It is hard to know how to begin the 2020-21 iteration of this ongoing series without cliches about how everything about it is unprecedented. In recent years I had started to worry that continuing to post about my teaching might be boring–a bit, perhaps, to me but more so to the people who still come by and read this blog–because in so many ways, things had been going on more or less the same for so long. I kept tweaking things, including both my teaching methods and my course design and reading lists, but the academic year has a predictable routine and one way or another I have kept teaching more or less the same material. And now none of that seems boring to me at all. I would so much rather be writing again about how annoying our long add-drop period is than about what’s actually going on. But here we all are, in general, without the option to go back to the way things used to be, and here I am, in particular, one week into the unprecedented experience of an all-online semester.
So how is it going? One of the oddest things about it, to be honest, is that I really have no idea. The whole past week felt like a massive anti-climax: after months of work, trying to re-train myself and take on board an overwhelming amount of information about “best practices” for online course design and student engagement and teacher presence, after taking a 9-week online course myself to learn about how to do this, after countless hours revising my course outlines and schedules and learning new tools and building my actual Brightspace course sites … all with September 8 as the looming deadline for when the students would “arrive” and the whole experiment would really begin … After all of this, there was no one moment when we were back in class, no online equivalent to that exhilarating and terrifying first face to face session. Instead, because this is how asynchronous online teaching works, students just gradually and on their own timeline started checking in and making their first contributions, while I watched and waited and wondered and tried not to pounce too fast whenever a new notification appeared.
It was strange–it is strange–but in many ways the lack of drama is obviously exactly what I should want: it means that, so far anyway, nothing has imploded. Students seem to be doing fine learning their way around Brightspace; I haven’t had a wave of messages (I haven’t had really any, in fact) asking for clarification of policies or procedures; I haven’t heard, so far, of anything at all going wrong, from acquiring the course books to viewing the uploaded video lectures. I’m sure that eventually there will be problems, at their end or mine, but I am relieved that we seem to have had an uneventful roll-out in both courses.
I’m also genuinely pleased about the contributions that have come in, especially, in both courses, the introductions students have been posting on our “getting to know each other” discussion boards. As I said to them, our first crucial task is to begin building the class into a community, and it has been lovely to see them embrace that goal by telling us a little bit about themselves and then (best of all) responding with great friendliness to each other. I don’t usually solicit individual introductions in all of my F2F classes, only in the smaller seminars, so actually I know more about these groups than I think I ever have this early in the term. While a lot of what I read and practiced this summer was about how to make myself present to my students as a real, if virtual, person, this exercise has been great for making them present to me, not just “students” in the abstract but two really varied and interesting groups of people who bring different perspectives, interests, and needs to our collective enterprise.
Still, I find the spread of the experience out over all hours of the day and all the days of the week disorienting, destabilizing, uncomfortable. Usually my weekly schedule involves regular build-ups to each class meeting: preparing notes and materials and ideas and plans, doing the reading, summoning the energy. Then there’s the live session, which in the moment absorbs all my concentration. When it’s over, I’m drained, even if (especially if!) there has been a really good, lively discussion: being in the moment for that kind of exchange is unlike anything else I do in terms of how focused but also flexible, how attentive to others but also on-task I need to be. I love it, and I really miss it already. I know we can have engaged and intellectually serious exchanges in our online format, but they won’t have the same rhythm, or perhaps any rhythm at all, who knows. Not having to be up and dressed and out the door early in the morning (or ever!) is some compensation, and I expect I will find more of a routine as we settle into the term, but (and I expect I’m going to be saying things like this a lot this term, so sorry for the repetition) it’s a strange new way of being a professor.
As for specifics, well, we’re discussing Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” and Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger” in my intro class this coming week, and in 19th-Century Fiction it’s time for Hard Times (which I assigned this term because we ended up cutting it last term when we ‘pivoted’ to online). These are all texts I like a lot, though in my experience Hard Times is often a hard sell, even to students who otherwise like Dickens (which is never all of them, of course). Will I be able to communicate my enthusiasm and generate the kinds of discussions I aspire to in the classroom without being in the classroom? I guess I’ll find out. I’m trying to create recorded lectures that open up into writing prompts, rather than drawing conclusions, much as I would move in the classroom through laying out some ideas, contexts, or questions and then opening things up to their input. I am actually having some fun with this, though yet one more unknown is how effective my first attempts will be. I have the next two weeks of material nearly completed, so that buys me a bit of time: as I see what works and what doesn’t, and which approach to the lectures they prefer, I can adapt the next round accordingly.
I guess I would characterize my current feeling about this term as “cautiously optimistic.” Besides, it doesn’t really matter how I feel: this is what we all have to do. Doing it as well as possible under the circumstances remains the only plan I have.
I’ve been commenting to almost everyone about how “remote” learning is such an apt term; it feels remote. My class is synchronous, though, so it doesn’t feel that different from an in-person class except for the lag after I ask a question while the students figure out how to politely answer (it’s a class of 20) and for the asynchronous Friday activity I added in order to avoid burnout.
I find video calls so tiring (something about the awkwardness of the lags and the lack of clear cues) that even for my smaller class next term I may stick to mostly asynchronous, though I guess we’ll see how things go this term first. 20 is still a lot of people to manage online, I think.
You might find this site fun–it is a recently-completed online read along conducted by Peter Orford of the University of Buckingham. I think you can get back to the earliest weeks by clicking on “older posts” until you get to the beginning. It was a fun experience to be a part of, even if I will never put Hard Times even in the top half of my favorite Dickens novels (top place will always belong to Our Mutual Friend). https://hardtimesreadalong.wordpress.com
Loved hearing about your first week and was really pleased that your students responded well to your hopes about establishing an online community of sorts. Much luck to you as the weeks continue and you discover how it is all going to work. Hugs from EB
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Even though the QC govt has mandated us back to onsite “learning”, it is anything but. So, I don’t know if teaching can ever “return” to what we knew, loved, and did pre-pandemic. Our students, seniors in HS in my case, are in homeroom pods, so you may have some students in one pod and others in another, which makes teaching only half a room and running back and forth among others, with colleagues doing the same, disorienting and disjointed. But like you rightly said, this is what we have and what we must do to keep each other as safe as possible.
Best wishes for the school year and, as a lit lover, I would’ve loved your classes: your care for the students and love for the material shine through.
That pod arrangement does not sound pleasant at all, but I guess it will be worth the annoyance if it (along with other strategies) helps keep people healthy.
Thanks for your encouragement about the classes. I hope we both manage to have a good term once we adapt. Once the sense of “this is so different” subsides maybe it will be easier to be cheerful about it.
You’re welcome, told in heartfelt truth. No matter the medium, I think, once in a while, even online, the magic of the material meeting minds open and ready to it does make this worthwhile. Though it’s scary-nerve-wracking, I’m glad to be back in the classroom, even with the nutty “pod” ideas in place.
This captures everything I’m thinking and feeling about my first asynchronous week! I did really enjoy their introductions and watching them interact with each other. They posted pictures of pets, art they made, their hikes and bike rides.
I usually have a M/W class schedule and I did enjoy a Sunday where (though I commented on journal entries) I did not feel the looming need to prep for the next day. I’ll be curious to see how the first asynchronous discussion goes. I posted prompts but of course I’d go to class with more detailed notes and page numbers of passages to discuss. This week, I’m seeing what they bring, and then I may need to adapt to bringing more of that myself.
I spent about two hours Sunday night writing up weekly announcements to post to the Brightspace sites – one of many tasks that would take a few minutes to “prep” and then do out loud in class but needs to be planned and presented more laboriously now as every word ‘sticks’ somewhere! But it’s true that not having Monday classes looming over Sundays might be a perk.
Glad to see you continuing your series. I enjoy reading them even though I am not an academic or a student. These posts make me wish that I could’ve been a student in one of your classes, especially, the one where you are teaching Adrienne Rich and Seamus Heaney. Do you get much into Rich’s philosophical digressions? My only introduction to her is through Maria Popova.
I’m curious if all of Dal or just your department or just you are doing asynch teaching. Our schools here are doing synch teaching (schools and unis). Would you have preferred to do synch teaching?
Thanks, Keira; I appreciate your encouragement to keep this up!
We’re reading Rich and Heaney in a first-year class where the focus is mostly just on learning to do ‘close reading’ of textual details, so i don’t bring in much at all in the way of other contexts. We’ve got an anthology I’ve assigned so my choice of poems is guided by what’s included in there. I do love both of these particular poems, though.
We were strongly encouraged to do asynchronous teaching across the university, for reasons that seem important to me: students in many different time zones, for one (mine are all across Canada and elsewhere), differences in access to technology, caretaking and/or work responsibilities, etc. There are some programs doing more synchronous: my daughter is a music student and has a number of real time sessions, I think, for example. I have a smaller seminar next term (still not that small, at 22!) – I may try to organize some synchronous discussions if our time zones make it feasible. But for this term I think this was definitely the right choice even though it is really odd.