Teaching in-person

by Harry on September 7, 2020

The Wisconsin State Journal ran this article (for which I was interviewed) about return to school. (For reasons I don’t understand, the article is not accessible in many countries: sorry). A colleague in the Economics department emailed me after seeing the article saying that, quite apart from admiring the picture of the back of my head, he envied me the in-person experience, and wished that the campus had a physically distance-able space for his 420-person class. The email brought into focus the thought that I’m kind of a free-rider here. If everything were in-person I don’t think I – or anybody – would be feeling safe, or enjoying it very much. But, given how we are actually doing it (with most teaching online), I feel very good about teaching in-person, and will regret it if we aren’t able to continue through to Thanksgiving (which is the plan). I have those of my colleagues who are not teaching in-person to thank.

How are we doing actually doing it? Well, it’s true, as the article says, that 43% of classes have some in-person component. Every single in-person element is small, socially distanced, and masked. And the 43% figure might really mislead you. For many classes ‘component’ is a key term. I’m thinking of a 240-person 4-credit class in which everything is online, except for 3 discussion sections. That class is included in the 43%: but out of 960-person-credit hours, only 60 are actually in-person. I don’t know the exact proportion of credit hours that are in-person, but judging by conversations I’ve had with students, and comparing the trickles of students on campus with the usual crowds I would be really, really, surprised if it is as much as 15%.

And I really do mean trickle. One of my classes is T/Th 11am in the Business School building (one of the few buildings new enough that all the rooms really were designed for learning). Usually during that slot the building is heaving with students – like Christmas shopping on Oxford Street but without the packages. Normally all the classrooms are fully occupied. Last Thursday, at what would usually be its busiest time of the week, the building was almost empty, with most classrooms free. It was no challenge at all to keep a 6 feet gap between yourself and the next person. It wouldn’t have been a challenge to maintain a 60 feet gap, if that were your preference.

If anyone is sick the instructions are clear: they should not come to class. Maybe some students will not comply with this rule; but it won’t be many. We’ve made it clear that we will accommodate absences: in my classes if you are sick but functional you will be zoomed in, and participate in the class just like everyone else (and, indeed, one of my classes is hybrid by design). On the first day one student had been tested, but her negative result hadn’t yet come through, so we zoomed her in, and her experience was less good than it would have been in person, but better, I am convinced, than if we were all online. Indeed, she’s the only student whose face I’ve seen so far!

One of the comments in the State Journal seemed to me to make an error I’ve seen elsewhere, conflating in-person teaching with everything else students living on or near the campus are doing. Our Chancellor is quoted as saying, rightly, that we knew that students were going to be back in Madison regardless of what we did. Nobody has proposed that we go out of business, but even if we’d done that most of them would have come to Madison. For sure, having young people come in from out of town, and then hang around with each other in town, was bound to increase the number of cases. The question for us was how to weigh the educational benefits of having some in-person teaching against the health risks of having that in-person teaching.

When requesting that my teaching be in-person I gambled that, for me, even in a physically-distanced, fully masked, environment, I would be able to make significantly more learning happen than online. The work I’ve been doing with our instructional continuity team since July has convinced me that I was right about that, and I remain convinced. It’s really remarkably normal.

The other gamble, I suppose, was that it is reasonably safe.

Remember that all the classes that are meeting in person are small – small enough to be physically distanced. As you can see from the picture of the back of my head, the larger of these small classes are meeting in vast rooms, and even the smaller ones are meeting in pretty large rooms. The evidence so far is that the administration is going to be quite vigorous in enforcing the public health norms that they have outlined. Students with symptoms will be too embarrassed to come to class, even if they want to; even the tiny minority of students who are incautious enough not to care about spreading the disease in class know that a substantial number of their peers will not appreciate being put at risk and will let them know in no uncertain terms. I haven’t heard a cough or a sneeze yet, but I anticipate anyone who does feeling very awkward. [1]

Offering some amount of in-person instruction has created some inducements to behave more safely outside of class. One advantage of having some in-person instruction is that many students really seem to value that and have a reason to avoid becoming infected (not just by COVID, but by anything). Another advantage that hadn’t occurred to me until talking to the students is that the in-person-class-valuing students are exerting pressure on their non-in-person-class-valuing roommates not to behave in ways that might bring infection into their abodes. I realise that we might, at some point, need to close down in-person instruction, but the moment we do that the following will happen: i) these particular inducements to avoid infection will be removed, and ii) there will be no more 50- and 75- minute periods during the week in which students are rigorously physically distanced and wearing masks. As things stand, if we move everything online, there’s a good chance that will make things more dangerous.

[1] I have been having the most awful seasonal allergies, and feared that it might cause awkwardness before remembering that one of the many things I love about being in classrooms and my office is that my allergies evaporate as soon as I enter a university building. Also, the only coughing I have done in the past 6 months has been caused by the masks my mother-in-law made, but fortunately I now have non-cough-inducing masks from UW Madison and Worcestershire County Cricket Club. Indeed, it now occurs to me that the only coughing I have heard in all that time has been my own, caused by masks, and my son’s, caused by his remarkable ability to cough at will and enthusiasm for annoying everyone around him.



Tim Worstall 09.08.20 at 9:26 am

“(For reasons I don’t understand, the article is not accessible in many countries: sorry).”

Regulations have costs.

The page when I try to access:

“451: Unavailable due to legal reasons
We recognize you are attempting to access this website from a country belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA) including the EU which enforces the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and therefore access cannot be granted at this time.”

It costs to make sure that data is kept – and more importantly that the paperwork is done which shows that it is kept – according to the EU’s data privacy and ownership rules. Therefore outlets which expect some minimal loss of traffic or audience by not serving up to Europeans don’t bother paying those costs.

Maybe those regs are worthwhile, maybe not, certainly some that are imposed are and some aren’t if we consider all regs across all fields . But such regs always do have costs just as some of them might have benefits.

The loss of many regional and local US papers here in Europe is, umm, minimal perhaps. But then so possibly is the benefit of that data protection….


John Quiggin 09.08.20 at 9:33 am

I found this very useful, thanks, Harry


Donald A. Coffin 09.08.20 at 1:43 pm

I am increasingly glad to be retired.

I taught at a nonresidential campus pf a large public university. We had very few large classroom spaces (maybe 3 or 4 that could accommodate 100 or more students–not socially distanced). My classes were typically in classrooms with space for no more than 50, and typically at least 90% occupied. So, again, no social distancing. Most of the students were juggling classes with work with home responsibilities, many with small children. Not surprisingly, there’s very little on-campus activity (mostly in the sciences, for labs, and medical–nursing/allied health).


Robert 09.10.20 at 4:19 am

Well, that didn’t take long—Wisconsin-Madiaon going all online for at least two weeks due to outbreaks on campus.


Matt 09.11.20 at 1:02 am

I’d be very curious to seen an update from Harry on this, given recent developments at UW – do you think on-campus classes will come back this term? Was the plan overly-ambitious? What should change? Do you want to come back, given developments? etc.


Alan White 09.11.20 at 3:56 am

I’m very much with Donald Coffin @ 3.

But I checked in with my smallish UW campus to find that they have increased enrollment by double digits with careful recruitment emphasizing mask requirements and including small classes with social distancing in-class along with hybrid sessions. My own former department–philosophy–is depleted–after I retired from a full-time position on the campus we might have one on-line course now–but that is for another discussion about how the humanities might survive a double-hit from pandemic and relentless assault from politics that have nearly destroyed university budgets that are not R1 supported, as Harry’s department is.


anon 09.12.20 at 3:21 am

“I’m thinking of a 240-person 4-credit class”

Independent of COVID: doesn’t this statement by itself suggest the utter bankruptcy of university as education?



JBL 09.12.20 at 3:27 pm

(Only dimly related to the OP, apologies in advance.)

Last year I decided finally to try hiring a student coach for my teaching, following the model described in your post here years ago. (It didn’t seem to make sense to do it before I was in a situation of (hopefully) permanent employment, teaching versions of the same course repeatedly.) The department chair was enthusiastic about it when I described it to him in January, with the plan of starting in September. Then of course the pandemic happened, everything moved online, and the chair had to fight with a dean about whether this is a valid use of $2000, etc., but it worked out: my selected student (a senior who took the class as a sophomore) is sitting in and giving feedback. It’s hard to overstate how helpful it is in this moment, because the basic mechanics of teaching online are new to me and there is so much scope for little nudges. (I can say more if anyone cares.) I guess the point of this is (1) thanks for writing that post, and (2) online teaching doesn’t have to be terrible, and feedback helps.


Matt 09.13.20 at 11:07 am

“I’m thinking of a 240-person 4-credit class”

Independent of COVID: doesn’t this statement by itself suggest the utter bankruptcy of university as education?,

Please, do not turn your eyes towards (a lot of) university education in Australia – you won’t like what you see!

(Also, I’d still really be interested to hear from Harry about what he thinks about the developments at UW-M. Do you agree with the decision to suspend in-person classes? What do you think went wrong? Are you eager to go back, or do you think there will be “going back”? Were criticisms of other university plans too fast/harsh, and too optimistic about UW-M, or do you think each case is different? It would be interesting to hear, given what you’ve written here so far.)


Harry 09.13.20 at 1:52 pm

JBL — I’d love to hear more. Thanks, that’s very encouraging.

Matt. Well. The background is: infections began to rise ‘on campus’ which, in reality, means in 2 specific dorms. On Wednesday morning the County Executive asked us to send the students home (presumably so that they can infect their families and communities — I’m not sure he is aware of just how many of those additional infections would be in Dane County) and criticized us for not starting all-remote. The TA union, and the student government, both without any consultation as far as I know, held an ‘all-remote’ position. The dorms in question were quarantined, and, among the other measures the Chancellor took was suspending in-person teaching for two weeks. (Obviously, it would be unconscionable to close the dorms and send the students ‘home’. Worth noting too that we can’t send most students home — most live off-campus, and were going to come back to Madison, and will remain here, whatever choices we had made). The Chancellor’s statement acknowledges that there is no evidence that in-person teaching is implicated in the spread of infections; its pretty clear that this is a political decision, and probably politically wise in the circumstances.

Will in-person teaching come back? I hope so. We’ve done a lot of contact tracing, and no infection is traced to in-person classes. And that’s not surprising; as soon as I saw it in action my thought was “If this activity promotes spread then why doesn’t everybody already have the disease?”. For me, I’ll basically ditch whatever I need to in order to make sure plenty of real learning happens in my classes; I’ve also encouraged the administration to create a free, P/F 1-credit course with tiny (5 person) synchronous sections specifically for freshmen in the dorms, to be taught by volunteers: the thought of those students sitting in their dorms with no synchronous teaching and no means of meeting new people really horrifies me.

Some of our commentators have convincingly claimed that online teaching of certain things in certain ways can be really valuable. And I just went through the Canvas site for one of my department’s courses, taught by a grad student (large lecture, with synchronous discussion sections) and it really is outstandingly good — I’m really proud that my dept is providing some outstanding quality. I’d be very curious what proportion of the new on-line teaching this Fall on campuses that have gone all- or nearly-all online are actually like that, though. My completely anecdotal conversations with many students at Madison do not make me optimistic at all.

As to different campuses — I do think that local conditions make a difference, and there are all sorts of contextual factors. Some small liberal arts colleges are not having any problems at all!


Matt 09.13.20 at 11:05 pm

Thanks, Harry – that’s interesting. I hope the situation will improve, though I’ll admit that I’m not super optimistic.

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