Week 4: Exhaustion and energy levels

We’re limping to the end of Week 4 of Completely Virtual Spring Term, and everyone is exhausted.

Like most weeks, I’ve spent the better part of this week in Zoom meetings of various types, and in each one energy levels were noticeably low. My learning community, which meets every other week and is normally fairly engaged, was noticeably more subdued and resigned this week. I’m pretty sure one of my students in my synchronous class meeting yesterday, at one point, put their head down on whatever flat surface serves as a desk as I was talking. I’m running a meeting later today, and I’m already assuming that it will be similarly low energy.

I think there are several reasons for the exhaustion we’re all clearly feeling, besides whatever’s going on in our personal lives. The novelty of learning online is gone. There’s a ton of uncertainty about this summer (will we have summer research? when will a decision come down?) and next year (is it even possible to be back on campus in the fall?). We can’t plan with any certainty. The administration holds off on decision making so they can weigh the many factors and integrate new information as it comes in, which makes sense. At the same time, we all just want to know what’s going to happen so that we can prepare, which also makes sense. It’s like Waiting for Godot, except Godot is a deadly virus we don’t fully understand.

I suspected at the end of last week that my students were starting to drag, so I eased up a bit this week. No recorded lectures except for the Sunday one where I review the previous week and preview the current week. Time built in to work on their project proposals, so only 2 readings for the week. In yesterday’s synchronous class meeting, I straight-up lectured with a teeny bit of interactivity, which I rarely do — but there were a lot of questions related to the reading, and I think my students have a bit of teamwork fatigue, so it seemed like the right decision. They need to complete 2 labs, but they’re structured so that students can work on parts of them here and there, and have the option to work completely solo or alongside their teammates/classmates.

Normally, Midterm Break occurs the Monday of 6th week, but this term it’s this coming Monday (of 5th week), since the term is only 9 weeks instead of 10. We all clearly need this break at this point. I’ve been reflecting on changes I can make to the flow of the course for the second half. I’ll poll my students tomorrow to check in with how much time they’re spending on various activities, and what technical (and personal issues) continue to interfere with their learning. My kiddos’ school district declared a long weekend this weekend, so they have Friday and Monday off. We rarely all have off on my Midterm Break, so I’m thinking about what kind of safe, socially distanced adventures we could do as a family that day, just to do something different. (Note to self: check if state park pass is still valid!)

In the meantime, I’m experimenting with ways to increase engagement in my classes and the meetings I run. I plan to break the participants in today’s STEM Board meeting into smaller discussion groups in the hopes that people will feel more comfortable sharing ideas with fewer “face boxes” than on a screen of many “face boxes”. I held my first Q&A Friday class session last week, and ended up working through examples with students in a much smaller group. Even with the limitations of Zoom, that felt the closest to “real” teaching that I’ve done this term, and I ended the session rejuvenated instead of exhausted for a change. I tagged specific questions (and the students who posted them) in Slack that I promised to get to in Wednesday’s class, and I used chat more heavily than usual. Even though everyone could see the chat, I made sure to read/summarize contributions and attribute them to the students who made them, as a way of affirming their participation and their ideas. A few students have started privately messaging me questions/comments via chat during class, and I want to encourage that as an option for those too shy to participate in public. Engagement still falls short of what I’d like, but I’m taking baby steps to get it closer to that ideal.

Hopefully this weekend serves as a vital reset for all of us, and we come back ready to tackle whatever the second half of the term holds in store for us.


Week 3: Reality and routines

We’re now 3 weeks in to our virtual spring term.

This is the point where we should be in some sort of rhythm. Students know us better, we know our students better. The students know the expectations: what happens in a class period, how should I prepare for class, what’s due when. The faculty understand the class dynamics and manage class periods and expectations accordingly. Everything should be humming along.

But that’s in a normal term.

I do think we’ve reached an imperfect rhythm. Faculty at this point have pretty much figured out what technologies to use and what to let go — although many of us are still learning how to use them effectively.* Course structure is pretty much set. I’ve developed my own rhythm for preparing and posting materials for each week, and settled on a Moodle structure that seems to work ok.

I’m still trying to develop rhythms around grading and keeping track of student engagement. I thought I’d found a good structure for grading — and then my course staff student found a number of flaws and technical issues with that structure. Technical issues aside, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what should I be evaluating vs. what do I feel comfortable having my course staff student grade. (Also taking into account what they feel comfortable grading!)

Student engagement is trickier to keep on top of. Sure, Moodle lets me check student completion (and download this into a spreadsheet), and sure, I can probably check my Zoom logs to figure out who attended a class and who did not. But these feel unnatural. In a normal term, I pay attention to who’s attending and not attending class, which I can do by quickly scanning the room. I note who dominates small group discussions and who’s clearly tuning out or shutting out. I rely so heavily on visual, physical cues. Honestly, trading those instincts and skills for reviewing logs is exhausting, even though it seems like it should be much easier to measure engagement quantitatively than qualitatively.

Course rhythms aside, the constant uncertainty is clearly starting to wear on us collectively. Everyone seems a bit more fragile and frayed, quicker to jump to conclusions or to snap. It’s hard to focus when there’s so much up in the air.

This is the time of year where we should be finalizing plans for summer research, where planning for next fall ramps up. In our department, we’re still trying to hire a visitor for next year. I’m in charge of next year’s Comps (senior capstone projects), and we’re drafting project descriptions and reviewing each others’ drafts, in advance of the big topic reveal on May 7.

But we still don’t know whether we’ll have summer research this year, or if so what that looks like. And we have no idea what fall term looks like, either. So every plan we make needs at least one contingency plan, if not several. Will this Comps project work if we’re still virtual this fall? What does “mentoring new faculty” look like when everything is virtual? If we’re on campus but socially distancing (if that’s even possible, which I doubt it is), and we have to severely limit the number of students in a physical classroom, how badly does this torpedo our carefully-planned schedule? How do we ensure that our current majors (and the 50-some new majors that just declared) get into the classes they need to graduate if class sizes are severely limited?

I don’t want to end this post on a low note, and while things are challenging I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything is doom and gloom. So let me share a couple of positives from this week:

  1. My 7th grader and I, pre-pandemic, had a standing coffee and bagels date every Friday morning. We’d go to a local coffee shop near her school and I’d drop her off at school afterwards. We’ve found a way to continue that — every Friday morning we drive to an awesome local coffee shop in the next town over, go through the drive-through, and then sip our drinks as we drive home. It’s been a nice little grounding ritual for both of us.
  2. I’ve started including a bonus “hey, if you click through to this optional resource and watch/read it, respond to this set of bonus questions on Slack” in one lecture or activity per week. Not many students share out on Slack, but the ones that do post thoughtful and insightful reflections. This week’s option involved Microsoft Bob, and I appreciated the way they analyzed what Bob did well and what it got wrong. Reading these bonus reflections always makes me smile.

Wherever you’re reading this, and wherever you are in your term or semester or life, I hope you are staying safe and healthy, and that you’ve found a routine of sorts that works for you.

*Yesterday I learned — in real time — what Zoom co-hosts can and cannot do. Hilarity sometimes ensued.

Week 2: Managing expectations

We’re now in Week 2 of this bizarre and unasked-for experiment in online education. While I won’t say that I’ve settled into any comfortable pattern yet, I have settled into an uneasy acceptance. I am, as Steve Krug discusses in my course’s readings for the week, “muddling through” with the tools and the structure.

Last Friday, the college announced officially that we were not coming back to complete Spring Term on campus in May, that the entire term would be virtual, and canceling both Commencement and Reunion in June. Not a surprise, to be sure. I did not, however, expect the profound feelings of loss and sadness the announcement brought. I expect that it’s the finality imparted by the decision, the squashing of that last (and totally unrealistic) glimmer of hope that things would return to “normal” soon. This announcement is just another indicator that we’re not returning to any sort of “normal” anytime soon — not in a few weeks, and probably not in a few months. “Normal” changed overnight, and no one knows what “normal” is supposed to connote anymore.

This announcement framed Week 2 for me, and my Week 2 goals for my course:

  • Acknowledge the loss we’re all feeling (particularly the seniors)
  • Set and reinforce the weekly course rhythms
  • Develop workable and sustainable ways of “working together apart”

Acknowledge the loss we’re all feeling

Our amazing Instructional Continuity team (the director of our learning and teaching center, the academic technologists, and various IT staff) suggested that professors create a short video at the start of each week, summarizing the previous week and previewing/framing the content for the upcoming week. I often did this in my pre-pandemic Monday class meetings, so I eagerly adopted this suggestion. Doing this sort of review/preview is especially important in a course like Software Design, which can sometimes feel like “a loose collection of things that didn’t fit anywhere else in the curriculum”. I like to remind my students of how all of the threads weave together to form a whole.

I realized that it’s also helpful for me to acknowledge what’s happening outside of the course — reiterating that we can’t untangle ourselves from the context in which we’re learning, and that these are weird and hard times. This week, I started my video recognizing the sadness and loss we’re likely all feeling from the official announcement, and particularly the seniors. I ended my video acknowledging that some students in the class were struggling with much bigger issues, like the health of family members, increased family obligations, or other forms of uncertainty. I reaffirmed that while the course itself has particular learning objectives, my objective as a professor is to teach and lead with compassion above all else during this time.

Set and reinforce weekly course rhythms

Week 1 in Software Design is a bit odd, in that I cover 4 distinct topics in 3 days: framing the larger course questions; the qualities of effective teams and teamwork; a very quick overview of Agile development; and an introduction to git and GitHub. This term, the distinct topics actually worked in my favor. I could experiment with different tools and structures for each topic without worrying too much about how they all “flowed” together, because a normal Week 1 in this course doesn’t “flow” perfectly anyway.

Most of the remaining weeks in the course cover one, or two very tightly related, topics, and thus lend themselves better to a predictable structure. This week is one such week: we cover web usability and accessibility, with a first taste of ethics thrown in for good measure. This week also, the concepts are easily “chunkable” into mini-lecture/example and corresponding activity. And there’s a clear deliverable at the end of the week, the first big assignment of the term.

I currently struggle with how to time the asynchronous activity completion dates. I want to respect the need for my students to work when they can, which might not always be perfectly timed with our MWF schedule and may be disrupted at any time by technology issues or family expectations. This is particularly important because the asynchronous activities often have a team component to them, so I want to make sure teams have time to collaborate on the activity. But I also want to make sure completion dates are spaced out appropriately and that the students have certain things completed, if at all possible, by our synchronous class meeting.

To try and address this, I’ve used Activity Completion on Moodle more liberally this week. Not so much as a mandate, but more as a signal of “these are my expectations, and this is roughly the order in which I expect you to complete them”. I do “lock” some activities into a particular order — complete the reading quiz with a passing grade before you can access the lectures and activities related to that quiz and readings — but many of the activities just require the students to manually check off that they completed them.

Honestly, though, the biggest challenge for me is making sure I have the material ready to go for the start of the next week by the end of the previous week! I … did not succeed on this front this week. But hey, I’m learning.

Develop workable, sustainable ways of “working together apart”

I still struggle with the central question of how to create the collaborative, small group spirit I work so hard to foster in this course in a completely virtual environment. I placed the students into stable, 4-person teams and set up asynchronous activities so that they at least confer with each other when completing the activity. I use these teams during breakouts during our synchronous class meetings, too. (The technology failed me a bit on this front last week, but I think I resolved the issue.)

Beyond this, I want to re-create the between-teams sharing of ideas that often happens in a physical class meeting, or as teams work in our computer labs. I also want to make sure that students know that they can ask me questions just like they’d do in a physical classroom, or by popping into my office when my door’s open — basically, that they don’t and shouldn’t struggle alone.

I’m using Slack heavily for these last purposes. I set up a #coursework channel specifically for students to ask/answer questions or post comments as they work through the asynchronous activities. I am on Slack a lot anyway, but I told my students that I will definitely hang out on Slack during our scheduled meeting times, so if they post then they can expect to get an answer right away. I’ve also tried to be more responsive “outside hours” than I’d normally be, because I don’t want students to feel lost or discouraged.

That said, I am setting boundaries, too! But I’m still trying to strike that balance between being “available enough” and “too available”.

I also haven’t yet been successful at selling open office hours as “time available to work simultaneously with your peers with me available to answer questions in real time”, so I’m thinking of ways to modify the office hours model to make sense for me and for my students.

Beyond this, I continue to struggle with things that I suspect will be issues the entire term: the fatigue of being always-online and interacting in small Zoom windows for a good part of the day; the fact that everything related to virtual teaching takes 10 times longer than face-to-face teaching; the constant worry that students will fall through the cracks; the worry that we will lose members of the Carleton community to COVID-19. And, of course, managing my own expectations, for myself, continues to be a struggle — but I suppose that’s true of non-virtual terms as well.

Routines and the first week of classes

After an extra week of spring break, after all of the planning and worrying and scrambling and course-modifying, spring term classes started on Monday.

So far, it’s going….ok. I have my first synchronous meeting with my class later today, so I’ve only interacted with some of them via email and Slack at this point. I have a short activity planned that sets up the next asynchronous activity they’ll complete, but I suspect that most of the meeting will involve all of us getting used to being online together, and answering questions about the class. And we’re only meeting for 30 minutes, which is not a lot of time.

I’m still trying to figure out what an “appropriate” amount of asynchronous work is per week. I doubt I will get this exactly right at any point this term. I am trying to be ok with that.

I managed to put all of my students on teams, based on time zone and working hours preferences. There were 2 students who didn’t respond to my pre-term survey (and, I just checked, who haven’t even accessed the Moodle page for the course yet), so I had to make my best guesses for them. (Note to self: reach out to them after finishing this post!) One student dropped the course immediately after I made the team assignments (I am pretty sure those events were independent), and I suspect I may have to do a bit of team-shuffling if others drop. I’ll admit: this part of course administration was difficult for me, because I’ve developed a team formation activity that I adore that I had to abandon this term. There isn’t the time, or the space, or the ability to carry out this exercise virtually, so I had to make do with imperfect data. Which, come to think of it, is kind of the theme of this term.

So far, I’m giving my video lecturing skills a C+. My least favorite, and least effective, ways of teaching are (a) lecture and (b) slides, so this is not a shock. I may have found a compromise: slides, but presented using Explain Everything so that I can scribble on them to my heart’s content. (And now that I have a decent stylus, scribbling should be easier for me to do and for my students to read.)

My kids, who also got a bonus week of spring break as their school district moved learning online, started back last week, so they’ve had a week to find and settle in to a routine of sorts. Having their routine set is helping me immensely as I try to figure out my routine for the term.

One thing that works in my favor: everyone else in my family is a night owl, and I’m a morning person. So I have a couple of hours of reliable, uninterrupted work time in the mornings. I’ve started doing some screencasts and other recordings since the house is quiet and I won’t be interrupted during part of that block (the other part I reserve for research). But since I’m still in my pajamas, I haven’t done any recordings with me on video during that time.

Last week, as the kiddos started online learning, we quickly learned that one of us needs to be actively supervising the 3rd grader, who struggles with attention and focus and has some combination of IEP and 504 plans in place for a variety of reasons. 10am to noon is “school time” for the kids. During that time slot I work in the same room as the 3rd grader, so that I can help him stay on track, plan what to do and in what order, answer questions about what his teacher likely means, and provide some semblance of quality control. The 7th grader has started hanging out with us in that room, too, so it’s like a little homeschool party in the mornings. This means, however, that I can’t get any deep work done, so I reserve that time to catch up on email and do some of the less taxing administrative work for my course and for my STEM Director job.

My spouse, in turn, takes the kiddos outside in the afternoon between his meetings, so that I get a bit of an uninterrupted break to work on deeper tasks. Or, increasingly, to attend my own online meetings. The kids are pretty self-directed, but left to their own devices they tend to…spend all their time on devices. So we do have to do some redirection during their free time, because there is such a thing as too much TikTok and too much Minecraft.

The uncertainty is the toughest thing to deal with at this point. We have a routine that mostly works. Will we be doing this for a couple more weeks? The rest of the school year? Next fall? It’s that sense of not knowing that makes it difficult to fully settle into our ways of working and spending our free time. And the uncertainty definitely casts a pall over everything we’re doing right now.

I’m curious to see how the rest of the week goes, and particularly how my first synchronous class goes. I suspect that next week will feel different from this week, as the novelty wears off and as reality sets in. I wonder about sustaining our energy and engagement levels, with this degree of change and angst and worry.

I hope I’m up to the challenge.

Grieving the term I was “supposed” to have

It’s human nature, I suppose, to believe that at some mythical time in the future, your life will be “better”. “Once I defend my thesis, life will be so much less stressful!” becomes “Once I earn tenure, I’ll have much more control over my time!” becomes “Well, maybe once I make full professor, things will calm down a bit and I can catch my breath….?”

Of course we know deep down this isn’t true. Our responsibilities and tasks change as we move through life. Sure, we may get rid of one set of stressors, but these are quickly replaced by a different set of stressors. As kids grow out of the toddler stage into the school-age stage, we parents don’t have to watch them quite so carefully or so much to make sure they don’t, say, run into traffic or eat something poisonous. But we trade this vigilance for the stress of helping them navigate bullying, friendships, schoolwork, failure. The stressors are much different, but they are no less stressful.

I’ve been around long enough that I can recognize when magical thinking starts to creep in, and I do a pretty decent job of nipping it in the bud.

But, I do have a somewhat related coping strategy that I trot out when I’m in the middle of a way too busy, overscheduled, how-is-it-possible-for-one-person-to-handle-this-load term (like Winter Term this year), that I’ve found quite successful. And that’s: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then X will be off my plate.” Or: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then I’ll still have X, Y, and Z responsibilities, but I will have much more control over my time.”

I like this strategy, because it acknowledges that next term won’t necessarily be less stressful, but it will be less full, or more in my immediate control. And that, I’ve found, is enough to motivate me to keep slogging through in the present, because I know there’s a future payoff. Also, it prevents me from falling too deep down the well of despair.

There were many things in this category that got me through a very difficult Winter Term:

  • Teaching only one 6-credit course in the spring, one that I’ve already taught twice this year, allowing me to use some of the time I’ve spent revamping this course the past 2 terms to do some long-overdue long-range planning for STEM at Carleton.
  • Fewer scheduled-in obligations in the spring, allowing me more freedom over how I spend my day-to-day time, along with time to schedule overdue face-to-face conversations with people I want to know better in my STEM Director role.
  • Working with my newly-hired research students in the spring to get them up to speed on the new line of research we’ll be doing this summer.
  • Meeting and getting to know the new crop of Summer Science Fellows, a cohort program I direct, in the spring.
  • Time and space in the spring to write up a couple of papers that are overdue to be submitted somewhere.

And of course, there’s always the joy of getting to know a new crop of students, to learn their personalities and quirks, and to engage with them in the classroom and office hours.

It was only yesterday that I finally recognized, in the middle of a telehealth call with my therapist, that part of what I was experiencing, the general malaise and sadness and anger and anxiety, was grief.

Grief, over the term I was “supposed” to have.

Grief, over the term I’d “earned”.

Grief, over all the things I’d looked forward to that would no longer happen.

Grief, over the necessary and fundamental changes to the way I work.

Naming my feelings as grief has been freeing. I still grieve, and it’s still hard, but now that I recognize that’s what I’m doing, I can deal with it more effectively. I can pin what I’m feeling to a stage of grief, and try strategies appropriate to that stage of grief to deal with it. I can be sad and angry over what was supposed to be, because being sad and angry is normal in grief. And I can feel hopeful some days and fatalistic others, because those are also part of grief.

Acknowledging this grief is also helping me as I frantically put together some semblance of my course for the start of Spring Term next Monday. As I develop reading quizzes and triage parts of topics and revamp my rubrics to be more specifications grading-like, I keep in the back of my mind that my students, too, are grieving the loss of whatever their expectations were for Spring Term. And while I always try to err on the side of compassion, remembering my student’s grief guides me to lead with compassion in all aspects of my course design.

Many of us are grieving as we navigate this new normal. Hopefully, remembering this will guide us to be more compassionate with each other, as we all figure out ways to accept and deal with our grief.