Campus, Coronavirus, News

CAS professors asked to self-censor in communications with students

Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. In an email to CAS department chairs, Joseph Bizup, associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs and Policies, discouraged professors from discussing the pandemic with students when communicating about their course formats for the Fall. BRITTANY CHANG/ DFP FILE

A memo sent to College of Arts and Sciences department chairs asked professors to avoid references to the ongoing pandemic and to treat Learn from Anywhere as the optimal learning model for Boston University.

Joseph Bizup, associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs and Policies, sent the email Wednesday, advising instructors on how to communicate with students about Fall 2020 course formats.

A professor who asked to remain anonymous forwarded the memo to The Daily Free Press.

Some CAS department chairs refused to distribute the memo to faculty members in their department, according to Laura Korobkin, an associate professor in BU’s English Department.

To clarify what the University deems appropriate information for professors to relate to students in light of the ongoing pandemic, Bizup included specific examples of subjects that professors should and should not discuss. 

The memo encourages professors to “use [their] own words” in communications with students, but dictates what those words should be: “While using your own words, please avoid these:

 “‘Online’: That word is problematic from the perspective of international visa requirements. No CAS courses are ‘online,’ but some of our courses may be delivered ‘remotely,’” Bizup wrote. “‘Value’: This word potentially draws attention to the financial dimensions of attendance at BU, which is not the aspect of the student experience we want these communications to emphasize.”

Bizup also told professors to offer “affirmation” of students’ decisions to return to campus this fall. 

“Crafting these sorts of communications,” Bizup wrote, “can be rhetorically challenging because they must work not only to inform but also to assure and reassure.”

Faculty should avoid any mention of obstacles that are a direct result of the ongoing pandemic, Bizup wrote, adding that professors should instead focus on the positive aspects of their courses and teaching methods.

In reaching out to students about virtual meetings, Bizup told professors not to mention how health precautions like masks and social distancing may make it difficult to make and maintain connections. He wrote that professors should instead tell students how the meetings will allow them to “benefit from working more closely with one another.”

Bizup also advised professors to keep communications with students “brief and straightforward.”  He wrote that professors should communicate the new course format, but avoid explaining to students the reasons for courses being structured a certain way. 

“Say what you have to say and stop,” Bizup wrote. “Keep references to Learn from Anywhere brief.”

Bizup told professors not to reveal any workplace adjustments when explaining Fall 2020 course formats to students, but rather to explain new course formats as optimal for learning. 

“Students need to know the formats of your courses, but they don’t necessarily need to know the reasons for those formats,” Bizup wrote. “If you choose to explain why your courses are structured as they are, frame your explanations in terms of how your courses’ formats contribute to their efficacy rather than in terms of the personal factors that may have influenced their design.”

He also called on faculty not to refer to uncertainties in interactions with students and to only communicate what they know. 

“It is better to be vague,” Bizup wrote, “than to emphasize uncertainties to be resolved.”

Bizup did not respond to a request from The Daily Free Press that he release the full text of the memo.

Korobkin said she is disconcerted by the rhetorical guidance in the memo.

“I found the tone of the letter to be deeply inappropriate. It’s condescending,” Korobkin said. “The letter asks faculty to communicate with students really on behalf of the administration, using the administration’s priorities, rather than trusting them to make their own decisions about what to say, how to say it and when to say it.” 

She said she has concerns about the role faculty would be playing if they were to comply.

“The letter requires faculty to enable a level of deception that I find very troubling,” Korobkin said. “It certainly requests that we participate in using a language which is not direct and accurate.” 

Korobkin said she believes the request for professors to conceal workplace adjustments is tied to the administration’s goal to ensure as many students as possible pay tuition and return to campus next semester. She added that she thinks “students are entitled to know.”

Daniel Star, an associate professor in the Philosophy Department, runs a blog entitled “With All Due Caution,” which features objections to BU’s reopening plans and advocates for faculty who have applied for workplace adjustments. 

Star said he was shocked when he first read the memo and that Bizup’s advice conflicts with the role professors are supposed to play. 

“The memo is directing [professors] not to talk about… a whole range of things or to talk about various things in a certain way… I view those instructions as telling us to put a PR spin on what we say, when in fact PR is not the job of teachers,” Star said. “We’re in the business of talking truthfully, honestly about important subjects with our students.”

Star said he believes the guidance Bizup issued is rooted in the University’s financial concerns. 

“I jokingly said to colleagues that it’s as if the University has given us a guide for creating propaganda,” Star said. “because we’re being told to put a certain spin on what we say, with financial concerns in mind. So they’re very concerned about how BU is being sold to students at the moment.” 

John Straub, a chemistry professor, said that whether professors feel they must follow Bizup’s recommendations will most likely depend on whether or not they have tenure. 

“If you’re getting that message and you don’t have tenure, and it’s the dean’s office saying that this is advice, it feels very different,” Straub said, “particularly in these times where there’s so much concern about finances at the university and job security.” 

Straub said students deserve to know why classes are structured the way they are, and that faculty must retain the ability to justify these circumstances without feeling there are certain contexts they cannot give.

“Every faculty member that I know is working very hard to present the best class or to create the best class he or she can for the students,” Straub said.

Straub said faculty did not have the opportunity to influence decisions over the course formats promised by LfA for the Fall semester. 

“We should have been consulted and our voices should have been heard in the development of plans for the fall,” Straub said. “I think that we could have had something great to offer that would look very different from Learn from Anywhere.”

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  1. Thank you for your service

  2. An excellent article on a complex topic, drawn from an impressive number of sources. I write this as a member of the CGS faculty, someone who did not receive Dean Bizup’s letter.