Despite the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on higher education, recent discussions of productivity have been surprisingly traditional. Productivity continues to mean scholarly output in the form of monographs, peer-reviewed articles, conferences presentations, and grant proposals in a particular field of academic study.
This definition of productivity holds regardless of advice about how best to achieve it. Some academics advise embracing physical distancing as an opportunity for a kind of scholarly retreat. Many more urge letting go of writing for the time being and focusing on physical and mental health. Why? Because self-care now will reap scholarly rewards in the future (Ahmad, 2020).
This advice has been adopted, to some degree, by administrators at colleges and universities who are pushing through extensions to tenure clocks, recognizing that the pandemic is interfering with the scholarly output of faculty at every rank. The crisis has also curtailed the process of reviewing grant and article submissions, book manuscripts, and tenure and promotion files, thus slowing the progress of productivity’s conventional documentation for everyone while exacerbating practices that exclude women and people of color (Flaherty, 2020; Pettit, 2020).
Kicking the can down the road is necessary right now, but it is not a long-term solution. On the contrary, upheavals to our regular rhythms provide opportunities to combat the long-standing inequities that the crisis has brought into sharp relief and must prompt us to rethink our shared definition of productivity.
Whether administrations favor synchronous meeting applications or asynchronous learning management systems, the move to online teaching has meant that faculty have had to acquire new proficiencies, both technical and pedagogical, at a speed often unseen in higher education.
Faculty who previously relied on charisma and expertise to engage students and fill contact hours must now be more strategic about instructional design and make difficult decisions about content delivery and assessment mechanisms, especially given the significant distractions students are facing in their personal lives (Brown & Mangan, 2020).
As we continue to restructure fall classes, some instructors are shifting away from entrenched models of disciplinary mastery and toward innovative models that embrace a variety of competencies, allowing us to teach to students’ unique needs and goals. Many institutions have begun to move in this direction by dedicating resources to faculty training in accessible media, authentic assessments, and creative and collaborative projects.
This moment of widespread engagement invites us to devise new mechanisms for documenting productive academic labor. For example, rather than throwing out student evaluations written during COVID-19 (American Association of University Professors, n.d.; Modern Language Association Executive Council 2020), faculty might use this feedback as a baseline against which to demonstrate effort and evolution in teaching. For their part, programs and departments might recruit external reviewers to contribute teaching expertise to a review of tenure and promotion files. By truly weighing teaching equally with scholarship, we begin to acknowledge pedagogy as productivity.
COVID-19 is also encouraging faculty to embrace new forms of student support. Our colleagues in K–12 have long been more attentive to their role in facilitating all aspects of student development, and the renewed national focus on their skill and resilience should spur tenured and tenure-track faculty to recognize that care work is essential to their more privileged positions as well.
As colleges and universities serve increasingly diverse student populations, it becomes harder and harder to deny that faculty are being called upon, whether implicitly or explicitly, to do care work. The urgency of our students’ needs is compounded by crises that threaten to become more frequent—not just the current pandemic and its long-term impacts on students’ well-being, but also global trends like climate change.
Working under crisis conditions is a familiar scenario for many of our colleagues. Faculty who occupy one or more marginalized identity positions have long done more than their fair share of peer and student mentorship and diversity and inclusion work (Flaherty, 2019). Yet a robust record of such service remains less likely to secure retention or promotion than a solid list of publications.
To address the imbalance between what students need and what the profession rewards, we must take a hard look at how historically underrepresented faculty have created the conditions for the rest of us to perform conventional forms of productivity. Like ensuring that children eat breakfast before going to school, this highly gendered, classed, and racialized work is necessary, not ancillary, to the more visible work of producing scholarship.
Once we acknowledge this reality, we can consider what it means to fairly compensate faculty who have experience performing care work while navigating traditional academic structures. And we must design meaningful training and support structures for faculty who need them. These changes go beyond renegotiating tenure clocks (American Association of University Professors, n.d.), moving us instead toward a new landscape in which care work is fully valued.
We all benefit from the crowdsourcing of proficiencies generated by the goodwill of our fellow faculty. So it is refreshing to see these existing skill sets garnering the attention that they deserve. From creators on social media to centers for teaching and learning at individual institutions to the education industrial complex, leaders in higher education are spotlighting best practices from around the globe.
This kind of faculty development, like teaching and care work, has been traditionally excluded from definitions of productivity. Peer teaching and learning is invisible labor until a faculty member chooses not to participate and risks losing the designation of “team player.” At the same time, faculty who choose to participate may be uneasy or uncertain about how to document this challenging work.
Professional organizations and academic institutions can take a leading role in changing these conditions. For instance, they might establish programs that support sustained collaboration and mentorship, or advocate for hiring, retention, and promotion practices that give weight to public-facing engagement.
The current global health crisis is shining a light on productivity that has always been crucial to facilitating student learning, and our focus on this important work need not end when we return to something resembling normality. In this extraordinary moment, academic leaders have the opportunity to shift their thinking as well as their policies and practices. They have the chance to create a professional environment in which this kind of labor is openly acknowledged as productive, thereby contributing to the broader process of reimagining the social function of higher education.
Ahmad, A. S. (2020, March 27). Why you should ignore all that coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366
American Association of University Professors. (n.d.). AAUP principles and standards for the COVID-19 crisis. https://www.aaup.org/aaup-principles-and-standards-covid-19-crisis
Brown, S., & Mangan, K. (2020, May 28). What college students need now. https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-College-Students-Need-Now/248882
Flaherty, C. (2019, June 4). Undue burden. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/06/04/whos-doing-heavy-lifting-terms-diversity-and-inclusion-work
Flaherty, C. (2020, April 21). No room of one’s own. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity
Modern Language Association Executive Council. (2020, March). Statement on COVID-19 and academic labor. https://www.mla.org/About-Us/Governance/Executive-Council/Executive-Council-Actions/2020/Statement-on-COVID-19-and-Academic-Labor
Pettit, E. (2020, May 26). Being a woman in academe has its challenges. A global pandemic? Not helping. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Being-a-Woman-in-Academe-Has/248852
Marissa Greenberg, PhD, is an associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico. She has 20 years of experience teaching in-person, hybrid, and fully online classes and participates regularly in faculty course development for the Center for Digital Learning.
Elizabeth Williamson, PhD, is the dean of faculty hiring and development at The Evergreen State College. She oversees new faculty training, ongoing professional development for all faculty members, and workshops on developing inclusive and accessible online courses. She has 20 years of teaching experience, focusing on interdisciplinary, student-centered learning.