Being a professor with a pre-existing commitment during a pandemic

Emily DiSalvo, Arts and Life Editor

Some Quinnipiac University professors used to have time for physical therapy, photo excursions and long walks, but when COVID-19 hit, they watched their free time become consumed by larger course loads and more challenging lesson plans on top of their existing commitments like kids and research.

“I am hoping the pandemic will only be one year because it is going to age me 10 years,” said Professor Jennifer Sacco, chair of the philosophy and political science department.

I am hoping the pandemic will only be one year because it is going to age me 10 years”

— Professor Jennifer Sacco

Sacco opted to teach only virtual classes this semester due to her two school-aged children needing support with online learning. Sacco said she has no time for herself.

“In the U.S., we have a tendency to think that everything can get better if we are being mindful or we are being positive and a solution to stress is yoga,” Sacco said. “For a problem that is structural in nature, the only solution is structural. It has to be to reduce the work. You can’t solve this by being mindful of your breathing.”

Most full-time professors at Quinnipiac are teaching an extra course this semester, meaning four classes instead of three. This was a result of layoffs that occurred this summer.

Rebecca Bamford, professor of philosophy, said she has had to forgo important physical therapy exercises because of her workload. While she does not have kids, she has a research commitment that she started long before the pandemic, on top of the courses she teaches.

“I am just in a time crunch constantly,” Bamford said. “I am finding I am more tired. There is more to do. I am trying to get into a good routine and try to build exercise into it.”

Professor Rebecca Bamford, shown here, has no free time due to an increased course load and research commitments. (Photo from Rebecca Bamford)

Bamford tore her ACL a few years ago so she said it is especially important that she finds time for exercises to keep her knee strong.

“The clinic has not been able to open for chronic patients, so I have been trying to do things at home and go for walks, but it is hard,” Bamford said. “I am probably not doing as good of a job with that as I should be because I am trying to get all my work done and meet my obligations.”

When everything came to a halt in March due to the pandemic, Bamford’s research did not.

“I have contractual commitments to write and submit journal articles, book chapters, I have a book collection that really needs to go to the press by December as well as multiple other commitments,” Bamford said.

Research is an expectation and an equal responsibility for her job just the same as teaching classes, according to Bamford.

“I know I have research commitments and they are an essential part of what I do, but the issue is how much support I will be getting,” Bamford said. “At this point, it is really not clear. We used to have support in the form of money … that money is no longer available, and we don’t know what is happening for next year yet.”

Bamford, like Sacco, does not see a break in sight, and they are not alone. Professor Hilary Fussell Sisco, chair of the Department of Strategic Communication, has two children, ages 6 and 9. In hopes of avoiding outside childcare and bringing germs into her home, Fussell Sisco has been helping her kids with online learning at the same time as teaching virtual classes from home.

“I am not used to having no separation from my home and my work,” Fussell Sisco said. “I always tried to be a good professor and a good parent and try to set up boundaries. Those boundaries are blurred.”

Hattie Sisco, age 9, works from home. The pandemic has blurred the lines between Professor Fussell Sisco’s home and work life. (Photo from Hilary Fussell Sisco)

Fussell Sisco said she tries to spend as much time on everything that she can, except there are a lot more things to focus on now. Her kids did virtual learning only for the first five weeks of the school year and then transitioned to going into school two days a week. She, like Sacco, knew she would have to help her kids with virtual learning, so she applied to be a virtual-only professor, an exemption Quinnipiac allowed this semester.

“The 6-year-old needs facilitation, he needs encouragement to learn to become a strong learner,” Fussell Sisco said. “We spend a lot of time sitting together.”

In order to get some relaxation, Fussell Sisco gets up before the sunrise and heads out for a walk.

“That has been a routine that I didn’t have last spring before all of this,” Fussell Sisco said. “I try to carve out a time and a space. By the time I get home, the kids are getting up.”

Wasim Ahmad, assistant teaching professor of journalism, said he is lucky enough to have family in the area to watch his kids while he is working. Nonetheless, he said he is doing significantly more work than he did last year because of the pandemic without any extra preparation time or money.

“You are teaching classes in a hybrid format, some geared for people on campus, some for people at home, some for people in both places,” Ahmad said. “In some ways, it’s preparing the classes (that) I have always run in three different ways and reinvent them for online teaching. It is difficult to say the least. It’s three times what I was doing before, and I was already almost at capacity.”

Because he is stretched so thin, Ahmad said that he’s not able to teach the classes at the same level and quality he used to in previous semesters.

Professor Wasim Ahmad’s at-home office (Photo from Wasim Ahmad)

“I have always prided myself at being pretty good at teaching,” Ahmad said. “People come out of my classes producing great stuff. I have always felt like I know what I am doing, but this semester I feel like I don’t even know how to teach what I have always done.”

The stress and workload has cut down on the time he can spend with his kids doing the things he loves, Ahmad said. The time he does spend with his kids is often helping with virtual school.

“I don’t have the opportunity to go on photo excursions, take the kids on hikes, but a lot of it is I just need to get by and get the stuff I need to do, done,” Ahmad said. “I need to get these classes taught, I need to get this stuff graded, I need to make changes to make the class better.”

Professors like Sacco, Bamford, Fussell Sisco and Ahmad are unsure what the upcoming spring semester will bring, but they all agree that they need a break. Professors worked through the summer preparing for the new Q-Flex format and some haven’t had time away since last winter break.

“If we lived in a society with better support for people working full time or have kids or just had a baby, so much of the stress would be decreased because we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding our families for a period of nonwork,” Sacco said. “Other societies have better unemployment or better childcare leave policies. They may worry about (COVID-19) or their child’s learning, but they are not also worrying about their finances and paying their bills. In the U.S. we act like it’s everyone’s individual problem.”