Teaching Tuesday: Teaching and The COVIDs

This has been a weird semester. I am teaching a new introductory level class (World Civilization I), we’re dealing with room capacity rules that have significantly changed how I planned to teach that class, and I’m teaching a couple of overloads that are being run exclusively via email. The threat of a shortened semester or all classes moving online hangs like a sword of Damocles over all of our heads as well making almost all planing feel provisional (at best) and a waste of time (on a bad day). This realization hasn’t stopped me from spending time looking ahead to the spring semester which likely be every bit as chaotic, unsettled, and unpredictable as this fall.

That all being said, I have encountered three or four things that feel worth sharing on this teaching Tuesday:

1. Engagement. University of North Dakota students run hot and cold. Some classes are almost overwhelming in their engagement while others are stone cold silent. In some cases, no amount of my antics or the latest pedagogical tricks of the trade rouse students from their hardened resistance. In other cases, I have to drag the students back on topic every 10 minutes as they chase butterflies and dance in the aisles.  

There’s something about this semester that has pushed students to engage not only more consistently, but also in a more rigorous way. Episodes of butterfly chasing and spontaneous dancing have been minimized and for reasons that I don’t quite understand, students have done more of the reading and are more interested and willing to discuss it in critical ways.

I do, of course, have theories about this. I think the COVIDs have limited certain kinds of social distractions typical of campus life. I also suspect that students do feel the weight of both this summer’s protests and the upcoming election. While our students are not prone to the kind of high-profile activism that exists on some campuses, they are thoughtful, reflective, and serious about their role in shaping the future of their communities.

2. Grading. For the first time ever, I told my students that if they do the work and take my class seriously, they’ll get “As”. In fact, I told them that, if I could, I would eliminate grades in all their classes. This is simply a reaction to the unsettled situation surrounding COVID or even the growing public awareness of structural biases inherent in our education system (although those things have been in my mind for the last few years). It is also not a response to growing pressure to retain students and to use “D,F,W” counts as a way to evaluate teaching (i.e. the number of students who receive a “D,” “F,” or “W” (for withdraw after the drop period ends) in a class), although that has simmered in the back of my head.

What prompted me to re-evaluate grading in my classes has much more to do with the success of several classes that I’ve taught where grading has been significantly de-emphasized. I also have started to worry that grading in my classes has been more about penalizing students who do not do the work or do not appear to take the class seriously. I also worry about the message that the grade is the reward especially at the college level. These two poles often push me to be either a classroom cop or a benevolent ruler dispensing largess for a job well done. Neither role suits me very well and I dislike that they put students into a position of begging for mercy or pandering for a reward.

I’m not sure how I’ll implement a gradeless class, and my instinct suggests that it would be better in my History 240: The Historians Craft class, populated by majors and minors,  than my 100 level introductory class. I need to think more about this, though.  

3. Making my classes work. This semester got me thinking a good bit about what makes a good university level class in the age of hybrid, hyflex, online, and various other digitally mediated methods of instruction. I’ve also been amazed by my colleagues’ enthusiasm and commitment to producing dynamic, immersive, and often multi-media experiences for their students. 

As I contemplated how I might make my own class more contemporary and exciting for students, I also started to wonder whether such dynamic, multi-media approaches would really suit my teaching style. To be clear, I rarely even use powerpoint in my classrooms and still sometimes resort to drawing maps on the white board to show the location of places or the movement of groups. My classes tend to focus instead on texts and ideas (not to say that my colleagues’ classes do not focus on such things!), and despite my professional preference for things, places, and spaces, I’ve managed to keep my own biases at bey.

All this is to wonder whether I could create a hybrid/hyflex/digital class devoid of bells and whistles and immersive multi-modal, multi-media experiences and instead return to a pre-digital mode of distance learning and teaching. I wonder whether adopting some methods developed in correspondence classes – clearly articulated assignments designed to move students through a series of skills at their own pace – would offer a welcome respite from the media-saturated environment of higher education? 

Like my interest in minimizing the impact of grading on how I teach, I don’t have a fully formed idea as of yet, but I’m hoping to explore these ideas a bit more over the next month or so and experiment with them a bit in the spring semester.

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