I fell out of the habit of writing teaching posts last year, partly because I was doing so much else on my computer that blogging about it felt like a bridge too far, but also, and more so, because of the flattening effect of teaching asynchronously, as I discussed in this post in January. As I head into my third fully online term, I am more used to the strange sense that I am teaching somehow both all the time and never. With at least some of last year’s materials re-usable, too (if in need of tweaking and updating), I hope I won’t be so constantly overwhelmed with preparations for the next text or topic that I find it hard to focus on the current discussions. Maybe, too, I’ve been thinking, blogging regularly again about my classes would actually help restore more sense of structure and occasion. We’ll see.
Last year we were pretty much all online, in my department and across the university. This year, almost everybody else is back to teaching in person. Early in the planning process I had committed to doing my first-year course online. One reason was that it was such a big job planning and building it that I wanted to get more return on that investment. But it was also was the course that I least missed teaching in person. If our first-year classes were smaller, I might have felt differently, but teaching 120 students in a big auditorium, wearing a microphone, relying on PowerPoint, and knowing (and sometimes seeing) perfectly well that a lot of students in the room are only there because someone told them they had to be – that’s not a great experience, to be honest. I have always considered first-year teaching really important and I love engaging with the students who get excited about the material and the work – the ones who really show up for class (not just physically in class). It is especially gratifying when students taking intro primarily for their writing requirement discover a passion for analyzing literature and come back for more. Sometimes they even change their majors! But I don’t think lecture classes of 120 or more (however diligently you try to make them interactive, as of course I have always tried to do) are the right way to teach either literature or writing, and the crowd control aspects of it are always particularly disheartening. I also thought my online course went pretty well, all things considered. So why not do it that way again?
The harder question, as we headed into the summer, was what to do about 19th-Century Fiction. These courses are my absolute favorites to teach, and I did really miss the energy of in-class discussions last year, even though I thought the online version went quite well (again, all things considered). Offering this year’s version in-person seemed reasonable, even likely, back when our second dose dates got moved up and it looked like widespread vaccination was going to turn everything around. Then came Delta, and with it a lot of renewed confusion and uncertainty about what an in-person fall term would actually be like, along with slower than ideal vaccination uptake among the main student demographics. I remembered only too well how much work it was creating the materials for last year’s Dickens to Hardy course online and I knew I would not be able to do a good job on Austen to Dickens (there’s no overlap in the readings) if I put off the decision to the last minute, so I set August 1 as my deadline to make the call, and when things still looked too precarious for my liking, I committed to moving it online as well and got started right away on setting up the Brightspace site and creating materials.
A couple of weeks later, Dalhousie did finally implement a vaccination requirement, along with mandatory masking for at least the month of September (neither of which was in place when I made up my mind to go online). I really hope that these measures and a generally high level of diligence help make it a safe and positive term for everyone now back on campus! For myself, though, while I do have regrets (anyone who has followed this blog knows how much I love being in the classroom), I appreciate the clarity of my situation and the continuity I can be sure of providing to my students. I don’t need to have multiple contingency plans – or to lecture masked or to dodge crowds in the hallways, or to work in my overheated office where at the moment I am not allowed to open the window. I do also feel that I am serving a need: there are students who themselves could not get back to Halifax, or who aren’t confident about returning to in-person classes, and I honestly think we should have tried harder to make sure they had more and less haphazard options given the predictable complications of this in-between phase, especially for international students.
Classes began here yesterday, and the discussion boards in my courses are now filling up with students introducing themselves and checking out how things are going to work. It’s not the same as meeting them face to face, but those of us who are online a lot one way or another know that you can communicate a lot about yourself through virtual interactions, and also that it is possible to create, sustain, and cherish real communities that way. I think the most important things I learned last year, which did involve a lot of trial and error, was that simpler is better and personal is best of all – not personal in the sense of over-sharing personal information, but personal meaning you bring yourself to the work, you show yourself in the work, and treat everybody involved as if they are people too. I’ve been trying to welcome each student individually to the class as they make their introductions: I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep this up as the pace of their contributions increases (there are 150 students all told across my two courses) but I want to make my presence felt from the beginning.
As for course content, well, the first week of Literature: How It Works focuses on the idea and practice of close reading, with an emphasis on word choices. This is how I always begin my introductory courses, so the only difference is delivery. Across the next few modules we just keep adding things to pay attention to (“stocking our critical toolbox”!) – all the while trying out our ideas through low-stakes writing. I’m using specifications grading again, simplified and clarified (I hope) from last year’s version. In Austen to Dickens we warm up (again, as always) with a bit of background on the history of the novel: nothing fancy, just a rough sketch to give some context for our actual readings. Next week we start on Persuasion. My favorite part of class prep last year was devising slide presentations in which I tried to capture not just the main talking points of what would have been our classroom discussions, but the spirit of them. I actually found – find – this work quite creative! I don’t do anything fancy, but I do try to have a kind of unfolding narrative, illustrated by apt graphics (and sometimes silly graphics, because I miss drawing stupid stick figures on the whiteboard). This year I’m going to be more explicit about the limitations of the lecture components, which are never (in person or online) meant to “cover” everything or answer every question. Last year some students expressed frustration that I raised questions in my lectures but didn’t go on to answer them: realizing that they had this expectation surprised me a bit, because my in-person lectures also can’t possibly answer every question that comes up, but I think the recorded delivery seems like it should maybe be more definitive or complete.
So that’s where we are now: poised at the beginning of a term that, for my students, will be a hybrid one. One unknown factor is how they will feel about or treat what may well be their lone online courses. Will it seem less real or important to them in contrast to their campus work? I hope instead they will appreciate that they can tune into it on their own schedules – and know I will (more or less) always be there for them.