In trying to figure everything out on how to teach in a pandemic this semester, we received a lot of different emails from administrators and staff at my college. I had to clarify and render all of the different information down into a format that I could present to my students. I just thought I would share here what that ended up looking like. I am going to share the one from my hybrid classes as they are the ones who have to come to campus at some point.
This is what my syllabus starts with this semester:
Due to the COVID-19 situation this semester, the following restrictions are in place for the Fall semester:
- Teaching and workspaces will be limited to 50% of maximum capacity. Students in this class will be divided into two cohorts, with each cohort meeting on either Monday or Wednesday. This cohort division will be visible in the Canvas classroom and will be communicated to you via email and Canvas Announcement. You will not be allowed to attend class on a day when your cohort is not allowed to attend.
- Same day attendance tracking through Canvas is mandatory for all hybrid classes.
- Assigned seating is mandatory for all hybrid courses.
- A student reporting potential illness serves as sufficient grounds to excuse the absence. This means you are not allowed on campus or in the classroom if you:
- have current symptoms of illness
- have been exposed to someone who has symptoms of illness and have not yet been cleared by a health professional to return to class and/or passed the quarantine stage
- have received a positive test for COVID-19 and have not yet been cleared by a health professional to return to class
- are quarantined because someone you have been in contact with has received a positive test for COVID-19
- Students who are COVID-19 positive must report this status to Student Services. Students are not required to disclose symptoms to anyone, including your instructor. This means that you do not have to tell me anything more than that one of those 4 conditions above applies to you (and you do not have to tell me which one).
- If you are actively sick with COVID-19, you are not expected to complete work for the class at that time. If the symptoms are mild, you are welcome to keep up with the work as you feel able to.
- You will contact the instructor once your sickness has ended to see about what make-up work will be needed.
- If you are quarantined but not actually sick, you are expected to keep up with all assignments for each week as if you are in the cohort that is not coming to campus. You are not allowed on campus during the quarantine, and so even if your cohort is to meet in-person that week, you will be online only that week.
- If you are actively sick with COVID-19, you are not expected to complete work for the class at that time. If the symptoms are mild, you are welcome to keep up with the work as you feel able to.
- In the event of a COVID-19 positive confirmation in a College building, the institution will:
- Identify locations impacted and implement cleaning protocols.
- Complete trace procedures to identify those who may have come in contact.
- Notify those who may have come into contact while protecting the identities of the COVID-19 positive individual.
- Employees and students will self-monitor temperatures as well as other COVID-19 symptoms through the wellness self-check.
- Students shall be introduced to the wellness check during the first class meeting. Self-check signage/messages will be posted in classrooms and workspaces.
- It is the responsibility of the student to have and wear a mask. A student who cannot wear a mask but who does not have an approved exception should not take face-to-face classes. If this applies to you, you need to go to Student Services to see about moving to an online class.
- Eating and drinking occur in private offices when a lone occupant is present or outside College buildings, where the College has provided seating. Classrooms and instructional support locations are never eating or drinking sites.
- Breaks from classes to allow for personal wellbeing are allowed and encouraged.
- Students and faculty are encouraged to bring wipes if they so choose and to clean their workspaces before and after uses. Disinfectant wipes should be placed in the wastebasket in each classroom after use.
- We are maximizing fresh air flow into College buildings to decrease the potential virus load. Classroom and workspace doors shall remain open when occupied. All unoccupied rooms will remain locked.
- Faculty Office hours will be maintained with student visits occurring by appointment only. Maintain social distancing at all times and keep records of visits for tracing purposes. Faculty members are encouraged to conduct meetings via Skype, Big Blue Button, or Zoom when telecommunication serves the student.
You will be required to confirm during the first week of class that you understand and will abide by these restrictions. If you do not agree to abide by these restrictions, you will need to go to Student Services to be transferred to an online class if available.
Finally, if things change through the semester, I will contact you with what the changes are and how that will affect us as we move forward.
Well, the first week of Fall 2020 is coming to a close. It was quite a week.
So, what is #3. I was not on campus, but my department chair was. My hybrid classes were to meet on Wednesdays, and he checked to see if the same room was open on Mondays at the same time. When he found out they were, he authorized splitting my hybrids in two, with half meeting on Mondays for the semester and half meeting on Wednesdays. This is a very good thing for the purposes of getting all of my students in the class once a week, which is really pretty necessary with a hybrid class.
It began with a blur of changes. All of those options that I referred to in my previous post as to how the fall semester was going to work were thrown out the door on Monday. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, as I would have liked to have #1 as the option and really did not want #2 as the option. What I ended up with was #3, however. And since I did not even know about #3 until Monday, it required a lot of scrambling and a recreation of many parts of my hybrid classes.
The complicating factors, however, are many.
- For one, not every student can switch, as some have scheduled other classes in that time on Monday and others didn’t do classes on Monday because they were already working or had other obligations. So, even after splitting the classes, which was left completely up to me on how to do it, I then had a couple of days of exchanging announcements and emails back and forth with students to get everyone in the section where they could meet, either on Monday or Wednesday
- Second, I generally avoid Monday hybrid classes, as there is always one more Monday missed than all other days in the semester (Labor Day and MLK Day). Now, with not making this change until after Monday classes would have met this week, I have essentially lost two Monday classes in comparison with the Wednesday section. I have somewhat solved this by having the Monday class meet once in finals week and having the week of Labor Day be an online-only week.
- Third, I now have to (and am still) double all due dates on all assignments, as the Monday and Wednesday meetings will necessarily have different due dates. I had to recreate the syllabus to reflect this first, and I finished that up on Tuesday. Now, I am still in the process of doubling all assignment due dates so that there are different ones for Monday and Wednesday. This is not a hard thing, but it is both tedious and time consuming.
- Fourth, Canvas does not easily allow you to divide up students inside your classroom, and so I had to work around some things to get the students to only see the due dates that were relevant for them.
- And, on that note, McGraw-Hill Connect (which I use in my classes) does not allow you to have different due dates for a single section, meaning that everybody’s due date became the later due date
And that’s just the hybrid stuff I had to do.
We also had the very fun situation of having changed over our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) this semester. The changes have made two complications for our classes.
- About half of the classes in our system could not bring students into the Canvas classrooms. This was not solved until late on Monday. This just added to everyone’s stress level for starting the semester. There’s nothing like taking or teaching online classes and having students not be able to access anything in that time.
- This same ERP changeover affected those of us who use McGraw-Hill Connect, as both the faculty and any students who had used Connect prior to this semester had to go to McGraw-Hill’s tech support to have their logins reset. While this was not difficult, it was again one extra step.
So, all of that adds up to me being much further behind on the Thursday of the first week of classes than I would normally be. But, I am catching up and moving forward. I just hope we are done with these types of issues for a while.
How has your start of the semester been?
It is no coincidence that my last post here in the blog was just before I started up teaching again. It is my standard online summer class, and so there is no direct effect on my teaching from the pandemic except for the switch to take-home tests since our testing center is closed.
However, life has been busy beyond just the teaching. So, let’s catch up on a few things (maybe this one should be called “Life in a Pandemic.”
- I have been attending a number of workshops, conferences, and meetings (all virtual). I don’t think I have ever had as much choice of things that I can attend related to teaching, and I have been trying to do as many as I can, as free and professional development are two words that do not often go together.
- My youngest daughter is at a Montessori school. The school started a summer session in early July. They offered it for free to help the students catch up on what they might have missed from all of the disruptions in the spring. It lasted two weeks, then they shut it down for a week because one person tested positive, then it came back for 2 days, and then it was shut down for good when our county shut down all public and private (but not religious private) schools until September 28.
- My oldest daughter, who is entering her senior year of high school, was given the choice between going face-to-face or online this coming school year. We left that decision up to her. What she decided was to go online-only. When looking at all of the guidelines, she thought it was too uncertain to even try face-to-face. Of course, as noted in the previous point, her school will also be affected by the online only until September 28, but she was going to do that anyway.
- My sons, who both just finished up their freshman years at 4-year universities, have made the decision to go to my community college for the moment. I’m not going to go into the reasons specifically, but this was something we had all been hashing out over the summer. It is definitely hard to justify paying the money for a university (especially the one going to a private university) that may or may not be running and may or may not be having in-person classes. Both may stay as long as two years at my community college, as they can largely get what they need there for a while.
- Finally, there’s the question of what I’m doing in the fall. There is no official word from my community college that anything has changed. The schedule that students are signing up for now is the same as the one published prior to the pandemic with some more online classes added. I am scheduled to teach 2 hybrid sections and 3 online sections, which would be my normal Fall load. But there is just too much uncertainty to know how all of it is going to play out. I’m in better shape then many, as I have a fully ready online class, and that is over half of what I am teaching anyway. I do not know yet if my hybrid will actually be a class that meets face-to-face or not, but that is where we are going so far. With all of the uncertainty, that’s really all I can say at this point.
So, there we go. Everybody in the family is up in the air. All six of us are back to living in the house, although that’s not as much of an adjustment as some, since the boys were only gone from the beginning of the Fall semester last year through Spring Break. I guess we shall see if we get any more clarity as we move forward.
One of the issues the I keep coming back to in thinking about the past semester is how we teach online. Much has been made of the difference between online teaching (which I have been doing for over a decade now) and remote learning that was forced on everyone in March of this year.
The difference between the two is vast, as a true online course is one that needs to be created from the ground up as an online course and cannot be a quick move over of face-to-face content to an online environment.
One of the real differences that I noted in the approaches to online vs. remote teaching is the question of how the learning takes place. In my online course (and as echoed by my friend Mike Smith at McNeese State University), I have taught almost exclusively asynchronously. Most of the design books that I have read and resources that I have accessed over the years have confirmed that this is the best format for fully online instruction, as it allows for the flexibility in completing work and interacting with material that many online students are looking for.
Before I go any further, however, I do want to provide some definitions here:
- Synchronous Learning – Learning that takes place in a format where both the instructor and the learner are in the same location in time and/or space. This can be a traditional classroom format or something like a Zoom session that delivers content in real-time.
- Asynchronous Learning – Learning that takes place where the instructor and learner are separated in time and/or space. This is seen very often in online courses, where resources and assignments are provided for students to access and complete on their own time.
As I stated above, my online class is completely asynchronous. The students are given the resources, assignments, lectures, textbook information, assessments, and discussion space all online with no expectation that there is a specific time or place where they will all come together for instructions. This does not mean I am not involved, as I generally work inside my classrooms for 1-4 hours each day, depending on the time of the semester, and am constantly monitoring both my classrooms and other messaging that I get from students outside of the classroom (such as email).
The only real point of direct, face-to-face interaction would be office hours. I also do hold more traditional office hours. This is a bit of sticking point for me, as my department had up to March of this year not allowed online office hours, which seems to me to be a blind spot to where our students actually are. Since March and probably for a while after, we now can have online office hours, which would actually be the only really synchronous material for any students who would come into those office hours and get instruction or have questions answered by me in real time.
One thing that I do differently than a lot of people in their teaching is hybrid learning. I have been teaching hybrid classes for about 6 years now, and my model is roughly a 70/30 model, with 70% of the learning taking place online and 30% in class. Thus, like what I noted above, all of the online portion for the hybrid course is asynchronous. That 30% is the hour and fifteen minutes that I meet with them each week, and that is the only synchronous portion of the course.
My hybrid students are more likely also to come to physical office hours than traditional online students, meaning that they do also have those synchronous options.
The Change in Learning with the Pandemic
As we moved to remote learning in the pandemic, everyone had to scramble to figure out how to make those changes. I have already detailed some of this in previous posts in this Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic series. Since a lot of those who were guiding this move were focused on how to move the face-to-face classes to online, much of the assumption was that the remote learning would be at least somewhat synchronous. Since this is the assumption that many have of what online teaching looks like when they have not taught online before, I saw this all over the place – the assumption that we would all just schedule Zoom sessions during our normal class time and then lecture to the students as we would have at the same time and same place.
For better or for worse, this has become part of the story of what has happened – with a narrative emerging of how challenging, or even ineffective, Zoom learning (as it so often came to be) is. In my opinion that is because online learning is not meant to be synchronous. There can certainly be successful synchronous elements in an online course, especially if students are notified up front and early that there will be certain times or certain assignments that are going to require their presence. I don’t use any, but I know of a number of successful online instructors that do use synchronous discussions, group work, and the like in online classes. However, even those classes remain heavily asynchronous overall.
So, What’s the Point?
Why am talking about this somewhat weedy subject? I think that why so many faculty and students were unsatisfied by what they saw in the spring of 2020 is because of this synchronous vs. asynchronous distinction. I have heard, even from my own sons in college, that the learning situation in the spring was not very good. Both of my sons recounted having to get up for 8am classes from home and then sitting there with a lot of random banter, technical problems, and then not learning much overall. Now, could I say that every class experience I have had has been worthwhile and engaging, but there is something different about trying to do it online vs. face-to-face. Especially for my son who is going to a very (VERY!) expensive private university, he felt he was getting very little value out of his education for those last months. A lot of the “value” comes from being on campus and having access to everything there. Sitting at home in front of a screen when that is not what you signed up for is going to be rough no matter what. The insistence on holding classes at the same time and in the same format as before seems to me to be a recipe for discontent overall. It’s not the fault of the professor or of the university, as everyone had to figure out how to do this in a week or two. So, if it didn’t go well, then it just didn’t, but at least everyone knew that we were all doing our best in a difficult time.
What I worry about in the summer and fall. The easy path will be to try to continue on as if nothing really happened and feel that we can all just turn on a dime and teach online again if a second wave breaks out. I only hope that some lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. This summer has to be one of reflection and reworking of courses for everyone. If change isn’t made, it is the students who will suffer. Both of my sons have said that they are worried if it will be worth it to go back to their four-year universities if it is going to look like it did in the spring. I am certainly not trying to say that the question of synchonous or asynchronous is the only issue in making a strong course that can be presented online only or moved online if needed, but it is an issue that needs to considered by everyone who wants to teach in any online format for the future.
My last post was a general reflection on my teaching during a pandemic. It was on my own experience and how it affected me. Today, I want to talk about how my students responded to the changes that came this semester.
- As I noted in my last post, the online students’ experience didn’t change a huge amount, but really the experiences of both the online and hybrid students did change.
- The majority of students expressed a feeling of overwhelm and anxiety to me with the switch. For a lot of the hybrid students, they were taking hybrid because they did not want an online class, but they said that since the class did not change significantly that it was not a major issue.
- For my classes, the fact that we lost a week and had to make things up pushed assignments closer together.
- As well, while I do think students often take Spring Break to do some catch up in their classes in a normal semester, we extended the Spring Break by a week this year. This 2-week Spring Break was very unproductive for them because of how the world was overturned. Not only that, but it also took longer for them to get back into working on classes at the level they had previously.
- So, even though I moved some assignments to extra credit rather than required and moved the exam to a take-home, there still was a feeling that they were doing more than usual in my class each week.
- However, while many said they were working more for my class, almost all who were in multiple classes said that their workloads for school had gone up even more for other classes. I heard many say that the result of changing online out of face-to-face classes was that the expectations and workload seemed to go up dramatically. I have no insight beyond that, as few said why that changed happened and I did not want to pry into what other faculty were doing, but the universal feeling was that classes that were face-to-face that went online got both more demanding and more difficult to complete.
- Here is what one student said: “I got really behind this last unit, having more than one online class (since they all got put online) has been really hard to keep up with all the work. And effectively giving each class time in your day is very challenging, So with that being said, I did not participate in this discussion forum. I hope no one else is in the same boat and struggling to stay a float with all their classes being online! I miss face-to-face classes so much. A lot of my classes are 10 times the work online. Finish Strong!”
- A majority of students reported difficulties in prioritizing school work.
- For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
- As one online student put it: “I personally have 2 classes online including this one, but besides having these classes I have been working almost every day including weekends now because I have more responsibility for my projects. the quarantine didn’t stop the company I am working for because of the nature of what we do. However, I have been feeling like I am not productive enough and so I started to do some online courses, reading new books and also I started to do the extra credit assignment. So far I have tried to keep a daily schedule to keep up.”
- For others, the loss of jobs meant that they now had financial strains that impacted their ability to do their work for classes.
- I did not keep track of everyone who reported this, but I had a number of students tell me that either they had lost work or that people in their families had lost work.
- For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
- What I heard the most, however, was that the isolation was quite intense for the younger students who were now stuck at home with their families, especially those who relied on leaving the house to get work done because of chaotic home environments.
- For those who are older and have kids, they had the same experience that I have had – namely that I am now educating my kids and/or trying to keep them focused and entertained. We are now at home all the time, fixing way more meals at home, and having to run all sorts of educational and Zoom sessions for my kids. Those with kids noted that the shift to having kids at home and having to educate/monitor them was a primary distraction to getting real work done.
- As one online student put it: “Hello! I hope everyone has been staying safe and healthy as we are coming to the end of the semester! Summer is almost here and thankfully this week most states are gradually opening back up again so hello sun! These past few weeks have been crazy at home though I haven’t been working from there…So while having a family at home while I was working a bit more than usual school seems like a lot as all of my classes are coming to an end. This class has been great I have been working hard in this unit 5 I am actually almost done with it!!! I think the most stressful part about this class at the moment is the Final paper only because all of my other classes have a final paper due the week too. Anyways I hope everyone is doing great any comments about unit 5 or the paper please leave I’m interested to know where others are at the moment in the course.”
Those are just some of my thoughts about how the students have reacted to the situation in my own experience. For those of you who are teaching or for those taking classes, what was your experience?
We have come to the end of our semester of craziness. The breaking of COVID-19 and the push to abrupt remote teaching at Spring Break made this a semester like no other. I was luckily more able to make the transition than many, as 3/5 of my sections were already online. The other two sections were my hybrid sections, and those are already about 2/3 online in the way that I teach them. Thus, for me, the personal transition was not as hard as it was for many.
There were still some challenges, for sure.
- My three online sections were still somewhat impacted, as the extended Spring Break moved their assignments back a week and that pushed closer together a lot of the assignments for the last part of the class. It also grouped together my grading more and made it to where I did not have as much time to get comments back to students on their thesis and outline so they could work with them on the final paper.
- As I noted above, the hybrid classes were already about 2/3 online. It was, however, one of the most important components, the face-to-face discussions, that got dropped. To make up for that, I substituted online discussions each week and a weekly optional Zoom session. These went reasonably well. I don’t think it went nearly as well as if we had been in class, but it was at least acceptable. The big thing that I noted was that I did not have nearly as much time to devote to participating with them, as the pushing together of assignments that I noted with the online class happened here as well. I was grading more, and because of that, I was doing less other things in the class. There is another reason as well, that I will put in the third note here.
- The thing I spent an unusual amount of time on is the helping of others in the department and keeping up with both the changes and trends in higher education broadly and with COVID-19 in specific. My energy level and attention level were drained by both of these, and that also contributed to me not interacting as much in discussions with my students. I still did all of my Zoom sessions, held my online office hours, and answered student questions in a timely manner. I would even say that I got things graded faster than I would normally at the end of the semester. But I definitely participated less in discussion forums, both with my online and hybrid students. In fact, in grading them in the last couple of days, I see that I missed a number of places that I might have responded, either with information or with prompting questions to get them to go further.
Working on all of this from home was also a challenge, of course. While working from home did take out many expenses in time and gas for travel, sitting at the office, and eating meals/snacks there, there were also costs to being at home. I have four kids, two in college, one in high school, and one in elementary school. Everybody was home (and still are) since the start of Spring Break. The three older kids have had their work to do, but they are relatively self-sufficient with their work. We are, however, full-time teaching our 7-year-old. Her Montessori school has been sending home packets to complete, and they are keeping us busy.
Being at home all the time is not a big problem for my own work load, since so much of it was online already. But it still was quite different from the norm. How has everyone else’s experience been? For those of you who teach, what was the impact on your teaching?
I will be back for a couple of more of these as I reflect on the semester and start preparing for the next one, whatever it might bring.
I have been doing so much thinking about teaching this summer so far that my brain is starting to hurt. I have a lot of ideas floating around, and I’m going to keep writing about them here this summer. Some of it is so that I can get feedback, but some of it is simply so that I can have a place to keep my ideas together.
They were discussing a lot of ideas about online teaching in general, and I could probably have a whole post here just deconstructing the podcasts I’m listening to. However, there was one section that I wanted to separate out and talk about here.
One of the hosts, John, was talking about how we struggle in class to figure out what to talk about and how we are generally taught to rely on the students having read the material ahead of time so that we can synthesize and add to that material. This is especially true in the introductory courses like my own history courses. On the question of whether students are reading, he said:
…faculty who lecture primarily, often get into this situation where they tell students to do the reading… students come to class and they ask them questions about the reading and they find students haven’t done the reading… and in response they end up going over the reading… and then students realize they don’t have to do the reading, because it’s going to be gone over in class anyway… and then the faculty realize that they’re never doing the reading so they have to do it in class…and we get this vicious downward spiral in terms of expectations of both students and faculty — where students end up not learning as much as they could be if that time outside of class was more productively used.
This is right along the lines of what I feel about the traditional lecture and why I have dropped the traditional narrative lecture from my hybrid classes in favor of project-based weekly activities in class where they have to have done the reading ahead of time to be able to discuss and participate.
I don’t have anything more to say right now about this, but I just found that to be so perfect to what I have been thinking about and doing in my classes that I just had to share. What do you think? Do you teach and see yourself in this statement? Are you a student and have had classes that look like this?
I have been trying to ease back into working toward material to do with work as the summer continues to move on. I have an 8-week break this summer, as I am not teaching again until the second summer session. What that means is that I have a number of weeks to take off completely, which is largely what I have been doing to this point, but now it is starting to be time to think about academic work again.
I can’t say I have done a whole lot to this point, but I have made a few starts. For one, I completed a textbook chapter review yesterday, which was something on my agenda for the early part of the summer. I have also participated in a few activities with McGraw-Hill as part of my role as a Digital Faculty Consultant with them. And, in the past week or so, I have been trying to catch up on some of the blogs and e-newsletters that I read, as well as dabbling with some of the academic podcasts I listen to. Shortly, I will start working on my summer class, although I still have about a 3-week window before starting. I am not planning any major changes from last summer, so it will really just be a case of changing up the dates and making sure everything is in there. There are a few changes that I made last semester, including adding screencast videos for the online class, so those will need to be created for the summer session. Otherwise, summer prep is not too bad.
One interesting discovery I have made is the Student Caring project (studentcaring.com). I was turned onto the project from either a Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed blog about podcasts that we should be listening to. I came to this site through the podcast, and I will certainly make it part of what I am going to be looking at in the near future as I get back into thinking about my own job. The project is designed to help professors with all of the issues that we face in an environment that is aimed at helping us teach better, live better, and think better. I have only dabbled in it so far, although I have probably listened to about 15 of their podcast episodes so far. The general professor part of the site has both curated and guest posts on issues related to teaching in higher education. The podcasts (which are what I have accessed so far), are aimed at talking through issues on teaching in higher education. I have thoroughly enjoyed them so far and would recommend them to anyone teaching at a college or university. I am currently in the middle of the series titled, “What Your Students Probably Don’t Know,” which has been interesting and already given me a couple of ideas for my own classes, especially in formulating syllabi and course outlines for our students. I accessed the podcasts through iTunes, but I am sure they are available in multiple places.
Otherwise, I am just starting to do some thinking on my classes for the fall. I already do a hybrid American history class, and I am thinking of moving it to be even more thematic in approach so that the ideas hold together even better than I think they already do right now. I am teaching both halves of the American history survey this fall, and I am thinking of reworking the second half one. I already have a general set of themes, but not everything fits in with those themes right now. I am considering using a race/ethnicity/immigration theme, as over 1/3 of what I already have works with that theme, and I would have two writing assignments already ready to go to aim at that theme. It would help me feel more focused in what I am doing in the class and make it more apparent for the students how everything fits together. So, that is what I am thinking about.
Anyway, I just wanted to hop in here for a few minutes and update. I’ll be back for more later.
I have been far behind in my reading on educational issues for a while. In fact, when I started this second summer session, I went and deleted almost 4 months of emails about articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. I always plan to read over what has been said in those articles, but they go into a specific email folder, and, when I don’t have time, those emails become the lowest priority. And, of course, once I fall behind, it is hard to get up the energy to go back and review them for things I might want to read. I am always amazed at people like my wife who have 8-10,000 unread emails in their inbox, but I can see how, once you get a certain level behind, it is almost too much to catch up.
The other thing I am behind on is my whole “Thoughts on Education” series, where I talk about issues in education. So, I am also restarting that here, with the hope of doing these types of posts more often as well.
The article that got me thinking again was posted last month in Inside Higher Ed. It came from the blog series Confessions of a Community College Dean, and it was called “The Advancement Problem.” In the post he highlights an issue that has been bugging me for a while, what happens after you have hit most major academic milestones. I have looked forward in my own career, and I am not sure what it will bring. This coming year will be my tenth year teaching at my current community college. I have been here through a two presidents so far, and have moved from being one of the young ones to being a veteran in the department, as most of those older than me have either retired or are on the verge of retiring. When I arrived in 2006, I was the youngest in my department by almost 30 years. Now, I am in the middle of the pack in age and one of the longest in tenure. Of course, at my community college, there is no actual tenure, as we are all on renewable, one-year contracts. Yet, after the first couple of years, we all essentially have tenure, as few people are ever dismissed where I am, outside of program closings and far outlying academic performances.
We do have titles, but they are largely meaningless and completely ignored by the college and administration. There was a push for titles, but it is run by faculty and has no recognition officially and comes with no compensation. They are largely so that we do not have to just call ourselves Instructors on our business cards. I am an Assistant Professor, although I might be an Associate by now. There is so little need for the titles, that I have not even calculated to see if I might be able to move up. I know others care deeply about these titles, but they provide little incentive for me. The largest things you can do to go up in rank is to gain an additional degree or stay an additional year, as most other things count very little. I have no desire to get an additional degree, so I am basically going to move up when I have stayed here long enough.
And, that is the issue that the article got me thinking about. My future in teaching is to stay teaching at my community college, teach for several more decades, and then retire. I might become department chair one day, if I haven’t burned too many bridges by then, but I am really not sure what else there is. And, since I am teaching at a community college, that means that, for the next several decades, I keep teaching the same thing – the two halves of the American history survey. Over and over. If I stay thirty more years, I will be about 70, having worked here for forty years. I will make more money than I do now, although we do not have step pay. We are dependent on raises being passed in the budget years, but, as long as those raises keep coming, I will make more money each year. And, I will continue to teach the same classes.
Unlike other disciplines here, we cannot really make classes outside of the American history survey. We teach one section each of the two halves of western civilization, but I am only qualified to teach the second one, so I will never get to participate in that survey line. We have tried to offer state history, but that has not ever made here. And, the other history classes that are open to us to teach are all electives that would have a very small audience at best. Then, to take someone out of a survey class that will fill and put them in an elective history class that might or might not make is not really a viable option anyway. So, my best option is to try teaching the surveys in different ways. I have taught them as traditional lecture courses, online, and hybrid formats. To keep my interest in teaching the same things over and over, I will keep changing, adapting, and updating what I do. But I sometimes wonder if that will be enough.
I have even already been chosen for the two biggest awards that a faculty member can receive at my community college, leaving even recognition out of things unless I wait another decade or so to see if it happens again. This is what I see as the “Advancement Problem.” Do I want the biggest thing to be said about me when I do retire that I taught the same classes at the same institution for decades on end? Certainly, many people do, and they are celebrated when they retire. And, the truth is, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and good hours. I have a steady job that I am not likely to be fired from, which is more than many people can say. But what I worry about is burnout. I have felt that off and on for the past couple of years, and involvement in nasty office politics has left me hesitant to pursue one of the routes that is available to do something different — moving into administration in some form, even if it is just as a department chair. However, that does appear to be the only “different” thing to do.
What I don’t have are any solutions. I have recently joined professional organizations and would love to go to conferences and be more active in professional life. But I have both a large family that is hard to leave and a college that cuts our travel budgets every year. So, that is, unfortunately, largely out of the question unless the conferences are close. I try to read and keep up with changes and developments, and I hope that will be enough.
Any ideas out there for other things to look at in approaching this problem?
So, here we stand. Our third snow day in the last two weeks. All of them in late February to early March in Texas. Yes, that is unusual. It poses the same challenges that happen any time you have unscheduled time off from school, and, without a doubt, it is better than last year, when our big frozen, snow days were during finals period of the fall semester. Missing days in the 7th and 8th week of the semester is not bad overall, especially since I do not give midterms. Those who do midterms are struggling to figure out how to make those up, with the real result that most of them just get pushed to after Spring Break, which is next week.
I know that a snow day is nothing particularly unusual, and that what counts as a snow day would be an average winter day in Pennsylvania, where I spent 8 years of graduate school. Still, it poses interesting challenges. I want to talk about those challenges in two ways — first with school and schedule and second with personal time.
The most obvious problem with a snow day is making up the material. For my online classes, there is no problem, except when students have their internet knocked out from losing power and the like. Otherwise, the semester just goes along like normal. And, unless it were to happen at a time when we were testing, days off are essentially irrelevant to an online class. Since half of my load is online, three of my classes were totally unaffected. My other three classes are hybrid classes, where the days off are more directly problematic. We only meet once each week, and if the day is missed, that week is missed. If the classes were distinct, I could make up in one class for one set of assignments missing, but I am teaching three of the same classes, all at the same point and doing the same assignments. Thus, to make up the material in any meaningful way means making some of my students do significantly more work for the grade than what they would otherwise do. There also are no built-in make-up days this semester for me, meaning that when I miss, that material is just gone. I do have some safeguards built in, however. For one, they all have pre-class writing on the subject to complete. So, they are, in fact, directly held accountable for the material that we were to discuss that week. As well, I have an assignment on the chapter(s) for the week also due before class, and that also means the students are held responsible for the material. What they are missing out on is the actual classroom discussion of the material. Two of my three hybrid classes have now missed a day (different weeks of material, of course), and that means that I have not had a chance to discuss the material with them. One of them was last week, and so I did make some references to the material this week in class. The other one missed this week, which means I will not see them again until two Thursdays from now. That is a long time to carry over material. The other big problem for me is that we were in the middle of a three-class themed set of material. We covered the World War I to World War II period looking at the theme of American neutrality in the world as it related to the US becoming a world power. Since the three were linked, missing one means that material was not covered and topics got lost. As we were doing a narrow look at the issues, it also means that the broader context of what was going on in the world also didn’t get connected to the material. What’s the effect of all of this for the students? They’re probably just happy to not have to come to class. But for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay on track and cover what I want to cover. By the next time I see the class that didn’t meet today, it will be two weeks later, and we will be on to the post-war period. Sigh. I worry too much, I’m sure, but I can’t help it, as it is my job.
The other side is my personal experience with the snow days. It seems like an unmitigated good. A day off from school. No travel, no obligations. But it never works that way. Of course, as I said above, for one thing, my online classes just continue as normal. The days off we had last week were in the middle of my own grading period of their material, and so I graded in my time off. But I actually feel like I got less grading done with the days off than I would have if I had gone into work. The problem with everyone being home is that we are a household of 6, and getting things done at home when everyone is home is not always the easiest thing. An even bigger problem, however, is the feeling that I get that is like how the students feel. I have the day off, why should I work? I have to force myself to get something done. For example, take today. If I had been at school, I would have gotten to campus around 9:30. I would have been in my office doing work from 9:30-11. I would have taught from 11-12:15. Lunch until 1:30. Then back in the office doing work from 1:30-3:30. On my own at home, I could barely force myself to sit down for an hour to do classwork. The temptation to view it as a full day off, especially as this would have been the last work day before Spring Break anyway, is strong. But I have a lot to do. I have things to catch up on, both in grading and in preparation. I owe my hybrid students grades on quite a few small things, and I do not even have the next week of material up and ready for them. But I find it hard to get any real work done. That means that I am not getting what I need to do done and feeling guilty about not doing the work at the same time. Isn’t the human brain wonderful?
The solution to this? Treat a snow day off from work as a work day. Or, treat a day off from work as a day off. I have to choose one or the other. If I try to treat is as partly one or the other, I just feel guilty.
Those are my thoughts on it. What do you think? Do you enjoy unexpected days off? Do you get anything done? Do you feel guilty about not getting things done?