Three Brief Thoughts About K-12 Schooling During Covid (spoiler alert: they never “closed”)

There have been a lot news stories and commentaries about the public demanding we “reopen” schools. Most of these stories irritate me tremendously; I have three thoughts.

K-12 schools never closed. Period.

I realize that the phrase “reopen the schools” really means going back to normal, face to face instruction, and who doesn’t want everything to go back to normal? But c’mon, K-12 school teachers, staff, and administrators have been busting their fucking asses trying to make schooling work online and with hybrid arrangements and all that. Actually closing the schools would have meant just that: lock the doors, turn out the lights, everyone go home. Instead, there are K-12 teachers literally risking their lives trying to make school work.

I’ve been watching a lot of cable news lately (I mean, there’s been a lot of news, and I’m a fifty-something white man so of course I watch a lot of cable news), and it’s pretty standard to end a show with some kind of uplifting or inspiring story of perseverance in these “difficult times.” Whenever these stories feature teachers, I cringe. There was the story about the older woman who has been teaching third grade for 30 or 40 years, but this teacher is so dedicated and so great that she’s teaching via Zoom from her hospital bed while she’s dying from Covid. Or maybe it’s the one about a teacher who is doing house calls and checking in on each of his high school students by figuring out where they live, driving around town, and showing up to chat with them while appropriately socially distanced on the front lawn. My guess is that that this guy doesn’t have 125 or more students, which is typical for most of the people I know who teach high school.

I’m supposed to admire these teachers for their dedication and their great example of going way above and beyond what’s required. But what I see instead are completely unrealistic and unsustainable expectations we’re putting on these people. I mean, do real estate agents or bankers keep doing the paperwork and serving their clients while on oxygen in the ICU? Do we restaurant cooks spend their own money on food to cook and then drive around and deliver that food to their customers for free? Mainstream media loves these super hero teacher stories, and then parents see these stories and think it’s totally okay to expect their kid’s teacher to do the same far beyond the job description activities. Simultaneously, teaching as a profession and the teachers’ unions are getting bashed all the time. It’s no wonder that fewer people are going into this work.

Which brings me to my next point:

It’s not online courses, and it’s not only students.

All the teaching I’ve done online and all the research I’ve done about distance education tells me that it can definitely work, but there are clearly circumstances and settings where it works better. Online classes work best when students have some experience and maturity at being students, which is why (IMO) having advanced undergraduate or graduate classes online is much more effective than having classes like first year writing and other “gen ed” classes online. I think a lot (but certainly not all) high school and middle school students can do okay with online classes, but I have no idea how anyone expects a third grader to succeed online when that student is still trying to figure out how to just read and write in the first place.

So obviously online courses are difficult to pull off in K-12 schools, particularly for elementary school. For example, elementary school-aged kids typically do not have their own computer and a quiet place in the family home to do school work. So yeah, I can imagine the online classroom experience for the fifth grader who has to share a laptop with a sister and/or a parent and who has to do all of their work sitting at the kitchen table with said sister/parents and who are all working off of the personal hotspot wifi network on Mom’s iPhone, yeah, I can imagine that’s not going great.

But look, it’s not all about school  being online. It’s mostly about “everything else.”

By “everything else,” I don’t just mean this mysterious disease that has emerged like we’re in a dopey science fiction movie and forced all of us to change almost everything we do in our day to day lives. I don’t just mean the protests that are the result of long-simmering racial injustice and that came to the forefront this past summer. I don’t just mean the enormous number of people out of work and struggling to find food. I don’t just mean the completely fucked up politics we’ve had during the Trump presidency, cumulating in the “Big Lie” of a stolen election and the first violent transition of presidential power in our country’s history. I mean all of this as part of “everything else,” but not just this.

I also mean that for a lot (most?) kids, just being home all the time–even in the best of times– is horrible. I’m not just talking about families where there is abuse, though those are obviously the absolute worst situations. I’m also talking about perfectly normal children– particularly teens. It’s been a while since I was that age (though not that long since I had a teenager in the house), and I grew up in a completely supportive and loving household. But like most normal teenagers, the absolutely last thing I wanted to do back then was hang around with my parents or sisters for any longer than necessary because I was 15.

So what I’m saying is when I see stories on cable news about how children are struggling with their schooling, are feeling stressed, and find themselves depressed, I keep thinking two things. Number one, the main cause of these problems is not school being online. It’s “everything else,” and there is A LOT of everything else. If there had been no pandemic, no BLM movement, no economic collapse, no Trump administration, etc. etc.–and if the only issue was high schools shifted their classes online for some reason, then there would be no story here.

Two, whenever I read or see on the news these stories about how students are more depressed and stressed out than ever, my reaction is who isn’t?! Join the fucking club! I’ve seen a whole lot of student meltdowns this year and I’ve done what I can to try to help students through all this. But look, we’re all stressed and depressed– at least to some extent– and we’re all struggling. So yeah, open the schools to help the depressed and stressed students, sure; just remember that that elementary school teacher who has been working her ass off to teach those kids has a ton of the same problems of her own.

Finally:

If folks want to have f2f classes in K-12 schools again, vaccinate.

The CDC has said that K-12 schools can have f2f classes again even if teachers and staff aren’t vaccinated, and there are other studies out there that suggest the rate of transmission in K-12 schools tend to be lower than in the community in general. Now, I’m a “follow the science” kind of person when it comes to all things Covid. But if I were an elementary/secondary school teacher– especially a high school teacher– I’d be very skeptical about all this. And honestly, given that every teacher in the world has had to deal with administrator’s telling them stuff that turned out to be completely wrong, why should teachers trust the experts now?

The bottom line is parents (and students and a lot of teachers too) who want schools to have f2f classes need to prioritize doing the things to contain Covid that can make that happen, and we as a country need to prioritize vaccinating K-12 teachers and staff. Ya’ll can’t yell and scream about schools not being open for f2f classes and then complain about masks and insist that restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and all of these other high Covid risk places are open for business as usual.

So let’s concentrate first on vaccinations and everything else first.

Clayton Eshleman, 1935-2021

My friend Clayton Eshleman died last week. He was 85 and I knew he had been in declining health for some time.

Clayton was an enormously successful and prolific poet, translator, writer, editor, and most of that is captured on the Wikipedia page about him. He published hundreds of chapbooks and books of his own poetry, a couple dozen translations, a couple more dozen books of prose and other writings, the best of which (IMO) is probably Juniper Fuseand lots of collections and anthologies of previously published works. He won a ton of prizes and recognitions, he and his wife Caryl were editors of a couple of important literary magazines, Caterpillar  and then Sulphur, he published other peoples’ books and chapbooks in different venues, and people have written books about him too. Like I said, that’s all there on Wikipedia.

We were only kind of colleagues because I started at EMU in 1998 and he retired from EMU in 2003, and while I do have an MFA in Fiction Writing, my PhD and work at EMU has been in composition and rhetoric. So our paths really didn’t cross much professionally. I did know he was a “presence” in the department, so to speak, the kind of senior colleague/older professor/important writer who was quite capable of striking fear in students and younger faculty– probably a few older faculty too. He was challenging, difficult, practiced radical honesty far too often, etc. But I really have no memories of him in any sort of committees or other work things at EMU.

Mostly, our relationship was about food, wine, and web sites.

As far as I can tell from looking at some old journals/calendars of mine, the first time I interacted or talked with Clayton in any detail was at the 2001 department Christmas party, and I am sure we mainly talked about cooking. Somehow, he floated the idea that we should have a dinner party where I bring a dish or two and he makes a dish or two. I thought he was just trying to be nice after we’d each had a few glasses of wine, but several months later in spring 2002, that’s what we did at Clayton and Caryl’s house. I want to say it was close to twenty people over there total.

For many years after that, Annette and I would get together with Clayton and Caryl for dinner, usually a couple of times a year, usually at their house. Looking back at it now, I realize that while I was back then already a pretty decent cook, Clayton and Caryl introduced both Annette and me to a different level of sophistication with food. The meals he served weren’t showy or gimmicks of any sort– just really good and classic food, usually with a turn toward the French. He had a fantastic dish of rabbit stuffed with prunes. I think the first time I had duck confit ever was at Clayton’s house.

On the one hand, because Annette and I are so much younger than them (Clayton was five years older than my father), a lot of these affairs felt stiff and formal. If the evening’s events were to begin at say 6:30 pm, you were there at 6:30 pm– and whenever we had a party and invited them, they were always the first to arrive. The Eshleman’s house was an eclectic and eccentric space, and I often felt like a little kid just staring at all the stuff: all the paintings from notable artists they actually knew, an enormous wall of books in a case that filled half the living room, some preposterously giant decorative wine glasses on top of the sideboard in the dining room, an inflatable pterodactyl hanging from the ceiling. They had a teeny-tiny powder room tucked under the stairs, the kind of space where it took some careful maneuvering to use the toilet. The walls were completely covered with decades worth of snapshots of Clayton, Caryl, and all sorts of various friends usually sitting at large tables covered with empty bottles of wine: pictures from France, from New York, from trips to the caves he wrote about in Juniper Fuse and where he used to lead tours of classes studying the ice age paintings. So these dinners were often strange and intimidating affairs.

But mostly these dinners were fun and we kept going back because Clayton and Caryl both had such fantastic stories of decades of life as wholly committed to art and poetry and writing. I think my favorite Clayton story was the one he told about essentially stalking Allen Ginseberg in the early 1960s (or possibly late 1950s) in New York City. I never quite understood how that happened– did he just look him up in the phonebook?– but Clayton said he found him and he knocked on Ginsberg’s door and asked him to tell Clayton about poetry. Ginsberg said he would if Clayton bought him a hamburger, and so they had hamburgers and talked about poetry.

When Juniper Fuse was published in 2003, I volunteered to set up a web site for him. I did it as a friend, but also for some additional experience in making web sites– I teach this stuff so I need to stay up with the technology. Clayton did “pay me” in a matter with bottles of very good wine I would have never bought for myself and by taking me out to lunch once in a while. We went different places over the years, but we tended to always circle back to a Mexican place in Ypsilanti near campus, La Fiesta. The food was pretty good (it frankly isn’t as good as it used to be, unfortunately), but I think he liked it most because the owner would always dote on Clayton when he came in. We gossiped about EMU academic politics, about whatever events, and about the web site and what new things he wanted to put on it– new books, new chapbooks, another interview someplace, a series of readings in New York or wherever. One of the really extraordinary things about Clayton’s productivity as a writer is it actually increased after he retired; I think he wrote something like another 20 books in his last 20 years.

Annette and I did go out to some restaurants with Clayton and Caryl, but it was very tricky to find a place in Ann Arbor that satisfied them. Some of Clayton’s favorite restaurants didn’t strike me as very good– there was a Chinese place he was fond of in Ann Arbor I remember as mediocre, and it closed down years ago now. The last place I remember going with them that they liked a great deal was Mani Osteria, which is probably my favorite place still open in Ann Arbor. But even though he was a harsh critic and demanding customer, most of his restaurant recommendations were correct. On one trip through Chicago, we had a splurge of a meal at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo which Clayton had recommended– he liked going to it when he had a visiting teaching gig in Chicago. Still haven’t made it to The French Laundry, but I learned from him about Thomas Keller’s cookbooks and his other more affordable restaurants like Bouchon. When Annette and Will and I went to Paris for about 10 days for a sort of working vacation, Clayton suggested some reasonably priced but more upscale bistro kinds of places that were fantastic.

In the last five or six years, we saw each other less frequently. I think Clayton’s energy and enthusiasm for making elaborate meals had understandably declined as he got into his eighties. As I got better as a cook, I would sometimes bring him some of the molé I had been trying to make (based on a Rick Bayless recipe), and he always seemed happy for those gifts. We talked less about what to put on the web site because Clayton wasn’t writing as much or giving as many readings as he had a few years before, but he still had good stories up until the last time I had lunch with him, which I think was about a year and a half ago.

So rest in peace, Clayton. You were a difficult, interesting, sometimes angry, eccentric, brilliant, and often a surprisingly kind friend.

Recipe: Coq au Vin Blanc in an Instantpot

 

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Ingredients:

An Instant Pot (though see below)

4 ounces of roughly chopped bacon

8 ounces of mushrooms– I like a variety, but whatever you like/can get

2 or so tablespoons of butter and/or olive oil

2 to 4 chicken thighs (depending on how big they are, with the skin and the bone)

2 chicken breasts (with skin and the bone, or just more chicken thighs)

Salt and pepper to taste

8 ounces of carrots– baby carrots are easy, or roughly chopped

4 good-sized shallots, peeled and cut in half or quarters

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 tablespoon (or so) of either dried thyme or herb de Provence seasoning

2 cups of drinkable dry white wine (or red– see below)

2 or so more tablespoons of butter

1 tablespoon of flour

Mashed potatoes or cooked egg noodles

1 or 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

I’m trying to write more recipes on my blog this year for basically two reasons. First, I’m trying to write up the recipes for things I make all the time in one place so I don’t have to keep digging through different books and web sites and stuff. Think of it as a public and electronic version of the box of index cards that used to be in pretty much every amateur home cook’s kitchen back in the old days. Second, I think it’s kind of fun to write recipes. Not exactly sure why, but it is. And hey, if others find these things helpful or interesting or whatever, that’s great.

This is a recipe closely based on Bon Appetit’s recipe on their web site, though of course there are a zillion different ways to do some version of this classic French “chicken cooked/braised in wine.” One of the things I like about this is I make this in an Instant Pot, though to be honest, I’m not sure this is really the best use of that (admittedly gimmicky) appliance. It doesn’t really cook that long in an oven anyway.

The other reason I like this recipe and most of the other chicken recipes I plan to post is I can actually get my wife and son, both of whom do not like chicken, to eat it. Personally, I don’t understand this. I love chicken and could easily eat it in its many forms several times a week; Annette and Will, not so much. But they both tend to be okay with dishes like this that are braised/stewed/slow cooked like this– or, in this case, pressure-cooked.

Instructions:

  • Put the chopped bacon in a large nonstick skillet, on medium-low heat, slowly brown the bacon to get it crispy and to render out the fat. You could do this all in the Instant Pot on the sauté setting, but I think that setting is kind of wonky and it’s harder to control the temperature than the stovetop. Then again, cooking this first in a skillet and then putting it in the Instant Pot does mean digging out and dirtying up another pan, so your call.
  • When the bacon is done crisping up, scoop it out with a slotted spoon and leave behind the bacon fat. Put about half the bacon aside to finish the dish and the rest of the bacon into the Instant Pot container (or, if you decided to sauté in the Instant Pot, put it all in a large bowl big enough to hold all the ingredients). A lot of these recipes also say to drain all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat, but I’ve never understood why you’d do that. Add up to 2 tablespoons of butter or olive oil and let it melt and get bubbly.
  • For the mushrooms: first, clean them up. Supposedly you’re not supposed to wash mushrooms, but even before Alton Brown and some other food nerds disproved this, I’ve always put them in a colander of some sort, given them a good rinse, and dried them off with paper towels, which also wipes away any dirt or grit. I like to use a nice mix of mushrooms for this, but whatever you want to use and/or can get will work fine. Cut them up into about quarters or bite-sized pieces. Get those prepped mushrooms into the sizzling butter and bacon fat and sauté for a few minutes on medium heat, just until the mushrooms get a bit browned in places. Put them in the waiting Instant Pot insert (or your big bowl) along with the bacon.
  • Liberally salt and pepper the chicken and brown it over medium or so heat. You’re not trying to cook the chicken through– just browning it– so don’t worry about it not being done. But you also don’t want to just skip this step because the browned chicken will help make a delicious sauce and the mix of bacon fat, chicken fat, and butter– well, that’s just delicious. This takes about 10-15 minutes. If your pan isn’t big enough, you’ll need to do this in batches. Put the browned chicken into the Instant Pot container.
  • Add the carrots and shallots to the hot pan, stir, and season with salt and pepper. You’re just trying to get a bit of color on them and to scrape up/soak up some of the stuff stuck to the pan. Toss in the chopped garlic and herb de Provenance or thyme for just a minute or so and then pour in two cups of dry white wine. Let that cook just a few minutes, just to reduce it and cook off some of the alcohol a bit. As the saying goes, you should only cook with wine you’d be willing to drink, though for me, that means about a $5 bottle of wine and when it’s for drinking and not cooking, I spend more than that. I use white wine somewhat because of the taste, but also the color. Coq au vin is more traditionally made with red wine, but that turns everything kind of a muddy purple color, and I think that looks kind of gross.put all of this into the Instant Pot insert or the big bowl where you’ve been putting everything else.
  • Arrange the chicken and mushrooms in the Instant Pot insert so it’s spread out even and add the vegetables and wine. Set the Instant Pot to pressure cook on high for 15 minutes. Let it the natural release happen for about 10 minutes, then release and unseal the pot.
  • There are two things to do while that’s cooking and cooling a bit. First, put the flour and the butter in a little bowl and squish it together with your fingers or a fork. Second, cook either masked potatoes or egg noodles to be a base for your dish. I suppose this is optional, but c’mon, with the sauce and everything, why would you skip this?
  • Once it’s cooled off enough to handle the chicken, start plating by beginning with the potatoes or egg noodles. Using a slotted spoon to leave behind as much of the sauce as possible, arrange the vegetables and chicken on top of the potatoes or noodles.
  • Put the Instant Pot insert back in and turn on the sauté option. As the sauce comes up to heat, add in that flour/butter mixture and whisk it in. Keep mixing until it has thickened up a bit, about 3 minutes tops. Top each serving with the sauce, sprinkle on some of the parsley and reserved bacon, and eat it.

If you don’t have an Instant Pot: Well, you might want to start with a new recipe, but here’s what I’d suggest. Preheat the oven to 250. Instead of using a skillet, use a Dutch oven or similar deep pot that can old everything. Cook everything in steps int the Dutch oven. Once you have everything in the pot and things are simmering a bit on the stove, put on the lid and put it in the oven for about 45 minutes. Check it and of course make sure your chicken is cooked all the way through (160 degrees). Put the pot on the stovetop, plate the potatoes or noodles and the chicken and vegetables just like before, heat up the sauce and whisk in flour/butter mixture.

What didn’t suck about 2020?

I usually write a post at the end of the year to kind of sum up highlights of the previous year (particularly highlights from blogging and social media posts), mostly as a reminder to myself of how things went. You know, like all these “the year that was” articles in MSM. And I had started here recapping all the ways that Covid disrupted everything and how it all sucked and all of that, and then I thought: who needs more of that? I am quite sure I’ll remember all the ways that 2020 was a disaster for the planet and for the country for the rest of my life, and I’m also sure I’ll get the chance to re-remember in movies and books and television shows for some time to come. I’m quite sure I’ll remember the ways 2020 hurt me and my family personally, and those are things I’d rather not go into in a blog post. Not now anyway.

So instead, I thought I’d take a bit of time to write about/meditate about what didn’t suck about 2020, about what I still managed to do that was good, about what I learned about myself. Part exercise in living in the moment/mindfulness (which I think is mostly a bullshit way of looking at the world, but I’ll play along), part needing to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Here it goes (in the order it occurred to me):

I’m grateful I didn’t have any close friends or family members who became seriously ill or worse from Covid (knocking on wooden things). Annette and I both thought we might have had it several different times (who hasn’t wondered if that cold or cough was something worse?) and we’ve been tested a couple of times as well, but so far, so good. Same with Will, though he gets tested about weekly because of the stuff he’s doing at Yale. I have some more extended family members and friends who have had it, some with barely any symptoms and others who felt it like a hard flu. Given some of the terrible stories I’ve heard from some of my students, I am grateful and feel lucky about this.

I’m happy my day-to-day life and work carried on mostly the same. Don’t get me wrong– this has all been much different and it’s hard. I have been in my EMU office three times since mid-March. I haven’t been to a restaurant at all since things locked down– not even outdoor dining– and I have been to a coffee shop/beer garden kind of place exactly once when I met Derek for a beer at Cultivate Coffee and Tap House and then we sat a picnic table distance apart in the outside area on a lovely day back in September. I used to go to the gym at least four days a week and then often went shopping for whatever I was planning on cooking for that night, and I haven’t done any of that since mid-March. No movies, no shows, no museums, none of that. I go to the grocery store or places like Meijer about twice a week, and I make a point of trying to get outside to walk around a bit. That’s about it.

But the thing is I was already mostly working from home and mostly teaching online before Covid. Ironically, I spent a lot of January trying to make more use of my EMU office, which has kind of been a failed New Year’s resolution for a few years now. The short version: I keep thinking I need to draw a firmer line between my “life” and my “work,” this despite the fact that I’ve spent the last 30 years working from home and coffee shops with few boundaries (physical, intellectual, emotional, etc.) between life and work. Plus I have a very nice office that seems wasted with me not using it for much of anything beyond office hours and storing junk. So once again in January, I was trying to work more from my office, and once again, I had given up on working more at EMU by mid February. All of which is a long way of saying shifting to working at home and teaching online wasn’t exactly a big lift for me.

And of course, let’s not forget the basics: Annette, Will, and I all still have jobs, insurance, money in the bank, etc. Speaking of which:

Annette, Will, and I all are very lucky to be able to comfortably shelter in place/just stay home. Will started his PhD program in Cellular Molecular Biology at Yale in Fall 2019 and he had (continues to have) a nice (albeit student-y nice) apartment in New Haven, and since his work mostly shifted to working on qualifying exam/pre-dissertation portion of things, he was fine. With Will out of our modest three bedroom house (and this has been the case since he was living on campus at Michigan), there is plenty of room for Annette to do her thing in her work space/library downstairs and me to do mine in my hard to beat office/study/man cave area upstairs. Which is to say we just had each other, mostly: no pets, no really little kids, no school-aged kids, or none of the other things (many much worse than this of course) that made staying close to home challenging. Sure, having more people around means, well, having more people around, so there’s an advantage there. But let’s just say I think that having all three of us here would have made for a very difficult year.

Despite it all, we did get to travel a bit. We mostly got our travel jollies out in 2019 with trips that took us to three different continents (not counting North America), and we did have a couple trips we were going to go on in 2020 canceled. But we weren’t completely at home in 2020. We went to Las Vegas at the end of February, one of the nicest trips we’ve taken there. We had a room that was basically free at the Wynn (long story), saw some shows, did some gambling, stumbled across a Banksy exhibit in a shopping mall, and went to Red Rocks. Covid was just starting to leak into everything, though we didn’t think a lot about it then. I do remember seeing some people in masks (mostly Asian tourists, so I honestly didn’t think much about it), and I also did make a point of getting up to wash my hands about every hour while playing slots.

In July, we went “up north,” staying at a really cool cabin on Glen Lake– well, not on Glen Lake because that’s pretty much all multimillion dollar homes, but across the road from Old Settlers Park, which meant we kinda/sorta got a lake view. We didn’t get out to any of the fancy restaurants up there (a number of them were closed anyway) and we didn’t get into Traverse City or do a whole lot of shopping, but we did get to do some hiking, we looked at a lot of trees and nature, we got to see some friends who live up there, and we did a lot of relaxing and hanging out.

And then in September, we took a road trip to Maggie Valley, North Carolina to spend a four-day weekend with Annette’s parents– they rented a house there. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to making the trip (the driving, during the midst of the school term, an area of the country that isn’t really my cup of tea, etc., etc.), but it was a nice change of scenery, and it’s certainly not a trip I would have been willing to make with the current crazy spikes in Covid.

We watched A LOT of movies, and a lot of kind of weird and/or old ones too. I generally write down the movies we watch (I keep a list as part of my journal), and I think we saw about 170 of them last year. In normal times, we watch a lot of movies, but 170 or so is, well, A LOT. Mind you, that includes multiple viewing of some comforting favorites (The Big Lebowski, Dirty Dancing, A Knight’s Tale, Star Wars), rewatching of a lot of movies we’d seen before, and a few new ones too– got to see Parasite in the theater before Covid and again at home on demand during Covid, too. But it also included a lot of odd/weird/old movies, including True Storiesthe almost 5 hour long Until the End of the World, Killer Klowns from Outer Spacethe Sean Connery sci-fi flick ZardozFoodfight! (which is perhaps the worst animated movie of all time), the fantastic Forbidden Planet, Vincent Price’s Theater of Blood, Eating Raul, the fantastic musical Golddiggers of 1933 and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent thriller The Lodger. And more than that too, of course, not to mention a lot of other shows– The Queen’s Gambit, working our way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

Oddly enough, a pretty good year for me in terms of scholarly activity.  For me– which is to say it isn’t a lot compared to really prolific and famous scholars, but it’s plenty for me.

What will probably be my one and only single-authored book (at least in terms of academic writing) More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs came out in January– actually, it was already available in December 2019, but it has a 2020 copyright date. Kind of a bittersweet moment because I think the book was published too long after MOOCs and of course Covid didn’t help, but still, it’s done. And it did get at least one good review, too.

But beyond that, I once again was reminded that the weird thing about blogging is it is very much like writing the proverbial message in a bottle: every once in a while, someone somewhere picks up that bottle on the beach, reads what’s inside, and reaches out to find the writer. Startled and confused by the number of faculty who have decided to teach online synchronously with Zoom, I wrote a blog post, “‘Synch Video is Bad,’ perhaps a new research project?” Not a lot of people read it, really (I think my most popular post of this past year was “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”), but the right people read it– namely, someone at Media & Learning, which is a Belgian group promoting “the use of media as a way to enhance innovation and creativity in teaching and learning across all levels of education in Europe.” They invited me to submit a version of my post as a newsletter article, and also invited me to participate in a panel discussion for a conference they had in November (all via Zoom, of course). And this is all motivating me to kick off a new research project about teaching online during the 2020-21 school year– see this post here to see what I mean and maybe take my survey.

So like I said, kind of small potatoes in the general scheme of academia and scholarship, but I don’t often get to add a short publication and an invited presentation to my CV just as a result of a blog post.

And last but not least, Biden won and a cure is coming. Last but far from least, imperfect and incomplete as of this writing for sure because who knows what craziness Trump and the Republicans are going to attempt before January 20, and we’ll likely see another 100,000 or more deaths in this country before the vaccine is widely distributed. But still, it could be much, much worse. Developing a vaccine so quickly was far from a foregone conclusion back in April and May, and if Trump and his administration had done an even half-assed job in dealing with the virus back in the spring, I’m pretty sure he would have won a second term. So yeah, I’m thankful that what is a terrible time now and what will probably be a terrible time for a few more months at least is not being made more terrible by another four years of Trump.

So let’s hope that 2021 continues on that path.

Kicking off a new research project: “Online Teaching and the New Normal”

I’ve been working very slowly but surly on putting together a survey to kick off a new project I’m currently calling “Online Teaching and the New Normal.” I just posted a page about it here, and I’m trying to get the word out via social media. If you come across this post and can help me out by either taking the survey or forwarding it on to other folks teaching college classes online during the 2020-21 school year, I’d appreciate it.

A bit more background:

As I wrote about back in early September, I have put aside the project I was working on last year, “Investigating Classroom Technology bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” In the midst of a pandemic and during a school year in which an unprecedented number of instructors/students have no choice but to move the entire school year online, it just seemed to me like some kind of discussion about whether or not students should be allowed to use laptops in classrooms had quickly become irrelevant. Or at least it feels pretty irrelevant right now.

Anyway, in early September and after an enormous percentage of college classes went online for the entire semester (at EMU, it’s about 90%, and I think there are a lot of universities like EMU are somewhere in that range), I was surprised and rather confused at how many college faculty decided to go with synchronous video (aka Zoom) as the primary mode of delivery. As I wrote about there, it just does not make sense to me to teach an online class in that format.

Online classes have been delivered mostly asynchronously because the goal of distance education going all the way back to the Chautauqua movement, home study and early correspondence courses in the late 19th century has always been to extend access to higher education to students who can’t attend college face to face for some reason. Courses that meet at specific times in specific places restricts that access. Also, until relatively recently, live video conferencing software (like Zoom) hasn’t been that accessible to students– and it is still a problem for anyone with sketchy wifi or crappy computers, but that’s another story.

The current moment is different because we’re moving courses online for students who otherwise would prefer to attend classes on campus and face to face, which means the scheduling flexibility component isn’t as important. A lot of institutions are requiring faculty to teach their now online classes synchronously, I suppose because of the demands (or perceived demands) of students and their families, but I also know that a lot of faculty had the choice and went with synchronous Zoom instruction on their own. But a someone who has been teaching online and researching it for years, this still does not make sense to me. Teaching online classes synchronously doesn’t take advantage of the affordances of the format; I wrote about this here and I even gave an invited talk/presentation about it for a virtual conference in Europe in November.

However, these previous assumptions could very well be wrong. And right now, the tragedy of Covid-19 is giving folks interested in researching best practices for teaching online a unique opportunity. Thus my efforts so far with this survey. As I tell my students in my first year research writing classes, the reason we do research is to test the assumptions we have, particularly those assumptions that are based on incomplete and debatable evidence.

I have no idea how this is going to turn out, and while I’ve only been asking for people to fill this out for a few days, it’s been challenging to get folks to participate. A lot of it has to do with the timing (I think most of us teaching college classes are concentrating on getting done for the term so we can get to the holiday break, which makes yet another survey about something a lot less appealing), though I am also trying to get these folks to participate in a survey (and potentially an interview) about something that they perhaps would rather not talk about. I plan on leaving the survey open at least through the end of the 2020-21 school year, so there’s still time.

And of course, if you’ve read this far and you are teaching a college class online and in the U.S., why not take a few minutes to complete this survey yourself? https://forms.gle/FQSjWRcVXim6BVoq7

 

My talk at the Media and Learning Conference (plus with a post-talk update)

After the break and this recap is the text of my talk for the panel “Maximising the learning potential for students and academics” at the Media and Learning Conference. Before the panel happened, I thought I would be the “odd man out” in the sense that I think teaching with video is overrated, and the other people on the panel (notably Michael Wesch and Maha Bali) do not.

Now that it’s over, I can report my first Zoom academic conference talk is in the books. As I mention in the script of my talk, I was invited to participate in this because of a blog post I wrote back in early September about why I thought synchronous Zoom teaching online was a bad idea. An organizer of this conference somehow came across that post and invited me to be on the panel. So once again, I posted something on my blog because it was on my mind, it caught someone’s attention, and it turned into a couple of (small) CV entries. So yeah, there’s a reason why I still blog.

Anyway, I thought was good discussion/panel, with a few minor hiccups along the way. I don’t know if I ended up being at odds with my fellow panelists so much as we were all talking in different ways about the issues of reaching out to students and how video can be a part of online teaching.

The first two speakers, Sian Hammlett and Phillip Seargeant, were filmmakers in the UK who talked about making videos for Open University courses. These are professionally produced videos made with the intention of being used repeatedly for years in courses; the example the speakers and a lot of the participants mentioned in the comments was “The Language of Lying,” which looks quite interesting. Impressive stuff.

Then Michael Wesch talked. Now, I don’t know if the mostly European audience was aware of this (I assume so), but Wesch about as close as you can get to being a “famous academic” after years of high-profile work with video, digital ethnography, and YouTube culture. So he of course gave a great talk featuring all kinds of video and neat slide effects and everything. Super interesting and slick.

And then there was me. Wesch was a tough act to follow, let me tell ya.

I think it went okay, but I had basically three problems that folks might or might not have noticed. First, because this a session that was happening at 1:30 in the afternoon in Europe, it started at 7:30 am for me. Sure, I’m usually up by then and it’s not like I had far to go to get to my computer to participate, but I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t had to be “presentable” this early in the morning in months, possibly years. Second, when I was preparing my talk, I decided not to do any slides or video, mainly because I didn’t know how well it would work on Zoom to begin with– I didn’t want to be fiddling with slides and Zoom at the same time– and because it was a short talk. Turns out I was the only one who didn’t have slides, so that didn’t look great. And third, I was originally told 12 minutes, so I wrote up a script (below) that took me almost exactly 12 minutes to read. Then the moderator began by saying we had 10 minutes each. These things happen, but it did mean I did a lot of skimming over a lot of what I wrote.

And finally Maha Bali talked. She’s a professor at American University in Cairo who I had heard of before through the things I’ve read on Hybrid Pedagogy and her Twitter feed.  I think the other talks were more technical than hers, but what Maha was talking about– how to foster equity and caring in education in the midst of Covid– was arguably more important than to video or not to video. She made her slideshow available here.

This was all via the “webinar” version of Zoom, which I suspect is what most conferences that are going to happen online this year will end up using. I thought it worked well for hosting the presentations and it seemed like it was easy to moderate. One of things that happens at too many f2f conference panels is a moderate is unwilling/unable to stop someone from going over time. Credit to the moderate of this panel, Zac Woolfitt, for not allowing that to happen, but I’d also argue that’s one of the advantages of Zoom: it’s easy for the moderator to stop people. And none of the speakers had any serious technical problems.

But I do wish Zoom had a few better features for facilitating these things. There was a text chat running along with our talks, but there was no way to go back to respond to a specific comment. That was annoying. The only way for folks in the audience to ask questions was via a text box. Perhaps it would have been possible for the moderators to set it up so that someone who wanted to ask a question could get audio/video access– kind of like someone stepping up to the microphone to ask their question. I also found it a bit disembodying because we couldn’t see anyone in the audience; rather, all I could see was a fluctuating number of participants (between about 90 and 110, so a pretty good sized crowd for this sort of thing) and a stream of texts.

Anyway, Zoom was okay, Zoom could have been better, and it felt like a reasonably good substitution for a face to face conference session. Though as I blogged about back in early March, I don’t think synchronous video should be the only alternative to a f2f academic conference presentation, and covid or not, higher education needs to think a lot harder about how to embrace hybrid conference formats that could include a mix of f2f sessions broadcasted online, synch video discussions like what I just participated in, and asynch discussions/posters that can be made available as beyond a particular session time.

As I wrote back then, the problem with moving academic conferences at least partially online during and after Covid is not the technology. The problems are all about the difficulties institutions and people have with trying and doing “new things.”

After the break is the script for my talk.

Continue reading “My talk at the Media and Learning Conference (plus with a post-talk update)”

Why I’m (Still) Teaching Online

I pitched this piece to Inside Higher Ed and even started writing it, but they turned it down. Oh well. So I’m posting it here as a blog entry instead.

About a week after Christopher Schaberg’s op-ed “Why I Won’t Teach Online” was published, Inside Higher Ed also published my intentionally playful response “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To).” This was in March 2018, two brief years and a lifetime ago, back in an era where we actually had a choice about teaching online or face to face, and back when that choice wasn’t a matter of personal safety and public health. How times change. Now he has written again, this time a piece called “Why I’m Teaching Online.” This time, we agree more than we did before, though not entirely. 

I agree with Schaberg that teaching as many university classes online this semester as possible (and probably next semester as well) is the right thing to do for both personal and public safety. College campuses are joining nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants as prime spots for spreading the virus. (I will leave it to readers to contemplate what these places all have in common with each other.) My university has tried to provide a safe campus experience during the time of covid, but the need for everyone to stay six feet apart from each other means we do not have enough classrooms and other large spaces to hold more than about 20% of our classes face-to-face. 

Almost all of the classes EMU is holding on campus now are ones that would be difficult to hold online, courses that depend on special equipment or that are very hands-on (pottery immediately comes to mind). While almost everyone here is happy with this arrangement (including those like Schaberg who two years ago never thought they’d be doing this), I do have a few colleagues who grumble about how this is all completely overblown, that covid is no worse than the flu, and it will fade away in no time soon. This just goes to show you that not all academics are in favor of science and data, but I digress.

I also agree with Schaberg that shifting from the f2f to the online classroom is a great learning opportunity for faculty to rethink their approach to teaching– and this is especially true for those of us who have found ourselves doing the same thing not necessarily because it is still “the best” and most current approach, but because it “works,” at least well enough. It isn’t easy to adapt to the affordances of online teaching, but it can be revitalizing since it requires a new perspective on an old practice. And it’s not just about learning new ways to teach online: a lot of the activities I first tried online have found their way into the courses I teach face to face.

But there are two places (really, one and a half) where we disagree. Schaberg says that the current moment also gives us a chance to introduce new technologies into our teaching. “We have the tools; let’s use them.” Well, sorta. 

The examples that Schaberg cites here are Google Docs, “drawing reading materials from the web,” and email. If these technologies are actually new to Schaberg, well, welcome to 2005. And yes, this is also a good time for faculty to learn more about your institution’s Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) But I’ve also heard a lot of stories about teachers trying to use new and shiny online toys and tools less because it helps their teaching but more because it is new and shiny. It reminds me of the Monty Python bit about the machine that goes ping.

My pet peeve example of this is the use of video– particularly live video. I blogged about this earlier and also recently published a short article about it here, but the short version is a lot of faculty new to online teaching are overusing applications like Zoom. I think the appeal of Zoom (and similar synchronous video tools) is that it is a technology that appears to replicate the traditional teacher-centered classroom: teachers talk, students sit and listen, occasionally interrupting with questions. There are even “breakout rooms” to put students in discussion groups once in a while. 

In practice, Zoom is a mixed bag at best. It certainly has its uses for conferences and occasional larger group meetings, and we are learning more about other successes through a lot of trial and error.  But it’s difficult and oddly exhausting to stay engaged in a Zoom class, and don’t get me started on the issues of privacy and surveillance it and related technologies raise. Streaming video also requires the kind of decent computer and robust wifi access that a lot of my students just don’t have. No, I think Zoom is a great example of how sometimes the more simple and established technology and approaches to online teaching are still the best: asynchronous course designs that rely on students working through problem sets, using discussion boards to talk about readings and activities, collaboration with tools like Google Docs, and so forth. 

Finally, Schaberg says all of this is temporary: “We’ll be back in the classroom eventually– even if it’s a changed classroom, with newfound sensitivity to virus transmission, shared space and personal hygiene.” Sorry, but this ain’t temporary. Not even close.

Restaurants, theaters, bars, international travel, cruise ships, salad bars, and so much more are going to be different experiences when they fully come back– if they are able to fully come back at all. We will all continue to hold a lot more work meetings and routine visits with doctors via video conferencing tools. Many who were forced to work from home will never regularly return to the office, and some will take advantage of that freedom to live not where they have to but where they want to. On and on and on.

So yes, there will come a point where students and teachers will once again meet in physical classrooms in real time. But there will also be a lot more fully online classes, and these classes will become a part of the normal offerings at the kinds of elite and exclusive universities that have long resisted online teaching before Covid. And even most face to face classes will not be entirely face to face. Instead, teaching and learning after the Covid crisis will increasingly be “hybrid:” that is, a mix of some face to face meetings with asynchronous discussion and assignments, along with some synchronous video conferencing, particularly with individual students and small group work.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong. One of the many things I’ve learned from 2020 is don’t become too comfortable in assumptions about the future. One of the curious features of the 1918 pandemic was that once it was over, people the world over seemed to put it all behind them to the point where it was mostly forgotten–until something similar happened again this year. Though this moment feels to me like less of a memory we will suppress and more like a tipping point that will impact almost everything for decades.

“Synch Video is Bad,” perhaps a new research project?

As Facebook has been reminding me far too often lately, things were quite different last year. Last fall, Annette and I both had “faculty research fellowships,” which meant that neither of us were teaching because we were working on research projects. (It also meant we did A LOT of travel, but that’s a different post). I was working on a project that was officially called “Investigating Classroom Technology bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” a project I always referred to as the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit” project.

It was going along well, albeit slowly. I gave a conference presentation about it all in fall at the Great Lakes Writing and Rhetoric Conference  in September, and by early October, I was circulating a snowball sampling survey to students and instructors (via mailing lists, social media, etc.) about their attitudes about laptops and devices in classes. I blogged about it some in December, and while I wasn’t making as much progress as quickly as I would have preferred, I was getting together a presentation for the CCCCs and ready to ramp up the next steps of this: sorting through the results of the survey and contacting individuals for follow-up case study interviews.

Then Covid.

Then the mad dash to shove students and faculty into the emergency lifeboats of makeshift online classes, kicking students out of the dorms with little notice, and a long and troubling summer of trying to plan ahead for the fall without knowing exactly what universities were going to do about where/in what mode/how to hold classes. Millions of people got sick, hundreds of thousands died, the world economy descended into chaos. And Black Lives Matter protests, Trump descending further into madness, forest fires, etc., etc.

It all makes the debate about laptops and cell phones in classes seem kind of quaint and old-fashioned and irrelevant, doesn’t it? So now I’m mulling over starting a new different but similar project about faculty (and perhaps students) attitudes about online courses– specifically about synchronous video-conference online classes (mostly Zoom or Google Meetings).

Just to back up a step: after teaching online since about 2005, after doing a lot of research on best practices for online teaching, after doing a lot of writing and research about MOOCs, I’ve learned at least two things about teaching online:

  • Asynchronous instruction works better than synchronous instruction because of the affordances (and limitations) of the medium.
  • Video– particularly videos of professors just lecturing into a webcam while students (supposedly) sit and pay attention– is not very effective.

Now, conventional wisdom often turns out to be wrong, and I’ll get to that. Nonetheless, for folks who have been teaching online for a while, I don’t think either of these statements are remotely controversial or in dispute.

And yet, judging from what I see on social media, a lot of my colleagues who are teaching online this fall for the first time are completely ignoring these best practices: they’re teaching synchronous classes during the originally scheduled time of the course and they are relying heavily on Zoom. In many cases (again, based on what I’ve seen on the internets), instructors have no choice: that is, the institution is requiring that what were originally scheduled f2f classes be taught with synch video regardless of what the instructor wants to do, what the class is, and if it makes any sense. But a lot of instructors are doing this to themselves (which, in a lot of ways, is even worse). In my department at EMU, all but a few classes are online this fall, and as far as I can tell, many (most?) of my colleagues have decided on their own to teach their classes with Zoom and synchronously.

It doesn’t make sense to me at all. It feels like a lot of people are trying to reinvent the wheel, which in some ways is not that surprising because that’s exactly what happened with MOOCs. When the big for-profit MOOC companies like Coursera and Udacity and EdX and many others got started, they didn’t reach out to universities that were already experienced with online teaching. Instead, they reached out to themselves and peer institutions– Stanford, Harvard, UC-Berkeley, Michigan, Duke, Georgia Tech, and lots of other high profile flagships. In those early TED talks (like this one from Daphne Koller and this one from Peter Norvig), it really really seems like these people sincerely believe that they were the first ones to ever actually think about teaching online, that they had stumbled across an undiscovered country. But I digress.

I think requiring students to meet online but synchronously for a class via Zoom simply is putting a round peg into a square hole. Imagine the logical opposite situation: say I was scheduled to teach an asynchronous online class that was suddenly changed into a traditional f2f class, something that meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 11:45 am. Instead of changing my approach to this now different mode/medium, I decided I was going to teach the class as an asynch online class anyway. I’d require everyone to physically show up to the class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 am (I have no choice about that), but instead of taking advantage of the mode of teaching f2f, I did everything all asynch and online. There’d be no conversation or acknowledgement that we were sitting in the same room. Students would only be allowed to interact with each other in the class LMS. No one would be allowed to actually talk to each other, though texting would be okay. Students would sit there for 75 minutes, silently doing their work but never allowed to speak with each other, and as the instructor, I would sit in the front of the room and do the same. We’d repeat this at all meetings the entire semester.

A ridiculous hypothetical, right? Well, because I’m pretty used to teaching online, that’s what an all Zoom class looks like like to me.

The other problem I have with Zoom is its part in policing and surveilling both students and teachers. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education both published inadvertently hilarious op-eds written to an audience of faculty about how they should maintain their own appearances and of their “Zoom backgrounds” to project professionalism and respect. And consider this post on Twitter:


I can’t verify the accuracy of these rules, but it certainly sounds like it could be true. When online teaching came up in the first department meeting of the year (held on Zoom, of course), the main concern voiced by my colleagues who had never taught online before was dealing with students who misbehave in these online forums. I’ve seen similar kinds of discussions about how to surveil students from other folks on social media. And what could possibly motivate a teacher’s need to have bodily control over what their students do in their own homes to the point of requiring them to wear fucking shoes?

This kind of “soft surveillance” is bad enough, but as I understand it, one of Zoom’s features it sells to institutions is robust data on what users do with it: who is logged in, when, for how long, etc. I need to do a little more research on this, but as I was discussing on Facebook with my friend Bill Hart-Davidson (who is in a position to know more about this both as an administrator and someone who has done the scholarship), this is clearly data that can be used to effectively police both teachers’ and students’ behavior. The overlords might have the power to make us to wear shoes at all times on Zoom after all.

On the other hand…

The conventional wisdom about teaching online asynchronously and without Zoom might be wrong, and that makes it potentially interesting to study. For example, the main reason why online classes are almost always asynchronous is the difficulty of scheduling and the flexibility helps students take classes in the first place. But if you could have a class that was mostly asynchronous but with some previously scheduled synchronous meetings as a part of the mix, well, that might be a good thing. I’ve tried to teach hybrid classes in the past that approach this, though I think Zoom might make this a lot easier in all kinds of ways.

And I’m not a complete Zoom hater. I started using it (or Google Meetings) last semester in my online classes for one-on-one conferences, and I think it worked well for that. I actually prefer our department meetings on Zoom because it cuts down on the number of faculty who just want to pontificate about something for no good reason (and I should note I am very very much one of these kind of faculty members, at least once in a while). I’ve read faculty justifying their use of Zoom based on what they think students want, and maybe that turns out to be true too.

So, what I’m imagining here is another snowball sample survey of faculty (maybe students as well) about their use of Zoom. I’d probably continue to focus on small writing classes because it’s my field and also because of different ideas about what teaching means in different disciplines. As was the case with the laptop bans are bullshit project, I think I’d want to continue to focus on attitudes about online teaching generally and Zoom in particular, mainly because I don’t have the resources or skills as a researcher to do something like an experimental design that compares the effectiveness of a Zoom lecture versus a f2f one versus an asynchronous discussion on a topic– though as I type that, I think that could be a pretty interesting experiment. Assuming I could get folks to respond, I’d also want to use the survey to recruit participants in one on one interviews, which I think would be more revealing and relevant data, at least to the basic questions I have now:

  • Why did you decide to use a lot of Zoom and do things synchronously?
  • What would you do differently next time?

What do you think, is this an idea worth pursuing?

Recipe: Easy Potluck Potatoes

Ingredients:

A big disposable and oven safe pan

2 lbs frozen hash browns, thawed

1 stick melted butter

2 cans of Campbell’s potato soup (or cream of mushroom or a mix)

1 pt sour cream

1 small onion, finely chopped

About 1 cup of milk

1 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper

1/2 cup parmesan cheese (preferably the kind that’s in a green can)

1/2 cup breadcrumbs (pre-packaged, of course)

A couple of weeks ago, my son (now a PhD student studying cellular-molecular biology, and no I don’t really understand what he does) was going to a properly socially distanced potluck of some sort. He’s in Connecticut, which has a pretty good handle on the whole Covid thing, and he had some kind of event to go to with people in his lab. So he asked for this recipe, which is really from my mom and probably also on the side of a package of frozen hash browns, a can of potato soup, or maybe all of the above.

This is also one of things I often bring to things like potlucks or whatever. It’s an unapologetically unhealthy and kind of trashy “dish” I got from my mom, just barely in the category of cooking. But it does taste good. Oh sure, you could probably make this better with real and hand-grated parmesan cheese and a roux-based sauce instead of canned soup, and maybe some chopped herbs (I am sure chives would be very nice), some bacon, etc., etc. But the cheap shit is fine for this.

I include a “big disposable and oven safe pan” here mainly because my son doesn’t own a properly large casserole dish, but I don’t know, somehow I think this tastes that much better out of an aluminum foil pan that (hopefully) gets rinsed out and properly recycled when your done.

Instructions:

  • Get one of those cheap and disposable casserole pans, the kind of thing that is usually aluminum but sometimes made out of some kind of plastic too. Doesn’t matter, though one that you can recycle when you’re done is obviously best. Bonus points if you have a lid for it.
  • Preheat the oven to 350.
  • Mix together the thawed potatoes, the melted butter, sour cream, chopped onion, salt, pepper, and milk all together. If you’ve got a big bowl, great; if not, mix it in the disposable pan.
  • Mix together the breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese together in a separate bowl.
  • Put the potato mixture in the pan (if you didn’t mix it in a bowl, of course) and put in the oven uncovered and bake them for 45 minutes.
  • Take them out and carefully sprinkle the breadcrumbs and cheese mixture on top of the potatoes. Bake for another 15 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.

 

 

A Few 2020-21 School Year Thoughts and Bits of Unsolicited Advice

Of course many/most college classes are going to be online this fall! Of course hundreds of colleges and universities have changed their reopening plans! Not every school is going to be offering most classes online or as a hybrid, though just because a college starts classes f2f doesn’t mean it’s going to keep classes face to face. For example, Brown University is starting online September 9 and hoping to bring students in for on campus classes in October; but “if by Sept. 11 the public health situation has not improved, the remainder of the semester will be remote.” That’s a pretty big change from Brown President Christina Paxson’s op-ed about how higher ed must be open this fall no matter what.

Of course of course of course! Everyone who was paying attention to what has been going on with the virus and with higher education has been predicting this, at least everyone who had not succumbed to the magical thinking/collective hallucinations that overtook way too many college administrators. None of this is surprising.

Not to say that being right makes me feel that good, and I feel especially bad for those first year students who are going to miss out on the traditional “college life” part of higher ed this fall. Even if they do decide to live in the dorms or an apartment away from home (and judging from what I’m starting to see in Ann Arbor, there aren’t as many of these young people but there are still plenty) it’s not going to be the same for all the obvious reasons. I’ll be honest: I don’t have a lot of patience for whiny faculty or administrators about all this (and don’t get me started with college football), but I legitimately feel bad about what this is all likely to be like for students.  As my friend and  colleague Bill Hart-Davidson pointed out in a couple of different social media discussions, everyone is going through the stages of grief. Though in a lot of ways, it kind of feels to me like we’re going through all five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) at the same time.

Most faculty at EMU are teaching all online this fall– something like 80-85% of all courses this fall will be online, and a lot of those remaining 20-15% are going to be some version of a hybrid class. I’m happy and relieved about that because I like teaching online and because I was afraid the administration was going to force a lot of us who are teaching small classes to teach f2f. So in a very real way, I’m not at all concerned about how classes will go for me and my students this fall. Now, everything else that’s happening and that will happen this fall (gestures broadly at the entire world), that’s a different story.

So, this means I will be starting my 22nd year at EMU as a tenure-track professor, and my 32nd year of teaching in college, going all the way back to 1988 when I started teaching first year writing at Virginia Commonwealth as an MFA student. Yikes. Anyway, instead of my somewhat irregularly annual August post where I begin the school year by reflecting on my goals and resolutions for the next couple of semesters, I thought I’d offer some unsolicited advice to both faculty and students mostly new to online education in the time of Covid.

  • Taking classes/teaching classes online is going to be much better this fall than it was in spring. I’m not saying your online classes will go “perfect” or even “as good as you’d hope,” but it will certainly go better than what happened last spring. As I blogged about here, that was not online teaching; that was an emergency lifeboat to rescue everyone from the sinking ship/semester. It was unreasonable to expect faculty to switch a class from f2f to online in a couple days, and it wasn’t at all pleasant for students who had the same amount of time to pack up and get the heck out of the dorms. Things will be better because we all know what we’re getting ourselves into, and because 90% of faculty really do care about their teaching and they’ve been getting ready to teach online. I’m sure students will be better prepared as well.
  • If your classes are starting f2f, there’s a good chance they’ll end up online. This is especially true with the lack of progress we seem to be making as a country to control the spread of the virus; you probably already know that. Also: If you’re scheduled to teach f2f and you are worried about that, consider a “flipped classroom” approach. I do not see how any course focused on discussion, group work, and collaboration can possibly work with everyone wearing a mask and sitting six feet apart. I mean, take a look at this advice for practice “Active Learning while Physically Distancing” from someone at LSU. These are all good ideas, but every single one of the activities in the physical distanced classroom column is actually online. So I get that there is some value to having everyone together in “meat space” even if most of the interactions are online. But I’m not sure that benefit outweighs the risks of Covid.

If I was required to teach my classes f2f, I would have everything that was required be online and the f2f meetings would be optional, brief, and not necessarily every week. Sure, that’s easy for me to say because I’m a tenured professor (meaning I can get away with stretching “the rules” in ways that aren’t as possible for a part-timer or a graduate assistant) and also because this is only a hypothetical. But I honestly believe this is the only realistic way to approach the distanced f2f classroom.

  • Students who are mad about online classes: stop thinking you deserve some kind of tuition discount and take the classes seriously. I get the frustration, petitions, complaints, and demands for discounts that are covered in this New York Times article from the other day, and when it comes to everything but tuition– room, board, activity fees, athletic fees, tickets to sporting events, on and on– I completely agree. Students and their parents have every right to feel like they’re being jerked around to the point of being the victim of a bait and switch.

But look, the online classes I teach are every bit as rigorous, serious, and important as the f2f classes I teach. It is not a “discount” experience, and at the end of the day, the credits you earn in an online or hybrid class count the same as a f2f class. The mode of delivery has nothing to do with it, and to think that online classes are inferior and not worth it is just elitist bullshit.

Tuition was too high and increasing too fast long before the pandemic, and the relationship between tuition and the cost of running a class has always been fuzzy. I mean, it’s not like I directly get a “cut” of what students pay to take my classes. So if being forced to take online classes actually makes students (and their families) question the cost of tuition and forces universities to justify the expense and/or cut costs, then great. But the main cost of running a class has nothing to do with the mode or place of instruction; it’s the cost of labor.

  • Finally for faculty teaching online for real for the first time this fall: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I’ve seen some awesome work and effort from colleagues who will be teaching online for the first time this fall, and that is really great. But– and I mean this as gently and as non-mansplainy as possible– you are not on a trek into an undiscovered country. There are a ton of resources out there, a ton of people who have been studying and practicing online pedagogy for a long time. Ask these people for help.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. It happens when well-intentioned faculty in other disciplines (particularly in disciplines far from the humanities, in my experience) “invent” writing courses without any connection or reference to any of the scholarship or practices common in composition and rhetoric. It happened with MOOCs when these Stanford (Coursera and Udacity) and MIT (EdX) folks sincerely believed they had “discovered” the concept of teaching classes online without any reference to the work being done in the distance education world for decades. And I am seeing that stuff now with these new-fangled online classes this fall.

People often need to make their own discoveries and their own mistakes first before they listen to others or seek out advice. I get that. But I must say I’m sure seeing a lot of faculty-types putting a lot of energy into making videos most of their students are not going to watch, or gearing up for lots of synchronous Zoom sessions filled with lectures, or trying to find ways to make sure students don’t cheat on exams, including requiring students to turn on webcams so the surveillance panopticon can keep on working.

Hey, if this all works out, that’s great, more power to you. If it takes making mistakes to learn and make changes next time, that’s great too. I regularly learn more from mistakes than successes. But…

    • Video is extremely overrated and it is much harder to do than most faculty think.
    • Zoom classes are exhausting for everyone involved to the point of being downright cruel.
    • Asynchronous online classes make MUCH more sense than synchronous online classes.
    • Instead of trying to spy on students so you don’t have to change the test, maybe you should change the test to take advantages of the affordances of the medium. Also: if you’re giving a memorization test about information that’s easily found with a Google search, maybe it’s not so important to memorize that stuff anymore?

Good luck, everyone. Wear those masks, wash those hands, keep that distance, and for the love of God, do NOT vote for Trump.