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!

Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

Two weeks ago or so, I added the following to the CFI Teaching Toolbox series.

As the Black Lives Matter protests revived this summer, there have been increased calls for inclusive,antiracistculturally responsive, and other teaching approaches that focus on JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion). These are not the same things, and we thought it was worth focusing on these different concepts in different toolboxes (stay tuned!). Inclusive teaching is about “creating equitable and welcoming educational environments for the diverse learners in our classrooms.” The focus of inclusive teaching is to make sure all qualified students are included in the learning community in our classes as equal members, with equal opportunities to learn and to succeed, independently of their socioeconomic background, racial-ethnic-cultural identity, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, disability status, and the like. While inclusive teaching can be compatible with other forms of JEDI-oriented teaching and should ground the latter, it does not necessarily transform and decenter the curriculum from the Eurocentric traditions that feed the content in many disciplines. In other words, inclusive teaching may attempt to include minoritized students in a class community that is still dominated by white perspectives, institutions, traditions, ways of knowing, and other ways in which white supremacy structures our learning environments (see e.g., Haynes 2017). 

Here, I’d like to summarize a few of the key principles of inclusive teaching that form the basis of a reflection tool that two colleagues—Ed Brantmeier at CFI and Carl Moore at the University of the District of Columbia—and I developed a number of years ago. “The tool” is not exactly a cookbook for creating inclusive courses, but it does raise a number of questions that are important to consider as we try to make our classes more inclusive. When we created the tool, Ed suggested making a distinction between course context, course subtext, and course text. Let’s take a look what these can practically mean for our teaching:

Continue reading Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

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:

Continue reading Examining Exams

More on jigsaws and video lectures

In my post from March 31, I mentioned an assignment in which students in my US Judiciary class were asked to create mini online lectures on aspects of the Supreme Court process. I think it was a smashing success: Six of the seven student teams have created their videos, and a seventh is on the way. Not only that: the other students are busy watching and commenting. I uploaded the videos into TechSmith Relay, since this has two advantages: First, the videos can be restricted to the class only, so that student privacy can be guaranteed and FERPA won’t come knocking on my door. Second, there is a feature that lets students comment and ask questions about a specific point in the video. Neat! I can see video views, and there now in the high 70s and 80s. Not bad for 29 students. (OK, some of those views must have been me, but still.)

Continue reading More on jigsaws and video lectures

POSC 386, Monday, April 6

Here is today’s video message for my class:

Here is the sound-only version, and here is the script.

In brief, I am impressed by the video lectures that were created by the class. I hope that everybody had fun creating the videos and has fun watching them.

This week, I offer a synchronous online class meeting where we can discuss questions and comments about the Supreme Court process. Students who for various reasons cannot join the synchronous session or prefer asynchronous work, can alternatively leave a comment or question in the videos on Canvas.

I am producing and posting a series of video lectures on the writ of certiorari and the question of what leads the Supreme Court to grant or deny cert. Watching these videos will be followed by an online debate about a current case in the US appeals court: The case of the former mayor of Allentown, PA, who is incarcerated for corruption and has asked to be released because he fears to be exposed to the Corona virus. The debate question will be whether the Supreme Court should grant a writ of certiorari in that case, should Pawlowski (the former mayor) petition for it. Here is a bit more background on why this case may have some broader significance.

Stay safe!

Beyond “One Post and two Responses”

Here is the final draft of an essay that I wrote for this week’s installment of the CFI Teaching Toolbox. I thank my colleague Emily Gravett for feedback and edits.

Discussions are great teaching tools. They can help students achieve a wide range of learning objectives: better understand course concepts, apply content to real-world examples, explore different sides of a question or controversy, analyze an important question based on the class readings, and more. Going beyond the traditional learning objectives of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning, class discussion can enable students to make connections with fellow students, learn how to deal with different opinions and emotional reactions, and build community. Finley (2013) notes outcomes such as “increased perspective-taking, understanding, empathy, and higher-order thinking, and more.”

Class discussion is an activity well-suited for online learning environments; in fact, participation online tends to be higher than in face-to-face discussions (Orlando 2017). An Edutopia resource guide notes that online discussions can foster community building, reflection, consensus building, critical thinking, and student leadership (2009).

Online class discussion typically takes the form of a discussion board. Watch a video lecture, take a quiz, participate in a discussion board: this is the common trifecta of online classes. The discussion board typically asks students to post a response to a question posed by the instructor and to respond to at least two other student posts. The instructor hopes that this assignment will spark sustained online interactions among students, but often this is not what happens: students do the bare minimum, and that’s that.

This state of affairs is sad, considering the promise that online discussion offers. Even in our current situation, where we have to create online learning experiences on the fly and with little preparation, well-designed discussion boards can offer students and faculty some of the personal interaction that for many of us is at the center of our work as educators. So, how can we create and facilitate discussion boards that are effective, engage students, and help achieve the outcomes promised in the literature? It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work, but here are some suggestions:

Continue reading Beyond “One Post and two Responses”

Online Jigsaw!

Today started with another oops moment. Yesterday, I spent several hours creating class activities, a feedback survey about the first week, and another short video lecture. I posted everything in a Canvas module—and then forgot to make the module available. One missing click! and the students couldn’t access the materials. Welcome to LMS land!

Continue reading Online Jigsaw!

Adopt, adapt, and improve

Ready for our back-to-school-but-now-online week. I’ve posted a series of online-learning orientation activities that I had used in a 2015 online course. For more substantive work, there’s still a discussion board that I started last week, asking students to find court cases on government restrictions of civil liberties in times of national emergency. This will get us through this week. For next week, I can use some of the materials and activities of that 2015 course, which was also on courts. Then new materials for the following week.

I am so lucky, having taught a related online course before. I have videos, video lectures, ideas for discussion boards, even some quizzes that can be re-used. I can only imagine how much work it is to create these things from scratch, for three, four, five courses. In a week.

We really may not pretend that the coming month is anything like regular online teaching. It is an extended period of makeup classes in face of a national disaster—and one that is exceptionally, criminally mishandled by the federal government to boot.

Continue reading Adopt, adapt, and improve

On Rigor

When I moved to Harrisonburg, I got a history book about the Shenandoah Valley from the local public library. This was not a scholarly history but a popular book from the 1950s or 1960s, full of anecdotes about places with drawings illustrating the stories. I wanted to get a sense of the local mythology, the stories that people who had grown up in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County had learned in school and connected to specific places. As expected, the book was full of stories about the Civil War from a Confederate perspective, complete with the usual racist tropes; I remember the story about a freed slave sad that the South lost the Civil War and pining for his “master”. I don’t know if the library still has that book (I forgot its title), but I hope they have replaced it with something that is a bit more, let’s say, contemporary.

Another story that I remember from the book was about Stonewall Jackson as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the Civil War. As legend has it (or maybe there are even sources, I don’t know), Jackson prepped for classes as follows: He sat in a stiff wooden chair facing the wall, maybe 10 inches or so away from it, and recited by heart whatever he was going to lecture, later, to the students.

Don’t be like Stonewall Jackson.