online to solve the pandemic and keep students in school. I don't think any of us imagined that we'd be at February and still dealing with the pandemic. But I have to say as a university we've done remarkable things. We swiftly moved online. We used a variety of formats to allow our students to keep making progress towards their degrees.

And, of course, we've needed to keep some in-person activity happening because there's no substitute for some experiential learning, such as labs and other places where we need to be able to be on campus. Over the past year, we've learned a lot of lessons at the U about innovation, about technology, about education. And we want to hear about some of those innovations today.

I'm delighted today to welcome Sarah Projansky. Sarah is the associate vice president for faculty within the Academic Affairs office. Sarah, warmest welcome to you.

Sarah Projansky: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here.

President Watkins: Our listeners would probably like to know a little bit about you personally before we talk about your work — how long you've been at the U, and a little bit about your own role as a faculty member.

Sarah Projansky: This is my ninth year at the U. I arrived as just a regular old faculty member. I had a joint, I still do, have a joint appointment in film and media arts and gender studies. But an opening came for an associate dean in the College of Fine Arts, and so I applied and did that job for about five years.

And then, from there, about a year and a half ago, I became, as you said, the associate vice president for faculty on main campus. So, I can say a little bit about my role as faculty in terms of my teaching and research, which are connected. My research across my entire career focuses on gender, race, sexuality in media narratives, media representation, media industries and media activism. And I address those different areas in relation to a lot of different topics. Particularly most recently, I have a book on girls and young women in media. My earlier book is on sexual violence in media, and I also do work on participatory media and a little bit of work on independent cinema. And so, I have to give a shout out to Sundance, two more days of Sundance here in Utah.

And I thought I would just say a few words about something that happened yesterday and today that really illustrates some of my research findings on how media deal with sexual violence. And I know it's not our topic today, so I'll try to be brief. But you probably know, and listeners probably know, yesterday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, spoke publicly for the first time about the fact that she is a sexual assault survivor, and she did so through participatory media. And it illustrates a lot of what I've found over my career researching this area. One is that the depiction of sexual violence is everywhere and almost constant.

So, she spoke about this on Instagram and today every single television news station was talking about the fact that she talked about it. So, it's kind of constantly in the news. And another thing that is important to my research, as illustrated here, is that sexual violence is intersectional, which means, as you know, that gender is often linked with other aspects of identity or other issues. So, when AOC was talking about that she was talking about how the violence on January 6 was in part targeted specifically at her as a woman of color and at other women like Nancy Pelosi, who we know was specifically targeted as well, and that for her, that experience was similar to her experience as a survivor of sexual assault. And then to end on a slightly more positive note, another key aspect of my research shows that sexual violence represented in media can be a form of social activism. And that's part of why I wanted to mention this and sort of thank AOC for talking about it because by talking about it publicly and drawing attention to it, she also taught a lesson, right, about that relationship between January 6 and her earlier experience.

So that is just a little piece of some of the research that I do. Now that I'm AVP for faculty. I don't have time for as much research. So, one of the things I do in this role, along with an outstanding team —ot really one of the things, the thing I do — is run the office for faculty. And that includes running workshops and seminars and retreats that support faculty and administrators across their career, from onboarding to retirement.

And it includes, for instance, a yearly new faculty welcome, a yearly retirement celebration, a life hack series that covers topics like being a parent in the academy during the pandemic, to make it even more complicated, to multi-day retreats here to help faculty prepare for promotion and chairs who are new prepare to lead their departments. And then we also do things like faculty hiring and policies and other things like that.

President Watkins: What an amazing year to be in the role of office of the faculty and supporting faculty because you've had to learn how to deliver your work in a new way as well. And I know that one of the big areas of emphasis for you this past year has been how you can continue to provide support, help and assistance to faculty and to leaders in this unusual pandemic period. Our faculty have had the opportunity to learn new things and I know our Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence has really helped with that. Listeners would be interested in some of the things you've done to help our faculty, support them in learning new ways to teach and to keep their work moving during this time.

Sarah Projansky: Well, I mentioned that we do workshops and seminars. I started a new series called Faculty Dialogues, and I purposely use the word “dialogue” to really emphasize that this is not a series where the AVP stands up and tells you lots of information. This is a chance for people to share resources. And so that's one thing.

Another thing we've done is institute a one-year delay for reviews for faculty because not only is there the pivot to online teaching, but we all also have pressures at home in terms of childcare with the schools closed, potentially elder care because that's a vulnerable population. So, a lot of elder people have sort of come into the family and need the care. So, to really recognize that pressure, we’ve delayed faculty reviews. And we also instituted both for faculty and staff — and this is not just out of the Office for Faculty — what we call temporary work adjustments, as you know, to allow folks to work from home when they have those pressures beyond the pressure we all are facing from the pandemic.

Also, another one of my favorite activities, last one I'll mention, is that Senior Vice President Dan Reed brought together a group of leaders on campus — mid-level leaders, not top, top leaders, importantly, folks coming out of the faculty — so associate chair of a department is an example of one person who is in this group. And this group worked really hard to discuss and plan, and lots of debate — that was a fun part of it — the best way forward, and we changed our minds. We contradicted ourselves. We corrected ourselves over time. I'm sure we will continue to do so as the pandemic continues to evolve a year later. But that was a really good way, I think, that SVP Reed was able to get a sense of what was going on at the department and college level and how we could provide information and resources to faculty. So those are some of the things that we've done.

President Watkins: And certainly, I know that listening to people, asking honest questions and listening to what they have to say is an intervention in and of itself. And I understand that you did that at the end of the fall semester with a town hall to allow faculty to talk about some of what they've learned. I would be really interested to know more about the successes and best practices that you've heard from faculty.

Sarah Projansky: Yeah, so that meeting that we had was part of the Faculty Dialogue series. And as I mentioned, it's a chance to share resources. So, what's really interesting about those dialogues is, it's not so much like "Do ABC" so much as, "I take this approach. What approach do you take?"

So, one of the things that comes up over and over and over is flexibility, and that's related to a second thing that comes up over and over and over. I don't know, slightly trite way to say it is, we're all in this together, which we all say a lot. But that is crucial for faculty and students to understand. Early on, like last March, 11 months ago, I heard so much fear from faculty and students. The faculty were scared the students would cheat or not show up, or if they don't turn on their camera, they're doing something, I don't know, they shouldn't be doing.

And the students were scared that the faculty wouldn't believe them that they were there, and they would give them more work and extra work and so on. And the truth is, maybe one faculty member, five students, because there's more students than faculty is why say more numbers, did that. But the vast majority are not. And so, just that conversation and there were students at that meeting as well, to understand that our students have kids, our faculty have kids. In that sense, we're just all parents together, right?

Or our students don't like being visible all the time on Zoom. Our faculty don't like it either. And so, having that conversation to build that understanding of each other in the same situation was one of the key things.

Flexibility around attendance policies and due dates and other things that are, if you think about it, maybe less important than what you're trying to do in the class. And this was actually an opportunity to kind of realign priorities. And then I'll just mention one more aspect that I think is really important about the pandemic, which is that like many other things, the pandemic has shone a light on the fact that we learn in different ways, that human learning is profoundly complex. And we might think about this as, I mean, this is a concept from disability studies, the idea of universal design for learning so that we design our education so that it's possible for people who learn in multiple ways to engage the material, show what they know, et cetera. And we've spent a lot of time in these faculty dialogues talking about that because going online has forced us to realize as teachers and as students that we're pretty unique in how we approach learning. And this is an opportunity to learn new ways to deliver material. New formats to use. An opportunity for students to show what they know in multiple formats instead of the typical multiple-choice exam, closed-book exam, and so on. So those are some of the examples that have been coming out of the dialogues.

President Watkins: I would say one of the common themes there is empathy. Empathy for each other and for the stress and the burden that the pandemic has created. I know one of the stresses and burdens has been that we hear from students and faculty and staff alike that people feel a little bit burned out. It has created some challenges, both at home and at work. So, I think, this semester, I’ve heard that there are some non-instruction days being built-in. And also, again, a two-week return to remote learning and work. Tell us about those and why? What's the rationale for those things?

Sarah Projansky: So, we have two non-instructional days this semester. Conveniently March 5 and April 5, making it easier for me to remember anyway. One is a Friday, and one's a Monday. And not only are classes canceled those days but in addition, faculty are not making work due those days, and they're not supposed to make work due the day after those days or the next school day, right. So, it truly is an off day. And the idea is that both faculty and students can use those days to reset emotionally and intellectually.

So, we’re hoping that there's lots of cookies made and hikes taken and physically distanced coffee dates and sleeping in and so on. And that really is the university's purpose, is to encourage people to bake cookies or whatever else gives them joy. And then the two weeks where we're returning to remote learning, that's March 1st through March 13th and the reason we're doing that, and we had good success with it last semester, is to interrupt the transmission of the virus.

And I don't fully understand this, but the epidemiologists tell us that it interrupts two cycles. And if you think of it, it's like a mini close down, like we did last March on a worldwide level. And the idea is, and it worked then in March, and it worked for us in the fall, is that you interrupt the pandemic. And in fact, you prevent it from becoming a pandemic within that space. So, if you think about it, the University of Utah, of course, we're living through the pandemic with the rest of the world. But we didn't have a pandemic on our campus, unlike some other universities that unfortunately did. And part of why we pulled that off was this return to remote break, so, we did in the fall, we're going to do it in the spring, and we hope it really helps keep the numbers down for us.

President Watkins: That was so clear the way you presented that and so helpful. And, of course, our capacity to do asymptomatic testing and have very low rates of asymptomatic testing also is really helpful. It helps remove people from circulation who don't realize that they have the virus and helps us keep transmission down.

So how about some tips for all of us that are engaged in groups of people over Zoom? What are some tips that you would share about being effective talking with a group of people, teaching a group of people, or even just interacting with people over Zoom?

Sarah Projansky: So short blocks of time. And as you might be able to tell, that's hard for me because I tend to talk long, but it's crucial, right, if you imagine how hard it is to listen to a 15-minute lecture in person, where you can watch the person, think about Zoom where you don't have as much of those cues.

So, instructors are doing a lot of short blocks. So, they might do a 10- to 15-minute lecture and then go do an activity or go to a breakout room and have a conversation and then come back for another 10- to 15-minutes of lecture. So short breaks of time.

Check-ins at the beginning and or end of class is crucial. And I use this sometimes even when I'm running large groups with 80 people. Drop one sentence in the chat about how you're doing right now, just a moment to kind of bring us into the space together in a way that we naturally do when we're physically together and have to sort of artificially do with Zoom.

And then the third thing I would mention is repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, right, because we know that people get distracted by something in the room or they start doing their email because it's right there. So, being able to be patient and repeat and also present. Like if you're assigning something in your class, say it if you're synchronous, put it on canvas, email it, email it again, and so on. And it may seem redundant, but that is online teaching 101.

President Watkins: Those are really all great tips. And there're things that support learning in person or on Zoom. So, figuring out new ways to do it is key. Well, we have, I believe, somewhere around 30 to 40% of our classes have some in-person component, even if partially it may be online so it may be a hybrid class. But it is great for students who want and need the opportunity to learn in person to be able to stay connected with our campus. I understand we've asked our faculty to keep a seating chart, which is kind of unheard of in college. Tell listeners about why we're doing that? What's the point?

Sarah Projansky: So not only seating charts but to take attendance, too. And the point is again about our health, about the university's physical health. Because we're learning more every day from our scientists about how the virus spreads and also how it does not spread. And so if we have a seating chart and we know who was in class that day, and we find out from our asymptomatic testing, as you mentioned, that someone is sick, right, and was in class because they didn't know they were sick, instead of having to close that whole class down and take it online for a week or two, we can just work with the people who we know were close enough to potentially have been exposed, get them out of the classroom, get them tested, get them quarantined until it's safe for them to come back.

And then the class doesn't close down. So, our in-person classes, labs, dance classes, internships, don't have to close down. They can continue, and only a few students have to withdraw physically briefly. So, yeah, faculty hate it, but it's so crucial. So, I really hope that they're doing it, at least most of the time.

President Watkins: It really doesn't sound much like how we think of college. But in a pandemic, it's pretty important. And I know it's also important that you're helping advise and coach faculty on how they can support students through this time. We know this is no time to leave school without your degree. We want our students to stay, to succeed, and to leave with the degree they came for. Any particular tips you recommended to faculty to help students, special things they can do, really kind pandemic awareness supports for students.

Sarah Projansky: Yes. And a lot of these ideas actually come from students. The students have been really thoughtful and active on campus. So, one of them might be if you assign four quizzes or four tests, just drop the lowest grade. Design your class in a way that you can measure knowledge by three instead of four. But it takes the pressure off for the students. I already mentioned the idea of multiple ways to engage the class. Maybe the Zoom makes a public presentation impossible for a particular student, but you're teaching something related to that. Find another way for them to do it, maybe in an asynchronous way. Flexibility, we already talked about that and empathy. Be ready for anything. None of us could have imagined what living through this year has been like, and as we continue to live through it.

So, if faculty can be flexible for students and work with them, collaborate to figure it out, everybody's happier. Mental health days. Working into your syllabus for students if you just can't do it today, you're not sick, you just can't do it. You need to bake those cookies or go for that hike. That's an excused absence if that works for your class. My personal favorite, because I use it and it works for me, is I always have a catch-up day or a catch-up week on my syllabus right before an exam. And so, if we need more time for something, or we're actually all caught up, and none of us want to come to class, then we can cancel class. And that kind of flexibility helps in this context where kind of nobody knows what's coming tomorrow. So those are some examples.

President Watkins: Sarah, it is so clear to me that you are deeply invested in the success of our students and our faculty alike. We are really fortunate to have you in the leadership role here at the University of Utah. Thanks for joining me today, and thanks for everything you do every day.

Sarah Projansky: Oh, thank you so much, Ruth. It's been great talking with you.

President Watkins: Listeners, thanks for joining us for this edition of the U Rising podcast and I hope you'll tune in next time.