A Letter to My Students During the Pandemic

As the pandemic forces schools to move education online, faculty find teachable moments that extend beyond business basics. Here, one professor shares his approach to helping students apply a growth mindset during the crisis—even outside of the classroom.
Photo of hands typing on black vintage typewriter on top of wooden desk.

Dear Students,

“I’m frustrated.” “Life is chaotic right now.” “It’s just not how I thought this semester would go.” Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, these are your primary responses as I continually ask the question, “Are you doing OK?”

I’m sorry, and I know it’s not fair. I feel like I should be doing something. Along those lines, perhaps I should also be asking a second question: “What do you think you’ll learn from this?”

I’ve realized that my job as a professor has a little to do with teaching content, and a great deal more to do with facilitating opportunities for your growth. Because let’s be honest, most of the content—definitions, theories, models—can easily be retrieved in a whopping five seconds with a targeted Google search.

Equipping you with self-awareness and critical thinking skills that you can carry with you into the real world upon graduation is what actually matters. Meeting that goal, however, hinges upon whether or not I can create an experience—something that significantly alters the way you view the world and yourselves.

Ironically, and unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has created just such an experience. It’s unlikely to be forgotten, and if viewed with a growth mindset—the belief that one’s skills and qualities can be cultivated through effort and perseverance—it can be life-changing.

Outlined below are three opportunities for growth, including practicing adaptive performance, engaging in intellectual opposition, and learning to manage stress. These are three areas of my scholarship as a management professor that are consistently discussed in the evidence-based, management and organizational behavior literature. I challenge you to consider these growth opportunities as you manage your way through the remainder of this semester.

PRACTICE ADAPTIVE PERFORMANCE

Almost all organizations evaluate the performance of their employees on a semi-regular schedule (e.g., quarterly, annually). Until about 20 years ago, these ratings primarily evaluated whether employees were doing their jobs as formally described in a static job description—what management scholars call task proficiency.

Organizations eventually realized that in today’s volatile, complex, and ambiguous work environment, proficiency is not enough. Organizations now evaluate what’s called “adaptive performance,” which entails the extent to which employees can adjust and excel in response to unexpected changes in their work environment.

The university system is heavily weighted toward task proficiency. It has to be, because it’s constrained by the need for fairness. Professors create syllabi, assignment instructions, and grading rubrics to ensure an even playing field, a set of clear rules on what constitutes high performance. Or more specifically, what constitutes high task proficiency.

Although it might not be graded, the degree to which you can adapt and excel when moving from face-to-face to online instruction is perhaps the closest you’ll get during your undergraduate career to experiencing adaptive performance. I know it will be hard, but my recommendation is to embrace it, do your best, and learn from it. On the surface, it might not seem fair to have to pivot without warning. But I think many graduates would agree that this scenario is likely to be the rule rather than the exception throughout your work life.

ENGAGE IN INTELLECTUAL OPPOSITION

Teaching ethics is tough. No matter how detailed and well-written the ethics case, it still comes across as abstract and unrelatable. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a rich test case that all of us are experiencing in real time. Plus, it has produced a recurring ethics debate that will likely continue for centuries to come.

The moral rights perspective suggests that an ethical decision is whatever acknowledges that all human beings have fundamental rights (e.g., access to healthcare). Thankfully, for the most part, leaders in the U.S. have adopted this ethical stance. The goal is to flatten the curve because there aren’t enough beds and ventilators to handle the spike in cases. Therefore, to prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, the ethical decision is to mandate that the population shelter in place.

Unfortunately, it gets more complicated. As economists have pointed out, a long-term shelter-in-place order has the potential to trigger an economic depression and, as a result, degrade the well-being of the masses. Indeed, we’re just getting started, and organizations are already making plans for mass layoffs. Thus, while upholding the moral rights perspective, we may indirectly harm everyone, but in a much less drastic manner. This highlights an opposing moral perspective, utilitarianism, which suggests that the ethical decision is whatever does the greatest good for the majority.

My opinion on this matter is unimportant. What I do have is a strong recommendation: Engage in intellectual opposition, don’t dismiss it. Regardless of your current inclination—moral rights or utilitarian—you should learn more about the nuances of the opposing arguments. Ask questions. Seek out unbiased evidence. Then follow your gut. Ethics, just like life, is never straightforward. An ethical dilemma requires that you get in there and really think about it. Then come up with your own, unapologetic conclusions.

LEARN TO MANAGE STRESS

A few years ago, I got so sick I didn’t leave my room for ten days. I have never felt that awful before. I remember thinking, I just want to feel normal again. I wasn’t longing for perfect. I just wanted to be able to get out of bed and have an inkling of an appetite. Oddly enough, being sick was exactly what I needed to gain perspective. When the illness had subsided, I felt a profound sense of appreciation for simply being pain-free.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a similar effect. Life can be hard. It might not be perfect, but that's normal. Once the pandemic runs its course, we should all attempt to embrace the stressors of day-to-day life as inevitable, appreciate what we have, and remember that things could be much, much worse.

It’s also understandable that maintaining focus is difficult given the distractions that COVID-19 has created. But keep in mind that over time, life typically gets more complicated, not less. As you get older, your responsibilities are likely to accumulate. You might be managing others at work, managing your personal assets, taking care of your children, or supporting your aging parents, yet you still need to get your work done. Everyone is different, and the sooner you understand your coping style and coping resources, the better.

EMBRACE A GROWTH MINDSET

I’ve been incredibly proud of the responses I’ve received from you when I’ve asked if you’re doing OK. It would appear that every one of you has accepted the situation for what it is. But keep in mind, this is just a starting point. The next step is to take time for self-reflection and think deeply about what you’re learning about yourselves, including your assumptions and tendencies. This is a growth mindset, which psychologist and Stanford professor Carol Dweck explains as one that “creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Such a mindset will serve you well in the future, far beyond the timeline of a temporary pandemic.

Cheering you on,
Professor Dust


Headshot of Scott Dust, Dr. John F. Mee Endowed Assistant Professor of Management at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business, Oxford, OhioScott Dust is the Dr. John F. Mee Endowed Assistant Professor of Management at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio.

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