Burnout on the other end of Zoom University

Illustration by Roe Gassett | The Signal

As virtual learning continues into 2021, students and professors alike are experiencing burnout. With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing prolonged academic, workplace, financial and health stresses, instructors are inevitably feeling tired and helpless. 

When Georgia State first moved in-person learning to an online environment, students and professors were optimistic about the transition. 

But as the pandemic continues and professors have to keep adapting their classes to fit the virtual learning mold, professors like Mathew Gayman are feeling stressed out.

Gayman is an associate professor in the sociology department at Georgia State. He explained that it’s sometimes difficult for his in-person class content to translate well in a virtual environment.

“It’s not like flipping a light switch,” he said. “It takes considerable time and energy to move a class online or create an online class, which are not necessarily the same thing. It’s [been] a year since COVID[-19] hit, and I’m still trying to make my prior in-person class [function] online.”

Gayman mentioned another hurdle he faces while teaching online is not being able to “read the room” or gauge how well his students understand the course material. John McMillian, an associate professor in Georgia State’s history department, shares the same sentiments.

McMillian doesn’t consider himself the most tech-savvy professor and sometimes gets frustrated with how time-consuming creating assignments on iCollege can be. But thanks to Georgia State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Online Education, he received the training he needs to navigate iCollege correctly.

“There [are] all these steps that I find to be cumbersome. Something that would take a few minutes in person can take a lot longer iCollege,” he said. “Luckily, there’s tech support, and they’re friendly and helpful. Sometimes I feel stupid asking questions that are easy for other people but kind of difficult for me, but they’re great.”

But McMillian finds that what he misses the most about in-person learning is lecturing. He enjoyed speaking to large groups of people and had to redesign his lectures to accommodate online teaching.

“[Online teaching] really doesn’t play to what I consider my biggest strength,” he said. “I like lecturing, and my presentations are pretty polished, and they’re structured, so there’s room for debates and conversation. I even have certain stupid jokes I tell every semester, and they’re built into the lecture.” 

Joseph Normandin is a senior lecturer and the director of undergraduate studies at Georgia State’s Neuroscience Institute. He explained that teaching online was easier in 2020’s spring semester because it was a change of pace. But after teaching online spring, summer and fall, Normandin feels burnt out.

“In the initial transition in spring [of 2020,] it didn’t feel like [the pandemic] was going to last this long,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, so it felt new and exciting; that quickly turned to panic.

Like Gayman and McMillian, he has difficulty building relationships with students when he’s met with muted microphones and turned-off cameras when conducting a class. He wishes to experience walking through campus and seeing familiar faces again.

“I find that [I miss] the physical aspect of walking to work, walking between classes, and standing up and teaching,” Normandin said. “I’m tired of just sitting here. I really miss the physical aspect.”

Normandin expressed that some faculty may struggle to adapt to virtual teaching, even this far into the pandemic because they worry about how their virtual lectures come across to students. 

Similarly, some students still can’t find their footing in virtual learning environments and stress over their grades and relationships with their professors.

“There’s some faculty where recording themselves is stressful,” Normandin said. “Being in front of the class, not so much, but [faculty is] going back and saying, ‘Oh I shouldn’t have said that that way’ and redoing their lecture. There’s probably a lot of that. So I think faculty have some of the same struggles as students where some faculty made the transition easier than others.”

Instructors like McMillian identify with Normandin’s statement that some professors are not entirely comfortable teaching from home.

“[Teaching online] makes me more nervous,” he said. “I’ve always been a confident public speaker, but when I set up my computer, I get more nervous about it. [Online,] I have a tendency to misspeak or be less articulate about something and then obsess over it.”

Instructors like Carmen Eilertson, a principal senior lecturer in Georgia State’s biology department, take on another role to facilitate learning. Eilertson mentioned she doubles as a “cheerleader” to her students to keep them motivated. 

“The students in my classes are highly motivated and driven,” she said. “But I have noticed since spring of 2020 the level of motivation is declining in these really good students, so I’m finding my role as a cheerleader to be very important to keep them on task.”

Like any other professor, Eilertson finds it extremely difficult to bond with her students. It is so tricky that she sometimes doesn’t recognize all of her students’ names and faces. For Eilertson, the absence of a bond with her students is detrimental because most of her students are preparing to go to medical school and ask her to write letters of recommendation.

“A lot of my students are dual-degree students, and I’m having to write a letter of recommendation for medical school, and they don’t feel they know me well enough or feel I don’t know them well enough to write a good letter of support,” she said. “That’s a huge disadvantage.”

Despite the challenges that online teaching brings, these professors all find that what keeps them going throughout the semester is their students’ patience. Offering patience to a professor who’s not the most tech-savvy or because they are enduring their struggles is much appreciated by all instructors. 

“Overall, students have been very understanding and recognize, just as teachers recognize, that none of this is ideal [and] these are tough times for all,” Gayman said. “We have wonderful students, and I appreciate them.”

As the semester reaches the midpoint, students and professors need to understand that everyone needs someone to lean on. College is no easy feat, and everyone needs a little sympathy to keep going.