An Ending: Spring 2021

Here are two things that are true:

  1. My problems this school year were mild when compared to most people.
  2. I felt like a zombie for much of the last month because of the grind.

The spring semester felt a little easier in some ways. I mostly adhered to my resolution to KISS, which led to a more regular schedule and had noticeable benefits, particularly in my online class. I was also doing much less course building than in the fall, which allowed to focus more on best practices and maintain flexibility without the course devolving into a haphazard mess.

At the same time, a lot of these improvements were offset by the simple fact that both I and my students came into the semester already battered by an exhausting fall. Right around the time when we would have received our usual spring break I noticed a dip in everyone’s energy levels. I prescribed several “mental health days” late in the semester to try to account for this, but they were just a drop in the bucket. We kept going because that is what we had been told had to happen, but more than one student explained to me that whatever work they were giving me was perfunctory because they just needed the semester to be over.

I had a lot of sympathy for that position.

But I also had a ton of students who kicked ass this semester. Grades are in no way a reflection of personal worth — a good friend of mine aptly describes them as a professional evaluation of performance within a narrowly circumscribed realm — but I had some students earn among the highest grades I have ever seen by embracing not merely the grade rubric, but also the spirit of a class. Some really improved their writing over the course of the semester while also thriving in the open-ended discussion boards. Some threw themselves into their unEssay projects, like the student who melded the topic of my monsters course with the scientific literature review of her own major and produced a 17-page review of representations of mental illness as monstrosity in popular media, even turning the project in early. Others did really excellent work while parenting in a pandemic. I was disappointed that some students got lost along the way, but am unspeakably proud of everyone for making it to the finish line.

In light of these challenges, I have been wrestling with what, if anything, I want to carry forward from this year. The problem I have been facing is that most of what worked well were things that I had already incorporated into my courses. I am endlessly tinkering with tools and ideas to increase engagement and reduce cost. I was already using OER platforms and distributing my materials through the learning management system. I experimented with Discord without much success, but is something I would have done under other circumstances anyway (and probably will again).

Other changes, like going to entirely paperless grading, I abhor. There are no words to express how much I hate grading online. Quick quizzes where most of the work can be automated are one thing, but I struggle to give papers I grade on screen the attention they deserve. Using an Apple Pen on the iPad was, in theory, a step closer, but my clumsy hand-writing just got messier when the platform would even save what I wrote. Then there were the times when the platform refused to load documents. I understand the accessibility issues with asking students to provide hard-copies of their work, but I see enough advantages that I am going to return to grading on paper as soon as safely possible.

I have only been able to come up with two pandemic changes that I want to make permanent.

First, Zoom options office hours. Unlike my aversion to digital submissions described above, I only see advantages to having virtual options for office hours. This is not to say that I’ll eliminate the in-person sessions, but also having virtual options opens up possibilities for students who have other demands on their time and builds in flexibility that just doesn’t exist otherwise. This one will just require some thought as to the logistics (what happens when someone gets stuck in the virtual waiting room while I’m working with someone in person?) and boundaries.

Second, flex deadlines. This one is more of a work in progress based on the approach that I developed for deadlines this year. Basically, a course needs to have specific deadlines so that work is spaced out over the course of the semester and everyone roughly stays on track without falling too far behind.

In past years, I included on my syllabus a draconian late penalty not because I wanted to enforce it but because it used fear to get students to turn work in on time. In recent years I kept that policy, but added a once-per-semester freebie three-day extension. With the pandemic this year, I didn’t feel comfortable limiting that extension to a one-off and felt obliged to accept all late work. This meant significantly more book-keeping on my end, but worked in general.

What I want to do going forward is formalize a policy that was ad hoc this semester. My rough draft:

This course uses flex-deadlines for all assignments except presentations or those due on a weekly, recurring schedule (e.g. not quizzes). All major assignments (papers, take-home exams, projects) have a checkpoint in the syllabus. This date reflects where the assignments should fall in the semester based on the material we cover in class and giving adequate space between this and other assignments. By the time of this checkpoint you must either a) turn in the assignment, or b) requested an extension of e.g. 3- or 5- days. Longer extensions are possible on a case-by-case basis.

Submitting late assignments without communication with receive the following deductions: 0–24 hours late: 0%; 25–48 hours: -5%; an additional 5% reduction for each subsequent 24-hours, to a maximum of 50% off at 11+ days late.

There are some wrinkles I need to iron out here. This policy is harder to enforce with physical assignments (in the past, I have counted it complete with an emailed copy while requesting a hard copy for grading), for instance, and I’m not in love with the percent deductions (I like the 24-hour grace period and capping how much a student can lose for late work — if I give an assignment, I think there is value in the student completing it). I also ran into a problem where students were surprised when the end of the semester introduced a hard deadline. This one may be as simple as setting an earlier due-date for the final submission so that there is a cushion before I am up against the date I have to turn in grades.

However, I see four major advantages to this policy or something like it.

  1. It gives students more agency over their schedules. If college ought to be treated as a job (an unrealistic standard, in my opinion), it is better described as students managing four, five, or six (or more) part-time jobs simultaneously. Time management skills are important to cultivate, but I could say as much for myself.
  2. These are not open-ended extensions, but function something like a contract in that the students have to look at their schedule and tell me how long it will take them to get the work done.
  3. I am not putting any burden of proof on the student. I don’t need a doctor’s note/notarized letter/obituary. You need more time, I give you more time. The only requirement is communication, which, I hope, will improve outcomes overall by making other communication more likely.
  4. It better corresponds to how I grade than insisting that student must have their work in on time. I rarely sit down to grade bit assignments assignment as soon as they come in, so short extensions still mean that everything comes in before I have finished.

The best thing I can say about the 2020–2021 school year is that it is over. I am excited to start the next chapter of my career at Truman State University in August, but a part of me is going to miss these students with whom I went through so much. Now we get to celebrate:

The fall semester feels like it is right around the corner and I predictably have a lot I’m hoping to get done this summer. But, first, let’s all get some rest. We earned it.

Fall 2020: A Lost Semester

I came into this semester with the best of intentions. I knew this semester would be tough, so my courses were going to be characterized by flexibility, compassion, and doubling down on practices I adopted in the past such as allowing revisions.

My best-laid plans blew up in my face.

  • Flexible deadlines and giving students options of which papers to write led to students shooting through checkpoints and an end-of-semester rush to turn in work, including revisions that tended to address superficial rather than substantive issues.
  • Technology problems and a flexible attendance policy for coming in virtually led to lengthy awkward silences as I tried to bring people into the class discussion.
  • A COVID-safe classroom blew up my tried and true teaching strategies and masks blocked the visual feedback I rely on to guide classes.
  • A schedule without breaks caused burn out despite building in planned days off because a lack of coordination meant those weren’t actually days off.

I tried.

My students tried.

There were even individual bright spots that I’m clinging to, such as the most active participants in my online class who really threw themselves into their assignments.

But this was also the hardest semester I have ever experienced in a college setting. Many of my difficulties were predictable: needing to take a certification course in the middle of a semester during which I taught five classes (three of them new) at three different institutions, for instance, was always going to be a tough row to hoe. What I could only grasp in the abstract though was how teaching in a pandemic would exponentially increase the ancillary stressors of teaching, from the rituals of getting a classroom set up before beginning class to the moment-to-moment decisions during a class period to keep the class engaging. Teaching a fully asynchronous class, a week-by-week asynchronous class, a synchronous online class, and two theoretically-in-person-but-effectively-hybrid classes also didn’t help because I never had the luxury of settling into and attempting to perfect a single modality.

I hope my students learned something. For as much as I despair, some seemed to have, but what we just went through is not a sustainable model of education for anyone.

Now, I am someone who finds teaching to be quite draining even when things are going well, but I usually find that fatigue to be akin to the sort I feel after a good workout or writing session. This semester was different. Taken each on their own, I can’t complain about any of the individual components. Wiping down the teaching station before and after every class, for instance, became a ritual offering to the little voice in my head wailing in disbelief that we were teaching in person during a pandemic. The problem is that these little pieces accumulated by a magnitude. By about the midpoint of the semester I was a wreck. When the adrenaline faded from class, I would be left hollow and despairing of needing to teach again in roughly an hour. On days when I had to rush home to teach virtually I usually had just enough time to close my eyes for ten minutes before class started. Unless I was working with a student, I would spend office hours sitting on Zoom with a thousand-yard stare, knowing that the drive home and whatever time I spent making dinner were a brief respite before I had to go back to prepping for class for the next day.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I am exaggerating, but just a little bit. I didn’t teach on Fridays, went for long walks almost every morning, and was mostly successful at preserving my Saturdays off. I also stuck to a writing routine, unlike last fall, which meant that some of my busyness was self-imposed (writing is not in any of my contracts). And yet, I spent a good part of this semester not at my best. I could feel my patience rapidly fading and felt guilty for not being able to give as much to each class as I thought they deserved—for reasons of time, if nothing else. Even more telling, though, is that the semester passed as a blur that spit me out into an exhausted puddle on the other end. Three of my classes finished before Thanksgiving and only now, several weeks later as my final class for the term wraps up, am I feeling up to processing what I learned.

In my haste to build flexible courses for this semester, I inadvertently made my courses more complex. Perhaps the most extreme example of this came in the form of my papers where my giving the students choice in which assignments to complete gave the simultaneous appearance of too many assignments and a lack of structure—no matter how many times I reminded students.

My mantra for next semester is going to be KISS: keep it simple stupid. I intend to go back to basics, paring back the number of assignments such that the students will all write papers at the same time even as they will get the same amount of choice about what to write about. This will also let me better schedule the assignments to prevent quite the same end-of-semester rush. Similarly, I think small tweaks to online discussion formats, grading expectations for participation, and to what counts as “present” if attending a hybrid class could pay large dividends in terms of engagement, which, hopefully, will reduce some of the students’ confusion and my frustration. I can offer flexibility and generosity to students in how I treat them without making a hash out of my syllabus.

The best laid plans may only survive first contact, but that’s all the more reason to keep it simple. Thinking about how I can improve my courses for next semester while still recovering from the previous one and being not at all sure that it won’t be my last semester of teaching is a funny place to be in, but here we are. I have a few more weeks to rest, recover, and write that I fully intend to take advantage of, but I also started prepping for next semester last night because whatever I prepare now is something I don’t have to pull together at the last minute later. If I learned anything from this semester, those small tasks add up in a hurry when working under these conditions.