Teaching Tuesday: First Day of Classes 2020

These are weird and unsettled times and this semester will be a weird and unsettled semester. As of this morning over 230 members of the UND community (including 223 students) have tested positive for The COVIDs and 130+ of them are in hotels in quarantine or isolation. 

I start teaching this afternoon and despite the unsettled times, I feel my usual early semester excitement. At the same time, The COVIDs have pushed me to think more about my own approach to teaching and things I can do this semester that will have knock-on effects even after we achieve a “new normal.” 

My little list here is not meant as another contribution to the endless stream of advice appearing on teaching and edutech blogs and on social media. Instead, this is a list designed to keep me focused on the first day of classes. If it helps someone else, that’s great, but I don’t feel qualified these days to give anyone advice.  

1. Be Patient. One of my worst features as a teacher is that I am impatient. I expect students (and at time colleagues) to make connections quickly and to follow my train of thought and model my actions as efficiently as possible. I tend to see stumbles or hesitation as opportunities to interject and to nudge the process along. In some cases, this works well as my students come to understand where I’m going more quickly than if left to their own devices. In most cases, though, it short circuits the learning process and teaches the students that if they get stumped, I’ll provide the answer. At worst, it makes a student who is thinking critically about some leap in my thinking feel like their own perspective on a problem is less valuable than following my lead. It can discourage a student from thinking.

This semester, I need to remember that everything is unsettled and to be patient with myself and my students.

2. Communicate. One of the things that I’m trying to emphasize in my syllabi this semester is communication. Unlike my past efforts to encourage my students to communicate regularly with me, I avoided preemptive scoldings, condescending reminders, and ominous warnings about what happens when students go “radio silent.”

Having thought a good bit about Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor  and Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, I changed my approach and instead promised in my syllabus that I would do all I can to communicate regularly and consistently with my classes. My hope is that by putting the onus on myself to communicate, I will make it clear that communication isn’t just another thing that I expect of my students, but a mutual obligation.

3. Trust my Students. Along these same lines, I continue to work toward trusting my students more. As our lives are likely to be completely upset by The COVIDs, I’ve really tried to focus on flexibility in my syllabus. This semester, this means more than just my own willingness to adjust the class to whatever challenges come our way and includes a willingness to allow students to adjust my classes to better suit their needs.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this will play out. While I’m far from a control freak in my classes, I do tend to see changes to the class as a kind of negotiation between my priorities and those of my students. As with any negotiation, I tend to expect that my students’ interests are not consistent with my own and expect them to compromise in exchange for some compromise on my part. This approach, of course, assumes that we’re not on the same page. 

This semester, I’m going to work harder to assume that we are on the same page.

4. Keep it Simple. I like technology as much as the next person, and I’m always tempted to embrace the ideal technical solution no matter how complicated. Most of the time, I can avoid this temptation and recognize that simple processes, even if they produce less than ideal results, are more valuable than complicated processes.

I need to keep my classroom technologies simple. For one research focused class, I’m using only email to communicate instructions and expectations. For another, I’m focusing on short, weekly, flexible face-to-face meetings (supplemented, invariably, by Zoom) that can shift quickly to text-based instructions delivered asynchronously.

My historical methods class is the only one that I’m not entirely sure how to make accessible outside of the face-to-face classroom, but right now, I’m leaning toward a podcast supplemented by show notes and a threaded discussion board.

5. Teach One Day at a Time. Finally, I constantly have to resist my instinct to plan for every contingency (and invariably find myself unprepared for any of them). I need to just teach one day at a time and pivot to whatever challenge presents itself. 

I’ve long thought that just-in-time teaching was an appealing approach to the modern university classroom. It required faculty to know what they wanted to do in a “big picture” way and left the details to the moment of interaction in the classroom. The “Type A” part of my personality, however, had always resisted such a fluid situation and I developed a strange dread that some pearl of wisdom or dollop of content would go astray. In fact, my classes became oddly linear and proscriptive in design which required me to move, step-by-step, though a process in order to achieve whatever course goals I had set. While there remains a time and a place for such an approach, this semester seems uniquely unsuited to any kind of linear approach to teaching.

Instead, I’m going into my classes with some big picture goals centered as much on exposure to ideas, processes, methods, and approaches as any expectation that students will understand them in their particulars. My hope is that this will help me adapt to changing circumstances, be more willing to follow my students’ lead, and more patient with myself and my students. 

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