On November 19, 2020, the Computer Science and Engineering Division hosted a Town Hall to hear student concerns related to online education, undergraduate issues, climate, and diversity. (Notes on other Town Halls are available.)
All were welcome. The Town Hall focused on issues related to Undergraduate Students. A Town Hall focused on graduate issues is planned for Winter 2021.
The primary goal of the Town Hall was to hear and respond to community questions and concerns. A secondary goal was to inform students and community members.
The Town Hall was conducted via online teleconferencing. Participants could ask questions directly or pose and vote on questions anonymously (via a special app). The panelists were: Michigan Engineering C.A.R.E. Center Director Angie Farrehi, Professor John Kloosterman, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Joanna Millunchick, Professor Wes Weimer, and CSE Division Chair Michael Wellman. In addition to the panelists, others present, such as Professor Chad Jenkins and DEI Administrative Staff Sarah Snay, also contributed. The Eta Kappa Nu student organization volunteered logistical and moderation support. The Town Hall lasted for 75 minutes. Peak attendance was 45 participants.
This report chronicles my personal recollection of the events (augmented by three sets of notes taken by different attendees) and should not be considered the official department position. Questions, responses and discussions are paraphrased and any mentions of specific individuals, beyond the panelists, have been elided.
The Town Hall consisted of an introductory presentation followed by panel responses to participant questions . Presentation slides are available.
After the faculty presentations, the majority of the Town Hall involved hearing and responding to community questions. With a few exceptions, the student moderators posed questions in order of popularity (e.g., by anonymous votes).
Students asked about actions taken in response to allegations of misconduct by Professor Jason Mars.
Chair Michael Wellman responded that action had been taken.
He briefly provided background on the situation, noting Jason Mars to be a faculty member and clarifying the public nature of some allegations and associations with a faculty start-up company. He also gave an explanation of some relevant aspects of the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) process followed when investigating such concerns. He emphasized that the University takes this very seriously, and that one of the first steps is to determine whether there is a safety concern regarding the alleged behavior. He explained that the University has strict policies regarding disclosure of information about an ongoing case, as well about employment matters. One exception to this is if the party involved agrees to allow transparency. Jason Mars has agreed to this disclosure, which is why CSE is able to comment on this issue at all:
Regarding such a subsequent public discussion:
Finally, students asked about Professor Lingjia Tang, who was also associated with the company and with Jason Mars. Michael Wellman indicated that Lingjia Tang is on leave this semester but that she will be back next semester.
Students expressed feelings of burnout and a perception that the semester was very long with few breaks.
Weimer, Kloosterman and Millunchick addressed this issue from a teaching perspective. The faculty discussed how new teaching models (e.g., recording lectures in advance and presenting them asynchronously) can have unintended consequences if not applied carefully (e.g., students may feel that they have to both watch a recording and also attend a live session, requiring double the time). There were discussions of explicitly scheduling mental health days, or planning for weeks with lighter or no assignments.
A recurring theme was that universities are "building the airplane as we fly it" regarding online education, which necessarily involves some trial and error. Dean Millunchick referred to our collective expectations of how education works (the "normative context") and how those expectations have to be adjusted for online teaching. This involves collecting feedback from students, graduate student instructors (GSIs) and undergraduate instructional assistants (IAs). In addition, Engineering is planning workshops, teaching guides, and crash courses for the faculty in January, with an emphasis on a growth mindset and applying Engineering techniques (e.g., design, measurement, improvement) to our approach.
Students also asked about course loads and expectations. There was a general perception that setting clear course expectations might not be sufficient to reduce student stress and workloads, especially in courses with curved grading. Students may feel that the only way to "keep up" or "win" is to do at least as much as everyone else, and this perceived competition is a stressor. Faculty mailing lists and resources have had significant discussions of this issue, and many courses are moving to a flat model (e.g., "grading contracts" or "if you do X and Y at quality level Z, you will get an A grade regardless of what anyone else does" phrasings) or moving to a positive-curve-only model (i.e., curves can increase grades, but never reduce them).
Later, students asked follow-up questions about what CSE and Engineering can do to improve student mental health and wellbeing. Wes Weimer noted that resources mentioned by Dean Millunchick or associated with the CARE Center are Engineering-focused and thus apply, but that there is also room for CSE-local action. He mentioned CSE-level discussions of making the highest grades achievable by all students, including issues like grading on a curve vs. flat grading scales (many students feel that curves implicitly "require" everyone to do more work to keep up, adding stress and competition). He also discussed recommendations to faculty of more late days, of being more accepting of exceptions, and of focusing on treating students with respect. John Kloosterman spoke of CSE culture and norms and a growing emphasis that the department has a responsibility to be on the student's side and acknowledge how difficult these semesters are. Chad Jenkins emphasized the importance of empathy, noting that it really helps when students feel like someone is looking out for them. He offered to talk offline with any student.
Students asked about ways to intentionally support their mental health and well being and practice self-care, both currently and in future semesters.
Angie Farrehi addressed this line of questioning. First, she observed that we are in a literal disaster: a pandemic is a disaster, it touches all of us, no one is immune, and we are all impacted. She noted that the CARE Center has been using disaster mental health support models and approaches to provide practical and trauma-informed support to the community. She offered reassurance, describing a feeling of "COVID Brain" in which we all forget things and are less effective, and thus have to rely on each other to get through things. This includes both active feedback and the wisdom of the community.
She mentioned that many students are not functioning at an okay level, and are instead experiencing significant distress and grief. These are normal responses to an abnormal situation.
The support available right now is more practical in nature than psychological. Resources are focused on identifying and supporting student basic needs: sleeping, eating, drinking water, movement, and connection. She encouraged us to do things that we love and to make them ritualized in our routines: this can help to manage and cushion stress levels.
She reiterated that these are confusing times: many have wondered what others are thinking and it can be tempting to question how others are responding. Feelings of frustration and helplessness are normal. The phase of disillusionment in a disaster that may last longer than expected. CDC models of disaster phases consistently find that in the next phase, recovery, we come out feeling stronger: it is going to get better.
Farrehi closed with a message of inclusive support. She observed that the Canvas tab now includes the CARE Center, making it easier to request appointments, live chat or send email. She also describe a program in which 500 students are randomly selected each week to ask how things are going and what they need. She gave multiple examples of resources available, such as the Maize and Blue Cupboard Food Truck, providing mobile healthy food distribution; and the Campus Mindworks, offering biweekly drop-in mental health workshops. Her ultimate message was that the most effective actions at a local level are often those that support basic needs: sleeping, eating, drinking water, moving, and connecting.
Later, students asked follow-up questions about Engineering CAPS, observing that it places an emphasis on one-off service. Farrehi described their brief treatment model as licensed social workers serving as a stepping stone to provide connections to resources and treatment providers in the area. Farrehi mentioned reduced cost therapy options and some instances of free mental health support and offered to connect interested students. Some students praised the Wolverine Support Network, which offers weekly peer support groups led by trained facilitators, as well as Wolverine Wellness, which offers well-being services.
Students asked how the department will address its growing size, which brings issues such as extremely long waiting lists and office hours queues.
Chair Wellman emphasized that incredible enrollment growth has been ongoing and is expected to continue. CSE has hired 20 new faculty within the last three years. Depending on the current hiring freeze, we may be able to hire more. He noted that CSE is looking for, and is open to, creative solutions, and referenced recent efforts adding extra resources to lower-level classes as a targeted example.
John Kloosterman discussed a potential disconnect in large classes between those teaching and those learning. He acknowledged that this is a complex issue, but observed that it is the role of the teacher to reach out to students who may seem to need extra support. It is our responsibility to close the gap and thus offer larger courses while also supporting those students who need it most.
Students asked about the student-staff-faculty joint working groups and their activities. Students also asked about running smaller town halls when compared to a large undergraduate population.
Wes Weimer provided background context on the Working Groups coordinating around the climate activities ranked as most important by students in the Winter 2020 Climate Activities Survey. He noted that many of these groups meet every other week and that all are welcome to join in. He highlighted the efforts of a groups focused on Effective Office Hours, and Overwork and Mental Health. DEI Administrative Staff Sarah Snay provided details, giving a concrete example of how the Effective Office Hours Group sent out tips and information to the faculty on ways to better support students. In general, these groups follow informal and more formal processes to make large- and small-scope recommendations, many of which have already been implemented, such as inaugural service awards for students leading DEI efforts, adding service learning and social good courses to the list of those that satisfy graduate degree requirements, finding ways to connect students, and adding a department-level Slack channel for communication.
Dean Millunchick drew attention to the Community Committees at the Engineering level that are working on creating materials, curricula, and recommendations. For example, there is current work on creating a degree requirement for race and ethnicity scholarship (which is present in LSA but not in Engineering). In addition, there are plans to add required programming (e.g., on DEI, climate, or anti-racism) for faculty, staff and graduate students. There is also work to design new learning modules for Engineering 100, 101 and 151 around identity and systemic racism, as well as discussion of a required course about how diversity and systemic racism affects STEM as a discipline. She emphasized that this is a multi-layered approach, including how culture and capability assumptions inform our decisions as engineers, as well as providing context to students about systemic racism, identity, and the history of exclusion.
In response to student logistics queries, Wes Weimer noted that organizing these Town Halls is currently his responsibility as CSE DEI lead. The Town Halls were originally requested by the students, and the faculty choose to provide them: they are something we can do for the community, but it is also our responsibility to make sure we are reaching out to hear from students on how we can do better. In general, we explicitly rotate panelists to avoid placing an undue burden on volunteers and in response to student requests.
Students asked about the Engineering Administration's commitment to, and support of, these Town Halls, and organizers observed that each of the CSE Town Halls thus far has had at least one Engineering Dean in live attendance; while it may be less obvious to students, that, as well as funding support and similar actions, is a high level of Administrative support for the activities of one division (CSE).
Weimer noted that, especially when dealing with climate concerns or underrepresented groups, raw number counts may be misleading. Chad Jenkins underscored this observation, highlighting that if historically-underrepresented groups or students who are struggling show up and get something out of these meetings, or if students read the notes later, then it has been worthwhile. This is not the only way to reach out to, or hear from, students (e.g., Computing CARES surveys in classes, end-of-term teaching evaluation questions, Climate Activities Surveys, the Dean's Office meetings, CSE DEI meeting with student group leadership, anonymous and cryptographic dropboxes, etc.). Jenkins asked for suggestions on other ways to help students be heard — for suggestions on other ways we in CSE should listen.
Thanks were offered to the students present, the speakers, and the undergraduate student organizers. Interested students were encouraged to get involved. Angie Farrehi closed by observing that these have been, and will continue to be, highly stressful months. You should recognize when you need to take a break, and reach out to instructors and supervisors if you might need a mental health day. She concluded that reaching out to others for support is a strength. She encouraged anyone to reach out to the Engineering Care Center, including via firstname.lastname@example.org, if we can help in any way.