I’m in the little lull between the end of routine class work and the arrival of final essays and exams. Pre-COVID, this was a time for two ritual activities: cleaning my office and going Christmas shopping. Since I’m still working almost entirely at home, the first of these is mostly, if not entirely, beside the point: my current workspace, set up in what was once my son’s bedroom (and still furnished for that purpose, including his 20-year-old mate’s bed), could use a bit of tidying, but because online teaching means there’s a lot less physical debris from the term’s work, it’s not particularly chaotic. I’ll take the teaching-related books and folders to campus for storage when my courses are well and truly wrapped up – and bring home more books related to my sabbatical projects – but there won’t be any major housekeeping to do here until I return to working full-time there.
As for Christmas shopping, I’ve done a very little bit in person, in quiet local shops, and some online, but I’m not comfortable going back to the mall yet. I’m actually sad about that: I know a lot of people abhor malls, but I enjoy their cheerfully hectic impersonality. In the before times, I often headed out to the Halifax Shopping Center, ostensibly to do an errand or two, but also to get a little break from the relative isolation of my typical weekends. Much as I cherish quiet ‘alone time,’ sometimes it is (was) also good to be surrounded by the buzz of other people – people who have no expectations of and are placing no demands on me. A leisurely browse in Coles, a bemused poke around in Sephora, feeling old while idly rifling through the racks at H&M: honestly, I miss it, but not enough to do it while masked (and so overheated) and anxious about distancing, especially not now with an outbreak making our case counts spike and omicron on the rampage across the globe.
So what have I been doing instead of cleaning and shopping? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where the “extra” time has gone. One factor, I think, is that online teaching actually doesn’t end neatly the way in-person classes do, or at least my classes haven’t: there has been a fair amount of tidying-up stuff to do, especially record-keeping and wrangling problems of one kind or another. One thing I suppose I didn’t have to do but considered worthwhile was an audit of students’ course bundles for English 1015 (where I am, again, using specifications grading). I would have had to do this eventually to determine their grades, but doing it now has given me a chance to identify a few students who, for whatever reason, were just one component short of a particular bundle, and then to see if there was a bonus exercise they hadn’t already completed that they could do to make it up, rather than ending up with a lower grade for lack of, say, a single discussion post. Of course the students themselves were supposed to be tracking their completed components, but I know that for some of them this was an unfamiliar and/or difficult expectation to meet: there were a lot of moving parts. One thing I like about specifications grading is that you can plug holes in this way, without creating different rules or requirements for different students (which I am always really reluctant to do). Overall, this process went much better this year than last year, when I ended up revising the bundles because so many students had (much to my mystification!) completed such a random assortment of components that an awful lot of them could not have passed the course at all if I hadn’t. I think my new slide presentation using a shopping metaphor to explain how specifications grading works really helped!
I have also been preparing my final exams, including not just making up the questions but building them in Brightspace, a boringly complicated process with many opportunities to set a switch wrong and create problems, for them or for me. I have now ‘previewed’ and reviewed the settings for both exams multiple times! I also wrote up detailed announcements with information and instructions for the students about everything from the timing of the exam to where to get technical support while writing it. One of the most stressful things about online teaching turns out to be the pressure of putting absolutely everything in writing! Say the wrong thing, put the wrong date, explain something with inadequate clarity – or in too much detail – and there’s endless follow-up work to clean up the mess. There are definitely advantages, of course, over making announcements in person, exactly because the information is there, in writing, available 24/7. I think that weekly Brightspace announcements may be one of the elements of online teaching that I carry over into my in-person classes when I return to them next fall.
Next fall! Yes, because much to my immense relief and gratitude I am on sabbatical this winter term. This means – although nothing seems absolutely certain about the future anymore – that this term may have been my last term of online teaching. Please let that be true! This is not to say that I’ve hated everything about it. There are some aspects of it I have grown to like, and others that I have learned the value of, whether I like them or not. I will probably never give an in-person quiz or exam again: the simplicity of arranging make-up tests is a gift, for one thing, and especially valuable as we are likely (I hope and expect) to be much more aware from now on of the importance of letting students stay home when they are sick. I also like online reading journals: I had used them in the past as a way of encouraging students to keep up with the reading and getting them to practice expressing ideas about it with low stakes, but then ‘upgrades’ to our LMS took away the journal function I had used and I gave it up. Now that I know how to set up one-on-one discussion boards in Brightspace, I can see keeping up some version of these, especially because Brightspace makes it pretty easy to keep the records.
What else has been good about online teaching? Well, while I still greatly prefer the energy, intellectual stimulation, and good cheer of class discussions, I have been impressed at the level of commentary on the discussion boards, especially, this term, in my 19th-century fiction class. I was frustrated all term at how much of it went on at the very end of each module, which meant only rarely was there substantial back-and-forth among the students, but that logistical griping tended to subside when I read through the posts that had come in. I am certain that I “heard” from more students this way than I would have in the classroom: I have pretty good participation rates, and I work hard to make space for students who are shy or just slower to know what they want to say (by, for instance, requiring everyone to put their hand up and wait to be called on), but even so it is typically a minority of students present who actually contribute. As was much discussed last year, when so many of us were new to online teaching, discussion boards proved to be fraught requirements, mostly because their demands felt really burdensome to students – particularly, perhaps, those who were used to coasting a bit by showing up to class and just listening, without (in some cases, not all, of course) doing the reading. The past 18 months of trial and error around online forums has given me a lot to think about in terms of how or whether I will build them into in-person classes.
I haven’t thought through yet how or whether I will incorporate recorded lectures into in-person courses. Happily, my sabbatical buys me time to brood about that! I am teaching English 1015 in person for the first time in Fall 2022; it is the first course I have designed from the start as an online offering, so it’s the one that will require the most reconsideration as with my other courses I can revert pretty easily to my old ways if I want to. For the upper-level courses I’ve created online versions of, my aim was to use the recorded lectures to replace my “front of room” work: some straight lecturing of the “here are the facts, here are the frameworks” kind, but then prompts for discussion, ideas to think through, and passages to focus on, with the work of talking these things through handled through the forums. They were never, that is, designed to give the whole story about our readings, which is also not a goal of mine in the classroom. If I’m (we’re) back in the classroom engaging in these conversations together, I am not sure there’s much point in laboring over slide shows even as supplements, and I would welcome the freedom to follow discussions where the students take them, too, rather than steering students down pre-ordained PowerPoint paths. That said, I have thought and learned a lot about accessibility since COVID struck – more than I ever had before, to my shame.
The single thing I have missed the most in my online classes has been laughter. You can do a lot of things asynchronously, and honestly I’m proud of the courses I offered. But asynchronicity is incompatible with spontaneity, which in turn is essential to the kind of fun we so often have in my classroom. The two best qualities I have as a teacher, according to generations of students, are that I am very organized and that I am very enthusiastic. The former has definitely helped me as an online professor: I feel confident that my students always knew exactly what was happening in every module; they knew exactly what was expected of them, and they could count on me to have prepared what they needed for it. I tried hard to convey my enthusiasm, through the tone of my announcements and lectures and through my own participation in the online discussions. I also tried to give some idea of my sense of humor in my slides, replacing what one student fondly (?) called my “demented stick figures” drawn on the whiteboard with the finest graphic design PowerPoint makes possible.
I know, because they have been generous enough to tell me, that some of my students over the past three terms have felt engaged and connected and motivated by my online teaching, and I’m proud of that! I am definitely eager, though, to be back working with students in person. I think none of us will ever take that experience for granted again.
Sabbatical! Hooray! May it be restorative. And yes even being masked in the classroom is SO much better than online…