Fall 2021: The Uncanny Valley of Normalcy

As I read a flood of headlines about schools going online in response to the latest COVID-19 spikes, I am finding it hard to imagine what it was like back in August when we returned for a fall semester masked, but back at full capacity and in person and all of the talk on campus was when, not if, the mask mandate would get dropped.

Now it is late December and I am sitting in my office trying to plan for a new semester that starts in less than three weeks without any sense of what it will look like and without having had a chance yet to process the semester that just ended.

Perhaps a nap would be a more productive use of my time.

More than any semester I can remember, I spent a lot of time and emotional energy trying to coach, support, and otherwise help struggling students through a very difficult term. Some of this can be traced to my new position at a new school that allowed me to invest in this sort work and a campus climate that made it more necessary. Yet, anecdotally, I also saw sentiments that this semester was harder than the ones that were more explicitly pandemic semesters. There are a variety of possible explanations—those other semesters came with more explicit planning and everyone’s mental and emotional reserves are empty after two years of a pandemic—but one that I particularly like came from Kevin Gannon on Twitter who speculated that this semester was the Uncanny Valley of Normalcy. That is, we were close to normal in a way that only highlighted that something was off.

After a lot of debate, I set up my courses so that students could use Zoom to attend remotely if they asked me for the link. I suggested they use chat to contribute to the class conversation, but also warned them that I might not be able to bring them fully into the course discussion. I am not happy with this solution, but after trying to teach language classes in a hybrid format last year I decided that this was just a battle I didn’t have the energy to fight. I still want to imagine something better but keep drawing a blank.

Other challenges I faced this semester come back to it being my first year in a new department. For instance, I came in with certain assumptions about the demographics of my upper-level course and then had to adjust on the fly to meet my students where they were. Going into next semester, I can have these adjustments built into the course from the start. Similarly, I came into the semester thinking that the my World Civ course (world history for non-majors) would be an iteration of a world history course I had taught before, but then found myself adjusting mid-stream when I saw the virtues of some of what the World History course did, before adjusting again when it became clear to me how many of my students were wearing down at a frightening rate. I suspect having a more regular assignment schedule will help this class immensely, and this is something that will be easier to accomplish now that I have a better sense of the students, campus community, and resources at my disposal.

This semester has also been causing me to reflect on three aspects of my teaching.

First, I like most of my class sessions, and, by extension, the course as a whole to have a big idea and an arc that allows each idea to reinforce what the students are learning. When I taught my monsters class, for instance, we go from primordial monsters, the interaction between monsters and humans, and finally asking whether human beings are the “real monsters.” In other classes, I often use a sort of ring composition that has the course return to the ideas we established at the outset of the semester at the very end. This method, along with a strong emphasis on reflection in the courses, allows the students to see what they have learned that semester and I have no intention of fully abandoning that model, but I am wondering if I wouldn’t be better to build in more compartmentalization.

Take this analogy. I often often have students go through drafting processes and peer review by way of scaffolding writing assignments. This semester when I tried a peer-review exercise in one of my classes, only half of the class had a draft for their peers to review. Now, I am going to change how I do these peer reviews in the future by requiring students to submit the drafts as a “graded” (complete/incomplete) assignment, but I also saw this as symptomatic of how many students were simply overwhelmed this semester. I had multiple students miss long stretches of class time where they seemed even more lost when they return, so I wonder if there might be virtue in finding ways to build in water-tight compartments so that if one ruptures the whole boat doesn’t sink, so to speak. Not that compartmentalization helps with any given writing assignment, though.

Sorry, mixed metaphor is where my head is at right now.

Second, I am once again questioning the value of tests. Not assessment, mind you, but tests. When I finished working as a TA for big US history surveys, I vowed I would never again offer a blue-book test. Basically, I think they are of negligible pedagogical value for what I hope to teach my students and I find in-class exams mind-numbing to grade. I have exclusively used open-book take-home tests in my classes where part of the assignment is learning how to synthesize and cite information from the various sources that we have used.

Some of these tests have worked better than others, and I am starting to think that a take-home test needs to do more than replicate the in-class test at home. That is, if you are doing a take-home test, it shouldn’t be a series of short answer terms followed by several essays. Some students do exceptionally well at these assignments, but others replicate many of the same issues I have with the in-class exams while the large number of individual components to the test often leads to divided focus. I have had more success with exams that ask fewer questions, expect more from each answer, and allow revision.

However, if I am going to take this approach, what is the virtue in doing one midterm and one final with two questions each rather than, say asking those same questions over three or four papers that go through a peer-review process? In this model, much learning ostensibly tested by the short answer portion of those exams would be done through weekly quizzes over factual materials and readings. Not every course needs to be writing-intensive, but this can be accounted for in the length of the assignments, while doing more frequent but shorter assignments that go through this process would likely result in deeper, more sustained engagement with the course material than the alternative.

Finally, the end of this semester has me again reflecting on compassionate pedagogy. I want to be the sort of professor who my students trust to support them. Right now this means finding ways to make my course policies flexible and respecting the demands put on their time. I don’t have access to my course evals for the semester yet, but I am particularly looking forward to seeing what they thought of my late policy that treated all major assignments as checkpoints and allowed them to get an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before that checkpoint. In particular, I wonder what messaging a policy like this gives. A lot of students wrote that they were taking my extension because they had other work due the same day. That in and of itself isn’t a problem—I understand students have other classes and this extension is on offer—but when I scaled back a number of assignments late in the semester because I saw my students becoming utterly overwhelmed, the break I gave them was immediately swallowed by work for other classes. Put the two together, and I can’t help but wonder if building flexibility and compassion into my course as a baseline gets taken for granted and sends the message that what I’m teaching them is not important.

I don’t intend to go away from a compassionate pedagogy because I don’t see rigor and rigidity as synonymous, but it does underscore for me that individual instructors cannot solve problems like the mental health crises on college campuses. We need structural solutions.