Teaching & learning


Miniature snowperson

Several weeks ago, while waiting to check-in on campus for my weekly COVID-19 test, I saw a teaching colleague leaving after taking her own test. I called her name, we exchanged pleasantries from a safe distance, and she left: the kind of passing interaction we used to have frequently in the Before Times. Only afterward did I realize it was the first time I’d seen a teaching colleague in person in nearly a year.

When colleges across the country went virtual last March (and again when colleges re-opened in various hybrid formats this past Fall), parents and pundits alike wondered how the pandemic would impact the social lives of students. Would 18- to 21-year-olds be deprived of the Typical College Experience in an era where masks, social distancing, and frequent COVID tests are the norm? Nowhere in this conversation did anyone ask what it would be like for college instructors teaching in the Age of Coronavirus. How exactly would college professors cultivate collegiality in the absence of in-person colleagues?

At both of the colleges where I teach, department chairs and other administrators have tried to maintain a semblance of bureaucratic normalcy with department meetings, committee work, and conversational coffee hours happening online. But gone are the days of running into your colleagues in the copy room, chatting around the department water cooler, or mingling in the hallways.

At both of the colleges where I teach, students are finding ways to interact and socialize: I see scattered groups of masked students walking across campus or gathering at a safe distance in classrooms and common areas, where the furniture is marked to indicate where students can and cannot sit. What I don’t see while walking to and from class, however, are other professors. Many of my colleagues are teaching remotely this semester, and my colleagues who teach hybrid classes behave as I do, zipping in to teach their classes and then immediately heading home to minimize the exposure risk of being on-campus.

This means I’ve gone almost an entire year without seeing my professional peers in person. When I’m on campus, the only folks I regularly see are my undergraduate students; apart from the maintenance staff who come into my classroom to sanitize the desks between classes or the nurses who staff the COVID testing center, I rarely see people my own age on campus. Both of my department chairs are working remotely, both of my department administrative assistants are working remotely, and the instructors who occupy the offices around mine are (like me) seldom around.

Now that I’ve noted this phenomenon, I am realizing how odd and disorienting it is. Walking to and from class, I feel like a relic: a Significantly Older Person whose experience of campus is distinctly different from the young folks around me. While my students are looking to make friends and socialize despite the virus, I’m mindful that as a middle-aged asthmatic, I’m far less likely to bounce back from infection than my youthful students are. For my students, COVID is an inconvenient social interruption: for me, COVID is something that could seriously incapacitate or kill me.

So while my on-campus students are surrounded by people their own age, the pandemic has done something that none of my professional accomplishments has ever been able to achieve: it’s made me peerless, a person who is literally without peer.

Babson Globe in winter

This week is the first week of the semester at Babson College, and last night I dreamt I had to teach my classes from a hotel room.

In the alternate universe that is dreamtime, there was no pandemic, no masks, and no need for social distancing, but for some reason the college announced I couldn’t teach on-campus or from home. Instead, my “remote” classes were booked in a hotel room where J and I stayed overnight. Because the room had been booked at the last minute, neither one of us had any luggage, and I didn’t have a laptop, so I had to keep checking my phone for emails from students asking where we were supposed to meet.

Although the class was billed as “remote,” it was actually a face-to-face session, so at the scheduled time my students and a guest speaker (writer Walter Mosley, who wrote an essay I assigned last semester) somehow piled into my hotel room, which by then had morphed into a suite containing an odd assortment of furniture, none of which was conducive to an actual class session. Fortunately, Mosley had a laptop and was able to show slides during his talk, and I was reduced to “teaching” from bed, first in a babydoll nightgown, and later in a pair of flannel pajamas.

Maintain proper distance

I submitted the last of my Fall semester grades yesterday afternoon, then I immediately took a nap, overwhelmed by the cumulative exhaustion of the past four months.

This has been a remarkable semester, for sure, and only now in retrospect can I appreciate how utterly exhausting it’s been. Teaching in-person college classes during a pandemic means you’re always on alert, running down a mental checklist of COVID protocols, and that’s not even counting the teaching tasks of a normal semester, when “all” you have to do is prepare classes, give lectures, lead discussions, answer questions, respond to emails, participate in meetings, and grade papers.

During this crazy COVID semester, I regularly monitored my health, taught in multiple modalities (often simultaneously), and prepared myself to switch pedagogical approaches suddenly if conditions changed (as of course they did). I learned how tiring it is to lecture in a mask, asking myself at the end of every on-campus teaching day “Is my throat sore because I have COVID or because I spent the day shouting?” When you teach in-person classes during a pandemic, part of your attention is always attuned to your surroundings: are your in-person students wearing their masks and keeping proper distance? Are any windows that can be opened actually open? Are your hands clean, and what have you recently touched that might not be clean?

Teaching in-person during a pandemic is nerve-wracking enough, but teaching a hybrid class offers additional challenges. Can my online students hear me, and can I hear them? Did I remember to start, pause, and re-start the class recording at all the proper times so absent students can watch the class later? Has anyone posted a question in the chat, or raised a virtual hand, or waved their actual hand in front of the camera (assuming it is on) to get my attention? If I put my remote students into breakout rooms while working with my in-person students, can I simultaneously attend to conversations in the room and the clock counting down to my remote students’ return?

Now that the semester is over, I realize the weight of worry I’ve been carrying the past four months. Are my students okay? How are they doing emotionally, physically, and (yes) academically? Are they safe, healthy, and physically able to come to class in-person or online? Can they find the classroom, the Zoom link, the weekly online module, the relevant discussion forum? Can they find and figure out how to submit this week’s assignment?

At the end of this COVID semester, I wonder whether I answered students’ questions, calmed their fears, or even taught them anything about the subject of the class. Did all the carefully crafted assignments, checklists, modules, and videos actually work, or were they a monumental waste of both time and bandwidth? However this semester went, the crazy fact remains: after a few days off to clear my head, I’ll begin preparing for January, when we’ll do it all over again.

Kicked to the curb

This morning I’ve already done a ragtag assortment of small tasks. While holding virtual office hours, I checked discussion boards, made a to-do list of teaching tasks, folded laundry, filled out my vote-by-mail ballot, emptied wastebaskets, answered email, and finished one batch of Postcards to Voters before starting another.

Still undone are the committee work and paper-grading I’m currently procrastinating, because the best way to get lots of tiny tasks done is to have several big tasks you’re avoiding.

One of this morning’s emails was from a student who wants to meet with me to devise a strategy for keeping up with his college workload. College is a big jump from high school: most of the work is self-directed with relatively little time spent in class, so many students struggle to manage So Much Free Time without Mom and Dad close by to supervise. The situation is even worse during a pandemic, when hybrid classes mean you spend even less time in class and even more time online, doing (or not doing) work with a more flexible deadline.

One of the most valuable things any student can learn in college–either during a pandemic or not–is how to manage oneself and one’s time. How motivated and self-disciplined are you in accomplishing tasks when there is no one watching except your own Inner Taskmaster?

I am probably a bad person to advise on the matter, given how much I myself procrastinate. And yet, I somehow manage to keep more balls (mostly) in the air than many folks I know, teaching at two colleges while tending a houseful of pets and maintaining some semblance of a civic and creative life.

The question isn’t how I do it but how my student already does. For I’m convinced that even a student who struggles to post to a required online discussion board three times a week has other things in his life that he does without fail at least as regularly. So how did my student establish those habits: how does he remember to show up to his workouts, Facetime sessions with friends, or favorite video games and TV shows?

Truth be told, I wouldn’t get much (if anything) done if it weren’t for Google Calendar reminders buzzing on my wrist, daily Google Keep checklists I update at the start of each week, and countless to-do lists written on memo pads and sticky notes. Even when it comes to enjoyable things that I want to do, they don’t get done if they aren’t On My List.

But that’s what works for me, and even my lists and calendar reminders and best intentions sometimes fail in the face of procrastination, inertia, and seemingly endless supply of Things That Need Doing. Sometimes a ball or two will drop, and you have to clean up the consequences. This too is a valuable lesson to learn in college or beyond.

Codman frogs

It’s the start of the third week of the semester at Framingham State and the fourth week of the semester at Babson College. I’m teaching hybrid classes at both colleges, so instead of commuting four days a week, I teach at Babson on Wednesdays, Framingham State on Thursdays, and online the other days.

For much of the summer, I alternated between anxieties: on the one hand, I worried about the health risks of teaching in-person; on the other, I worried about keeping my job. Now that the semester is officially underway, I’m calmer and less anxious than I have been at any time during the pandemic. Instead of fixating on the many things outside my control, I am busy paying attention to the things within my power.

These days I spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with the classroom technology that allows me to teach students in the room and students who are logged in from home. When the technology works, it is awesome and amazing; when it doesn’t (which is often), I wonder whether I’m effectively reaching anyone, anywhere.

Despite the glitches, though, I find myself wondering whether I’ll go back to conventional teaching ever again. Teaching half-time in-person forces me to prioritize what we do in class, with me in the room, versus what we can do more effectively online, at each student’s own speed. In retrospect, the amount of time I used to spend giving real-time lectures on writing–a skill that must be practiced to be perfected–seems unnecessary and counter-productive. I would have been better served meeting with students individually or in small groups.

This much I know: I will never have a conventional attendance policy again. I no longer have any desire to force sick students to come to class when there are perfectly viable ways they can participate remotely. One of the things I’m curious to see this term is whether we all stay healthier than usual. Will having morning classes one day a week rather than two mean my students this semester will be less sleep-deprived? Will there be less sickness–fewer cases of colds and flu–now that we’re washing our hands, wearing masks, and staying six feet apart?

I’ve always said that teaching in a college classroom is like working in a germ-infested Petri dish: by the fifth week of a normal semester, everyone is sick with an infectious malaise that gets passed around and around ‘til Thanksgiving, when students go home, rest up, then return to campus with a fresh set of germs to share.

But this is not a normal semester–and most people say that as if it were a bad thing. Yes, it’s sad that the virus-spreading activities of the “normal college experience” have been cancelled or curtailed this semester. But what if this particular cloud of contagion has an unexpectedly salubrious side-effect?

I would happily say goodbye to the infectious practices of past semesters. There used to be a badge of honor bestowed upon students who came to class sick–what dedication!–or who boasted about multiple all-nighters–what diligence! But why should growing your brain be a danger to your physical health? What if one side-effect of the COVID crisis were a paradigm shift where caring for one’s own (and one’s neighbors’) physical health were as important as making the grade?

Magnolia-to-be

I’m writing these lines during today’s virtual office hours. Although all of the required components in my suddenly-online classes are asynchronous, I hold real-time office hours in case my students have quick questions. So as I write these words, I’m sitting in front of my laptop, webcam on and headset donned, just in case anyone drops by to say hello. It’s a strange new ritual in this age of remote learning, a kind of vigil I keep just in case any of my students wants to talk.

This is, of course, comparable to what I used to do during my face-to-face office hours: I’d sit in my office and wait for students to show up. During that time, I’d try to be productive, grading papers, prepping classes or answering emails, just as right now I’m writing these lines.

But online office hours feel different because of their virtual nature. When someone comes to my office on campus, they enter a space we subsequently share, but during virtual office hours, there is no shared physical space. Instead, I sit in front of my laptop in my home office with Roxy napping on the bed behind me, and my students sit in front of their laptop webcams in their own spaces: bedrooms, kitchens, couches.

It’s oddly intimate while being (literally) remote. Occasionally a grandmother wanders in with a plate of food or a kid sister pops into view, eager to show off a painting she made. There is a brief screen-sized glimpse into another person’s world as if through a window: here a student I knew only in the neutral space of an academic classroom or administrative office exists on their home turf, or at least wherever they find themselves right now, for now.

I feel the same kind of intimacy when I hear or see radio and TV reporters calling in from home these days, or experts and interviewees appearing as tiny video squares from their attic offices, basement dens, or spare bedrooms. Suddenly we are sharing spaces even while we are apart, our connection mediated through screens both large and small.

These days, the word “screen” is oddly evocative, for originally screens were a veil pulled opaquely to provide privacy between two contiguous worlds: you on one side, me on the other. Neighbors can hear one another through screens; priests can hear confessions from anonymous penitents, and absolutions can be offered.

A screen is also where we project ourselves or our hopes, dreams, and fantasies. Something that is a keeper-apart of faces and spaces is at the same time an open place–a proverbial blank canvas–where we can show and perform.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is an act of hope, even if (especially if) no one shows up. It’s the waiting that makes it sacred: a kind of virtual vigil where presence itself is its own sacrament. Here I am, holding a space open for you, wherever you are.

In this sense, holding virtual office hours is like showing up at the page or taking three sips of tea before giving a Zen interview: you don’t know what will flow from your pen or who will walk through the door.

First forsythias

This afternoon, a teaching colleague emailed to ask for any advice I might share as he transitions his face-to-face class online. Since so many instructors find themselves in a similar situation right now, I thought I’d share my response:

Although I spent more than a decade teaching fully-online classes elsewhere, I’ve never taught a face-to-face class that then suddenly went online. Ideally, you’d design an online class from the ground up versus on-the-fly. So don’t set your expectations too high: at this point, you’re trying to salvage some sort of decent learning experience out of a crappy situation.

More than anything, you want to be human and humane. I think this pretty much sums it up.

The more you can do asynchronously, the better. Let me repeat that: THE MORE YOU DO ASYNCHRONOUSLY, THE BETTER.

I know everyone is fascinated with the “shiny new toy” aspect of Zoom, Collaborate, and other real-time meeting tools, but I’d under-emphasize those. Students are going to be living at home with family, roommates, significant others, children, shared (or no) Internet connections, unpredictable schedules, and a pandemic that might affect the health of their loved ones and/or themselves. Adding the learning curve of new technology and the stress of real-time scheduling is NOT helpful.

When you’re teaching online, less is more, less is more, less is more. Or as Thoreau would say, Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The Blackboard discussion board is your friend. Students can post asynchronously whenever they are able, and they can post from their phone with the Blackboard app. Provide your students with clear expectations about discussion board participation. Emphasize that in an online class, “participation” and “attendance” are the same thing. You can’t sit in the back row and lurk: to be present, you need to participate.

In converting my face-to-face classes, I’ve cut a LOT of content and activities that work well in person but just won’t work online. In an online course, there is no need to “fill class time” with activities. Decide which final deliverables are essential, divide those into weekly chunks, and jettison the rest.

For one of my classes, this means each Monday-Sunday module features one discussion board and one writing assignment due on Sunday night. (These writing assignments are pieces of a larger research project.) THAT IS ALL.

We aren’t doing any real-time class sessions. If there is something I absolutely have to teach “in person,” I’ll record a video that students can watch whenever is convenient to them. Each Monday morning, I’ll post everything students need for that week’s module, including a checklist of relevant tasks and due-dates, links to whatever they need, etc. It’s up to students to plan out how they manage their time and work-load for each week’s deliverables.

The only real-time component I’m keeping is virtual office hours. I’ll have set times twice a week when I’ll be available for students to talk via WebEx or Blackboard Collaborate. (Skype is also an option many students are already familiar with.) If students want to “meet” at other times, we can schedule that, but I’m not requiring anyone to meet me in real time. Students’ schedules are too complicated for that, especially during these crazy times.

Students won’t remember whether you were a tech-guru who was a master of online technology; they’ll remember whether you were kind, humane, and helpful during an unbelievably stressful time.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have additional questions, and STAY HEALTHY.

Four cones

Every year, I repeat the same mantra as October turns into November: “If I can make it to Thanksgiving, I’ll survive the semester.”

Every semester is a marathon, not a sprint, and just as distance runners learn to recognize the cycles of any race–the places they get tired and discouraged, and the places they find their second wind–I’ve learned to recognize the phases of a typical semester.

At first, a new semester is both exhilarating and exhausting: for the first few weeks, you have to manage the adrenaline rush of new classes and a new schedule. Around week five, the novelty of a new term has worn off, and everyone is sick and tired: the start of what I call the Dark Night of the Semester.

For the past month or so, I’ve settled into the middling stride of my semester–my teaching days have fallen into a familiar routine–but this routine is also its own kind of drudgery. I’ve been behind with grading–buried in my paper-piles–for so long now, I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever dig out. “The work always gets done,” I remind myself, a mantra I repeat every semester without fail. No matter how high the paper-piles, the work always somehow gets done, and usually not a moment too soon.

Whereas Spring Break comes right in the middle of Spring semester, Thanksgiving break comes at the almost-end of Fall semester: after my students and I come back after the holiday, there are two weeks of classes–the busiest time of the semester–followed by Finals Week. This week I told my first-year students, who have never completed the marathon that is a college semester, to rest up over Thanksgiving because when classes resume, the business of the semester will heat up, fast.

I’ve run this marathon enough times to know that Thanksgiving is when the uphill slog of the semester turns into a roller-coaster rush to the finish.

Minimalism

This past week my Intro to College Writing students at Framingham State have been preparing brief presentations they’ll give after we return from Thanksgiving break. My students have worked on individual projects for over a month now, doing research and spending lots of time thinking about their topics in advance of writing a five- to seven-page position paper. But before they submit the final version of that assignment, I’m asking them to prepare a brief presentation where they share their conclusions and field questions.

Being able to summarize a complicated issue in a clear and concise manner is a valuable skill: imagine a world where everyone could boil things down to their essence. In class last week, I showed students how to summarize their project in a single paragraph using a basic template I provided. This week, we’ve practiced converting this paragraph into a sentence outline, and today we’re translating that sentence outline into a keyword outline.

I tell my students that being able to express an idea both briefly and at length is a valuable skill: if you know a topic inside and out, you can whittle it down to its essential points or you can elaborate in more depth and detail. Many of my students are accustomed to school assignments that require them to write more rather than less, so they are surprised to realize how hard it is to be both brief and clear.

When you whittle something down to its essentials, you necessarily have to prioritize your points: which ideas are essential, and which are expendable? Brevity isn’t merely the soul of wit; it is also the companion of comprehension.

One woman's trash is another woman's fashion

It’s a gray and rainy day–a damp, drizzly November in my soul–and I spent most of my office hours grading papers. We’re at the point of the semester when I could grade 24/7, and the bottom of my paper-pile would still be far, far away.

Sadly, I have things to do besides grade, so I chip away at my paper-piles during the smidgens of time between classes, meetings with students, and the perpetual need to prep class after class. (The biggest challenge in teaching six classes isn’t that you have six classes’ worth of papers to grade; it’s that every moment you spend in class teaching is a moment you aren’t reading papers.)

I’m writing these words in a notebook while my first-year writing students are crafting opening anecdotes for the essay draft that’s due next week: another batch of papers for my pile. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toledo, I sometimes would go to University Hall late at night with nothing but a notebook, and I’d sit at the front of an empty classroom writing, imagining the day when I’d be a college professor sitting at my desk writing while my students sat quietly working at theirs.

This was the late 1980s, so I had no idea my eventual students would compose on laptops, tablets, and phones more often than with pen and paper. And I had no idea then how many papers I’d be reading now. How could I have known? Grading papers is invisible work: I never actually saw my professors doing it. Instead, I saw them lecturing in class or looking profound during office hours, when they were invariably poring over a book, never student papers or that more recent bane of modern academic life: email.

When I was an undergraduate, I never took freshman composition, the class I now primarily teach: the adjunct’s bread and butter. I never wrote drafts that were commented on then returned to revise. Instead, I took Honors Readings Conference my freshman year, and I met with my instructor face-to-face to talk about every paper I wrote. There might have been comments on those essays: honestly, I can’t recall. What I remember were the conversations I had with my professors and the awe-inspiring realization that they took my ideas seriously enough to encourage me to think about them even more deeply.

I’m not sure I’ve ever accomplished that in any of my written comments on student drafts: I’m not sure (ultimately) that these comments are even the point. What I had no way of knowing when I sat writing at the front of those empty late-night classrooms when I was an undergraduate in Ohio was how much of my life would be frittered away grading papers and how little of it would be spent face-to-face with my students, having the kind of deep conversations I so enjoyed. My expectations then seem as removed from my current reality as the height of today’s paper-pile.

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