How Has the Pandemic Affected Academics?

Researchers study how research and teaching activities have been disrupted.

WHILE MANY ARTICLES have speculated on how the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted business schools, little hard evidence exists about how it has impacted faculty, write James Walker, Chris Brewster, and Rita Fontinha of Henley Business School at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. To fill that gap, they surveyed more than 2,600 faculty, mostly at business schools in the U.K., to determine how the virus has affected their ability to perform their core functions of teaching and research. The authors argue that—because the business sector incorporates a broad set of disciplines from the humanities to the sciences—faculty in management and economics are “canaries in the coal mine” for the academic world when it comes to adapting to remote work practices.

In their preliminary report, the authors isolated three key findings on the topic of research. For instance, just as many students have noted they consider fully online courses poor substitutes for in-person instruction, many faculty consider online conferences poor substitutes for face-to-face events. Respondents also are concerned that research focused on the pandemic might garner the majority of available research income and grant funding, crowding out projects on other important subjects.

At the same time, some researchers are feeling the effects of the pandemic more than others. Those who employ quantitative methodologies are likely to be less affected than those using qualitative ones such as ethnographic and archival research, which are more difficult to pursue during a lockdown.

Finally, because the pandemic is requiring faculty to devote more time to teaching, assessment, and administration, professors have less time to spend on research. The authors note that this “may make protecting time for research problematic as universities focus their energies on teaching as the predominant revenue generation activity.”

In the area of teaching and learning, the authors found that respondents largely agree that teaching online makes it more difficult to understand whether students are learning and understanding. Faculty indicate that online teaching is more time-consuming and tiring, which increases workload pressures and could undermine the welfare of professors.

The scholars also asked respondents about work engagement. They found that time pressures are unevenly distributed but have risen in teaching, assessment, and administration; many respondents also are experiencing increased demands as they work from home, particularly if they are parents. At the same time, academics believe they are exhibiting the same dedication to their jobs and the same tendencies to work long hours, even during the pandemic. As a result, some have struggled to maintain levels of mental resilience and energy.

In light of these findings, Walker, Brewster, and Fontinha recommend that probation and promotion committees should explicitly account for COVID-19-related circumstances and grant bodies should support funding for projects other than COVID-19 topics. In addition, they advise university leaders not to set unrealistic expectations for staff in the coming year. Finally, they emphasize, schools will need to develop more precise evaluative methods to determine whether modes of teaching such as blended learning could enable better student outcomes.

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