Leading the Ship in Uncertain Seas

Pandemic Stresses and How to Cope

By Leslie Mertz for the American Chemical Society

Department and division chairs have always walked a balance beam to meet the needs of faculty, staff, and students, as well as the demands of institutional administrators. Since the pandemic began, however, they have been scrambling to hold everything together as that balance beam has become more of a wind-buffeted and ever-lengthening tightrope.

Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, eight academic leaders from small to large institutions took a moment to share some of the many stresses they have faced, and reflect on the strategies they have used to help keep their departments, their people, their students – and their personal mental well-being – on track.

The big switch

As the pandemic shut down schools across the country, the first big hurdle was figuring how to pivot from mainly in-person classes to remote learning, and make that huge shift in the blink of an eye. “For faculty doing this for the first time, they were not sure if they needed a tablet or if they were going to have to use a camera against a white board. They also wanted to know how lab courses were going to be conducted and if they could have access to their labs to make demos. It was a lot of just dealing with faculty angst early on,” recalled Leyte Winfield, Ph.D. of Spelman College, where she is both an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, which encompasses her home department and five others.

Getting all the faculty “up to par on the spot” with online teaching has been very taxing, concurred Floyd Jackson Ph.D., chemistry professor and chair at Columbus State University. “We have some faculty members who have taught in a certain model for years, but with the pandemic and having to teach online, the model has to change: You simply cannot teach in the same format as you have been teaching in person, nor are you able to assess in the same manner,” he said. Testing has been a particular headache as some students have registered complaints about being watched on camera as they are taking tests, while faculty members have aired concerns about possible student cheating. As a remedy for his own small, upper-level inorganic class, Jackson was able to develop creative open-book exams, but he recognizes that is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution. He remarked, “Student assessment was a very major issue, and it still is. That’s been very stressful.”

Chemistry labs have been another obstacle, perhaps nowhere as evident as at Simmons University, where the curriculum is heavily focused on integrating original research into the teaching labs. “We essentially had to redesign our entire research curriculum over the summer, which was a big stressor,” said chemistry and physics professor and chair Rich Gurney, Ph.D. A particular struggle was the online-lab component. “It has been a challenge to find really robust online platforms for laboratories that support that ‘hands on learning’ (and) allow students to learn from their mistakes rather than being pre-programmed to give the correct answers,” he said, noting that the department has now settled on Beyond Labz that promotes its desired mode of learning.

Research has become a concern in a broader sense, too, added Cora MacBeth, Ph.D., Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Sciences at Emory University. “For institutions like ours that are very research-active, the department chairs are also trying to figure out how to maintain the research infrastructure: How do you make sure that the service labs are up and running, the X-ray center is still collecting samples, NMRs  are still being run?” she remarked. “That also means now coming up with laboratory reopening plans at reduced density So we have had to on-the-fly figure out how to safely operate research labs under the new socially distant conditions.”

Above and below

A good deal of stress for chairs also comes from juggling the directives and big-picture goals of administrators with the on-the-ground realities of running a department.

“For instance, well-meaning administrators will say ‘X’ and then you’ll start acting on a plan, trying to be proactive and forecast and strategic, and then ‘Y’ comes down instead,” described Joseph Provost, Ph.D., Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of San Diego. “And then you have faculty who want answers, and you don’t want to lose their confidence by acting and then finding that administrators changed their minds. So, there’s been a kind of whiplash that adds a lot of stress.”

An institutional goal at the Colorado School of Mines was to begin offering 50 percent of its courses face-to-face in the fall, but it was easier said than done, said Tom Gennett, Ph.D., Chemistry Professor and Department Head. “I have some faculty who are requesting not to teach face-to-face for valid health reasons, but at the same time, I’m receiving pushback from up above that I have to force them to teach face-to-face, and so then I’m thinking that if they get sick, it’s my fault,” he said. “The pressure of having to hit that number of 50 percent made it very difficult.”

Over at California State University, San Bernardino, the administration has continued to hand down mandates as part of a 2015-2025 initiative to increase graduation rates, reported Kimberley Cousins, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of its Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “My take on this is that reasonable goals for our department right now are to make it through the pandemic and help our students as much as possible, but instead we have new strategic planning goals for the year.” To make the past year even more complicated, the student body is 60 percent Pell and 85 percent first-generation, scenarios that carry baggage of their own, and on top of that, many of the students live in remote locations that have been hit by wildfires and power outages over the summer and fall, she said. “Sometimes I feel like everything is stacked against us.”

Ensuring the continuing education of students has been especially tough, agreed David Heroux, Ph.D., Chemistry Chair at  Saint Michael’s College. “In our large intro classes this fall, we had a third of the students in-person at any given time, so a student would attend class once a week and then the other two days were remote. In reality, what often happened was that students would drop off the radar, disappear completely, reappear, miss four assignments, hand one in, miss four more, so I have been spending a lot of time just tracking down students to make sure they succeed.” He added, “We were still trying to remedy a few students for whom the wheels fell off the bus in the fall semester, and figuring out how we help them get back on track over winter break. That’s been one of the real stressors.”

Making it work

With these and myriad other issues relentlessly piling on the pressures over the past year, academic leaders are coping by employing an assortment of strategies. One that several mentioned is taking time for themselves: Gennett takes a six-hour hike in the mountains on the weekends; Jackson exercises regularly; Winfield takes a daily bike ride, rollerblade or walk on a trail; and Cousins both hikes and tries to do some yoga. Provost blends exercise with social interaction by getting on the ice for hockey with non-academia friends. He remarks, “Sitting in the open air and talking with them about just routine stuff, like beer or whatever — it’s an absolute getaway.”

Exercise isn’t the only way to disconnect. Heroux uses gardening as a stress-buster, and makes it a point to step away from work every night. “I’ve gotten better at not checking email, and I don’t mean that in air quotes, I mean actually not checking email after 9 p.m., for instance, no matter what.”

Winfield was one of several chairs who advised putting a limit on meetings. “I realized I was putting too much into my day: a 9 a.m. Zoom, and then teach at 10, then a 11 a.m. Zoom, and then people started having lunchtime Zooms because obviously you’re at your house and you can eat whenever, and so on,” she said. “It wasn’t unheard of for me to have days of back-to-back Zooms, and if I wasn’t careful, I could find that I was sitting at the computer from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” she said. “I have to really be conscious of my own personal care, not giving up my lunch, making sure I eat, staying purposeful. That has helped.”

Some meetings, however, can be therapeutic,  MacBeth said. “It’s important for chairs and academic leaders to talk to each other, to find peers to share frustrations and talk about challenges. You need a peer group of people who understand your position.”

Peer chats have been quite valuable, agreed Provost and Heroux. Provost said he has benefited from regular online “moan-and-groan” sessions with six other biochemists who are also chemistry chairs, describing them as a great way to vent. Heroux has found the ACS chair convenings to be excellent avenues for not only talking about issues, but realizing he is not struggling alone. He remarked, “I will chat with other science chairs here on campus, for instance, but being able to talk to other chemistry department chairs at the ACS meetings has been really beneficial. I can’t make all of the meetings, but I put them on my calendar and I do look forward to them.”

To lower the stress levels overall, several chairs added one more strategy to the list: intentionally lower personal stress. Jackson’s approach is to do the best he can, and then purposefully move on. “For my classes this past fall and last spring, for instance, I said to myself, ‘If a student has a problem, I will do whatever I can to help that student, but not let myself worry about it and get stressed out,’” he remarked. “It seems to have worked fairly well.”

Gurney’s recipe for reducing stress started with a business article he read at the start of the pandemic. The article asserted that managers should view the current situation as the new normal, rather than something that has an end date, because an end date can compel managers to overwork – and put too much stress on themselves – since it will all be over soon. “That mindset of a new normal has helped a lot,” he said. “By not having an end date in sight, it has helped me recognize this as the new situation we’re in, so I am maintaining a more regular schedule, taking the breaks I need, and focusing on health and wellness.” He added, “It’s important.”

Man in white dress shirt using computer
Photo by Thirdman

We essentially had to redesign our entire research curriculum over the summer, which was a big stressor,” said chemistry and physics professor and chair Rich Gurney, Ph.D.