I was naïve. When we abruptly transitioned online in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, I thought the classes I teach at my flagship research university would resume in person in a matter of weeks — and for sure by the fall semester. Now, based on the latest science and human behavior, I predict that on-campus classes will not be safe until late 2022.
By July, like a lot of my colleagues in academia, I was already making some more permanent changes to my teach-from-home set up. My living room and personal MacBook Pro were no longer adequate. My university — the University of Houston — only had funding to pay for my Zoom license, and by the end of September, I’d spent over $4,000 out of pocket, or over 10 percent of my annual salary.
First, I moved the thousands of books cluttering my office space to storage. I bought paint ($170) to re-do the walls. Sitting all day was hurting my legs, so I purchased a sit-stand desk and file cabinet ($991) as well as a computer chair ($280). Squinting at my 16” laptop screen 12 hours every day while communicating with students and grading their papers was growing painful, so I bought a 34” curved ultra-wide external monitor ($570). To communicate effectively with my 180 students across six classes and to make instructional content engaging, I also needed some additional equipment, including video software ($467), speakers ($270), a Bluetooth keyboard ($162), a Bluetooth mouse ($162), lamps ($110) and microphones ($137).
Let me be clear: I’m not complaining. I have enjoyed my new space and can afford to splurge sometimes. I also saved an estimated $1,000 in gasoline, oil changes and tire rotations by not driving 100 miles round trip four times a week.
I got to wondering, were such expenses a shared reality?
The “winner” was a $200,000 house for the couple who had to move out of their tiny home in order to have adequate room for their teaching and researching in the Covid-19 world.
On Dec. 18, I posted in two Facebook groups devoted to college pedagogy. I asked for anonymous responses to the following: “How much did you personally spend this year to make teaching/working at home possible? What did you buy, and how’d it work out? Did anyone get institutional money for any items?”
The verdict: Such expenditures were extremely common. In the span of 24 hours, I received 173 comments. Instructors from all types of institutions and in both non-tenure track and tenure-stream/tenured positions commented. Not everyone reported a specific amount of personal money spent, but 62 did, and this amount collectively totaled $53,790!
The amount is imprecise, especially because of monthly charges. For example, many noted having to buy new Wi-Fi equipment or having to upgrade their home internet service. These amounts do not include increased utility bills, which were a common concern. (With so many vacant buildings, many of us were curious about how many millions of dollars institutions have saved on utilities.) Additional expenses not calculated include new anxiety medicines and medical visits.
Of the 173 respondents, only 10 had any kind of institutional funding packages for supplies necessary to fulfill their teaching duties. And only a few colleagues reported being loaned chairs, computers, microphones and webcams from their college for home use. As institutions continue to be cash-strapped, largely due to insufficient public funding, such assistance will certainly become scarcer.
The most commonly mentioned out-of-pocket purchases in my survey included chairs, computers, desks, whiteboards, software upgrades, hardware upgrades (including microphones, monitors, printers and webcams), and basic office supplies. Monitors are in such demand that Amazon was completely sold out of new LG monitors, with no projected availability date, on several occasions when I checked.
Less common purchases were footrests, noise machines, room dividers and distractions for children. One professor said they ordered more pajamas!
But the “winner” was a $200,000 house for the couple who had to move out of their tiny home in order to have adequate room for their teaching and researching in the Covid-19 world.
A few professors made do with the limited equipment they already owned, arguing that their institutions — not they themselves — should foot the bill to enhance the working and learning experience of instructors and students.
The full amount that faculty spent (or needed to spend) to make remote learning bearable and somewhat comparable in quality to in-person teaching might total in the billions. There are over 1.5 million postsecondary faculty members in the United States. And according to the American Association of University Professors, more than 70 percent of faculty hold non-tenure track appointments that pay an average of only $2,000-$4,000 per course.
Ultimately, Covid-19 will exacerbate preexisting inequalities, as the vast majority of professors do not have the income to afford such crippling expenses without making sacrifices or going further into debt, especially semester after semester. Further, as student aid remains limited, as tuition outpaces inflation, and as remote learning demands both more equipment and more subscriptions, inequality among the nation’s 20 million college students will continue to increase. At the same time, ensuring that college students are getting the best learning experiences possible is urgent, to prevent a steep drop in graduation rates as the country grapples with economic crisis.
Nationally, the most at-risk faculty teach the most at-risk students with the least support. If the trend continues, I worry that the professors and students remaining will only be those who aren’t in tight budget situations. This cash problem is familiar to K-12 educators: They have long voiced frustration about effectively being required to spend their own money to build their classrooms and to teach their students, while never receiving sincere acknowledgement for such inevitable and invisible sacrifices.
Desperately, as a new year and new semester get underway, we need widespread institutional acknowledgment that the world of Covid-19 has demanded not just more emotional and physical energy from educators, but also more of their cash, for education to function. And we need it to function, not only for the nation’s economic future, but also to help students embrace critical thinking and diversity as we rebuild a society roiled by a pandemic, growing inequality and racial injustice.
Andrew Joseph Pegoda (@AJP_PhD) holds a Ph.D. in history and teaches women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; religious studies; and English at the University of Houston. Previous articles can be found in The Conversation, History News Network, Inside Higher Ed, Time, and The Washington Post, among others.
This story about teaching from home was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.