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.

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