Hugh Earl Interviewed by Emma Huys
What were you teaching or researching when the pandemic started?
I am the department chair so I don’t teach too much but I was teaching my course in crop physiology at the time. It was March 2020 when we said everything has got to go remote for the rest of the semester. At that time of year in this department, those of us who do field research were planning for the field season so we had a lot of questions about what COVID-19 meant for that type of research.
How did the initial shutdown affect you or impact your research?
I think the teaching wasn’t too bad because we were far enough along in the semester that it was just a matter of getting those last few lectures in. You think back to that time where so few of us had any experience with any kind of remote teaching and so I ended up, on my own, learning how to make decent quality recorded lectures. In terms of getting the last lecture material done and the course wrapped up, it wasn’t too difficult. The challenge for me was my administrative role because a lot of rules were coming down the pipe and the absence of any clarity about what the level of threat was, how dangerous the situation was and what we would be able to do in terms of research. So in my role as chair the experience was of navigating all of this ambiguity and getting clear directions from the university of what we should be doing at the department level and trying to implement that.
How did you find your online learning experience at the beginning?
At first it was challenging because we did not have the technology, I tried multiple things just to get decent sound. Then, once we got past that semester and we had some time to catch our breath, it was about the student and instructor interaction and what can you achieve? For those of us who were used to standing in front of students it was really difficult to figure out how to maintain any kind of engagement and honestly for however long we did it, it never was fully satisfactory. Last winter we started remote then we moved to class, and at that point people expected to have remote options, so a bunch of the class wouldn’t show up anyways and we had to accommodate that. Now, I say there is no remote option, if you are taking this course you have to come to class and honestly it is worlds better. I think it is better for the students, but it is definitely better for me. I think it is better for the students in the sense that we have a more natural conversation or feedback and I don’t just tear through stuff. I also see when things aren’t landing, the students will ask me questions and we end up having a discussion whereas when we are remote people are so reluctant to interject, slow things down and participate in the conversation. When I taught remotely, I had to make some extra lectures because I tore through the material so fast, so that is not good.
When teaching online, was it difficult to teach to a blank screen when students did not have their cameras on?
Generally, there were no cameras on. Some may have learned from other courses this etiquette of when asking a question to turn their camera on. I could have enforced keeping cameras on but I did not want to put any more burden on the students.
How did you find testing online? Did you use respondus?
I was resistant to using respondus, not for any principled reason, the idea just did not appeal to me. I ended up converting all of my quizzes and exams to openbook which I think is difficult for the students because those are harder. Essentially, you cannot ask people what they know because what they know is what they can google or look up in their notes. It is about how you can apply this information. I am fortunate that the subject I teach lends itself to those types of questions but it was still challenging to make up those questions. I have twenty years of teaching that course or similar ones so I can calibrate what the students should be expected to be able to do but know you’re completely changing the examination method so there were exams that were far too hard because I did not have that calibration of the difficulty level.
Since you had been teaching a certain way for 20 years, was it difficult to readapt your style of teaching?
Yes, there were even technical things, for example boardwork instead of showing slides - I would work through it. I didn’t have or know how to use a tablet or software to do that. I ended up using the whiteboard software and I bought a tablet you can write on but not the type that shows you what you are writing so you are looking at your computer screen and you’re manipulating the stylus and there’s hand eye coordination involved so I was struggling with that. Then someone will ask if it is being recorded, something is in the chat and all of this stuff going on that you normally don’t have to deal with. It really diminishes the quality of what you can do intellectually. Even in the classroom setting when we had people joining remotely, I was trying to teach a lecture and almost managing this production of what are they seeing on the screne, do I have to share this, etc. It was debilitating, I almost needed a producer in the room to manage it.
Did your online learning experience change overtime? Did you find it became easier or harder?
I’ve actually come to appreciate online meetings. About three quarters of our faculty and administrative meetings are still on Teams because of commuting so I’ve become comfortable with that tool. Now I’ll have a faculty meeting with Teams and I’ve gotten to the point where I am pretty adept at it. So the technical side definitely got better and if I taught now I would also try to teach with Teams rather than Zoom on Courselink, I think I would be more comfortable with it. But still, what you miss from not being in front of other human beings and not communicating that way, I don’t think there is any amount of technology that brings that back.
Did you find, from discussing with students, that they were not taking as much from your online lectures?
The students hardly did the course evaluations and the ones who did gave the impression that it wasn't as good of an experience for them as prior offerings. I would say the performance of the students was much lower and I honestly think that was mostly due to the environment, I think in a remote environment people convince themselves that they don’t need to participate in the moment because it is recorded, I can look back at it later, I can organize this course around my life instead of organizing my life around this course. For most people, I don’t think it suits their learning style. They may think it does, but I think it doesn’t. I think they need to be engaged in a conversation. If that’s all there was to learning, I could give all my lectures at once, put them on a website, and I never have to teach again. What would be the point of lecturing all the time if watching a video is good enough. There is a reason you can’t learn everything from watching YouTube.
Did you find attendance rates to be lower?
Yeah, I would say so but it is hard to say because around mid-semester the classroom attendance rates are lower. My way of teaching is I give the students a lot of written material, not things I have curated, things I have written so essentially I am providing all the information that is in the lecture in the notes. I tell them during the very first lecture that every now and again a student comes along who can do well in the course without showing up, just by looking at the notes but, statistically it is very few people who can pull that off. They can miss some lectures here or there but overall the people who show up to class are by far getting more out of the course. I don’t think I am confusing cause and effect there, it’s not like the good students show up, I think if you show up you’ll be a good student.
From my own experience being in the classroom makes you really engaged and being online can be distracting. Did you find when teaching online, you were teaching but you weren’t as engaged?
When the instructor is looking at you in the classroom, you’re under a little bit of pressure to appear engaged. Some people are oblivious to this and will sit texting on their phone but in a class of thirty people, there is no privacy. At home, you have complete privacy and I think that gives you a lot of freedom to drift in and out of engagement. Even in certain online meetings I don’t get as much out of it.
What do you think the most challenging aspects of the pandemic were for you?
For me, it’s my administrative task. It wasn’t just the volume of work, which there was a lot, but in our particular case the type of research we do, plant agriculture which is seasonal, and if we had a one month delay, you might as well not do anything that year because you plant or you don’t. Our office of research is great, Malcolm Campbell was great at recognizing that early on and saying we have to see what is possible, we have to put systems in place and give priority to these programs that are seasonal or dealing with live animals. If you think about what was happening at the time, we didn’t really have clear information, so the ground was always shifting under our feet and changing all the time. My way of navigating that, which I honestly think was the right decision, was to follow. In other words, it’s not my job to figure out what the public health advice should be or what the university policy should be, my job and position was to listen to the people whose jobs it was then figure out how to operationalize that in this department. So this was giving the clearest directions possible, here’s the rules right now, here’s what it means for us and here’s what we have to do. That was a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. What if we make a mistake? What if someone gets sick? What if someone dies? Or alternatively, what if we tell people you can’t do this and it turns out we overstepped and now millions of dollars of research has been compromised. That management part of my job was stressful, I wasn’t losing sleep but I was exhausted.
Were there any aspects of the pandemic that were good for you?
Personally, because I did not spend time everyday driving to work physically, I had a lot of time in my life for healthy things like exercise. I would go on five kilometre walks all the time and I dieted and so from that standpoint there was an opportunity to mold your work life around your personal life a little bit and for me that was healthy. I still prefer to be at work, I will never choose to work from home just because of the type of work I do, I am much more efficient here but if you can work from home I can see how it would be really appealing.
Did your experience change in December 2021/January 2022 when the Omicron variant came out?
Personally, not speaking as administrator, I was really motivated to believe that things were going to go back to normal and it was extremely disappointing to me that it seemed like we were moving backwards. I got almost obsessed with looking at the daily infection rates, death rates and vaccination rates. Not letting that affect my decision making as administrator because it is not my job, but personally I was emotionally invested. In terms of managing, we knew how to do remote stuff, doing it for three weeks was easy. By that time too we felt safer, you knew if you were young and vaccinated you would be okay. You had to be concerned for other people, but the likelihood you were going to have a really bad outcome yourself did not even seem possible. There was not that same uncertainty about the situation, just more weariness.
When people started returning to campus, how did your work change? Were there measures put in place to keep people safe?
It was a bit different for us because we never really went away. For example, the research lab stayed open, but there were markings on the floor saying only one person can be in the space and so on trying to operationalize the advice we had been given so it did not really fundamentally change. Until the era of the Omicron variant, that whole initial first part of the pandemic, as far as I know we never had any workplace transmission. So in the end, we could say we did what we needed to do, we kept everyone safe and we still got a lot of work done. When things loosened up, there was less time spent managing the health and safety restrictions. That was the main thing, when we started to feel safer, the relaxing of that responsibility to make sure everyone was following the rules. Early on, there would be people walking in the building without a mask and you would have to go talk to them, so that stuff went away.
In your role, did you find having to enforce Covid measures a burden?
Honestly, in our unit, people came together and said I may agree or disagree but as a department we are making decisions and we are just going to comply. By and large, that is what happened. We had some little things, for example a student in a class who would not wear a mask or wear it properly and that would come back to me for what is the solution here, we had all these vague rules about how you can enforce the restrictions but it did not happen enough to make it a burden; it was a very rare occurrence. I would get reports saying someone had their students walking around campus looking at the organic garden and they were not standing six feet apart and were not wearing masks. So now I have to say whether it is against the rules or not and talk to the person but these were little things not a big deal.
What was the process of making these decisions? Did you have a say in these decisions or did you have to follow public health measures?
Honestly, when it came to the research situation we were required to produce research management plans that showed how we were going to do the work safely and those had to respect what the current rules were. At first the office of research would evaluate them and then later it got to the point where units could evaluate them. The process for me personally was trying to figure out what my role was and what my role was not. Covid is something very interesting scientifically and there is a lot of smart people around here looking at the data, myself included, trying to understand what the research says, all of this thinking, and in the end it was not really about thinking because there's people paid to do the thinking, the public health people, then they’re communicating to universities. So my job was to say what are the rules and boundaries, then figure out what that meant for us. It was not really about judgment calls, it was doing what we were told. My job is to implement not to decide in this case, so that is what we did, and it went reasonably smoothly, it was a lot of work but not a lot of conflict.
Did you find it difficult to define your role/position when making these decisions?
I thought my role was clearly defined, and I give credit to the college, the office of research and the Provost. I just did it to the best of my ability and tried to stay in my own lane. I could listen to everyone’s opinions, but when public health tells me things change then it will change. That is not my job to make those decisions, I am not qualified and I do not need that responsibility of overstepping my actual authority and making a mistake. I have faith in the authority, I believe they have our best interest at heart and they have a better position to figure this out then I am.
Looking back, how did the pandemic change your life?
I think the technological tools we all got our heads around, is a good thing, it gave us that information to add to our toolbox, which going forward is helpful. More personal and more profound, the politics of what happened to me were astonishing. What can happen when people completely lose trust and faith in any type of public authority. When everybody thinks if anyone is telling me something there is an ulterior motive, every attempt to do anything collectively socially, someone has to tear it down and construct conspiracy theories about it and not just be on the fringe but have millions of people who absolutely refuse to participate in something that is socially important. For me, this is a really grave danger, I honestly think society has got some major challenges ahead. Finding some way to bring people on board, and to do it in a coercive way just feeds the monster, you cannot force people to do things, but somehow we have to regain people’s trust.
As a person with a background in science, did you find it frustrating when people would not trust science and believe the misinformation and disinformation?
Absolutely, I sometimes would get into long battles on social media, and you get into a discussion with someone and realize you would have to almost give a person a four year degree before they could understand what you were talking about. I am not an epidemiologist or a geneticist, but I do know how science gets done and I can look at information, analyze a source and decide whether or not it's trustworthy. The idea that scientists are doing things for their own personal financial self-interest or the idea that you have to say what all the other scientists are saying because if you do not say that you will not get any funding even though you know it’s wrong. It is the exact opposite, as a scientist, if you can prove everyone else is wrong, you could go on speaking tours the rest of your life, it could be the best thing that ever happens in your career. The motivation for consensus conformity is not high in science. Where I had personal knowledge of the reality, and people so set in other ideas, I was not able to bring them along, and also not knowing how to help people move towards a different view, I think I need some training.
Is there anything you do differently now in your life as a result of the pandemic?
I definitely value being around people now more than I used to. For me, it is a joy to be in the presence of my students and my colleagues. I also have a much different attitude towards infectious disease. I am not coming to work sniffling and coughing without a mask on ever again. I think we all developed habits, or etiquette, around protecting other people’s health, which hopefully sticks with us. In the past sometimes, we would see people walking around wearing masks and think they are afraid of getting sick but I do not think we ever thought about it as you wear a mask to protect other people. But, we all learned this during the pandemic, this mask is not for you it's for other people. It is an act of social responsibility, which is a major shift, and it will affect my behaviour.
These are all the questions I have, thank you for doing the interview.