Pandemic Teaching Memo to Myself

Here is another CFI Teaching Toolbox that I wrote for the start of the fall semester. Follow the link to subscribe to the teaching toolbox email newsletter.

As another pandemic semester comes around and wreaks havoc with our teaching routines, I’ve found that I have to set some reminders for myself to go back to when the whirlwind of work makes it seem that nothing matters than the next immediate urgency. I didn’t have time to embroider these insights on pillowcases (so much for summer plans). A listicle will have to do:

  1. I’m overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. My students are likely to be more overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. Or maybe they’re just doing fine. Who knows? I’ll have to reach out and check in with them—in person, by email, through anonymous surveys, whatever works. Let them know that I care about their well-being.
  2. I’ll have to focus on the essentials in my course: What is most important for students to learn? What are the central, inspiring, compelling questions that I want students to think about? What knowledge and skills should students definitely take away from the class? What things do I cover only because they’re in the textbook? Everybody’s bandwidth is limited this semester!
  3. As Cara Meixner reminded me two weeks ago, I need to keep affective learning goals and practices in mind. Practice care for myself and my students. We’ll all need it! And intellectual growth has to come along (and is often the result of) affective growth. 
  4. I love to geek out over new teaching tools and methods, but I’ll have to focus on a few simple, reliable, and effective teaching methods and tools. It is tempting to try out all the Shiny New Things that I come across, but doing so will only overwhelm me and confuse students.
  5. There is so much to read about teaching during a pandemic, and my reading list keeps growing faster than my reading time. Good news: I don’t have to read it all. Or most of it. [Or any of it! adds Emily Gravett]
  6. There is so much advice out there! Not everything works for me: Video lectures are supposed to be up to 10 minutes long, but I noticed that, if I follow this advice, the production process takes much too long. Longer, fewer videos (and less lecturing) may be good enough. More lower-stakes assignments followed by in-depth feedback are better than a few high-stakes assignments, but, with my other professional responsibilities, I simply may not have the time for too much grading or commenting. 
  7. Even though I just promised not to overwork, I am still committed to following principles ofinclusive and anti-racist teaching. This is something that I’ll have to go back to again and again, reflect on, journal about, work on.
  8. This semester will be chaotic. How will we adapt to physically distanced in-person teaching? Will livestreaming lectures through a doc cam work? Will there be an online pivot 2.0? Will we get sick? I need to be prepared to improvise; focus on what’s essential (second point above) and what’s simple and reliable (fourth point above); take a deep breath; and adopt, adapt, and improve.
  9. I need to give students input and agency. What questions and topics do they find essential? What are their preferred ways of interacting? What tools do they use to stay in contact with family and friends? In the past, I’ve found that they can tell me what works for them.
  10. In a rush, I often end up lecturing too much. Reminder: I’ll have to find ways to make my classes interactive, even if it’s only in simple ways: brief surveys or polls, two-sentence “papers,” reflective paragraphs, and other Classroom Assessment TechniquesCanvas discussion boards are my friend(and can be set up for small groups), Zoom (I hope we’ll soon have a campus license) breakout rooms are my friends. I’ll plan on combining individual activities (reflection, writing) with small-group work (pairs of students, for example) and large-group interaction. 
  11. I don’t have to grade to provide feedback. In fact, I don’t always have to provide feedback; student peer feedback can be part of activities, for example, in small-group discussions. I don’t have to respond to every single discussion board post (I’ll post this right above my monitor); instead, I’ll provide summary take-home points or observations afterwards in a short video or email.
  12. Maybe the most important point for me to remember: I need to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, frolleagues. Just because, but also to get feedback, advice, and new ideas. And I’ll have to sneak into some of the (free! can you believe it?) programs offered by my colleagues at CFI andLibraries.

What does your own beginning-of-semester listicle look like?

The wild ride that’s this year continues. Let’s hang in there and make the best of it. Best (of all possible) wishes for fall 2020!

We are so screwed!

Apologies for my German here, but I am verdammt scared and verflucht angry. We could have spent the summer ramping up our online teaching skills (and some of us have), and institutions could have spent extra resources to support professional development (and professional developers) for that purpose. And now, as it is still not safe to open classrooms to dozens of students at a time, we could do what’s best for the health of all and learn online. Instead, institutions have spent money on plexiglass shields and cameras for classrooms that will host shitty not-so-ideal masked and face-shielded “teaching” behind plexiglass, with students sitting at appropriate distance from each other, in the flow of aerosolized air that’s hopefully well filtered by whatever air conditioning system the institution can afford. Some institutions have already bitten the bullet and are making the emergency shift to online 2.0, others are holding out.

And I am not sure it didn’t have to be like this, given the current political and economic environment. I actually do think that administrators, as well as faculty, are trying to do the best they can. They’ve probably all had the hardest summer of their career, hands down. They’re good people, trying to do the right thing. And many will likely get people killed.

What got us into this mess? I do think it has something to do with what our institutions of higher education try to achieve, their purposes. And these purposes clash. Now, I am going a bit out on a limb here, honestly. I am not a scholar of higher education, and I am sure that my thoughts would be more sophisticated and less naive after an immersion in the relevant literature, though I’ve read a bit—Cathy Davidson’s The New Education comes to mind. Apologies to all scholars who find me awfully uninformed. But it’s my blog, and I can cry if I want to.

So, in my not-to-deeply-read naïveté (thanks, autocorrect, for the fancy spelling!), the contradictory purposes of colleges: Why not call them learning, assisted living, and elite formation? And in the current crisis they’re clashing. The phantasy of assisted living and the reality of elite formation are winning over learning at many institutions right now.

What I personally found attractive when I got involved in academia was the intense focus and depth of intellectual exploration: the long days in the library, the debates over the operationalization of variables, the close reading of texts, that sort of thing. In this sense, universities are biotopes for scholars. But also for less advanced learners: Universities offer the opportunity for young (and older) people to encounter different disciplines, ways of thinking, and—going beyond mere thinking towards affect and auto-motor work—different approaches to live, the universe, and everything. You may get trained as a dietician, but you’ll also have the honor of taking my introduction to US government, or a physics lab, and you may take an exercise class and become part of a club that organizes facilitated discussions…

This gets me to the second aspect of university life, as a residential institution for undergraduates. True, not all students are in their late teens and early twenties, but many are, and not all undergrads live on campus, but even those who do not live in dorms are usually pulled into structures and processes that regulate their lives. In an extreme case, many universities and colleges become half-way houses or assisted living facilities for adolescents: They leave home, usually for good, but receive assistance as they learn how to live on their own, how to make friends, handle conflicts, and so on.

I know, it’s tempting to leave it at a few snarky comments about institutions’ emphasis on dorms and cafeterias and landscaping. But, honestly, there’s much potential for learning going on. Students may spend 15-20 hours in the classroom per week, but many are on campus 24/7, and residence assistants, club advisors, psychological counselors, writing center faculty, and other student affairs professionals become their teachers. Plus, you learn a whole lot simply by interacting with others who have different backgrounds than you, come from different places, take different classes, and the like—especially if you live in the same dorm. (Of course, on-campus living comes with a list of side effects, such as the risk of alcohol abuse and sexual assault that many institutions struggle with.)

I am not sure that learning is the rationale (or only rationale) of on-campus living, though. For many middle-to-upper class families, college has become a way to shush the kids out of the house once they turn 18ish: They don’t really have to live on their own yet, they are taken care of, but they’re out of the house and placed on a class-appropriate trajectory. And they may learn something along the way. On-campus living has become a major source of income for universities, particularly with government support drying up. For many schools, beautiful campuses and fun activities are more important to attract students than academic quality.

Third, institutions of higher learning are places that form and reproduce elites, through selection but also through network formation and acculturation. The type of institution from which you get your degree shapes your social and professional success. Just getting into an Ivy or Oxbridge signals that you are either really smart or really upper-class. And the institutions reproduce elites, as they create a social environment of mostly elite adolescents. Going to college with the “right” crowd helps you form life-long relationships and networks with people of the “right” class. It’s not surprising that the most influential type of affirmative action in college admission is the preference for the children of alumni. That’s how status is reproduced.

Elite formation, or at least status maintenance, is not only pursued by elite institutions. Different institutions cater to different social groups, strata. There are upper middle class institutions, predominantly white institutions, etc. etc. Preference for “legacy admissions” maintains the social identity. And many institutions are divided over this goal (or maybe it’s only a practice): The demographic future of the country is not white-upper-middle-class; members of social elites are not necessarily as intellectually promising and academically dynamic as students from social backgrounds that are not traditional to an institution. And, of course, many faculty and higher-education professionals care deeply about social change: They want to provide opportunity to people who do not belong to the upper and upper-middle classes, to members of minoritized and oppressed groups. They enjoy the intellectual richness of a truly diverse student (and faculty) community. But the elites pay the bills.

I’d like institutions of higher learning to focus on learning, intellectual pursuits, deep investigation, important problem solving, formation of whole persons, etc. etc. But often these goals clash with the need to fill dorm rooms and to cater to “legacies.” Why? Higher education has been essentially privatized with declining state support. On-campus living and dining has become a major expense that needs to be paid; the school spirit that legacy parents teach their children helps fill the dorms and cafeterias. And this, in turn, provides jobs for a whole range of white and blue color workers: janitors, cooks, groundskeepers, and so on.

And now we’re stuck. If we do the educationally (and medically) right thing and go online, we lose the income that’s needed to maintain the physical university spaces. And the government won’t provide the finances to hold us over for the year as higher education is viewed as a private interest, not the public good* that it in fact is. If we do the educationally (and medically) right thing, scores of workers will lose their jobs and health insurance as dorms and cafeterias are closed. And the government does not provide the welfare and health care support that would be needed to help those workers survive another year until campus can be opened again.

It has become a truism to say that the current crisis has brought a number of social problems to a head. Like all truisms, there is some truth in this one. The current crisis shows how unsustainable our social system has become, how inept our political system has become, but also how unsustainable the current business model of many institutions of higher education has become. Higher education has to be recognized for the public benefits it provides: an innovative, civically engaged public, a dynamic economy, employment for local communities, spaces for people to come together and learn from each other, and more. If we want to maintain those benefits, we’ll have to change the business model.

*Yeah, yeah, public choice folks: Technically, universities aren’t public goods because people can be excluded from them. So, club goods for most. But they also produce tons of positive externalities, and those can be truly public goods (ever heard of the internet?).

Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

The end of spring classes is now several weeks in the past. By this time the train has moved on and we are in the midst of another round of tasks that will eat up the summer: I (foolishly) promised online workshops on online Team-Based Learning and discussion boards; I have two week-long institutes on faculty portfolios to facilitate; I will support faculty who are applying for state-wide awards; and I’ll have to prepare this year’s new faculty orientation program, which probably will be online in some shape or form. And on top of this I’ve been pulled in to help a colleague with little tech preparation to run an online four-week course, adding 1-2 hours to five days of the week until the middle of June. And I should probably prepare a report on the assessment data that I collected last year about our New Faculty Academy. Good thing that I cannot leave the house!

So, how did the spring semester end? Not with a bang but with a whimper! (Funny how good poetry can devolve into cliché, eh?) I noticed that I was slo-mo crashing during the last two weeks of classes or so. Nothing dramatic, but working felt more and more like wading through some kind of jelly; you could do it, but it was more effort than usual. I was badly, badly behind with grading, and the class became less interactive than I wish it had been. In addition, the end of the semester provided an added need for educational development programs, so I helped write a CFI Teaching Toolbox about final exams and participated in open office hours and consults on that topic. At least I managed to record a few lectures on different approaches to interpreting the Constitution. These will be useful for future classes, even for flipping in-person classes. (And I just saw that the first video got 18 views, which means that 11 students out of 29 did not watch it—that’s a fairly typical “attendance” rate for the last week of classes. Sad in principle, but not too bad for this emergency!)

Looking back at the semester, here are some things that I’ve observed, some surprising, some not so:

Continue reading Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

Examining Exams

Here is a CFI Teaching Toolbox email on final exams in these COVIDious times, co-authored by my colleague Emily Gravett and me.

Special Edition Teaching Toolbox:

Examining Final Exams

by Andreas Broscheid and Emily O. Gravett

One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)

Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries:

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Going Online

The following is a preliminary version of an article (or advice email, or whatever it’ll be) that in a couple of days will probably go out through JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation, my employer. But until then it’ll go through a couple of checks and revisions, and I thought I should circulate this draft a bit sooner, in case people who are currently working on transitioning their in-person classes to online formats. This means I should add the following disclaimer: this version represents my own viewpoint and not that of James Madison University. In particular, the introduction will probably be replaced with something more, ahem, sober. I hope you’ll enjoy it nevertheless.

Oh, and I should mention the amazing and intrepid work of the JMU Libraries, who are creating the backbones support structure to get JMU faculty up to speed about online learning, particularly Christie Liu, Eric Stauffer, and Elaine Kaye. Elaine and my colleague Emily Gravett provided valuable feedback on the piece, (though all errors and foolishnesses are my own fault).

All comments will be appreciated!


So you’ve bought all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, rice, cheesy novels, and gummy bears that you could find and afford and are ready to face any hurricane, snow storm, campaign rally, Justin Bieber concert, or space invasion that may come your way. Oh, and that pandemic.

Gulp. I know. Nothing like reading the news from Italy to get a reminder of your own mortality. A quick check of the calendar and, yup, you are now in the age range in which COVID-19 may create some actual damage.

And like at other institutions, your employer moved basically all classes online. Within one week. That’s the right decision, but also a major stress on top of an already stressful situation. What should you do? Here are some suggestions:

Continue reading Going Online