Week 6: Engagement

We’re firmly in the second half of our abbreviated Spring Term now, and everyone is….looking ahead, anxiously. Looking ahead to the end of the term, yes, but also, increasingly, looking ahead to the summer and to next year.

I’ve spend much of my time this week getting a handle on the research funding situation for the student grants programs I oversee. Who’s still doing research? Who lost their opportunity? Who’s eligible to defer funding to next year? What might that process look like? And who, without that experience, finds themselves in a precarious financial situation, now that the summer income they banked on no longer exists?

In a similar vein, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through how to train and mentor new undergraduate researchers in the art and science of research….remotely. So much of that first research experience (and beyond, too!) relies on ready access to your research mentor — popping down the hall to ask questions, working side-by-side in the lab, impromptu whiteboard sketching sessions. How do I replicate that when we’re all just boxes on a screen? How do I encourage students to “bug” me with their questions? How do I mimic the side-by-side work sessions in a way that feels natural? In short, how do I make sure students don’t fall through the cracks?

This last bit was one of the main points of discussion earlier this week in a meeting of the research cohort program I direct. I asked the students, “who feels comfortable going to a professor’s office hours to ask for help?” (they all were), then pointed out that seeking help from your research mentor is largely the same thing, except it’s like your research mentor has office hours all day long, just for you. Hopefully that sticks in their minds.

I’m thinking about engagement in my course, too — how to reach those who are not engaging with the material/their classmates, and how to incentivize engagement generally. I spent some time earlier this week creating Moodle badges, which seems like a small gesture but one that I’m willing to try. I have a badge each week that’s automatically awarded if they check off all of that week’s activities by Sunday night (of the following week). I have a badge for “attendance” (awarded to those who show up to EVERYTHING), badges for asking good questions and making astute observations, a teamwork badge, and a “helper” badge for anyone who helps out a classmate on Slack. These roughly correspond to the engagement I’d like to see in the class. We’ll see if that moves the needle at all.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is “what happens in the fall?” (And beyond, because to think we’ll be back to any sort of “normal” anytime soon is…wishful thinking.) To that end, I’m already thinking ahead to what the elective I’m teaching, Computer Networks, should look like. How do I replicate the hands-on, exploration-heavy nature of that course if we’re partially or completely online? How do I best engage students in such a complex subject under still-unfamiliar-to-us learning conditions? I’ve already decided to forgo my usual tried-and-true textbook in favor of a freely-available, open-sourced, online textbook, which, because of the way it’s organized, forces me to radically redesign the course. I’ll have to think hard about what’s really fundamental content, and be comfortable with scrapping the rest. And I’m excited to try out a set of assignments that I first heard about at SIGCSE a few years back, which never quite fit into the way I taught the course — but is a much better fit with this other textbook.

As the term winds down, and as we head exhaustedly into summer, I’ll continue to look for ways to keep engagement — of those around me and of myself — alive and sustained. I’ll continue to encourage self-care to those around me — and to remind myself to do so, too. And I’ll do whatever I can to end this term on as much of a high note as possible.

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.

Course planning in the time of COVID-19

Usually at this time of year, I start to regret my decision to work at a non-semester school. While most of my colleagues are starting to wrap up their spring semesters, I’m submitting final grades for Winter Term and frantically prepping for the start of Spring Term.

This year, of course, everything is different. Now, while most of my colleagues are struggling to figure out how to finish their spring semesters online, I’m struggling to figure out how to move an entire course online.

For the record, I think both situations are equally challenging. In the former case: how do you pivot the way you’ve been doing, well, everything for most of a semester, and finish out the course in a completely different environment from where it began? In the latter case: How do you take a 10 week in-person course, remove a week completely, and take it completely online, with just 2 weeks to prepare?

And, to throw another wrench in the works: what if only slightly above half of your students have “reliable, high-speed Internet access” at home or whatever place counts as home right now?

There’s a whole bunch of other things to consider, too.

  • What’s the minimum tech configuration I can assume my students’ computers have? What minimum tech configuration is fair to assume, for them and for me?
  • What do I do when a student’s technology can’t meet some minimum I’ve deemed necessary to be able to complete the coursework?
  • How do I take a course heavily centered around teamwork and team projects and move that online? Particularly when students are in different timezones and may not have the best Internet connectivity?
  • What will the mental state of my students, and my own mental state, be when the course starts and as the term progresses? How can I compassionately account for this while designing and delivering my course?

My thinking and planning continues to evolve, and there’s a lot I’m still trying desperately to figure out. But here’s where my thinking is right now.

Structure

  • Each week has a theme. This is similar to what I do now, anyway.
  • Each week is structured around 3 “days”, or topics. I’ll label these Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3, to signal to students my expectations that they’ll engage with the material 3 times a week, but that there’s flexibility as to when they engage.
  • 2 of the 3 days consist of completely asynchronous activities. This should help with the inconsistent Internet access issues, to some extent, as well as with some of the timezone issues.
  • These asynchronous activities will include short video lectures (powerpoint w/ audio, me sketching on a whiteboard, me demonstrating a technique or fleshing out a concept), followed by small group (and some individual) activities. I need to figure out how to collect something from these activities so that I can provide feedback and summarize these reports for the class.
  • The third day will have a short (30 minutes?) synchronous component, structured as a Q&A or a whole-class activity or something like that. This will always be during our class meeting time and always on the same day of the week, for consistency. And it will be recorded for those who can’t attend in person.
  • I will stick with targeted readings before each class, along w/ something they need to turn in to show me they engaged with the readings. This will largely be the same as I do now.

Team/small group engagement

I should explain here that I usually teach this course in an interactive classroom, fitted with small tables (each with its own computer and monitor) and lots of whiteboards. So there is a “table culture” in my course, where students end up interacting heavily with the people at their table in small group activities and discussions. I want to try and re-create that environment online, to the extent that I can. So far, I’m thinking:

  • Stable, small groups (3 students) that will also serve as project teams.
  • I will assign teams the first day of class, and teams will be based on timezones.
  • These teams stay stable for the entire term, unless something goes awry and I need to break up a toxic team.
  • Most of the asynchronous activities will be done in these groups. Sometimes I may combine 2 small groups if I think the activity would benefit by having more participants.
  • Having very small groups that share a timezone should in theory make it easier for groups to meet on their own synchronously. There also may be fewer connectivity glitches if they are trying to connect/coordinate with fewer students, rather than with an entire class.

Things I still have no clue about

  • I’m still working out how to manage the term-long team projects — to do this, I need to first understand what technology my students have. Can I assume, for instance, that they have some way to access a terminal? A text editor? A Python installation? Will something like repl.it work for what they’re doing?
  • Am I better served lopping a bit off of every topic, or of lopping off one or more topics entirely? One model has me cutting out the week+ of ethics material, but that seems to be exactly the wrong approach.
  • What is the correct number of smaller, lower-stakes assessments that will enhance student learning without overwhelming the students — or me?
  • How should I structure office hours? What does office hours look like when it’s completely online?
  • And, of course, since part of my research home is in computer networking, I remain deeply skeptical that any of our networks can actually support the load we’re about to throw at them….

My goal by the end of this week is to have the main structure of the course finalized and fleshed out, so that next week I can start constructing the activities, videos, demonstrations, etc. And hopefully, by the time April 6 rolls around, I’ll be ready to go….for some definition of “ready”.

Navigating the new normal

About an hour after I last posted, Carleton’s president emailed the campus with the announcement we’d all been sort of expecting anyway: Carleton’s moving all instruction online through at least Midterm Break in early May, and likely beyond.

The complete details, as one might imagine, are still very much in flux. Because how could they not be? We’re all in uncharted territory here. But what we do know: Finals end as planned today. Students have an extra day (until Wednesday) to vacate campus. Students can petition to stay if they really can’t leave, and we’ll have services to support them. Spring break’s extended by a week, until April 6, to help faculty and staff reconfigure courses and course support for online learning. Spring term will end on time, and be a week shorter than a normal spring term.

Everyone’s a little lost, and everything feels off right now. My extended Friday office hours were part instruction and part informal therapy session. I invited students to just show up even if they didn’t have questions if they felt unmoored and like they needed to be around others, and a few took me up on that, sitting and working or listening while I answered others’ questions. Some of my senior advisees are scrambling to graduate early, because they can, and I’ve been helping them navigate the ad-hoc accelerated process and think through their options.

We started immediately as a department thinking through some of the practical aspects of moving computer science instruction online, and have already agreed on some common tools to use and/or test drive before April 6. It’s certainly helped that many companies who provide online learning tools are moving to make those free to educators and students during this time. We arrived quickly at the minimum technical configuration our students need to have to participate remotely, which will help ITS plan to provide resources to students who need them. My chair has been an absolute rock star in all of this: attentive to the myriad details while still taking time to make sure we’re all comfortable in our teaching assignments and keeping us talking to each other. And our technical associate’s been working overtime to help us figure out the technical details of things like remote access to servers and other department resources. I feel as though we’re ahead of the curve as far as department preparedness goes.

This week, Grading All The Things and wrapping up winter term are my priorities, as well as making sure my kids, who are now on extended spring break through the end of the month, are not killing each other and/or spending 12 hours a day on screens. I have a ton of administrative tasks that fell off of last week’s to-do list when the announcement hit, that must get done this week. So any planning for spring at this point will be during those down moments when my mind wanders, or perhaps as a break from grading to quell my building anxiety. Next week, planning begins in earnest, and I hope to chronicle my thoughts and plans here as I, and we, navigate this new, strange normal.

How are you, and your institution, navigating your new normal?

Professoring in a time of uncertainty

The end of Winter Term is always tough and often frought. There’s the normal end-of-term stuff, of course: the projects and papers due the last day of classes, the impending final exams and projects, the day-to-day academic work that ratchets up weeks 9 and 10. There’s the unique-to-winter-term stress: seniors finishing up Comps and figuring out what to do post-Carleton, visiting graduate schools or going on interviews or finding out about fellowship applications. Everyone else figuring out how they’ll spend their summers. There’s extra stress on faculty: putting next year’s schedule into place, wrapping up tenure-track hiring, assessing Comps projects, hiring student researchers for the summer, dealing with graders who inexplicably disappear at the worst time. (Thankfully, not something I am dealing with this year, but something I seem to deal with most years.) And of course, everyone’s sick of winter at this point, and that certainly doesn’t help anyone’s mood.

Everyone is tired, frustrated, cranky, and stressed.

Now, add a global pandemic to the mix.

I find myself, like many others, glued to the news cycle. Unable to focus. Worried and uncertain. Largely angry at the nature of the (non) response in the US. Wondering what if. What if what if what if?

Carleton’s in an unusual spot in that our term is ending in the next 5 days, and we head into an almost 2 week spring break before the next term starts. This buys us as an institution some time. Not much, but some. We’re starting fresh anyway on March 30, which, I imagine, makes it slightly easier to pivot to something else. (With “something else” likely some form of online learning.) But for how long?

This morning I’m attending a workshop on online instruction, put on by our learning and teaching center and our academic technologists. I’m looking forward to learning about what we have available at Carleton to facilitate learning and instruction when we’re not face-to-face with our students. And I’m equally looking forward to being in a room with my colleagues, commiserating and sharing coping strategies during this challenging time. I’m also hoping we’ll get some indication as to what’s going to happen for the start of spring term, although I suspect we won’t get a clear answer today. (But maybe at least a hint?)

A couple of weeks ago, I started thinking, during idle moments while walking between meetings and on my commute, about modifications I’d make to my spring course should we move online. What topics could I shuffle? What content could I make into labs? How would I carry out a group project when no one’s in the same room? And, more importantly, how can I keep at least some elements of these once things return to “normal”, because these sorts of modifications likely increase the accessibility of my courses. I’m now grateful that I started pondering these questions when I did, so that I can move forward with planning and not feel quite so overwhelmed.

Beyond that, I’m trying to extend others, and myself, extra grace. Checking in with others. Writing a gentler final exam for my students. Acknowledging the stress we’re all under. Taking time for deeper conversations, and giving others the gift of really listening to them. Connecting. Remembering to eat healthy foods, get to bed (mostly) on time, and exercise. Brainstorming ways I can help out neighbors and friends should they fall ill or should we be under an extended quarantine.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

How are you coping with these uncertain times?

Responding to midterm evaluations

I have a confession to make: I have fallen out of the habit of doing midterm course evaluations.

I don’t know why, exactly, I did. I’ve always found midterm evaluations to be useful as a way of taking the pulse of the course. Even if I think I have a pretty good sense of how things are going and what the major complaints are, I still learn useful information from my students. I’ve discovered problems with textbooks, problems with the timing of due dates, and problems with the sight lines in a classroom from midterm evaluations. I’ve learned surprising things about what things my students enjoy and what they value. (Hint: they are not always the same things.) I often use them as an opportunity to check the learning objectives I’ve set for the course, and how well students think we’re meeting those.

They are invaluable in helping me recalibrate my courses.

So I’d fallen out of the habit. But last term, I taught a course I haven’t taught since 2012. And it was a struggle to get back into the rhythm of the material and the pace of the class and the workload and such. So I thought that would be a golden opportunity to bring back the midterm evaluation into my life.

Boy, am I glad I did.

I’d had a sense that the class was going ok, but that something seemed off, and I couldn’t quite place why. The midterm evaluations illuminated the issues very quickly, and also explained why it was so hard for me to figure out the source of the issues. In a nutshell: The students couldn’t make sense of much of anything in the book. My version of flipped classroom pedagogy requires my students to do some targeted reading and complete targeted reading quizzes before class, so that I can see what they got out of the readings and where I need to spend some extra time before we dive into deeper practice with the material, and then deeper still on the problem sets. Since they were lost when reading the book, they were lost when attempting the quizzes. Sometimes they gave up, and sometimes they just kept guessing until they got the right answer. This means their foundation was shaky, and they were not really prepared to engage with the material in class. But the way I had the quizzes set up, it was hard for me to see the depth of the problems. And then, because they couldn’t engage with the material in class at the level I’d expect based on what I saw in the reading quizzes, they weren’t prepared to engage with the problem sets — which are challenging.

A perfect storm of chaos, basically.

I’ll admit that it was hard to read this set of evaluations. Mostly, I felt like I had let my class down, and berated myself for being a “bad professor”. Which is human but not really constructive. So I sat with the comments for a few days, planning how to address them. Clearly my course needed a restructuring, one that would work around the shortcomings of the textbook while still remaining true to my pedagogy. But I wasn’t sure how to do this.

As my class took an exam in the first half of the following Monday’s class, I finally figured out what I wanted to do, and sketched out a plan on slides. When the last student handed in the exam, I said we were going to talk about the evaluations. And I summarized their concerns. And outlined the “perfect storm” I described above, and how I thought this was affecting their learning. How finding a good textbook for this type of class at this level is difficult, and how I’ve successfully used this book for many years, but that’s irrelevant because what mattered most is that they struggled with it so that means it was not a good fit for this class, and how I will take this into account the next time I teach this class and have to pick a textbook.

And then I outlined a plan for the rest of the term, one that I hoped allowed them to attempt the readings more successfully and with a bit more focus (reminding them that I do give them hints on what to focus on, through a set of reading questions in addition to the quizzes). We would start each class explicitly with the key points from the readings listed on the board along with my impression of what concepts they found most challenging, giving them the opportunity to agree/disagree with my assessment. This might mean that I had to change my planned examples and exercises on the fly, which made me a bit nervous since I was still relearning the material along with them — but I promised to be honest with them when I felt like my free-wheeling might lead us into rough waters, and they seemed to be ok with that. That I’d dedicate more class time to giving them the opportunity to start/work on problem sets, so that they could ask questions right away and we could figure out together if they need some extra practice before attempting the problem sets.

I am grateful that I work at an institution where students feel safe enough to be honest with me about what is and is not working for their learning. I am grateful for the level of thoughtfulness and self-reflection my students bring to the learning process. Students here place high expectations on faculty and expect a lot from us (which they should!), and their feedback and observations make me a much better teacher. Responding to this feedback, and restructuring my course, proved an interesting challenge and a good opportunity for me to reflect on my pedagogy — not just my philosophy, but my practice.

I don’t think I completely hit the mark on everything I intended to do last term, but I do think things improved, for both me and the students. And, as I put together my course for spring term, I realized that I could and should incorporate some of these same practices (extra checking in with the students, being explicit about the key points from the readings) into that course as well. We’re only a week and a half into the new term, but I’m excited to see how things go. And, I’m already looking forward to what this batch of students will share on this term’s midterm evaluations.

Designing a term with mental health in mind

It was the start of Week 9 of our 10 week winter term, and I found myself staring at a blank text editor page on my computer monitor, textbook open beside me, praying for some, any, inspiration. “I’ll post Problem Set 7 on Monday,” I told my students. It was Monday, already, and I had nothing.

I was so, so, so tired. Physically tired, from several weeks of not enough sleep. Mentally tired, from juggling an overwhelmingly overfull term containing a basically new prep and significant service responsibilities and hiring. Emotionally tired, from the hours I spent every day dealing with significant and difficult issues with one of my kiddos, who’s really struggling this year. But I had to suck it up. I had to get this written, and posted, so that….

So that what? I found myself thinking. Judging from my interactions with students in class, and the messages they’re sending me about class, they are also exhausted, and overwhelmed. Every class is piling on work. Seniors are finish up Comps. The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning. Everyone is on edge.

Will that final problem set add to their learning? Is the added stress worth it, or will it be more conducive to their learning to ease off the gas a bit and let them catch their breath?

If I clearly didn’t want to write this problem set, did I think my students really wanted to do this problem set?

When I framed the problem that way, the answer was clear. I sent a message to the class, letting them know that there would be no Problem Set 7. The relief, and appreciation, was immediate and palpable.

I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that if students are not producing, they’re not learning. But there’s a time to produce, and a time to reflect, and it’s hard to produce when you’re tired and overscheduled and overstimulated. And judging from the student responses on the final exam on the topic that would have been the focus of Problem Set 7, the in-class only exposure to the material produced the desired learning outcomes anyway.

I thought about this experience a lot when planning out my spring term course. The end of spring term is traditionally even tougher than the end of winter term. We don’t get much of a break between winter and spring terms, and by early June we’ve been slogging away exhaustedly for months. And the end of the year brings All Of The Events. The department picnics. The awards thingies. The end of year celebrations. So. many. surveys. If I can give them just a bit of breathing room, some time to engage at a slower pace with the material, with more carefully curated “products” spaced more thoughtfully with the rhythms of the term — well, that’s a gift to them and to me (and my course staff!).

I thought about this from a personal standpoint, too, when planning out my term. While I still have significant service responsibilities that will only continue to ramp up, my workload is way more manageable and realistic than it was in the winter. (I might even be able to take most weekends off!) But. Spring term is when my depression kicks into overdrive, like clockwork. And I know that if I’m not on top of it, it can quickly derail my life and my productivity. Being kinder and gentler to myself by allowing time to engage with life and reflect and work at a slower pace, sets myself up for success. And setting myself up for success reduces the inevitable feelings of being a complete failure which come out in droves in the spring, driving me deeper into my depression.

If I know that slowing things down is good for my own mental health, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be good for my students’ mental health, too? Particularly since a good number of our students manage their own private battles with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues?

I still need to move a few things around in my syllabus to make this goal a reality, but I’m excited to see how this revamp of expectations, and this kinder, gentler approach to teaching, goes. And I’m curious to see what impact my kinder, gentler approach to spring term has on my depression management during what’s for me the toughest time of the year.