Teaching in a Time of Crisis: “These past few weeks have been disastrous:” Mental Health, Teaching, & the Pandemic University

Published on May 11, 2021

In the first week of April one of my students signed off an email with “these past few weeks have been disastrous.” In the moment, I read these words as the plea of an overwhelmed and stressed out student who needed some extra time on an assignment. As I started writing this blog post, the word “disastrous” felt appropriate to describe the past semester. The waves of midterm and grading seasons were familiar and expected, but the coinciding waves of the pandemic meant my students, my TAs and I had to navigate particularly rough waters this semester.

This is the second post in our four-part series “Teaching in a Time of Crisis.” Letitia Johnson, Derek Cameron, and I, Karissa Patton, reflect on our experiences teaching an introductory course, Health & Society: From the Black Death to Breaking Bad, at the University of Saskatchewan from January to April 2021. This was not the first time I taught this course. In my time as a PhD student and sessional instructor at the University of Saskatchewan from 2015 to 2021, I taught or TA’ed this course many times, though never online. In preparation for my first online teaching experience, I took a course on remote teaching, read pedagogy blogs about how to tailor online learning to best fit students’ needs, and reflected on my own drained capacity and the burn out of my colleagues during this global health crisis. But, nothing prepared me for the mental health fall out of teaching and learning during the “pandemiversary” and the beginning of the third wave of COVID-19 and its variants. As I reflect on the struggles and successes of the past semester in this post, I hope it inspires other teacher-scholars to think deeply about the kind of classroom community – the kind of university – we want when we return to campus.

I believe that promoting mental health awareness is important for learners at all stages, and I have always built mental health-friendly policies into my teaching practice. I give space to discussions about mental health as a topic of study and a reality in many lives at the university. The students who do come to me to discuss mental health concerns are listened to, treated with respect, believed, and then guided to other professionals as needed. I build flexible, mental-health friendly policies and strategies into my syllabus, including my extension policy that states anyone who asks for an extension will get one. I also talk about mental health in class and offer regular brief check-ins. I have found this de-stigmatizes mental health issues (to an extent) and students are more comfortable coming to me with concerns and accommodation requests.

During COVID, I extended my mental health-friendly course policies to account for the ongoing stress students were experiencing. Taking into consideration the overwhelming workload and declining capacity, I decreased the number of academic articles the student read and added more historical blog posts and podcasts. In the next post in this series, Letitia Johnson will reflect on the various format of assigned “readings” and how it affected student engagement in seminar.

Additionally, I followed the example of another teacher-scholar in the USask History department, and held a weekly virtual and student-led “coffee row” for students to ask questions about the course as well as talk with their peers. The “coffee row” office hour was popular during the semester and many students expressed their gratitude to have some online space to connect with peers in a more personal way. This was one way the TAs and I tried to foster community during our virtual teaching experience this winter. Derek Cameron will reflect on how he built community in the virtual seminar discussion in the last post of this series.

Even as I continued many of my mental health-friendly practices and developed new ones to adapt to the virtual classroom, teaching the history of medicine during a global pandemic had some particular challenges. The content of the lectures and seminar readings often felt heavier than in previous years. When I initially created the course, one of the first modules discussed the history of disease, epidemics, and pandemics. This foundational lecture that I had previously presented suddenly hit closer to home as I discussed the history of quarantines, racist and classist notions of disease and contagions, and the social reactions to pandemics past. I found myself offering a content warning at the beginning of the lecture and, at the end of the lecture, reminding students to reach out to the university counselling services if they needed to talk about their own experiences during the pandemic. In earlier courses, I included content warnings if my lecture topics included discussions of violence or images of surgeries. But this year, I found myself constantly worrying about the way this content might hit too close to home for the students as they were living though a global health crisis themselves.

Along with my weekly worries about content and students’ capacity to “get through” the term, the “pandemiversary” hit the students and our teaching team hard this March and April. The one-year mark of the initial lock down in spring 2020 – colloquially called the pandemiversary – fell right in the middle of this term. Following the pandemiversary, COVID cases began to rise again, with variants of the novel coronavirus becoming more predominant across Canada and the world. But unlike last spring when the university closed and we were told to take things slow and take care of ourselves, this March and April students, TAs, and I floundered as we tried to keep up with the “new normal.”

The week of the “pandemiversary” I cancelled the seminars to give students a small break from course work and readings. The next week a student thanked me “for caring about [their] mental health.” I was glad this small break made an impact on the students, but I was concerned that this small gesture seemed to be an uncommon occurrence for many of the students in the class.

As the course progressed, I realized that often times my mental health-friendly goals conflicted with what was expected of students and instructors. By the first week of April, as grading piled up and the cases of multiple COVID variants climbed, all I wanted to do was cancel the final exam. I was exhausted, the TAs and the students were exhausted, and the last thing any of us wanted to do was write or grade exams. I felt caught between the obvious mental health needs and university expectations, with the university expectations winning out.

Throughout the semester, what the students, the TAs, and I needed was a break, rest, time away from our screens. But that break was often too short, or simply not possible with the overwhelming workload of virtual classes and remote academia.

I left my role as a sessional instructor this past semester with a feeling that the relationship between the university and the undergraduate students has been broken. As instructors we should be careful not to write off student feedback about their pandemic learning experiences as entitlement or whining. Instead, we should take some of this feedback into consideration as we reflect on our own pandemic experiences.  As we plan to return to campus, instructors and university administrators need to listen to students and TAs and take their feedback about their learning and teaching experiences seriously. We need to ask ourselves what lessons have we learned as instructors and academics this year, and how we will carry these lessons forward in a (post)pandemic university?

Dr. Karissa Patton is a historian of gender, health and activism who studies 1970s women's health activism in southern Alberta. She earned her PhD from the University of Saskatchewan in 2021. You can find her on Twitter at @karissapatton

Karissa - 4 May

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