From CAT: Coping with isolation together

This message to all faculty, deans, directors, and department heads has been approved by Dr. Sally McRorie, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

If you’re having trouble focusing, you’re not alone. Most of us have been thrown for a loop by the changes unfolding in our lives. We’ve lost familiar routines, we’re isolated; many of us are frightened, and perhaps grieving; colleagues and students are worried about their careers, as well as their health and their families. Even the most fortunate of us may be feeling unmoored. On top of all this, the abrupt transition to remote teaching siphons away much of our energy and redirects it to learning new tools and strategies. It’s no wonder if we’re exhausted and frustrated.

Under these circumstances, we will need to dispense with our old expectations of productivity. Most of us are not going to be Newton, inventing Calculus during our self-isolation. And that’s okay. We will have to forgive ourselves for being human. Even those few colleagues who are super-human will need to have mercy on their students at this juncture. Students are having at least as much difficulty working as we are.

When CAT surveyed students, we weren’t surprised to learn that they’re anxious and struggling. “I am having trouble focusing and being productive,” explained one. “I’m thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and I feel that my ‘Safety’ and ‘Love/Belonging’ aspects of the hierarchy have been compromised… My financial security, resources, and personal security have all been affected. Things I wasn’t worrying about before I am now stressed about which is making it harder for me to self-actualize in the academic sphere,” says another. “I am worried my depression will make me slack off on my classes. I am worried I won’t get my usually straight A’s and that I will mess up my GPA.“ Almost every student in the sample admitted to feeling stressed and confused, and many commented that they’re unable to concentrate. “Radio silence from my professors makes my anxiety worse,” added another student.

Learning will be unusually difficult in these conditions, so, as always, a vital but challenging part of our teaching is shaping the context for learning. To enable students to learn, we need to re-establish community and security in our now-remote classrooms; a crucial step in that process is allowing them to share their confusion, fear, and grief. You can accomplish this with a discussion board, a survey, a class discussion, or any number of other ways, but students will appreciate feeling heard and communicating with each other. (It’s important to remember, though, that while additional communication is essential, it’s also extra work—so it will need to replace some work students were already doing. This is not the time to assign more tasks). And even if you don’t know what to say or how to plan, students will value your own honesty about the situation. Our mutual distress can connect, rather than separate us. If you’d like some model language, Brandon Bayne, who teaches Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, recently shared an update to his syllabus that has resonated with a lot of faculty. We especially admire his statement of principles, quoted here in full:


  1.   Nobody signed up for this.
    • Not for the sickness, not for the social distancing, not for the sudden end of our collective lives together on campus
    • Not for an online class, not for teaching remotely, not for learning from home, not for mastering new technologies, not for varied access to learning materials
  1. The humane option is the best option.
    • We are going to prioritize supporting each other as humans
    • We are going to prioritize simple solutions that make sense for the most
    • We are going to prioritize sharing resources and communicating clearly
  1. We cannot just do the same thing online.
    • Some assignments are no longer possible
    • Some expectations are no longer reasonable
    • Some objectives are no longer valuable
  1. We will foster intellectual nourishment, social connection, and personal accommodation.
    • Accessible asynchronous content for diverse access, time zones, and contexts
    • Optional synchronous discussion to learn together and combat isolation
  1. We will remain flexible and adjust to the situation.
    • Nobody knows where this is going and what we’ll need to adapt
    • Everybody needs support and understanding in this unprecedented moment

Our students may not end up learning everything we had planned for them to learn, back in January. But they may learn more important lessons, instead. If we can model grace and compassion in difficult times, we can help our students grow into adults who meet future crises with confidence and humanity.

We’re all doing the best we can in circumstances we never expected. Sometimes our best won’t be very good. But let’s stay connected. We’re here to support you, so please get in touch at if you want to discuss strategies or challenges.

We admire your heroism as you continue to foster learning for your students. Thank you for all you do.