What Three Tisch Professors Know About the Fall — and What They Don’t

WSN interviewed three Tisch professors to find out their thoughts on NYU’s fall reopening plan, what they know about it and what’s still left unanswered.

The NYU Tisch building stands at the corner of Broadway and Waverly Place. WSN spoke to three Tisch writing professors to find out how much they know about the potential fall reopening. (Photo by Alina Patrick)

As the days come closer to the purported start of NYU’s fall 2020 semester, most students have been left with an abundance of questions about, well, everything. Tuition was raised, nearly every deadline for releasing information was pushed back and on Albert, classes have switched from in-person to online to blended. All of this begs the question: If NYU’s students are this confused, what are the professors feeling? 

WSN spoke to three writing professors from Tisch under the condition of anonymity, who explained what information they have been provided by NYU’s administration, their experience with the process of deciding whether classes will be in-person or online and their feelings on the profound uncertainties of the emerging situation.

Q: Do you know if your classes will be held in person, blended, or online? 

Professor A: As of today, I’m not sure if my classes will be fully remote or blended.

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Professor B: I’ll be teaching online.  

Professor C: I think they’re in person? I can’t even say at the moment. I’m hoping they’re in person. I’ve requested in-person classes. 

If in person, do you feel comfortable — in regard to safety — to hold your class in person? 

A: As of today, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with in-person classes, but by September if the level of threat changes my opinion may change.

C: I happen to live within walking distance of the school, thankfully, I’m not in a risk factor age group — except for the fact we all are, sort of — but I’m not in the older grouping, and as far as I’m aware, I don’t have a health condition that would prevent me, and also I don’t live with anyone who does. I put in that request. 

If online, would you prefer the class be held in person? 

A: I am not opposed to my classes being remote, because the two I am teaching in the fall are workshop-based writing classes, which work pretty well in the remote format.

B: I travel through Penn Station to get to campus, and I don’t feel super comfortable passing through such a busy, enclosed space. I feel pretty confident in teaching remotely, so I don’t have a strong preference for in-person, all things considered. 

If blended, do you know how the hybrid format will go, logistically? 

A: I do not know the logistics of how a blended class would work, but I have a good idea. The classroom would be restricted to the amount of students as defined by NYU’s social distancing guidelines, and the rest of the class would be remote, participating from the TV screen in the class.

If you don’t know if your class will be held in person or online, do you know when you will know?

A: I’m not sure when I will know, but I am assuming it will be soon.

C: Everyone is sort of waiting to see what happens. I mean, part of me [thinks] — and this is truly idle speculation — NYU can plan as much as it wants, but if we spike after our phased reopening, the semester will look radically different. I feel like all the planning in the world cannot account for what becomes of the curve.

If you don’t know if your class will be held in person or online, what format are you hoping your class will be held in?

A: I hope my class will be in the safest format, as determined by people who know more about that than me. 

C: I’m going to be teaching [two first-year classes], and my feeling is those first-year experiences really should be done in person, if possible, and that’s kind of a bonding moment for the class … That starts you off in your NYU experience, and so my feeling was: ‘If I feel okay to do it, I should do my best to be there.’ So, I volunteered and said, ‘Yeah, I feel comfortable to teach in person.’ … So, I’m hoping for in-person and I don’t really know when we’ll get a final decision. I don’t actually know anything. All I know is what I have agreed to and I don’t even know any other professors’ plans.

How are the decisions for instruction modes for classes being made? In gray area circumstances, where the classes are small, has any of the decision making been collaborative, based on professors’ opinions?

A: In our case, decisions about instruction modes are being made by departments and the dean’s office. Both are seeking input from professors as these decisions are being made and I expect the final decisions to be collaborative.

B: The decisions for my class were collaborative (and largely up to me). If I lived on campus, I’d likely be teaching in person, though the social distancing requirements might make this tough, too.

C: They asked the professors what we would feel comfortable with, which I think is the only right and fair thing to do. If you have an underlying health condition, you can’t be expected to teach in person. If you live far away and rely on seven different trains, you might not feel comfortable coming in. If you’re of an age where you’re in a profound risk group, you might not feel comfortable coming in. 

The problem is, from seeing [my departments]’s spaces, those classrooms are very small. Even if you have a small workshop, very few classrooms can actually accommodate reasonable social distancing between people. So, we’re all sort of figuring out what are the spaces available. Even if all of the teachers said, “I am comfortable coming in,” we frankly don’t have the room to accommodate that, to do it safely. So the reality is: we’re all still in the dark …. I think our department is operating at its best with the limited information they have, which is not a satisfying answer — of course it’s not a satisfying answer. The problem is we have imperfect information and that’s because globally, we have imperfect information. 

Do you believe the quality of education is the same online as in person?

A: I do not believe the quality of education is the same online as in person; I believe they are different. I’m lucky enough to teach writing workshop classes, and I will be spending time this summer to make sure that the students’ quality of education doesn’t suffer if we are not in person. Of course, one of the challenges is that we are all new to remote instruction, so we are figuring it out as we go without a proven road map.

B: Hard to say. You lose stuff not being in person: face-to-face connection, the bond with your classmates, the randomly running into folk in the hallway. But you gain stuff too: lots of opportunity to bring guests into class, the ability to work asynchronously, the lowered commute times. Impossible to know if it’s the exact same quality, but I think it’s a strong and unique educational experience.

C: I would like to believe mine were. Of course, something is lost when it’s not in person. There’s just an energy level that is hard to achieve when we are moderated by screen. I think some people are more naturally adept at the technology, I feel like I handled the technology aspect fair… — like, I’m a technological person, so I feel like I was able to adapt to it fairly quickly — but I know that’s not the case for a lot of people and I feel like that caused a lot of problems. And I also think that there are certain classes that lend themselves more easily to a similar experience. I think writing workshops can actually work fairly effectively online. In fact, the quality of work that I got in my writing workshop was truly outstanding. I was floored by how good the writing was that came in at the end of the semester. That came in throughout, but at the end of the semester, those final scripts were among the best I had ever had. And part of me thinks it’s because students don’t have distractions, they’re home, they must focus on their work, and so as a result, the work was outstanding. Amusingly, a lot of us professors felt exactly that way. But I think certainly like acting, dancing — there are classes that just cannot be replicated online.

Do you believe the tuition for the coming year should be raised, stay the same as previous years, or be lowered? 

A: No opinion. 

B: In terms of campus experience, maybe. If you’re not in a dorm, if you can’t use the gym or perform in productions, I can see the argument. But I don’t think that the teaching is going to be worse than usual. I don’t think students are getting shortchanged in terms of what they learn in class.  

C: That’s a really hard question. It depends. Certainly, it’s hard getting the full experience of NYU, and should [students] be asked to pay for that? I don’t think so. 

That said, there are fixed costs associated with running a university, and if those costs aren’t covered, what happens to the university? I don’t know what the budgeting is, but a lot of it is human cost, a lot of it is the people that staff the university. I’m not just talking about professors — it’s also administrative assistants, it’s also the janitorial staff, cafeteria workers, security guards — there’s so many people that are behind the scenes. And what do you do, not pay them? The problem is NYU has a real estate problem, right? We see all of these fancy buildings in the city, and we think, “Surely there is plenty of money,” and it does seem that way and does seem like the students should get money back. But I don’t know enough of the finances to know where the loose change is. But certainly, I think there should be adjustments, of course. 

Have you been provided with more information than students have about the fall semester?

A: No, the information that students get is the same that faculty members get. I think in general, the more communication the better.

B: We might get some information a bit earlier than students so we can plan. It’s not in anyone’s interest for everyone to learn everything at the same time; how would we tell students what to expect if we haven’t planned our courses yet? 

C: No. I think we all know the same thing. It sounds like you have the same information that I do. 

If yes, do you believe any of that information could be, or even should be shared with the students now? Or is it better to wait? 

B: Everything changes day-to-day. It’s not all in NYU’s control. As new health information comes in, the governor has to issue new guidelines and schools have to adapt. If students got every update at the same time as the administration, there would be no answers and quite a bit of chaos. I know it’s frustrating, but I believe the school is doing its best to convey useful info in a timely manner.

If no, do you know when more information will be provided — to faculty or to students?

A: I don’t know. 

C: No. I mean frankly — I don’t know how they’re gonna — maybe we’ll see in two weeks … I think that has to do with spiking. I mean, certainly, decisions will have to be made because people have to make travel plans … The reality is, everyone wants us to be open. Like no one’s lying about that, there’s no conspiracy behind it. Everyone’s preference is for this f-cking thing to go away and for us to all to be on campus. That’s what we all want — like we got into teaching, we got into being as part of a university so that we could actually be there and teach people. There’s certainly no grand thought of, like, “We don’t want this to happen.” And everyone is hoping for the best, but this thing is so wildly unpredictable. I think even the best-laid plans get totally screwed up, and they probably will.

Email HL Margulies at [email protected]

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