Many instructors who began the semester in face-to-face classes have spent the last weeks breathlessly surfing all seven waves of grief. It started with shock, if not denial, as we helped our students adjust to the reality that our classes will conclude in a transformed and virtual world. Then came the pedagogical pain and guilt, induced by the tsunami of emails about online teaching resources. Some missives were well-meant, from our heroic campus teaching centers, for example. Some were purely predatory, as for-profit agencies flooded our inboxes with “tips and tricks that all the best online instructors” were supposedly using – for a price, of course.
Wherever you are in the timeline of reorienting yourself to pandemic-era teaching, you might be comforted, as I have been, by the more recent posts about focusing modestly on our essential course goals rather than imagining that technological bells and whistles will replace the embodied experiences of in-person teaching.
Because my students are writing about sustainability topics, a theme of the semester has been on the value of relationships, whether through biodiversity, interdisciplinarity, or rich interconnections between classmates. In pre-pandemic times, we began each class period with quick community-building exercises, including a student-generated question of the day for lightning “get to know you” rounds (“Are you a cake or a pie person?” “What’s your favorite plant?” “What’s your dream travel destination?”). Early on, we took the time to do a version of this Danish “All that We Share” exercise, in which students were randomly sorted into groups of three and asked to find three things they had in common – the more unusual, the better. The earnest conversation and laughter bubbling from these groups of near-strangers in January was heartening as they discovered their shared love of particular condiments, favorite flavors of Takis, or numbers of tattoos.
Why use precious class time for such exercises? Because investing in trust and emotional safety in the classroom community fosters deeper meaning-making all semester. Kathy Molloy and Diego Navarro’s ideas on the power of “affective learning” have bolstered my belief in these practices, including their reminder, “Slow down your tempo; become curious; listen beyond words to student needs, concerns, or aspirations to understand their struggles.” These practices are all the more timely during these traumatizing weeks.
I sure do miss the in-person snap, crackle, and pop of my students. In the last few weeks, I have simplified aspects of my syllabus and have mourned some of the “lost” opportunities to learn with them. The foundation we built together, though, is visible everywhere, despite our physical separation. I see their investment in one another in their thoughtful engagement on discussion threads and in their assignments, as they consider texts through the newly estranging and enlightening lens of pandemic worries. Some students have described discussing class ideas with family members, inspiring conversations that wouldn’t have happened when they lived apart.
I invited students to share, optionally, little videos of their pandemic experiences, after offering my awkward contribution with my favorite coffee mug and the ukulele I’m practicing more often these days. They have responded with aplomb, and I’ve been moved by their video selfies of a quiet corner in a basement or hilarious close-ups of the quivering nostrils of a favorite dog or cat. Some students have shared their worries about being laid off or being considered an “essential” worker, suddenly burdened with shifts that devour their study time. Some are frightened of handing money as they deliver food or terrified that as they sanitize grocery shelves for others they will sacrifice themselves to the virus. Some have more time, but less energy. All seem to feel unanchored and grateful to the kindness of the classroom community and the connections they actively built before our physical separation. I am right there with them.
I’m grateful, too, to know that I am part of a wise pedagogical community. I hope others chime in to Miriam Moore’s call to record our experiences so we can share our strategies.
More than ever, I know that my work – and my honor, really – is to be a steadying presence for these students in a profoundly unsteadying time, whether through Zoom, or phone calls, or discussion threads, or emails, or even texts. So, perhaps I’ve reached the grieving stage of acceptance and hope. Where are you?
Photo Credit: April Lidinsky