The Equation

Colleges and universities across the United States are planning to re-open in the fall with large numbers of students on-campus. Some places have done this sensibly, by limiting that number to just first-year students, or just seniors, and only for one term or another. Others have proceeded with full populations on campus, in the same housing conditions they would normally been in. In addition, some universities have opted out of preventative measures to identify COVID-19 cases before they turn into clusters; they are foregoing testing of students before they come to the campus, and they are not testing the students regularly after they arrive.

To those universities and colleges, I will simply say this. Congratulations on your choices, which have been motivated by a convolution of money, the pleas of parents and students, and the claim that “we have to preserve the college experience for students” (footnote: I thought the main part of the college experience was education? No? Oh, ok.) Now that you have made this decision, and before you go any further, please solve the following threshold equation for a, b, c, and x:

    \[ a \cdot D_{faculty} + b \cdot D_{staff} + c \cdot D_{students} \ge x \]

Here, all symbols stand for real, positive integers. The threshold (x) is the answer the following question, “At what total of the deaths of faculty (D_{faculty}), deaths of staff (D_{staff}), and deaths of students (D_{students}) will this institution start making decisions intended to preserve human health and life and education during this pandemic?”

Let me know when you have solved for a, b, c, and x. We’re all eager to know the answer.

A Journey Closer to the Hot Zone (C+66)

“Don’t forget your mask.”

I haven’t been in a place where people are actually expected to gather since March 6. I have so much to remember as I re-enter the world.

I have to remember to get all my keys. Where are all my keys? My car keys are on my dresser. One of my house keys is loose; it’s been off its ring since March because I take it with me when I go out running.

I haven’t been out running since the weather got hot. It’s routinely in the 80s, 90s, and even low 100s now. With humidity, it’s intolerable outside. The loose key has been sitting for weeks on a ledge by the front door, unused except for an occasional ill-conceived walk in the heat.

I gather up the keys. I pocket my phone. I get my face mask from the container in the kitchen. I say goodbye to Jodi. (“Don’t forget your mask!”)

My throat clutches a little.

I’m heading to a medical center, which is literally one of the last places I want to be right now. In the best of times, a medical building makes me twitch. During a pandemic, it makes my skin positively crawl.

The trip to my doctor, nestled in Dallas, in a county that has seen record-breaking rises in COVID-19 cases for weeks, is a journey to the edge of the hot zone. In my mind, I picture the majors hospitals of Dallas – Parkland, UT Southwestern, Baylor, Texas Presbyterian – as bright glowing red embers where the sickest of the sick flow in … and some never come out. Highway 75 weaves through most of these hospitals, and while I am going to a small medical center away from one of the main hospitals, I feel nervous heading into a county slowly being overrun by the infected.

Of course, my home county hasn’t been spared this pandemic. We have more cases every day, using the 7-day rolling average, than we ever had in April. It gets worse every week. We broke our own record today: 186 new cases in one day. (previous record: 140) The positive test rate is hovering around 10%, double what it was a month ago. Testing is slowly going up, but so are case numbers.

Going from Collin County to Dallas County is like going from the urgent care clinic to the emergency room: it will be more crowded and more people in your immediate vicinity are going to be sicker than where you came from.

My skin crawls.

It’s irrational. But the embers of infection in Dallas and fuel of my concerns are fed by the oxygen of incompetent leadership and bad public policy. When Texas abandoned its people to SARS-CoV-2 66 days ago, on “C-Day,” the current situation was obviously inevitable. Anyone with a basic working knowledge of the germ theory of disease and an appreciation for how poor human behavior gets when there is no guidance or expectations could see this coming. The epidemiologists certainly saw this coming, but any kid with 10th-grade biology and a measure of common sense could have figured out that taking the brakes off public health measures during pandemic will only make things worse.

As I drive down 75 to my appointment, my skin crawling, what is truly sad is that I am actually relieved to be doing this instead of what I had been doing: taking required online teacher training mandated by my university.

I’m not opposed to teacher training.

I’m not opposed to making a distinction between online and in-person teaching.

I’ve spent years exploring the balance of these very two things in my own teaching. What frustrates me is who has been forced to take this 20-hour online course: only faculty who opted to teach remotely in the fall.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

Why doesn’t this mandated training make sense? Why does it frustrate me? Two reasons.

  1. Standards: Why is my institution only now requiring faculty to achieve some minimum level of certification? Never before has my university expected me to carry any teaching certification of any kind. Why aren’t ALL faculty required to do this?
  2. Inequity: Why are faculty who opt out of in-person teaching burdened with this responsibility? Faculty are only allowed to opt-out of in-person teaching at my institution if they have a legitimate medical concern aligned with CDC guidelines. At least, when I applied for this exception those were the rules. I was only granted this option because we are (a) in a pandemic and (b) there is a serious increased risk of death or severe consequences from SARS-CoV-2 in my household. Why, then, are the most vulnerable – or those whose loved ones are deserving of this protection – given an undue burden to prove their value and merit? Basically, the assumption has been made that faculty who need to teach remotely don’t know how to teach at all.

What really made me upset about this teacher training was its mix of technical instruction (valuable for the fall) with teaching theory (arguably deserving of a separate optional course). The two are actually separable, but are made inseparable in the course. You have to wade through 40 years of information about teaching theory just to get to the exercises and finally the quiz. The course spends a lot of ink trying to explain why requiring rote memorization in students is only testing the lowest level of learning – “knowledge”. But then the exams are all 25- or 50- question tests based on regurgitation of rote memorization. (true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple answer – precisely the thing 40 years of teaching research are not the best ways to assess learning)

So instead of suffering my way through one more quiz testing whether or not I know when to use the word “student” or when to use the word “learner,” I was actually looking forward to going to a doctor’s office … in the hot zone.

When medically necessary and consistent with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance, testing to diagnose COVID-19 will be available for students, staff and faculty…

From the institution’s fall reopening plan

I arrive at the doctor’s office and remain in my car. I call to check in. I am told to wear a mask inside and someone will meet me at the office door. I am ushered through reception and into a room. A quick patient intake is done. The main exam is delayed about 10 minutes while the doctor finishes up with other patients. When the doctor arrives, it’s a quick inspection and a brief conversation. I tell them just to guide me through what they want; I tell them I haven’t really been in a public place since March 6. We get on the conversation of how school’s like mine reopening in the fall. The doctor starts going on about “as long as they have lots of testing to catch cases before they get out of control…” I tell them no such plan is in place – rather, my university will only allow people to get tests for whom it’s “medically necessary” – no snapshot testing.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

The doctor doesn’t really know what to say to that. We seem to agree that the plan in place for now is going to simply lead to outbreaks and then having to shut down in-person teaching.

The delivery of high-quality, on-campus classroom instruction will continue … providing our students with valuable in-person interaction with faculty members and with each other. Additionally, high-quality remote instruction – often in tandem with in-person classroom instruction – will provide the University with the flexibility necessary to support social distancing while encouraging the use of innovative and creative technologies.  

From my institution’s reopening plan.

And what then? When all those faculty who opted to teach in-person (because it’s necessary for their class, or perhaps because they don’t want to take a 20-hour online teacher training course just to be allowed to teach remotely) are forced to go online because the campus closes under the strain of rampant SARS-CoV-2 spreading… will they have to take this course? Of course not! Who will have time in the fall … in the middle of an unfolding pandemic on campus?

Of course, who has time in the summer? I am paid in the summer to do research. June and July, my salary is paid by the American taxpayer via the U.S. Department of Energy. This is so I can be devoted to basic research with the potential to transform human knowledge. The taxpayer is NOT paying for me to take a 20-hour online teacher training course. I technically shouldn’t be required to take such a course until August, when I would normally prep for fall teaching anyway.

Many college faculty are not as lucky as me, especially lecturers and adjuncts: they are only paid when they teach; no teaching, no pay. Expecting those faculty to conduct university business when they are not paid in the summer is somewhere in the land of unethical… I’m just not sure where exactly. It make my skin crawl.

All of us who were granted remote teaching have to complete the training by July 31. So, I am forced to either take the class at night, on my personal time (uncompensated by my university), or take time away from vacation to do the course. I opted for the latter. I’m on vacation right now. I haven’t had a break since December, but I nonetheless burned two of my vacation days taking this teacher training.

We are looking forward to delivering the unique academic experience that defines [our institution], and to rekindling the energy our students bring to campus.

A message from our university leadership in April, 2020 and updated June 29, 2020.

This is faculty life right now. Like many college faculty, I am being told that I am expected to be on campus in the fall to “preserve the on-campus experience”. We know how to provide an education, regardless of the setting, so why pick the most dangerous setting?

Coronavirus doesn’t give a fuck about the on-campus experience, except in-so-far as 18-22-year-olds crammed into the same dorm assignments as before (seriously … not making that up) and not practicing the necessary social distancing and mask wearing will provide a perfect means to spread the virus. And while 18-22 year-old students don’t tend to suffer the worst consequences of the virus, people 40 and older do… those, of course, are the faculty and staff.

The University will open with standard housing occupancy driven by student choice.

From my institution’s fall reopening plan.

So to preserve the on-campus experience (the COVID-spreading experience), we will expose the most vulnerable to a large population of the most-effective spreaders.

Let that sink in. Higher education administration, folks.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

But to avoid this nonsense and teach online, I have to take a course when, at no previous point in my decade here, has anyone ever cared this much about how I teach. To avoid the disease, I have to prove something no in-person university teacher is asked to prove. To be honest, I am not sure what makes me more mad: the lack of teacher certification at the college level, or the inequity of this policy in the middle of a pandemic.

Take your pick. Heck… pick both.

I tried not to touch anything in the medical center. I got into the hot car, roasting in the midday Texas sun in an open-air parking lot, and popped off the mask. I sanitized my hands again. I started the car. I went home. There, I took a full Silkwood shower and sanitized my mobile phone.

And then I spent another 90 minutes finishing the online teacher training course. Afterward, I was angrier and sadder and more frustrated than I have been in a long time.

Since June 1, there have been 32 cases of COVID-19 identified in people on my institution’s campus. And students aren’t even back on-campus yet.

Coda

Many clear-thinking universities have accepted the reality of the pandemic recently. University of Southern California reversed course a few days ago and decided to abandon their in-person fall teaching model for online-only instruction, even if a fraction of students return to campus. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton just announced the same basic plan: online instruction even with a determined but modest population of students on-campus.

We wait for a sensible decision to be made on our own campus.

References

  1. https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/smu-cases/ – cases on-campus.
  2. https://www.smu.edu/News/2020/COVID-19/Plans-for-fall-semester-2020
  3. https://blog.smu.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/2020/04/30/we-intend-to-be-open-in-fall-2020/
  4. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/harvard-to-bring-up-to-40-of-undergrads-to-campus-this-fall/
  5. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/06/fas-dean-confirms-teaching-to-remain-online-for-2020-21/
  6. https://yalecollege.yale.edu/get-know-yale-college/office-dean/messages-dean/plans-fall-2020-yale-college-courses-june-22
  7. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/07/06/princeton-announces-plan-fall-2020-guidelines-undergraduates-returning-campus
  8. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-02/usc-will-move-most-undergraduate-classes-online-cancels-reopening

The spice must flow

As I wrote several days ago, Zoom has become highly unstable on my desktop computer. I’ve tried everything, including switching from the KDE desktop environment to the XFWM one; switching off compositing; using all different versions of the NVIDIA drivers; swapping other NVIDIA cards into the system; different kinds of LINUX kernels. Nothing helps. So I’ve employed my work laptop as the backup system. Actually, now it has become my primary teaching system, because I cannot afford stupid graphics system/software crashes in the middle of class. The Yeti and the good camera attach to a USB-C hub on the work laptop; the Snowball and the worse camera are now relegated to the desktop machine.

The spice must flow.

Fall down, go Vroom

Like many institutions, I’m using a video conferencing client whose name rhymes with “Vroom” in order to conduct classes. Things were going great for the first 2 weeks. Last Friday, things took a serious turn.

It all started with a long-standing problem on my home desktop machine. I run Ubuntu Linux 18.04 on a hand-built computer. The board is an Intel motherboard from about 5-10 years ago. I use an NVIDIA-based graphics add-on card, and like all Linux users who employ NVIDIA technology, I have made a Faustian bargain. NVIDIA cards are cheap and faster than their competitors, like AMD, for the same price point. But, their drivers are closed-source. Sure, I can use the “Nouveau” open-source driver… but then I cannot have two monitors connected to the card, and I need two monitors for work reasons (not the least of which is the utility of having two monitors when teaching with Vroom).

So I use the proprietary driver. But this seems to make my desktop graphics unstable. The old symptom was that the KDE window environment’s graphics compositing system would reset, usually at least once an hour (it doesn’t matter if I use XRender, OpenGL2, or OpenGL3… for those of you who care about the details). If I were running a lot of programs that take advantage of graphics capabilities (and I don’t mean anything fancy here, just a web browser and a code editor will do the trick) the compositing system resets happened more often. Sometimes, the graphics shell freezes and needs to be restarted; sometimes, the window manager crashes.

I tried buying and installing an AMD card on my system (they play nice with open-source), but the easiest cards to get are of a generation that doesn’t work with my motherboard (too new). The past generation cards are used and expensive, with worse graphics memory than my NVIDIA card. So that didn’t work for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which was the system would not even boot up!

I’ve tried using different generations of the NVIDIA drivers for Linux (there are BUNCH). I tried older generations, which seemed to help the graphics resets… but didn’t completely stop the problem.

Then, on Friday (on top of all of this!), all hell broke loose with Vroom. Suddenly, the client couldn’t stay up for more than 10 minutes at a time. It would crash and completely interrupt a meeting or class. It happened again tonight during Honors Physics. It was MADDENING.

I realized that although I updated the Vroom client about 10 days ago, a new version is already available. I upgraded that tonight. Who knows if that will solve it?

Bottom line: I have to have my laptop up and running as a backup teaching system in case the desktop goes down in flames. Vroom is another kind of Faustian bargain [1]: easy-to-use video teaching and conferencing capability, at the expense of no clear control over privacy and identity and a closed-source software architecture, which invites flaws by accident and design.

Sigh. When the smoke clears on all of this, I hope to have some time to slow down and think about the long chain of technology issues that are piling up at home. But there is no time to think now…

[1] See Doc Searls’s excellent series of posts about Vroom and all the good and bad it can do: http://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/

P.S. There is no Linux PPA to automatically install the latest Vroom (THANKS, Vroom). I wrote a cron script that others might find useful to check for a new version and install it if one exists)

#!/bin/bash

if [ ! -e "/var/spool/zoom" ]; then
   mkdir -p /var/spool/zoom
fi

cd /var/spool/zoom/

if [ -e "zoom_amd64.deb" ]; then
   rm -f zoom_amd64.deb
fi

wget 'https://zoom.us/client/latest/zoom_amd64.deb'

old_version=$(dpkg -s zoom | grep '^Version:' | cut -d ' ' -f 2)
new_version=$(dpkg-deb -f zoom_amd64.deb Version)

if [ $old_version == $new_version ]; then
    exit
fi

while fuser /var/lib/dpkg/lock; do
    echo "Waiting for dpkg lock to be released..."
    sleep 30
done

dpkg -i zoom_amd64.deb