Three Things Teaching Thursday

This semester is barely a week old and feels a bit more chaotic than the last two semesters which were well and truly taught under the specter of COVID. I’ve now become used to the gaggle of administrative emails cryptically informing me that some unnamed student tested positive in one (or more!) of my classes, we’ve lost a day of class to a ground blizzard (which is very “on brand” for North Dakota), and it is so cold that I’m considering wearing a quartz watch today.

Despite these challenges, I remain pretty energized by my classes and genuinely excited to teach my rather more hectic teaching load. It also has me thinking about a few issues moving forward.  

Brought to you by the letter “C”.

Thing the First

Collaboration, Cooperation, and COVID. One thing that I want to impress upon my students is the need to find collaborative ways to adapt to the COVID situation. As the rhetoric encouraging vaccinations and mask-wearing emphasizes that these are not simply good for the individual, but good for the community as well, so I’ve been encouraging my classes to think about practices that will benefit not only their own situation if and when they are stricken with COVID and have to miss class, but also will benefit others. 

There is something about our current educational system that encourages a kind of dogged individualism. While students have slowly come around to the idea that group work and collaborative learning are viable and expected approaches in college, my classes haven’t quite come to the point where they see collaboration as a way to ensure individual success.

Thing the Second

Coping with the Cold. At first, the brutal cold of the North Dakota winter is invigorating. Then, it becomes demoralizing. Last semester, I saw students struggle in ways that I had never before experienced despite declining COVID numbers and a tentative (and fleeting) return to what we imagined to be a “new normal.” This semester feels only more fraught and I worry about my students ability to keep body and soul together during the long slog of the North Dakota winter.

I also fear that I have no solutions to helping students navigate a disrupted semester. I’ll certainly be as flexible as possible, try to pace the semester in as humane a way as possible, and communicate, but I know that their time in my classes is short and only part of their complicated lives. There’s only so much I can do beyond being understanding and patient and hope that we can find a way forward. 

Thing the Third

Coopting the Classrooms. One of the best parts about the relatively new classrooms where I teach is that they’re set up for active learning. This is also one of the greatest challenges because despite the well-known benefits of active learning, I continue to be a bit behind the curve in how I teach. I still do a good bit of lecture and discussion.

One of the things that makes this hard is that instead of a central projector that shows the powerpointers on a screen behind me, the students sit at tables that each have their own monitors. So when I’m talking about a point of architecture or putting a text up on the screen, the students are turned away from me and toward their TVs. This has the same effect as the TVs at a sports bar. It makes discussion difficult and keeps students looking back and forth from their fellow students and to me and then to their TV. This is less than ideal.

More challenging still is that I have at least one or two students on “The Zoom” and the camera for The Zoom is mounted to the monitor on the teaching station. This assumes that the class is a lecture and the best place for the camera (and the microphone) is facing the professor at the front of the room. Of course, this situation is less than ideal for any kind of active learning activities.

There’s not much one can do about this, other than continuously try to work around the limits of classroom space, but it does speak to the kinds of deep contradictions that COVID has created in our classroom.   

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