By Grace Ferguson
Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences has issued guidance for how faculty should communicate with students before classes start, telling professors to “keep it positive” and avoid mentioning pandemic-related challenges.
CAS Associate Dean Joe Bizup sent out the guidance in an email to CAS department chairs on Wednesday, July 29.
Many students are expecting emails from their professors this month about the format of their classes. Most classes at BU will be taught in a hybrid format, but that could look different for each class. Some classes will be fully online, and a few will require in-person participation.
But, while the main purpose of emailing students is to let them know about class formats, Bizup asked faculty to consider another purpose.
“Crafting these sorts of communications can be rhetorically challenging because they must work not only to inform but also to assure and reassure,” Bizup wrote.
The dean urged faculty to reach out to students with information about their classes as soon as possible. Bizup mentioned that deadlines for housing and tuition payments were approaching, but the guidance also told faculty to avoid mentioning the idea of financial value.
Bizup wrote that these kinds of emails can help students “feel comfortable and excited about matriculating to BU.”
The guidance discouraged mentions of masks and social distancing. It also said professors should avoid talking about uncertainty—Bizup wrote that it’s better to be vague.
Another theme in the guidance was that faculty shouldn’t reveal the reasons for the structure or format of their classes.
One reason a class’s format might be different is because the professor was granted a workplace adjustment—BU has allowed some professors at a high risk for COVID-19 to teach online this semester.
Bizup wrote that workplace adjustments should not be revealed because they are private information. He went on to write that professors should instead emphasize the benefits of the online format, like how asynchronous lectures can accommodate for different time zones.
Some faculty have called the guidance an unusual move, and Daniel Star is one of them.
Star is a BU philosophy professor who contributed to an open letter this summer, protesting BU’s hybrid reopening. Now, he runs a blog called “With All Due Caution,” where he advocates for faculty and continues to protest the reopening.
“It’s our understanding that professors should honor their duties as teachers, to talk about issues truthfully, and communicate with their students as they see fit regarding their courses,” Star said.
Star said the email was shocking to some faculty because the university doesn’t normally tell professors what they should or shouldn’t say to students. To him, it looked like BU was asking professors to add a certain spin to their communications.
The professor said he thinks it’s appropriate for the university to have a public relations strategy, but that shouldn’t fall on faculty.
“That’s not the job of the individual teachers—our job is very different,” Star said. “And I also think there’s no way this could ever succeed, so it’s very odd they would send this.”
Mary Battenfeld is another CAS professor, in the American and New England Studies Program. She had a similar opinion of the email.
Battenfeld said it’s not her job to “assure and reassure” students, as the guidance told her to do.
“I feel like it was deceitful, and that—as someone who believes that establishing a relationship of trust and truth with students is one of the ways I become a good teacher—that it’s suggesting I should not do that,” Battenfeld said.
Battenfeld thought financial motivations were behind the guidance, and they have driven most of the university’s decisions on reopening. The impression she got from the email was that the university doesn’t think students will put down tuition deposits if they hear too much about masks and social distancing from their professors.
“I respect students enough to think they can deal with the hard issues, and this email presents a version of students who cannot deal with hard issues,” Battenfeld said.