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Happy New Year!

Color photo of fireworks with text that says "Happy New Year."
“Happy New Year” by Beegee49 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

One of my favorite things about academia is we get extra New Years- every time a semester ends is an opportunity to reflect on how things went, and think about how to improve in the future. (my long winter & summer breaks mean I usually do this at the starts of things too. I like celebrating, don’t @ me).

So how did this very unusual semester of Spring 2020 go?  I set out from the beginning, and reaffirmed when we switched to emergency distance learning, that I didn’t want to lose anyone- we would get through this together.  On this measure, I was not wholly successful- in my early (9:10am!) class, 20 students dropped or never submitted even a single assignment, while  in my 10:20am class there were 13 (incidentally, what a difference that early hour makes- attendance for our 5 in-person sessions before the emergency switch really helped lay the groundwork, and the earlier class was more sparsely attended then, so the difference is less surprising).  Under ordinary circumstances, this would be not great, but given that New York has been and continues to be battered by COVID-19, which has been disproportionately dangerous to essential workers and ethnic and racial minority groups, which make up a large part of the students at my campus, I think we did as well as we could possibly have done.  No student signed up for trying to juggle all of their courses online, possibly having to share devices with family that also needed to work or do school work from home, while facing economic strife, during a global pandemic.  As I repeatedly told my students, my class is not your first priority and that’s okay.  

And that’s one of the lessons I’ll take into next semester.  In the fall, my students will be facing the psychological and economic fallout of the pandemic, and the likelihood of a resurgence is high.  CUNY has yet to make a formal announcement for the fall, but my department has declared all of our classes online for Fall 2020, and  I am really glad about this decision, because it seems like the only right one- my class is not worth anyone dying for.  It’s not worth anyone getting really sick over, whether it’s a student, their family member, or someone they sit near on mass transit.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think my class is important (I do!) or that my students’ education is not important (it really is!), it just means that it’s not worth dying for.  In all of the discussions circulating in higher ed about whether to open, how to open, we need to open!!!, I think this is the big thing missing.  I won’t try to argue that half-assed emergency distance learning is better than non-pandemic teaching.  But NON-PANDEMIC TEACHING IS NOT AN OPTION RIGHT NOW!!!  And it won’t be in the fall, either. So what changes to our classes can we make now to give us the best possible courses next term?

Things that worked extremely well for me this semester were flexible deadlines, students getting to choose their own assignments, modified self-grading and open-book unlimited-time tests.  I’ll never go back to using closed-book or timed tests online- this reduced stress for students (essential during a pandemic, but a good goal during any time) and let them focus on learning, without me having to manage some surveillance technology or gatekeeping to control them.  Our use of self-grading also reduced stress, because students were not as worried about their grade (since they were grading each assignment themselves), and the assignments were much better, because students were more familiar with the requirements of each assignment, since they had to assess themselves.  Not only did students appreciate these things (I got many, many emails thanking me), it was actually much easier to manage administratively.  I got to focus on giving useful feedback, not justifying the grades I assigned (since I didn’t assign them ;o).  Whenever a student would send a worried email that they were going to be late, or needed more time, instead of wasting time demanding and verifying proof of their need, I got to quickly reply that they are the experts in what they need, and that the deadlines are flexible for this reason.  Students who had problems at one or more points in the semester were able to catch up and complete their work- and isn’t that what we want, instead of nailing students on deadlines we impose?  I also got to read really interesting projects, because students got to choose learning activities that were interesting to them, instead of slogging through what I required.  

Of course, there are areas where I want to improve.  I opted to go wholly asynchronous when we switched to distance learning, for practical and equity reasons.  But I ended up missing the personal connection with students and we were never really able to develop a community of learners.  Creating that sense of community is my main area for improvement in the fall.  My campus is allowing us to indicate whether our fall classes will be synchronous or asynchronous, so I’m requesting synchronous (at least students will know what they are signing up for in advance), but I’m going to be a bit sneaky- each student will only be synchronous for 1 hour per week.  I plan on dividing each class into 6 groups (or squads, or pods, or teams?), and I’ll meet with 2 groups during each class time- that way we’re never more than a group of 8 or 9, and we can actually talk with each other.  This should hopefully balance the desire for facetime with limited device/bandwidth access, as well as give students dedicated time (the other 2 class hours) during the week to work on our class work (either individually or with their team).  I’ll also tell each day’s group of two teams that if they can unanimously decide on a better hour to meet, we can move the session.  I’ll encourage groups to develop their own norms and means of communicating, so they can help each other along (instead of having to depend on me).  I’ll offer group versions of some assignment options, and most of our synchronous sessions will be planned/led by one of the groups.  

Because of the emergency switch after the semester started, I offered students the option to blog in Blackboard (our LMS, which I hate) or on the CUNY Academic Commons (on our class site or their own).  Most students opted for Blackboard, and I can’t say I blame them- it was already set up, and their other classes were likely using Blackboard too.  But it’s a lost opportunity- knowing how to use Blackboard is only useful to use Blackboard- it’s not a transferable skill.  Building out a website on the CUNY Academic Commons, however, means students have to figure out WordPress, which is a completely transferable skill that is actually not that hard to master.  Next semester, I’ll require students to make their own sites which will contain all of their work for the semester (they’ll get to choose the sharing level of their site, as students have different preferences about privacy that must be respected).  To support them, however, I’ll spend a chunk of this summer making how-to guides and videos for getting started, using as many different devices as I can find in my family (phone, laptop, tablet, etc), since I know students have different devices and bandwidths available.  This will also ensure that I understand the fullness of what I’m asking them to do- i.e. I think it’s probably not that hard to run a WordPress site on a smartphone, but after this summer, I’ll know exactly how hard it is and how to do it, so I can help students who have trouble.

Finally, I am planning to change my slides.  American Government is constantly changing, so I update them every semester, but these are really designed for use in-class.  Without me guiding the class through them, they’re not that useful.  Recording me going through them is extremely boring (not just for me- for any poor soul forced to listen or watch!)- there is a magic that happens in the classroom with these slides that doesn’t translate to online.  So new slides are in order- I’m trying to think of ways to make them more self-guided and interactive, such as directing students out to data sources and government websites so they can play with them directly, instead of looking at the pieces I pulled in.  

So that’s a lot for just one summer!  And I’ve got a paper and a book to write, as well as some big family projects, so that’s a lot.  On the brightside, we are committed to staying very close to home, so I’ve got some time.  I’ll check back in as the summer progresses, and see how many of these words I’ll have to eat.  

A partial list of what my students are dealing with

Sign with text that says "This is not ok"
This is Not OK by Rafael Zink, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

This semester, I have a very light (for my institution) teaching load because of other fellowships and work I’m doing- 2 classes of 40ish students each.  We have a late start to our spring semester, so we had just shy of two weeks of face-to-face classes before the emergency pivot to distance learning. Sadly, I hadn’t really got to know the students too well (it takes time, at least for me), but I did try to lay the groundwork for building our little community based on care.  I tried as much as I could in those 8 class sessions to convey that this class is meant for them, and that I would be there to help them along, in whatever way I could. Since the switchover to distance learning, I’ve tried in every communication with my students to emphasize that the assignments and due dates are all flexible, and that they should prioritize their health and well-being, and that of their families, over my class.  I’d like to think that as a result of this care, students have felt more comfortable confiding in me what’s happening to them (although it could just as easily be the absolute desperation of the situation we’re all in now). Here, then, is a partial list of (anonymized!) situations facing the students in my class this semester:

-student A has several younger siblings, and they all have required synchronous learning for their schools, which means both that they need assistance and that there is not enough computer time or internet bandwidth to go around. (We talked about how it was an impossible situation, and brainstormed how to learn and do the work for the class using mostly their phone).

-student B does not have home internet and lives in an area where the free-for-COVID19 internet specials are not available (I offered to connect them to IT for the limited supply of internet-enabled tablets the campus has available for students, and outlined how to accomplish the class using only a smartphone and minimal data)

-student C was worried that not having a computer would make it difficult to complete their classes, and was very relieved when I relayed the link for how they could get one from campus.  However, they couldn’t pick it up right away, as they had to wait for a ride- their parents did not want them riding mass transit to get to campus (whether this was due to the threat of germs or increased prevalence of hate crimes, the student did not say, but I said I’m sure it was the right move for them, and emphasized that due dates are flexible and assignments are self-graded)

-student D sent me a picture of their brand new baby!  The baby was adorable, and I felt honored that the student would send me the photo.  The photo was attached to an email saying that the student’s partner had just that day delivered a baby in a New York City hospital, and they were very nervous for obvious reasons, so their blog posts might be delayed this week (to which I responsed, forget about my class- make sure your newly expanded family gets home safely, get some sleep, & our class will be waiting for you when are ready).  As I looked at the photo again, I noticed that the little card that goes in hospital baby trays, the one that notes name and date of birth, was prominently framed in the photo, and my heart broke for this student, realizing that the picture was not meant to share the joy of their new baby, but to provide proof that they were telling the truth. Because they assumed that their instructors would not believe them without evidence.    

I’m not going to mention the number of emails from students who are sick, afraid they’re sick, caring for sick or high-risk family members, having to work, have lost their jobs, worried about money/food/housing, etc. because this post is already too long.  And while I believe each of my students is unique in their own way, I am fairly certain their circumstances will be common to most, if not all of our students this semester. So please, please, please, be kind to your students. Give them the benefit of every doubt.  As so many others have said about this already, be a human, and care for the humans on the other side of your screen.  

Emergency Online: Thoughts and Resources for Quickly Adapting Your Course to Online

orange sign with black letters that say "EMERGENCY"

Last night, I went on a late night tweet storm about quickly converting your face-to-face course to an online course due to corona virus closures, so I thought I’d write it up here in case it would be useful to have it all in one place.  Also Sean Michael Morris went on a much better one, so you really could just read that and stop reading here.   University of Washington and Stanford have already closed their campuses, and it’s very likely more will follow.  So what can you do, besides wash your hands, practice social distancing, and follow instructions from the CDC and your local authorities?  Begin to prepare for the likelihood of moving your classes online.  

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone work while sick!  I’m suggesting that now, while you’re not sick, is the time to think about and prepare an emergency plan for your classes, so that if you need it, you’ll have it.  I’ve already signed up for Laurel Eckhouse’s Political Science Guest Lecture Volunteer spreadsheet which is awesome- if you’re in political science, sign up; if you’re not, consider starting one for your discipline.  

And by the way, for everyone who does convert to a different modality, can I suggest keeping track of the work and time you invest?  So that after the shock of the virus hopefully subsides, we can all work to advocate for proper recognition of and compensation for that labor, especially for the contingent and lowest paid among us, both retroactively and in institutional disaster preparedness planning in the future?  How do we advocate in the future to ensure that all students have reliable home internet access?  

In the more immediate term, give yourself, extend to students, and try to build into your class as you make adjustments to it, grace & flexibility.  No one was expecting this when they built their syllabus or signed up for classes. It is serious and it is scary, so be patient with yourself and your students!!!  How you manage your class virtually/online will vary widely, as all of our classes and teaching styles vary widely. Which they should- only you know yourself, your students, and your classes.  I don’t think institutional band-aids- “we’ve created a course on Blackboard/Canvas/etc for you with everything you need- just grade it” will be very helpful, even if they’re available. Doing the same thing you do online that you did face to face does not work very well (in my experience), and also leaves a lot of advantages/affordances on the table.  You are probably going to do things differently, so here are some resources that might help you think through what you might want to do in your own class. FYI, I am only recommending things that are not too technically difficult (gauged by “can I button mash/google my way through this?” which is my usual MO and good approach because, IT Support is likely to be stretched thin)

Consider groups (which can be done in your LMS or through google docs) for building liveness and community into virtual learning; it’s also a great way to make sure folks don’t get lost in a big crowd (similar to the way small discussion sections are used in large face-to-face lectures).  If you spend time in your face to face class dissecting texts, check out Hypothes.is for social annotation (they’ve even added LMS integration.  Try focusing on what you want students to DO- replace the time students would have been in class with time spent doing/making things- editing Wikipedia (Wiki Education can help you get started), writing content for the course (check out Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature and A Student’s Guide to Tropical Marine Biology for inspiration), blogging, making videos or podcasts or memes or powerpoint slidedecks.  

My own thinking and approach on this stuff has been greatly influenced by exploring Open Educational Resources (#OER) and Open Pedagogy (#OpenPedagogy or #OpenEducationalPractices)- the more you can explore about this, the more you might find there are some upsides to teaching in the open and/or online.  Some books (available freely online) to get you started and fired up: Open Pedagogy Notebook and An Urgency of Teachers. Get on Twitter and read up from Robin DeRosa, Rajiv Jhangiani, Jesse Stommel, Maha Bali, and  Sean Michael Morris

Finally, don’t think you have to make everything yourself.  Look for things you can reuse or adapt- this not only saves you time but often results in better materials.  I’ve tried recording my own lectures, but it took a long time, captioning was a pain, and honestly, they weren’t that good.  For my Intro US classes, I find the Crash Course in US Government and Politics series on YouTube to be pretty great for the way I teach my classes; the videos are shorter than my lecture captures and far better produced (plus they’re captioned for accessibility and subtitlted in several languages as well).  

Wash your hands and good luck.  

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