You want your life back?

You want your life back? Stay home now.

You want to work again? Stay home now.

You want to go out to dinner? Stay home now.

You want to watch your favorite sports team play? Stay home now.

You want to regularly attend your house of worship? Stay home now

You want to visit your extended family? Stay home now.

You want to host a backyard barbecue? Stay home now.

You want to go to the movies? Stay home now.

Coronavirus will continue to maintain its power over us for as long as we stubbornly, ignorantly and arrogantly believe that it can’t hurt us.

The warnings from multiple medical professionals that this week will be a rough week for America ought to be all the warning we need; our grandparents, parents, children, neighbors, co-workers, friends and more are going to die because of coronavirus.

We can honor their memory right now by doing one thing: Stay at home.

Sure, go for a walk. Go ride your bike. Be active. But don’t invite a group to join you, and practice the now ever-present warning of social distancing.

You want your life back? Then don’t be stupid.

(ICYMI) A second open letter to all college faculty: Taking care of YOU

Before I dive into this letter, allow me to first say “thank you” for the tremendous response to my first open letter to all college faculty. I admit, I didn’t anticipate the positive reaction I’ve received. I hope the information in that letter continues to be valuable to you as you move forward in this most unusual semester. Coronavirus will not beat us!

One of my RMU friends who read that initial letter correctly pointed out many faculty also find themselves in precarious spots now because they’re suddenly forced to work from home. They can’t, as I suggested in my first letter, practice self care by simply getting up and taking a walk or calling a friend because the personal circumstances they now find themselves in prevent that.

It is their challenges I address in this second open letter, which is devoted to highlighting how we must find ways to take care of ourselves.

For some faculty, the closing of day care centers has meant their young children are now under foot and wanting attention. (Is anyone else suddenly remembering the “mom, mum, mommy” moment from Family Guy, as Stewie Griffin tries to get his frazzled mother’s attention?) For other faculty, the closing of elementary, middle and high schools has meant trying to find stimulating activities for older children who are all too eager to plunk down in front of a video game console. (As I write this, my 16-year-old is engaged in a high-stakes game of Rocket League with his 15-year-old cousin, who lives in Ohio. Yes, he also has some homework to do.) And for other faculty, the shuttering of elder care day centers has meant their parents also are under the same roof and requiring care. Don’t forget, these are not mutually exclusive categories; some of our colleagues are dealing with all three of these circumstances.

We can’t forget that many of us might also be facing an uncomfortable economic challenge if our spouses or partners have lost their jobs because of the stay-at-home orders issued by many states’ governors.

Put these factors together and there are plenty of us who have exchanged our (generally quiet) work office for a home office that comes with people of all ages who might have little, if anything, to do all day.

Yes, like Lois Griffin did to her son, we cannot be blamed for gritting our teeth, clenching our fists, and yelling “WHAT!”

Now, let’s see if we can find some ways to ease the stress.

University Health Services at the University of California-Berkeley has a simple but relevant message: recognize the signs that you are suffering from stress or anxiety. The American Psychological Association reminds us that unchecked and increasing stress leads to multiple problems:

When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example. But chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body, too.

Stress erodes our ability to be resilient, and yet there are opportunities to reduce the former and increase the latter. Stress also eats away at our motivation; and no matter what our domestic situation is right now, motivation could be a challenge. Marquette University’s Stephen Saunders has offered an important tip on retaining motivation.

Take breaks, like you normally do. Don’t just turn on the TV during those breaks, though. This likely is not a part of your normal work routine — so don’t do it now. Instead, go for a virtual walk to a colleague’s office and have a chat, assuming they are available. Perhaps set up regular times to take breaks and have a chat.

Speaking of the TV, the World Health Organization has recommended that we check the news no more than once a day. The former journalist in me cringes as I write those words, but I certainly see the benefit of not using your free time at home to remind yourself of why you’re there.

Ditch the TV and consider grounding exercises. LivingWell.org, an Australian agency, suggests such exercises bring us into “contact with the present moment – the here and now.” Winona State University takes it a step further; it offers us a chance to commit to three grounding exercises and to then evaluate how we feel. The common theme between these two websites: tapping into your senses in order to clear your mind. Much like your computer sometimes needs a reboot, you, too, need a chance to stop that loop of stress and anxiety and noise.

You’ll be a better teacher once you do that. You’ll be a better parent and spouse/partner. And, yes, you’ll be a better aid to your parents, as well.

Open lines of communication are critical in any profession, but they might be most critical in healthcare. For our purposes here, I’m defining open lines of communication to mean two or more people who can openly and honestly share important information with each other. According to FierceHealthcare, in a five-year period that ended in 2013, poor communication between medical professionals and their patients led to almost 1,800 deaths and cost roughly $1.7-billion.

I mention these data simply to point out that you need to be honest with your parents and kids about what YOU need while everyone is home with you. I’m reminded of how my wife used the “three times” rule when our now 21- and 16-year-old sons were children. She would tell them that they couldn’t come to her or me and ask us to do something for them unless they had tried three times to do it themselves. They figured out how to use a microwave, start a washing machine and a whole lot more simply by trying.

Perhaps now is the time your kids started to make their own lunches. Perhaps now is the time your parents put on headphones to watch their favorite television program. Perhaps now is the time both generations find that wonderful opportunity called the afternoon walk!

Practicing self care means putting yourself first. You’re not being selfish when you do so.

The sooner you set some reasonable guidelines with everyone around you, the sooner you also can start creating a culture of open communication, and the benefits will be shared by all.

We know that U.S. colleges and universities are being evaluated right now by how well they communicate with their multiple stakeholders. Evaluate yourself by how well you are communicating what you need to your most important stakeholders — your family.

At the end of the day, we’re wise to remember what Deborah Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, wrote about taking care of ourselves.

Something is seriously lost when we can’t get quiet in a way that connects us back to ourselves, the world and what truly matters. Once we access the depth within ourselves and find our still small voice, we might discover that our writing, research, pedagogy, community activities and personal lives are filled with greater meaning and joy.

Now, perhaps more than ever, many of our faculty colleagues need to find their space in a boisterous and filled home.

(ICYMI) 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.