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College Students Ask: What’s Up With My 'Ghost Professor?'

An empty classroom has rows of chairs stacked on desks and a mask hanging from the back of the chair in the foreground.
Community college students say some professors have done a disappearing act during the pandemic.
(Marco Fileccia via Unsplash)
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College Students Ask: What's Up With My Ghost Professor?

College students have had to learn a lot of new pandemic-era vocabulary, but there’s one term they’ve coined that reflects a particular frustration they’ve had with learning this year.

“Ghost professor.”

“They're not teaching, you don't see them, they don't do Zoom, they don't have office hours,” said Santa Monica College political science student Jonnae Serrano. “I've had office hours where it's completely text — I'm texting my professor, and waiting for her to get back to me.”

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She and students at other Southern California community college campuses complain of professors who've given them a list of YouTube videos, produced by someone else, and questions as the teaching for the entire semester.

Other students described instructors who didn’t start out as “ghost professors,” but went in that direction as distance learning continued.

“At first, she was very kind of active,” said Mt. San Antonio College student Mayra Rivera about a professor this semester “but then she kind of faded… she will post the homework, and her explanation was really good, but when you had a question… she hardly replied at the end.”

Rivera got a zero on an extra credit assignment, she said, because the professor didn’t reply to her questions about how to submit the work, and as the semester ends, that’ll likely mean the difference between an A and a B.

For other students, ghost professors contributed to a growing load of issues that made it harder to stay in school.

A sign outside Santa Monica College

“I am at the point where I honestly don't really enjoy school as I did when I just started,” said Pasadena City College student Susana Macias. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed the campus’ big library and the in-person interaction with students and faculty during and after classes.

She said a “ghost professor” in her history class kept his camera off the three times she attended his online office hours.

“I just stopped doing it because it was just talking to a screen,” Macias said.

An absence of connection and interaction are the prevalent themes among the students who described their experience with “ghost professors.”

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“I just would like teachers to be more present. If you're requiring your students to do work and be present in your class, you should be present as well,” Serrano said.

Most of the students interviewed said they’d had only one or two “ghost professors” during this one year of distance learning. Students said they don’t want to out the professors by name, but they feel it’s important to talk about the experience to send a message to college administrators to make improvements.

Students give their colleges input on teaching through surveys and evaluations at the end of the semester, but that may not be enough.

“There needs to be an actual conversation that goes beyond evaluation and talks about what it is that the students are feeling,” said Natacha Cesar-Davis, psychology professor at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area, and an expert on community college teaching.

“Why are (students) saying that there are ghost professors? And to those professors that are being pointed out as such, there needs to be a follow up to understand what their experience is,” she said.

‘Regular And Substantive’ Interaction A Requirement

Both the state and federal governments require higher education institutions that provide distance education to focus on faculty-student communication to “support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor,”according to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

“What that means is a faculty member will initiate things like announcements,” said Mt. San Antonio College Dean of Library and Learning Resources Meghan Chen.

California’s regulations require distance learning instructors to have “regular effective contact between instructor and students,” by way of telephone, email, and through “individual meetings, orientation and review sessions, supplemental seminar or study sessions, field trips, library workshops.”

librarysanta monicacollege.jpg
The library at Santa Monica College (Photo courtesy of Santa Monica College)

“The expectation is uniform. How is locally defined is left to the institutions individually to clarify what they mean,” Chen said.

The shutdown of campuses during the pandemic has meant instructors are spending a lot of time on the phone.

“I get in trouble at home because I have my email connected to my phone. So most of the time I'm responding immediately,” or early the next day if the message comes late at night, said Mt. San Antonio College Spanish professor Aaron Salinger.

His approach has a lot to do with how he perceives his students are learning. Salinger believes student questions come when students are doing their work or thinking about their assignments.

“And the quicker I can get back to them, the more useful my response is going to be. And the more...they're going to be able to be successful, which at the end of the day is our goal,” he said.

Colleges Use New Funds To Train Faculty

A sign reads  Mt. San Antonio College nestled in a bed of flowers.
Mt. San Antonio College is a community college in eastern L.A. County
(Courtesy Mt. San Antonio College)

Like other community colleges, Mt. San Antonio College trains it’s faculty in best practices to teach online. The training had been around for years before the pandemic, and the certification awarded after completing the courses was required to teach online classes. The pandemic threw all of that out the window. Certified or not, nearly all faculty were moved to online courses as they received emergency training from the college and other faculty.

“It's important to note that faculty cared deeply about providing a good online learning experience for students,” Chen said.

She recommends students who have “ghost professors” to contact the department or division that oversees the subject.

“Because there's also the possibility…there's a reason why the professor may or may not be available. And so that's another way to kind of find out what might be happening,” she said.

“When we are made aware of a situation in which an instructor is not responsive or lacks skill in the techniques needed to teach a class, we assess whether the person needs more training and/or just needs to spend more time online with the students,” said Jennifer Merlic, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Santa Monica College, in an email. “After such an assessment, we respond to the instructor accordingly.”

During the pandemic, Santa Monica College has offered over 40 training workshops attended by over 1,600 faculty, she said. And 276 faculty have completed online teaching certification courses that range from two weeks to eight weeks.

In very rare cases when an instructor is simply not performing the requirements of the job, the class is reassigned to another instructor,” Merlic said.

But training may range from campus to campus. Some campuses pay their faculty, including part time faculty, to undergo training, others don’t. Advocates say legislators in Sacramento need to increase funds to make training available to all faculty to ease their transition.

“I felt and I feel overwhelmed,” said Manuel Sanchez, a Spanish professor at Pasadena City College.

PCC professor Manuel Sanchez stands in from of a chalkboard reviewing Communicative Approach
Manuel Sanchez teaches Spanish at Pasadena City College
(Courtesy Manuel Sanchez)

He feels that way even though he was halfway through his statewide online teaching certification when the pandemic hit. He’d been incorporating online teaching methods, such as developing an online presence, for more than four years.

“In the defense of some of these so-called ghost professors, many people, you know, don't have the formal online training,” Sanchez said.

Before the pandemic, Sanchez said, some of his students said they’d choose classes based on reviews of that professor’s teaching style.

At Mt. San Antonio College, a professor who receives multiple negative student evaluations or complaints may prompt an investigation by the chair of the instructor’s academic department and the division dean.

“If the investigation reveals that a professor needs help, per the contract, additional training should be provided to the professor,” said Emily Woolery by email. She’s president of Mt. San Antonio’s campus faculty association.

“Especially during COVID, when everyone was experiencing upheaval at work and home, the Faculty Association wanted to ensure that faculty were treated with compassion,” she wrote.

Glendale College and Pasadena City College (PCC) both said faculty and administrators have worked hard to provide a strong educational experience during the pandemic.

A Student Resolution

In the early weeks of the pandemic last year, a PCC spokesman said, campus faculty passed a resolution recommending that “all instructors continue to ensure regular and effective contact and provide access to course materials.”

PCC student engagement resolution
PCC faculty passed a student engagement resolution during the pandemic.

Some students have run out of compassion.

College student Malcolm Sibley wears a mask and backpack as he walks.
Malcolm Sibley is a student at Mt. San Antonio College.
(Anthony Mendoza
Courtesy Malcolm Sibley)

“With the pandemic and everything people don't really want to work right now,” said Santa Monica College student Serrano, “and it's easier to just post something from YouTube than to actually sit and make a video yourself.”

Mt. San Antonio College student Malcolm Sibley was willing to go a little easier on “ghost professors.”

“Always give the professors the benefit of the doubt,” Sibley said. “They've had to make the transition to teaching online and an environment they're probably not used to,” he said.

Sibley’s empathy may be put to the test soon, as many colleges decide to keep a large portion of their classes online for the fall semester.

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.

Corrected June 17, 2021 at 9:03 AM PDT
In a previous version of this story, Jonnae Serrano’s last name was incorrect. LAist regrets the error.