UC Berkeley faculty members weigh in on plans for hybrid fall semester

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Deborah Chen/File
According to UC Berkeley geography professor Nathan Sayre, faculty members in his department could request a course to be offered in person if the class is small in size and if 'cohort-building' — creating a sense of chemistry or camaraderie — is essential for the success of the course.

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Some UC Berkeley faculty members are willing to provide in-person instruction during the fall 2020 semester, while others, concerned about the danger of teaching amid a pandemic, are opting to teach online.

Since campus outlined plans for a hybrid semester, faculty members have decided whether they will hold their classes in person, online or through a combination of the two modes. Faculty members weighed the threat that COVID-19 poses to their personal health and their families with their sense of the importance of in-person instruction for student learning.

Faculty input on fall 2020 planning was solicited through regular surveys, as well as through the UC Berkeley Academic Senate’s Fall 2020 Task Force on Instructional Planning and Policy, a representative body of 28 faculty and staff members from different colleges and departments.

The committee met throughout May and June to compile a report on instruction for the fall, providing guidance on topics such as academic honesty and asynchronous versus synchronous instruction.

According to geography professor Nathan Sayre, faculty members in his department could request a course to be offered in person if the class is small in size and if “cohort-building” — creating a sense of chemistry or camaraderie — is essential for the success of the course.

Faculty members’ requests then went through UC Berkeley’s Instructional Planning Committee, which grants provisional approval. Final approval of in-person activities lies with University Health Services and the Berkeley Public Health Division.

According to the UC Berkeley class schedule for fall 2020, 733 courses currently have provisional approval for incorporating some kind of in-person instruction, while 5,519 will be fully remote.

History GSI Anthony Morreale felt that graduate students had not received enough guidance on how to manage teaching amid a pandemic and said he would not consider teaching a section in person.

“What do you do if someone gets sick in your section? What do you do if someone is coughing? Or if someone doesn’t wear a mask? What do I do? Kick them out of the section?” Morreale said. “The advantages of having an in-person section are significant but not great enough to justify the potential risk.”

Anthropology professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, on the other hand, said she insisted on teaching her freshman seminar in person. Hughes was surprised that many faculty were opting to teach online.

“Come on, you’re a teacher. Is a teacher not as essential as a doctor?” Scheper-Hughes said. “We’re different kinds of doctors. And we have to take some of the risks.”

While Sayre is prepared for classes to ultimately be fully online, he said he was “relieved” when his freshman seminar was given provisional approval for in-person instruction.

“Watching my own school-age children try to do online learning for elementary school, it’s very obvious you don’t learn as much,” Sayre said. “It’s very, very difficult to convey your thinking effectively.”

Sayre said his worst-case scenario consists of all classes being conducted remotely, while his best-case scenario is “something approximating normal.”

While many faculty members hope for a return to in-person instruction as soon as possible, others are imagining how campus could use the disruption as an opportunity to engage in more interdisciplinary teaching and build stronger relationships between UC Berkeley and the community at large.

English and comparative literature professor Anne-Lise François viewed the disruption posed by COVID-19 as a part of the progressive increase of instability in campus life, linking last fall’s PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoff events with the discussion over student housing insecurity that was sparked by graduate student strikes for a cost-of-living adjustment in the spring.

“Even before Covid we were facing a climate emergency and the material world was desperately in need of our attention,” François said in an email. “I was hoping that instead of going ahead with an ‘all-but-the-same-except-it’s [mostly] remote’ semester, the administration would take the occasion to make the link between the multiple crises– ecological, political, economic, and public health–to imagine a Fall 2020 like no other.”

Anticipating that many students will not want to take classes remotely, journalism professor Michael Pollan suggested a credit-for-service alternative, in which students could receive units for working in their communities, and nonprofits and the state of California could work together to compile a list of opportunities.

Pollan cited options ranging from contact tracing to harvesting food as examples of how students could engage in addressing the problems posed by the pandemic.

According to Pollan, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos seemed “intrigued” by the idea, but Pollan said he has not received any information about implementation as of press time.

Contact Ruby Sutton at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rubysutton_.