SENATE MATTERS: Contextualizing performance in trying times


A sentiment that was raised at the last Faculty Assembly meeting, and echoed at Senate Council, is the accumulation of stressors on our faculty — and frankly also our staff, students and communities — due to the pandemic and the broad impact this is having on them. To bluntly summarize this sentiment: Everything is harder because of the pandemic.

This is not a new sentiment, and simply because we have heard it before, that does not mean it is any less valid or that we should not take the time to examine its current dimensions. Conditions now are not uniformly the same as they were at the beginning of the pandemic, nor are the stressors perturbing the people we represent in the Senate. When we eventually navigate our way back to the way things were before, and we will, these stressors or at least their impacts will still be there, further evolved and still worth examining, and it will be our job to do it then, just as now.

Currently, both the professional and home environments for many of our faculty members are very different from how they were a year ago. At work, for many but not all, the tools and methods for doing their jobs have changed radically in ways that frankly make it impossible to do what they or the standards within their field would consider their best. I state that as generally as possible because, even considering only faculty, the range of activities this applies to is vast, but the sentiment boils down very similarly across domains like teaching, research, outreach and service.

I watched a colleague struggle for months just to get back into the lab she had been working in, where she had left her samples. I have seen instructors frustrated over concerns that their course materials do not translate to an online medium. I have watched community-facing projects evaporate due to safety concerns.

These issues are exacerbated by the way the pandemic has affected their home and personal lives. The clash of home and professional responsibilities brought on by the pandemic has taught us in ways that would almost be poetic if they were not so debilitating, that it is impossible to be in two places at once, let alone be stuck in one place with home and work colliding constantly.

In ways that we will never fully appreciate outside of our own experiences, our colleagues have dealt with and are dealing with burdens that would impede anyone’s work. Caring for dependents, navigating economic challenges, and just bearing relentless anxiety, to name a few. All of these issues — work and home — are legitimate. Worrying out loud about how they will affect your career is valid. And none of it is your fault.

No one Pitt initiative or program will solve these issues and make everything OK. If it could, I cannot guarantee it would be implemented, but I can guarantee we would be talking about it. But there are problem-specific solutions that get at least part way there for many individual issues, and I know there are people who want to help. These solutions are sometimes hard to find for one reason or another, and they all have limitations, but they are worth investigating. A case study in this is the availability of childcare resources.

Separately, but most definitely related, is the question of how to address the impacts of these issues on our work. Assuming no program can perfectly mitigate the impacts of drastically changed work and home lives, how do we ensure that this temporary period of adversity does not permanently stunt the career development of our faculty?

One way is to ensure that there are robust mechanisms for faculty to contextualize their performance to the conditions affecting them during the pandemic in ways that are tailored to their school, department and discipline.  And to be clear, there is a difference between “justifying” and “contextualizing.” I said it above, and I will stand by it: none of this is your fault and you should not be evaluated as though it were. Context happened to you, and you kept on working.

With guidance and strong support from the central administration, this general philosophy and approach could maintain the necessary level of field specificity, while giving our faculty at large the confidence that no matter where they are, they will have fair consideration.

David Salcido, a research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the School of Medicine, is the Senate vice president