As classes move online, human connections matter more than ever for graduate students — professor

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a professor of education and sociology at the American University, which was the first university in the Washington region to move to online coursework in the wake of the covid-19 outbreak. In this post she looks at the challenges of moving lessons on line especially, but not only, for graduate students.

By Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Colleges across the country are scrambling with the repercussions of moving to online instruction in the face of rising infections from covid-19. Observers have rightly raised concerns about issues of food insecurity and undergraduate student employment, especially as some campuses are also advising students to move out of their dormitories. But it’s important to pay attention to another vulnerable group as well: graduate students.

Some 3 million students are enrolled in postbaccalaureate degree programs in the United States — which includes masters and doctoral programs, as well as professional degrees in fields like law or medicine.

Grad students are vulnerable in different ways from undergraduates: They are typically a bit older, may be living far from their support systems, and likely to be financially strapped in ways that are at least as — if not harder than — when they were undergrads.

I’ve been teaching grad students for nearly 20 years. Most work full-time and go to school in the evening, spending two years or so clocking 16-hour days, multiple days per week, often while navigating significant other burdens. I’ve had students who are pregnant or are caregivers to small children and elderly family members. I’ve had students with cancer or dealing with autoimmune issues and immediate family members’ illnesses. Many struggle with anxiety and depression.

Their graduate classes are an important sense of community for these students. They are a place to check in with their peers and with trusted mentors and focus on themselves and their own learning.

When I told one student how amazed I was that she was always able to make it to class despite the substantial caregiving burden I knew she had at home, she told me that her classes were the one nonnegotiable time each week that was only for her. She had backup care during that time, and her rigorous, challenging graduate classes were her break from an otherwise draining phase of life at home.

For students like this, in-person classes are not just an instrumental path to a future career. They are a critical part of their everyday life, support network, and broader community.

Every faculty member I know is working to quickly convert their syllabi, class discussion assignments, lectures and other class material to online formats. Our universities are making heroic efforts to get those of us who don’t already teach online up to speed, offering evening webinars, resource sheets, and check-ins by video conference and phone.

But as we scramble to get the technical aspects of moving line working as seamlessly as possible, let’s also remember the potential emotional cost of moving away from in-person classes.

All of our students are scared and feeling uncertain, just like many of the rest of us. But grad students — whom we tend to think of as more independent and less vulnerable than undergraduates — are also losing one of the primary places where they have community, peer support, and mentorship.

What can educators do? One place to start is to simply reach out with an email to vulnerable students, expressing support or concern.

We can also try to replicate some of the support networks from in-class groups in the virtual environment. For example, I’m scheduling videoconference calls with groups of students so that we can discuss work collectively, similar to how we would in class.

Colleges should also consider trying to hold some events online rather than canceling outright, leaning on technology to keep us engaged and connected to one another.

Moving teaching online is a heavy lift. It’s completely understandable that faculty are focused on making sure students’ learning experiences are as unaffected as possible.

But as we work to help them all through the rest of the semester, it’s important to remember to check on more than just their Internet connections. The human ones matter, too.

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