Of all nine undergraduate campuses in the University of California system, UC Santa Barbara was the only university not to fully extend remote learning until the end of January. Instead, UCSB put the choice to hold classes remote or in person beginning Jan. 18 into the hands of its instructors.
“Between January 18, 2022, and January 31, 2022, instructors may continue to offer instruction remotely or choose to teach in person,” Chancellor Henry T. Yang said in an email to the UCSB campus community on Jan. 8.
“Students who choose to remain off campus or who must isolate or quarantine following COVID-19 protocols will be provided with reasonable opportunities to participate remotely in any in-person class.”
UCSB spokesperson Shelly Leachman said that the email announcement was based on heavy consultation with the Academic Senate and other staff and faculty members.
“Instruction falls under the purview of Academic Senate and academic affairs. As the Chancellor’s message highlights, the decision was made following extensive consultation with ‘the Academic Senate and members of the faculty, deans and administrative colleagues, students, staff, and campus medical experts,’” Leachman said in a statement to the Nexus.
Instructors were notified at the same time as students that they would be deciding whether or not classes would be conducted in person or remotely.
While some instructors said they appreciated that Yang’s approach to remote learning allowed them to decide how to conduct their classes, others took issue with his decision.
Political science lecturer Chase Hobbs-Morgan said that though they didn’t envy being in Yang’s position, the remote learning decision was ultimately a “non-decision.”
“I think Chancellor Yang had a tough decision to make, and I don’t envy being in that position. But I think the decision ultimately amounted to a non-decision, which passed the tough decision down to instructors like me, who aren’t in positions of leadership,” Hobbs-Morgan said.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not qualified to make the judgment call as to whether or not we can all be back in the classroom safely,” they continued. “I very much want to be, but since I tend to stick to the precautionary principle, I’ve decided to keep the online format. That feels like the only responsible choice to me.”
Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor within the feminist studies department, described Yang’s announcement as “problematic” and said she was not aware of the decision until Yang’s announcement email was sent out.
“I think leaving the decision about whether to return campus in-person [to] instructors and faculty currently teach[ing] classes is problematic because it is not about allowing specific classes that really require an in-person component, like labs and studio art or theater classes, to take place like other UC’s are doing. The policy allows any faculty member to teach in person as long as students who remain remote are not disadvantaged by not being allowed to participate,” Miller-Young said in a statement to the Nexus.
Miller-Young added there has been no uniform approach to addressing social distancing, class size, testing, etc.
“Now there is no common practice for classes based on the size of the course, social distancing, the classroom set up, etc,” Miller-Young said. “All that talk has gone out the window with an overzealousness to get students back in the dorms and on campus, even while parts of the campus are closed and there are staff shortages everywhere from the dining halls to the secretaries that run departments.”
“The decision does not insist on a testing regime for those that do come back to campus, and it does not explain how the super contagious omicron variant won’t be circulated in those in-person classes,” Miller-Young continued.
Walid Afifi, a professor in UCSB’s communication department, didn’t take issue with the Chancellor’s decision to let instructors choose their class format. Instead, Afifi said he was “really appreciative” of the way the university has handled an “impossible situation.”
“It’s easy to throw leadership under the bus. But I also understand the challenges that any leader faces in making decisions like this. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback, which I’m trying not to do,” he said, although he noted that following the decision of the other UC’s would have come with its own advantages.
Afifi made the decision to continue with remote instruction for his 185-person COMM 89 class, saying there are many valid reasons to continue with virtual instruction.
“I personally decided to immediately extend the online aspect of the course for two more weeks. Because all the data that we have, all the guidance from the other UCs, all suggested that that is the smart thing to do, especially for my circumstance,” he said.
“If there was a lab that had 10 people and a large space, would I make that same decision? Probably not? Maybe not? I don’t know,” Afifi continued.
He said that compared to colleagues at other universities, he felt lucky to have the option to continue teaching virtually.
“I know the worst case scenario, which is to be at universities where there really is pretty awful guidance, and it really does force students and professors and instructors to be in really difficult situations for [their] health,” Afifi said. “I’d rather [have] the option, right, then no option at all.”
Deborah Fygenson, a professor in the physics department and in the biomolecular science & engineering department, said she appreciated Yang’s decision, as it empowers instructors and students to make the decision that best suits their needs.
“I think it is the right decision for the moment. The uncertainty is annoying, but that’s a feature of the pandemic. Yang’s decision does the rational thing in the face of uncertainty: It empowers individual faculty and students — both by now very familiar with the risks of COVID and the limitations of remote instruction — to decide what’s optimal for their situation,” Fygenson said.
Some instructors also felt that the timing of Yang’s email was too late to properly prepare for the beginning of Winter Quarter 2022, while others said they felt Yang responded as best as he could.
“It was not early enough, but I do understand that the situation is evolving dynamically and such decisions have to be taken,” said Prabhanjan Ananth, an assistant professor in the computer science department.
Miller-Young said UCSB “never” makes announcements in a timely manner for faculty.
“The timing of these announcements, all of the announcements we have ever received, are never enough for faculty to adjust. Don’t forget we spent our Christmas and New [Year’s] holidays prepping for the earliest start to Winter Quarter in years,” Miller-Young said. “However, I decided that my class would be remote for all of Winter [quarter], against the rules, I guess. We were told that we could only teach up to 49% of the class remotely. But since my 4 year old is not turning 5 until the end of February, when he can finally get his vaccine, I was not going to comply with that order.”
Whether or not instructors liked Yang’s decision, professors, like Fygenson, gave a shout out to UCSB’s staff who have been providing instructional support especially as instructors transition between in-person and remote learning.
“I’d like to give a shoutout to all the career staff who provide instructional support. I don’t know if the students realize all [the] non-faculty person hours that go into enabling instruction,” Fygenson said. “Staff make the technology work and prepare and support instructors to use it. Staff stay up on the latest pedagogical insights and innovations and pass on what they find. They are the unsung heroes of our pandemic response; their dedication and flexibility have been phenomenal. I don’t think we can thank them enough.”