What it’s like to be a professor during a pandemic


UPDATE: Since I wrote this post on Friday, several COVID-19 “clusters” have been reported at UNC-Chapel Hill dormitories and at an off-campus fraternity. In consultation with the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, I am moving my course to “remote only” until further notice.

Anxiety is in the air. So is the virus.

We have wrapped up the first week of the fall semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. The university started the term early because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The semester will end by Thanksgiving. The reasoning for this unusual schedule is to avoid a possible second wave of the virus, but we are still in the first wave in North Carolina.

So what’s it like to be on campus? Carroll Hall, the home of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, is oddly quiet. Signs on the floors and doors tell us which way to go when walking inside the building.

I’ve seen some of my colleagues, but many are teaching entirely online. Office hours between faculty and students are taking place via Zoom.

One of my courses, an undergraduate course in editing, meets twice a week in Carroll Hall. It’s what the university calls “face-to-face/hybrid,” one of four teaching methods available this semester. (My other course meets completely online by design.)

For face-to-face meetings, everyone must wear face coverings and stay at least 6 feet apart. To help maintain social distancing, most seats in the classroom are marked off with yellow tape. A dispenser of hand sanitizer is at the room’s entrance.

This room normally seats about 90 people. Under the COVID-19 guidelines, it seats about 20. Here’s what the room looks like:


For each meeting, I livestream the discussion via Zoom. I also record it and share that recording later with the class. That allows students who have health concerns and wish to attend remotely to do so.

On Monday, we will all meet via Zoom. Many class meetings will take place that way by necessity.

For example, when freelance editor Laura Poole visits the class, she will do so virtually. For other meetings, students will split into small groups to make decisions on word choice and news judgment. It’s not feasible for them to huddle while staying 6 feet apart, so we will meet on Zoom, which has a “breakout room” feature.

Later in the semester, students will work on various assignments during classtime, and I will coach them on their story editing, headline writing, linking and other tasks. That one-on-one consultation will take place virtually.

My initial plan was to have one-third of the class meetings in person and two-thirds remote. When I shared that schedule with the students before the semester started, several asked for more in-class meetings, saying they learned better in that setting. The ratio is now about half and half.

So far, face-to-face teaching seems to be going well. Students are adhering to the safety guidelines, some in masks provided by the university and others with custom designs. They are participating in class discussions and asking smart questions. Wearing masks makes it more difficult for us to communicate — no one can see you smile. But eye contact is still possible as long as my eyeglasses don’t fog up.

I am hopeful that we can make this arrangement work so the students can learn the skills of editing. But if necessary, I am ready to change this course to a completely online experience, as I did in the second half of the spring semester.

Regardless of the method of teaching, I am approaching my courses from a position of compassion and flexibility for the students and for myself. This crisis is a burden on teaching and learning, and on physical and mental health. It’s important to acknowledge that.

Best wishes to all on a safe and successful semester.

2 thoughts on “What it’s like to be a professor during a pandemic”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Andy. I’ve been curious about how teaching would play out in person or partly in person. I’m impressed with how you’re managing to make the best of a bad situation. I hope you all stay well!

  2. […] I want to teach students in-person. I want to look at them in the eye when I talk to them, and sit with them to go over their stories. I want to have those idle few moments before class starts where we share a laugh or a story. And I want to have the 15 minutes after class when several of them line up to talk about assignments. I’ve written about my plans for this semester here and here. I wanted to do what my colleague Andy Bechtel described here. […]

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