In response to this extremely challenging semester, we’ve all had to modify teaching methods, sometimes significantly. This is especially true in a writing classroom, since collaboration and library research are key skills that support students on their way to final drafts. You can find a video about navigating online databases below, as well as a podcast about group work in a remote semester and a manifesto about teaching undergraduate students during this crisis.
Navigating Online Databases
As part of our unit on writing in the social sciences, we used online databases to research topics that would eventually become short podcasts intended for a general audience. As many students are unfamiliar with the range of such databases, I provided a video on navigating library resources and using Boolean operators to narrow a search: https://youtu.be/4mmA3Or1Poo.
Group Work in a Remote Semester
In this first draft of a podcast, I discuss various ways to use group work in an online writing class. I talked to Leslie Rowan and Ian Sawyer in preparation for this podcast, and clips from those conversations appear here. Thanks Ian and Leslie!
I also mention a 2017 academic article in this podcast. It’s entitled “Comparison of Online and Face-to-Face Peer Review of Writing,” and is available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S8755461516300780.
A precis, draft script, and notes for this podcasting project are viewable here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KHsILFMyNbwEepoYxqz7FUOOzHaSI8tT0UwZfS3-nOc/edit?usp=sharing.
Manifesto for a Remote Semester
First, Do No Harm
This is not an attempt to insulate students from the outside world or to reduce the rigor of the course, but instead a call to consider the limitations of our current situation. From the instructor’s side: certain things will not work as well as they “should” (hypothetically), or as well as they have previously during in-person semesters. From the student’s side: meaningful success will still require effort and attention, however difficult this might be to muster.
Just as it would in a usual semester, an excellent class should support students as they practice their writing skills, improve their ability to address various audiences, and expand their critical thinking skills through writing. At best, a writing course should improve a student’s life. At the very least, the course should not worsen it.
Give an Inch and/or a Mile
This is not the time for the strict enforcement of deadlines. Ideally, the assignments for this course will be a respite from other aspects of the student’s life. Realistically, even if this is the case, a student might not realize it until a second draft (or maybe late October). Treat students with enough generosity that they’ll want to reach this point.
The impossibility of properly managing time during this pandemic is not an individual failing. It’s easy for anyone to slip into an unhealthy reliance on constant work for distraction, or—on the other end of a coping spectrum—to avoid one’s work totally and reach new extremes of procrastination. Since many of the factors encouraging procrastination stem from our current moment, and not from the personalities of those unable to focus on work, give them the benefit of the doubt. Giving a student the benefit of the doubt, in this case, often correlates with giving them an extension. If granting an extension impedes on an instructor’s grading time or other commitments (including non-academic and non-professional ones), this is the point at which they shouldn’t grant one. But don’t stick strictly to deadlines just for the principle of it.
Bend, Don’t Break
The goal is not to force methods, assignments, or activities to work. The goal is to adapt them to be as effective as possible, and to improve them gradually, as necessary.
This is especially the case with activities like peer review, which operate very differently online but are still beneficial. According to the article “Comparison of Online and Face-to-Face Peer Review of Writing,” in some ways online feedback from peers is actually more beneficial for students. The researchers found that students were more likely to make major revisions to their work following online peer review than they were following face-to-face peer review, and that students gave more specific and directive advice online than they did in person. This isn’t necessarily beneficial in every situation, of course, and the researchers found that online peer review lacked the emotional connection of in-person interaction. Additionally, students perceived online peer review as a way to share suggestions, but saw the in-person process as a more general method of exchanging ideas. Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. Since the pandemic has necessitated online peer review, it’s better to embrace the positive aspects of this method, rather than trying to impose an unnatural (and probably ineffective) approximation of in-person peer review.
This reasoning applies to many other pedagogical situations in our present moment. Many methods and assignments are worth trying in an online classroom, but if it seems that students aren’t benefitting, don’t be afraid of modifying or discarding aspects of a teaching plan. 2020 has very little respect for our plans, so we need to be flexible. Why should teaching be any different?
It’s Still Crisis Teaching
Last spring and early summer, a wave of articles called for a reconsideration of the 2020 spring semester as “crisis teaching,” rather than typical online learning. Many of these articles focused on K-12 teaching, but since teachers across age groups and institutions has been responding to the same crisis, some of the lessons still apply to college instruction. In an August news article about California schools, a superintendent was quoted as saying “What we did under crisis teaching in the spring and what we’re going to do with distance learning now are very different.” At least at those universities which failed to contain the spread of COVID-19 on campus, the difference between crisis teaching and distance learning is not as significant as it should have been. Since this fall instructors still had to switch to fully online teaching with little notice, still had to modify plans as students moved from campus housing, and still had to navigate a situation without clear directions from our institution, we haven’t yet gotten the chance to see much distance learning. Moreover, as cases climb nationwide and students and teachers continue to feel the detrimental results of prolonged pandemic-related stress, we seem to be in crisis once again. As long as the crises continue, so will crisis teaching.