I don’t want to do anything to deny that there is going to be an awful lot of suffering in the weeks ahead, but it does appear that the end of the pandemic is now in sight. Perhaps it’s time then for faculty to begin to talk about the future. If there’s anything every professor should understand now after eight months of varying degrees of obligatory online teaching it’s that all online courses are not the same. Think about the emergency remote instruction everyone was doing in March. Now think of all the preparation for online courses that so many of us did over the summer. Your new fully online classes are better, right?
Now let’s expand the possible levels of quality of online teaching one more layer. There’s a very good chance that some people on your campus have been preparing and improving their online courses for ten or twenty years now. If you’re lucky, you had a chance to consult with them in some capacity in order to improve your own online course offerings. If you haven’t, maybe you’ve read some of their many writings in educational publications or just the Internet in general, sharing with everyone what they’ve learned.
These people are heroes. Online education in 2020 would be a much worse experience for everyone involved without them. They are also some of the kindest most helpful people I’ve ever had the pleasure to have met. If you’re not familiar with their work, perhaps you should look for it. If you are familiar with their work, perhaps you’d like to join them teaching mostly or even entirely online.
The problem with that idea is that in too many cases, the people who do the bulk of online instruction at American universities work off the tenure track. This is a travesty. Had the contributions of these dedicated educators been recognized and celebrated earlier, the switch to pandemic-induced online teaching would have gone far easier for universities of all kinds. Because their knowledge base is more valuable than ever, every university that expects online education to remain an important part of their educational offerings after this pandemic is over should invite every one of these people onto the tenure track if for no other reason than to demonstrate that they care about the quality of their online offerings.
Those universities should also invite more of their tenure track and tenured faculty to start teaching entirely online. If online education is really the future of the university (and that seems increasingly more likely that in the future at least some of every university’s courses will be delivered online) it is essential that professors with backgrounds of all kinds join the ranks of mostly or entirely online faculty. While there might be some initial hit to their perceived level of prestige, the more faculty who make this switch, the more prestige such positions will carry.
Besides offering the protections of tenure, another way that universities could encourage them would be to let such faculty out of some of their on-campus obligations. Office hours could be held entirely online. Essential all-hands-on-deck department meetings could be on Zoom going forward. Library privileges for individual online faculty could be shared between institutions on a pre-arranged basis. So much of what faculty need to do their research is online now that it is possible that many of them wouldn’t miss physical access to their institution’s library as long as they can still get help from the librarians who work there.
And there are other benefits too. I can’t tell you how many academic couples I know of who have been physically reunited by this pandemic because at least one of them has been able to teach remotely. The same would be true for the problem of poor salaries in places with a high cost of living. Long academic commutes could become a thing of the past. While everyone deserves to be paid enough to live comfortably wherever they happen to teach, teaching remotely on the tenure track is at least the beginning of a temporary workaround for this problem.
After promoting its online instruction all-stars to the tenure track, any institution that’s interested in encouraging this practice should first offer this as an option to all existing tenure track faculty. After that, they should work with their faculty to spell out the terms and conditions of this kind of employment in their faculty handbooks. Perhaps we shouldn’t con’t call these positions “online” or “remote” professorships because that might still carry a stigma to it, but make it clear that it is still possible to be a professor in the traditional sense of that word and not physically visit campus on the vast majority of days.
If you’re worried about community, use some of the money reserved for remote instruction to fly every professor serving in this capacity into campus once a year or once a semester for convocation week. [Obviously, this is post-pandemic.] They can sign their contracts, get briefed on new procedures, spend time with their friends and then return home to their loved ones wherever they happen to reside. Face-to-face interaction is important for maintaining a spirit of camaraderie, but honestly how often do you see all of your colleagues any given semester (especially those outside of your department)? Even if online interaction hampers some aspects of maintaining a community, it might still be sufficient.
Sure, teaching online well is hard, but everyone who does it regularly will tell you that it gets easier every time you do it. Part of the problem with online teaching has always been that so many students had never experienced it before. That problem no longer exists since absolutely every student at all levels will have now learned online at least once from this point forward. Indeed, they will likely have experienced enough examples of online instruction that they will be able to better appreciate the expertise that experienced online teachers bring to that trade. Maybe this will include experienced online teachers like you.