This Week In My (Fall 2020) Classes: Coming to Terms

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWell, it’s official: Dalhousie’s Fall 2020 classes will be “predominantly online,” the only planned exceptions being specialized programs that rely on “experiential learning” — “medicine, dentistry, select health professions, agriculture.” In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, we were told some time ago to begin planning for an online term: if some miracle occurred and suddenly it was safe to resume business as (formerly) usual, after all, it would have been easier to revert to face-to-face teaching than it would have been to have to pivot the other way. It is definitely helpful to have more certainty, though, especially for our students.

Because planning ahead suits me much better than waiting and wondering, I had already begun trying to come to grips with what it would (now, will) mean to teach my classes online. The first stage was wrestling with my emotions about this. I love teaching–it is my favourite part of my job, sometimes the only part of it that really makes sense to me and certainly the part of it that I am most motivated about. I have always accepted that there are people who do a good job of online teaching and that there are ways to make it a good experience. Still, I have always resisted doing it myself, because I enjoy being in the live classroom so much and because I spend a lot of time online for other reasons and didn’t want to lose one of my main sources of in-person human contact.

Dal_MarionMcCain_BuildingHaving the decision made for me by circumstances hasn’t changed everything about how I feel about teaching online, but it has made a lot of those feelings irrelevant. Also, countering my wistfulness about what we’ll be missing are other, stronger feelings about what we will, happily, be avoiding by staying behind our screens. Every description I’ve seen of ways to make face-to-face teaching more or less safe for everyone involved has involved a level of surveillance, anxiety, and uncertainty that I think would make it nearly impossible to teach or learn with confidence: a lot of what is good about meeting in person would be distorted by the necessary health and safety measures, and even without taking into account the accessibility issues for staff, students, and faculty who would be at higher risk, being in a constant state of vigilance would be exhausting for everyone. Frankly, I’m relieved and grateful that Dalhousie has finally made a clear call that (arguably) errs on the side of caution. Now we can get on with planning for it.

The Student (Dixon)As my regret about the shift to online has been replaced by determination to make the best of it, I’ve also noticed something I’ve seen experienced online teachers point out before, which is a tendency to idealize face-to-face teaching, as if just being there in person guarantees good pedagogy. It doesn’t, of course. In my own case, I know that what I’ll miss the most is lively in-class discussions. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that even the liveliest discussion rarely involves everyone in the room. Of course I try hard to engage as many people as possible, using a range of different strategies depending on the class size and purpose and layout: break-out groups, think-pair-share exercises, free writing from discussion prompts, discussion questions circulated ahead of time, handouts with passages to annotate and share, or just the good old-fashioned technique “ask a provocative question and see where it gets us.” Even what feels to me like a very good result, though, might actually involve 10 people out of, say, 40 — or 90, or 120 — speaking up. Others are (hopefully!) engaged in different ways, and there are different ways, too, to ask for and measure participation than counting who speaks up in class. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I pretended that there wasn’t any room for improvement–and what I want to think about as I make plans for the fall is therefore not how to try to duplicate that in-class experience online (ugh, Zoom!), partly because we are supposed to focus on asynchronous methods but also because maybe I can use online tools to get a higher contribution rate, which in turn might make more students feel a part of our collective enterprise. And, not incidentally, if all contributions are written, they will also get more (low-stakes) writing practice, which is always a good thing, and they will be able to think first, and more slowly (if that suits them), and look things up in the text, before having to weigh in.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)There are other ways in which (and we all know this to be true) face-to-face teaching isn’t perfect, and there are also teachers whose face-to-face teaching does not reflect best practices for that medium. Given these obvious truths, and especially since the shift to online teaching is driven by factors that themselves have nothing to do with pedagogical preferences, I have been getting pretty irritable about professors publicly lamenting these decisions, especially when it’s obvious that they haven’t made the slightest effort to learn anything about online teaching, or to reflect on the limitations of their own usual pedagogy. One prominent academic just published an op-ed in a national paper declaring that online teaching can only ever be a faint shadow of “the real thing”; others have been making snide remarks on Twitter about the obvious worthlessness of a term of “crap zoom lectures” (that’s verbatim) or questioning why students should pay tuition for the equivalent of podcasts. Besides the obvious PR downside of making these sweepingly negative and ill-informed statements when your institutions are turning themselves upside down to find sustainable ways forward, what kind of attitude does that model for our students? The situation is hard, I agree, and sad, and disappointing. But at the end of the day we are professionals and this, right now, is what our job requires. If we value that job–and I don’t mean that in the reductive “it’s what we get paid for” way (though for those of us with tenured positions, that professional obligation is important to acknowledge and live up to) but our commitment to teaching and training and nurturing our students–then, if we can*, I think we need to do our best to get on with it.

Arcimbolo LibrarianAnd happily, though most of us are not trained as online teachers, we do have a superpower that should help us out: we are trained researchers! We can look things up, consult experts, examine models, and figure out how to apply what we learn to our own situations, contexts, pedagogical goals, and values. At this point, that’s what I’m working on: learning about online learning. Yes, I had other projects I was interested in pursuing this summer. In fact, I still do, but I have scaled back my expectations for them, because I can’t think of anything that’s more important right now than doing everything I can to make my fall classes good experiences, for my students and also for me. I have the privilege of a full-time continuing position, after all, and my university is making experts and resources available to me–plus there are all kinds of people generously offering guidance and encouragement through Twitter and I have been following up their leads and bookmarking sites and articles and YouTube videos.

I still feel a lot of generalized anxiety about the pandemic–both its immediate risks and its broader implications–but I can’t influence those outcomes, except by following expert advice and “staying the blazes home” (to quote our premier!), doing my part to slow the spread of the virus by doing as little as possible. It’s hard! I am still really struggling with my own feelings of fear and helplessness and uncertainty. But that’s why it actually feels good to focus on this pedagogical work: there is so much about the wider situation that I can’t control, but this effort is up to me. It is genuinely challenging, and I also genuinely like learning how to do new things. Sometimes now I even feel excited about what my classes might be like. After all, I have years of experience forming important relationships and experiencing real community online, through blogs and Twitter and the collaborative work of editing Open Letters Monthly, for example. I believe it can be done! Now, if I can just convince more of my colleagues–and reassure my students–about that …


*I realize not everyone is equally able to do this–those in precarious positions, those with young children who are no longer in daycare or school and who may not have summer camps; those with limited access to technology and other resources. As many people have been discussing, this crisis is highlighting and exacerbating inequities of many kinds, both in and out of the academy. Institutions should be asked over and over what they are doing to address them, and then held to account. For instance, it has always been wrong to assign courses to contingent faculty at the last minute: now it would be simply impossible for them to prepare their materials in a matter of days or even weeks. It’s already clear to me that three months isn’t really enough time!

11 thoughts on “This Week In My (Fall 2020) Classes: Coming to Terms

  1. Café Society May 21, 2020 / 11:12 am

    I really admire your positive attitude, Rohan, and of course, you are right, the situation is what the situation is and there’s absolutely no point in complaining about it, as a professional you get on and do the best job you possibly can. I’m very glad that you’ve got some certainty now. Cambridge University came out yesterday and said that they will be putting all their lectures online for the full academic year and Durham and Manchester have made similar statements. However, the vast majority of British universities haven’t yet made any sort of commitment one way or the other and a good number of my friends are tearing their hair out because they just don’t know what their situation is going to be next year.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 21, 2020 / 6:35 pm

      I am going to really try hard to stay positive, especially in public (which is my version of “whistling a happy tune”), because doing so helps me get things done. I am sure many universities are really fearful about ripple effects from going online (lost revenue from residences and meal plans, for instance), and that is making it hard for them to make the decision. Imagine how much worse, though, to try to put on a “safe” term and then deal with a massive outbreak on campus.

  2. Jeanne May 21, 2020 / 11:26 am

    I do like the idea of low-stakes writing practice and the chance to engage more students in different kinds of discussion. I haven’t been doing any research into online teaching yet, although I have asked a student manager to look into a few issues because she needs some tasks I can pay her for now that classes are done and her other summer jobs have not come through. My college hasn’t made a decision yet, and I must admit that I feel a little trepidation at the thought of having to meet the one class I teach in person (my writing center duties can mostly be carried out online). I feel a lot of trepidation at the idea that the college could go under if we don’t have a residential program next year. It’s hard to know what to fear most.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 21, 2020 / 6:39 pm

      That second source of trepidation is a significant one. We haven’t heard much specific here yet about the implications of all of this for budgets but we know it has to be significant. A robust online cohort can only help, though. Whatever the universities decide, too, I wonder: will parents / students want to go for residential programs, given the risk of an outbreak on campus or another disruption like the end of this past term? I see Dalhousie is still accepting applications for residence but I don’t know if we would want our own daughter moving back into them (if they do indeed reopen) rather than staying home out of the crowds.

  3. Liz Mc2 May 21, 2020 / 11:55 am

    This is where I am (or am trying to be—I need a plan to actually get some of this work done). I agree that the challenge of learning some new pedagogical tricks is exciting and a welcome positive focus right now.

    “Paying for a podcast.” One of my colleagues who is a great teacher on and offline recommends “podcasting” as a teaching tool (students can do them too, as projects). Short bits of content that students can download and listen to where and when suits them. But the dismissal of online teaching as just a podcast completely ignores the *learning* part of the equation, as if we aren’t asking students in an online course to do anything but consume content. As you say, we’ll be engaging them in learning in new ways, and some may actually participate and learn more! (Does anyone think that listening to one of those “Great Courses” is equivalent to actually taking a course at a university? There’s no “student” work involved!) ARGH.

    Your footnote is so important. I am quite anxious about my own kids, one of whom will be delaying the start of university because online learning does NOT work for her, and the other of whom has had all his careful plans for his final year likely derailed. BUT. They are largely independent and leave me free to get on with my own work, which I have enough seniority to be pretty confident of keeping. I try to keep my gratitude for this good fortune front and centre when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 21, 2020 / 1:32 pm

      I know: that podcast comment! So unhelpfully reductive. But you are right about the potential value of some podcast-like features. I’ve been trying to think of low-tech ways to do a bit of multi-media and I think I could use Voice Memo on my phone to do some short MP3 tracks. For visual, I could prop the phone up and record some video of my hand / pen making annotations on a bit of text as a model. Stuff like that wouldn’t require fancy editing but would bring more of “me” into the space and provide alternatives to text, which will help some learners.

  4. Melissa Beck May 21, 2020 / 2:36 pm

    I suspect this is where we are heading as well. It makes me so anxious to think about some kind of hybrid online and in person schedule. So I’m hoping it’s just online. The uncertainty is the worst part.

  5. KeiraSoleore May 22, 2020 / 5:02 pm

    Rohan, I enjoy reading these posts of yours where you think about teaching. Your insight into yourself and your effectiveness and the thought you put behind being the best you can be makes for fascinating reading.

    When you linked to that philosophy professor’s op-ed, I went and read his critical and dismissive screed. With that attitude, I sincerely doubt, he is effective in face-to-face teaching as well. He is completely focused on his own experience in lecturing and not on how his students are experiencing that teaching. Without any of that insight and with his negative attitude, you can be sure, his online classes are going to bomb because he won’t put any careful thought into making the experience good for his students.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 23, 2020 / 12:06 pm

      Thank you, Keira. It really helps me to think ‘out loud’ here about these topics too: I often realize things I might not have really understood if I hadn’t tried to put them into words (and paragraphs). There’s a lesson in that for my online teaching, I think!

      Even if there is some truth to what the naysayers are spouting, I don’t see how it helps anyone to dwell on something we can’t safely do anyway instead of putting our best effort into the alternative. I’m almost certainly going to do some things wrong or badly (or both) in the fall but it won’t be because I threw my hands up at the whole idea of teaching online and didn’t even try. That seems a pretty low bar for us all to get over, really.

  6. Rebecca H. May 27, 2020 / 6:39 pm

    My school hasn’t decided yet but we’ll probably end up in the same place you are — mostly if not entirely online. I teach online a lot and your points about the benefits of online learning are ones I fully agree with. I get a variety of responses from students about what they like and don’t like with online classes, and it seems clear to me that each method has benefits and suits different types of students in different ways. A bland conclusion, but I think it’s true!

    • Rohan Maitzen May 27, 2020 / 9:28 pm

      No, not bland: helpful to hear it from someone with online experience. (Any tips welcome!)

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