An open letter to all college faculty

Coronavirus has turned this semester into the most unusual one any of us has ever experienced. Nevertheless, we advance, just a little bit more each day, in ensuring that the remainder of the 2020 academic year is a beneficial one for our students.

I overheard one of our colleagues say during a recent webinar that anyone describing what we’re doing as a “pivot” to remote teaching is abusing the English language. This is no pivot, that person said. It should be called a hard-left turn. I’d go further and say that for many of us that hard-left turn is being made at rush hour, at high speed and directly into oncoming traffic.

You’re not alone in thinking that success of any kind will be impossible over the next month or so. I’m asking you to STOP that thinking. There are resources to get you and your students to the end of the term without feeling like you’ve just gone through the most miserable of experiences.

A group of faculty at various Massachusetts institutions offered some tips for adapting to our new reality. The list includes the following:

-Give up on presuming you have the students’ undivided attention

-Remain yourself, but set boundaries

-Pay special attention to students who are struggling

-Understand the digital divide causes problems on many levels

As a department head and someone who also supervises roughly two-dozen part-time faculty, I’ve spent considerable time over the past couple of weeks gathering as much information as I could about everything from using technology to remaining resilient in our suddenly chaotic teaching lives. Perhaps the remainder of this note can be described as advice. Perhaps it’s better called a summation of what I’ve uncovered. Regardless, I hope for all of you there is a nugget in here that makes you realize you’ve got company as you swerve into that oncoming traffic.

Let’s start with technology. View it as friend or foe, but understand it will be our academic partner for the remainder of the spring term (and almost certainly through the summer). As one example, Blackboard, the LMS used on my campus, might have been little more than your grade calculator before, but now it’s where you’re uploading and collecting assignments, and using Collaborate. You’ve also had a “Hangout” or two on Google, or ZOOM-ed into virtual meetings with colleagues and students.

What is all this stuff, and how do I use it? Your school should have created a landing page (this one is from my institution, and here’s one from Washington and Lee) that offers the foundational level support you need as your classes transition to remote delivery.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve heard multiple times over the past couple weeks: If you’re not a digital expert, then don’t pretend to be one. (As you’ll soon see, your students aren’t experts either.) Start with something simple, and that could mean an informal chat with your students. What are their thoughts, fears, expectations for the rest of the term? What do they know about technology that might help everyone? If you already consider students to be your peers in learning, then you’ll have no problem starting this conversation, and it’ll be a successful chat.

The best resource I’ve found comes from Flower Darby, the director of Teaching for Student Success at Northern Arizona University. She reminds us that the start-slow-and-build approach also will benefit your students.

To help students succeed, you must be creative. Scrutinize your assessments, both large and small. Have your students had the opportunity to build — step by step, as they would in an in-person classroom — the knowledge and skills they will need do well on those assessments?

Now let’s talk about your mental health. We know that stress causes us a host of problems, and there’s no question our stress levels have risen as we’ve figured out how to convert our classes to an alternative delivery method. One simple way to reduce stress is the following: You can’t replace your on-campus office at home, but you can create an environment in which you thrive.

Next, do not build the remainder of your semester all at once. Yes, if you’re truly comfortable in the online world, you might be able to make these wholesale changes in a short period of time. If not, don’t try to. Instead, build on a week-by-week basis. What might seem like extra work will turn out to be a time saver; the “what folder do I put this assignment in?” and “how do I include this rubric?” questions this week will be rote memory for you after three tries.

Work hard, but also stop working. If you’re sitting in front of your computer for hours on end, you’re not being kind to yourself. Take a walk. Call a friend. Cook a meal. Do something to take your mind off work and to give your body a break.

Whatever stresses we feel will be magnified for many of our students. We might have had to quickly throw into a box a few items from our offices we needed at home when we were told to leave campus, but we didn’t face the prospect of packing up clothes, books, personal items and more. More germane to this conversation, like you, I was surprised by the number of students who shared with me or one of my colleagues that returning home was a trip they dreaded; for too many of our students, home is not a place of love and friendship with the white picket fence outside and a full refrigerator inside.

For our students, the hard-left turn to online also is fraught with challenges. We need to remember that many of them aren’t adept at technology. On top of that, the Internet at home might be inferior to what they’ve been using at college; it’s possible some of them can’t complete your assignments, a term called the “homework gap” when referring to what’s happening in the K-12 world. We also can’t forget that many students lost their jobs when they were sent home. Lastly, remember that for many students going home means having to pick up family care or other personal commitments; these obligations must be taken into consideration when we assume that synchronous teaching will be easy for everyone.

Faculty can aid their students by seeing them as colleagues, demonstrating empathy and retaining open communication with them. Faculty and students, together, are dealing with a major disruption to the academic environment, so whatever we as faculty can do to be an agent of calm will be good.

A recent New York Times’ op-ed summarized the problem big and small colleges and universities discovered this month. The authors stated:

We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework. They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties. That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.

The human touch isn’t the same in an online class and an on ground class. But we can keep those connections alive over the next few weeks and months. People who know me will tell you that I’m the “pun guy.” I’ve always believed that a good laugh each day was mandatory. I’ve shared a few jokes with my colleagues and students, and in a few days I’m hosting a trivia night through Hangout.

One night will be reserved for my adjunct faculty, a group no university can neglect even though they are not considered full-time employees. And another night is reserved for my advisees. I’ll create a certificate for the winning person. That one hour won’t solve any problems, but it’ll remind everyone that there can be something normal — a really good laugh — surrounding the worries about coronavirus and completing this semester.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown suggests a person’s courage is displayed by “how they behave and show up in difficult situations.” This will not be a lost semester for those of us who commit ourselves to putting our students’ success ahead of our personal fears.

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