Farewell, 2020: Reflecting on This Cultural Moment

Picture of people in line, January 2020.
January 2020. In a line to pick up crates of Florida oranges.

One year ago, we were preparing to leave for Florida on a family vacation on New Year’s Day. By the time we were at Universal Studios on January 6th, I had heard a little bit about the new strain of coronavirus, but wasn’t too concerned at that point. When the semester began, my teaching assistant mentioned trying to buy masks to send home to her family in China. I casually remarked that I just couldn’t imagine that Americans would ever be willing to wear masks — that individualism would prohibit such collective active. I had no idea that we were on the cusp of a global pandemic.

By the beginning of February, the epidemic was raging in China and cases had started to appear in other countries. Stories of the quarantined cruise ships signified the virus’s potential spread. Locally, some people were, as I perceived then, irrationally worried about catching coronavirus, prompting me to write this op-ed. (Oddly enough, I’ve observed the same folks disregard the threat of COVID now). As cases spread throughout the world, I became addicted to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, an invaluable resource that has visually depicted the rise of the pandemic in-real time. Watching the numbers increase, first in Seattle, then in a scattering of other places, I wondered what was to come. I got an email from a New York Times reporter, asking about the politicization of the pandemic (even in February). This inquiry and subsequent article prompted me to really delve into what was being done and the skewed messages conveyed to the public.

COVID-19 entered my county in March. On Wednesday the 11th, MTSU President Sidney McPhee announced that all classes would resume remotely after an extended Spring Break. With this news, I advised my kids to bring home everything that they needed on that Friday, suspecting that they would be out for a bit. March 13th marked the last day of regular school, although we didn’t know it at the time.

With the shutdown, my blog became my outlet to the world. I wrote and shared so many blog posts that Facebook banned my website as spam. For me, writing these usually brief reflections has been cathartic. As our reality quickly morphed into a sweatpants existence, I needed a way to connect. At the same time, having just written a book on epidemics, I felt so many paralleled experiences to those of the past. Despite the blog format, I extensively researched all my historical entries — probably spending more time than one should for something with such little reach.

My explosion of media literacy activities stemmed from both my desire to give my kids something to do and to contribute to the wealth of materials that others were sharing last spring. Like many, my children had weeks with no school assignments and plenty of time to fill. I tried to give them something even remotely educational to help structure our day and attempt to teach them. (Note: they were often not thrilled with the theme days, essays, and other activities). Even though we were definitely privileged in our position, March and April were extremely stressful months for me. I was mostly failing at both teaching my own classes online and educating my children.

Picture of author dressed as Maria von Trapp
My kids were not amused when I woke them up dressed like Maria von Trapp on Sound of Music day.

Blogging provided me a way to express myself without the hassles of formal gatekeeping and to immediately respond to the moment, be it Trump’s outrageously dangerous claims about injecting bleach or the expectations of extending remote learning. Still, I periodically published pieces that went beyond this site, with articles on how past epidemics changed society, why the nickname “Typhoid Mary” shouldn’t be used, and on the shutdown’s disproportionate burden on mothers.

Summer brought more of a return to normalcy. I expect kids to be home then and we no longer faced the arduous list of online videos and assignments. Nice weather and the reopening of some businesses expanded our possible activities and made it feel more like vacation. I slowed down in blogging and writing to teach a class online and spend time outside with the kids. We focused on our Foss world, while keeping abreast of the turmoil of injustice.

With August came more mask mandate questions and school debates. Feeling like it was a lose-lose decision, we opted to send the kids back under the adopted protocol of required masks and distancing. I taught hybrid courses for the first time, lecturing under a mask in a ballroom-turned-classroom that seemed more appropriate for a time-share demo, rather than a college class. But, for what it was, it worked. We pushed through. The kids pushed through. Life seemed semi-normal for August through October as we anticipated that things would fall apart. And then they didn’t.

Masked up and ready for the mock trial of Mary Mallon
Picture of nearly empty ballroom lined with chairs
Last day of class in the ballroom.

November became the up-and-down month. The election and vaccine news delivered hope of a different reality, as did making it through the end of my semester. And yet, rising cases and school closings near locked us down again. Our family of four canceled plans and activities to return to just being us. No Friendsgiving or Christmas trip.

Picture of kids with four dogs in front of a Christmas tree
Fostering puppies to make Christmas at home a little more exciting.

What’s differed from the spring, however, has been this fractured picture of the true reality. News stories and charts have conveyed that Tennessee skyrocketed into a dire state for December, topping the list for new infections. And yet, a dissonance exists here. Everything is open. There’s no statewide mask mandate, just a county one with little enforcement. Aside from school, not much has been canceled. On local social media sites, people are asking about in-person church services, promoting “maskless Santa” before Christmas, and using the word pandemic in quotation marks. Obviously, the lack of public health observance is why were in this situation, but there’s not a lot of acknowledgement of this cause-and-effect.

We have such a split in what we know and what we’re seeing. Adding to this disconnect has been the near-absence of a unified recognition that things are bad. Aside from the numbers and the occasional story, very little media coverage has personalized the dire impact of the pandemic locally. Where are the lists of names and photos memorializing those deceased from COVID? Why don’t we have images of the COVID wards in our hospitals? And, more importantly, how is it that the leaders who endorsed and embraced the March shutdown are ignoring the actual crisis now?

I haven’t been blogging as regularly as I did in the spring, partly due to time, but also frustration. Some posts I never published because they were too heated or too intensely called out those around us. My popular articles focused on pandemic creative writing in 1918 and radio remote learning during a 1937 polio epidemic in Chicago.

Living through a pandemic is a fluid, diverse experience that shapes each person differently and at different moments. What we specifically knew in March has changed and expanded dramatically. As such, my reflective essays are very much a product of a particular moment and set of feelings, which all share uncertainty in the future and a serious concern about the pandemic. Even with the research I conducted for my book, I never could have imagined just what this would be like. I was unprepared for the large-scale denial of a disease that has killed so many people. These months have revealed both the worst in humanity and the best. I sincerely hope that 2021 brings the quick distribution of vaccines and overall, a more unifying time. Even more so, I want life to not just “return to normal,” but to become a better, more equitable version of a reality in which we can be together again, without the social distancing.

Here’s to 2021!

Getting Started Finding a Publisher: Learning From Other Authors

You have your great idea. Maybe you even have part or all of your manuscript completed. How do you get your work to the public? This post is all about the research stage — not research for your book, but about your book category and audience. A little preparation will save you a lot of time and hassle in the long run.

Start by identifying similar books to the one you want to write. To figure out parallel books as models, you first need to be able to answer a few questions about your potential book:

  • How would your potential book be categorized at a library?
  • Will your book be written for a popular audience? Or a smaller sect within a popular audience? For roughly what age group (distinguishing between children and teens vs. adults)?
  • What is the purpose of your book? To reflect on personal experiences? To offer instruction? To capture a moment in history?
  • Why are you writing this book? (“To make money” is not the best reason).

Select a few fairly recent texts that somewhat match your responses. They don’t need to directly align with your specific topic, but broadly fit the book type, audience, and purpose. Skim through these books, paying attention to their overall package. Jot down the authors and the publishers.

This next step might sound a little out there, but I recommend emailing the authors of these books. Your purpose is to find out how to get your foot in the door, not to pitch your idea. I especially encourage writers who are not making a career out of writing to do this. Briefly introduce yourself, praise the book, and ask about the publishing process. How did they get connected with the press? Did they first secure agents? What advice do they have in moving projects forward?

For academic books, you can either contact authors or use social media to ask about working with that particular press. If you belong to a professional organization, it is likely that someone in your network has experience. Were the editors good at communicating? What was the timeline? Were their books priced low enough to generate interest? Other advice they’d like to share?

You might be tempted to skip this background step, either because it may seem daunting to reach out to strangers or you don’t think you need to do it. Unless you already have a contact at the press, I strongly recommend doing your pre-contact research.

Reasons to do the background research:

  1. You want to find the right publisher for your book and within a press, the most appropriate acquisitions editor to contact. If a press only publishes anthologies and your manuscript is single-authored, it is not a fit, no matter how amazing the concept.
  2. Many acquisitions editors get bombarded with ideas. You want to breakthrough the clutter. Background work can help you get connected so you’re not just sending an unsolicited email.
  3. Knowing the process increases the likelihood of success. Just like a job interview, you want to make a good impression.
  4. You are writing a book because you care about the project. Don’t waste your time on a press that will likely fall through or charge you money to make it happen (not to be confused with self-publishing).
  5. A little guidance is good. Connecting with others who have been through this experience will help you navigate through the publishing stages.

Email at least 3-4 people with your questions. Be polite, positive, and brief. If you don’t get a response, no worries. Just focus on those who do reply. Most people want to assist others.

From these responses, you can build a spreadsheet of potential presses/editors to query. Congratulations! You are ready to tackle the book contract process.

5 Ways to Build Flexibility into Your In-Person and Online Classes

The Trial of Mary Mallon, a children’s book by Ariel Smith (shared with permission).

Sometimes offering student choices can seem daunting: more assignment guidelines to create, divided objectives, split rubrics, and different sets of expectations. However, the pay-off in engagement for you and your classes can be totally worth it. Let’s face it. Regardless of your class modality, now is the time for flexibility. Designing options for students allows them to decide if they feel more comfortable working alone or with a partner. It enables the creative student to write a song, while the writer tackles the traditional research paper. Flexibility fosters diversity and participation, breaking away from a typical class.

  1. Engagement choices

In our normal reality, I’m all for attendance policies with few exceptions. Pandemic teaching demands different expectations. Giving students choices on participation can help overall engagement and sometimes reduce your workload.
How to do it: For each synchronous discussion (in-person or on Zoom), offer an asynchronous alternative (a discussion post or short essay response). See this blog post for the detailed approach. I lay out these choices at the beginning of the semester and require students doing discussion posts to respond to each other. The in-person/Zoom group merely has to show up and discuss. Students may go back-and-forth between types of sessions without letting me know.
Making this work: Establish clear guidelines for both synchronous sessions (must be on-time) and the discussion posts/responses. NO LATE ASSIGNMENTS. I offer extra credit opportunities to offset missed points so I’m not constantly pushing back deadlines. I also make the online options slightly more time-consuming to cover the class-time missed.
Why this approach can be a good idea: With students shifting in and out of quarantine and facing additional struggles, having flexibility from week to week is very helpful. As an instructor, I really enjoy directly connecting with students. Those that choose to attend tend to be more engaged.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: I wouldn’t recommend engagement options for a small seminar or a graduate-level course in which discussion makes up the majority of the class. For strictly lecture classes, this also likely wouldn’t work as well.

2. Voting for the Day’s Class Content

Students (well, humans) like to have a say in what they do. I try to build in a day in which the class gets to decide what we do. It might be to swap the scheduled topic for a different one or allowing students to vote for a particular movie or TV show.
How to do it: Decide what day works for switching up the content. Obviously, this shouldn’t be the class period in which you introduce the pivotal theory or set up something foundational. On the day that works for you (I usually pick a week or so after the midterm), decide what the options will be. Convey them to the class as students enter the room (or Zoom). Then have a class vote.
Making this work: Don’t leave the topic/example open ended. Have clear choices that satisfy your overarching objective for the course. For example, on our fictional representations of outbreaks class period in Health Com., the options were Contagion, Outbreak, House, M.D., and the Criminal Minds episode “Amplification” — all centered around the same theme. In other words, it’s not a “free day.”
Why this approach can be a good idea: Why not, as long as you structure the choices?
When this probably isn’t the best approach: I like to be a ways into the semester before I give a choice day. I imagine this approach wouldn’t work as well some disciplines (or you’d have to get really creative).

3. Topsy-Turvy Day

If you have assigned seats for in-person or set breakout rooms in Zoom, choose one day to mix it up. It’s good for students to get to know people outside of their seat neighbors or group members.
How to do it: One method is to do random seat/group assignments for the day. Draw numbers or (in a pre-pandemic time), attach seat numbers to pieces of candy. If you want to grant students more choices, have them choose their own spots for the day or sign up for breakout rooms based on interest.
Why this approach can be a good idea: It’s a break from the humdrum of class or from irritating classmates. This approach also keeps students guessing a little about what will happen in class.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: Delay “topsy-turvy” day for late in the semester — long enough to establish routines.

4. Student-provided Content

I don’t consume many of the same media products as my students. As such, they can come up with examples that I have never even heard of. One way to bring students into the course material is to have them supply it, suggesting readings, images, videos, or other content for the class.
How to do it: Write out expectations and criteria for the examples (i.e. format, length, what will work and what won’t, the number of discussion questions). Figure out which week’s topics could work for this assignment and list them out. After students give their top 3 preferences, assign them in pairs or groups to a particular topic/week. For their assigned week, they must find an example that demonstrates the concept and/or encourages discussion and get it instructor-approved. In class, they introduce and share the example and then ask the rest of the class 2-3 discussion questions.
Why this approach can be a good idea: It breaks up the monotony of class and helps to connect students to the class concepts and material. This approach also diversifies the examples shown in class, going beyond the instructor’s familiarity.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: During the first few weeks or for a concept that is new or especially challenging.

5. Term Project Options

I used to be much more rigid in setting up the term project. I required every student to do a research paper on a particular topic and a traditional presentation. Over the years, I have expanded the choices for students. Admittedly, this is partially due to my own fatigue of the same topics. Students are more excited about something when they choose it. In most of my classes, I now allow students to either do a research paper OR a creative project (i.e. documentaries, poems, songs, or artwork), all related to class material. While it is vital that students learn to write, there are more ways to come at class material than just a straight-forward, traditional paper.
How to make this work: Make sure you have some structure laid out for each of the options. Lay out expectations and requirements clearly. The tricky part (other than coming up with two types of projects) is how to make the components equal in weight and in their objectives. I do this by requiring a form of writing and a presentation for all students. Creative project students explain the concepts of their projects and discuss the creative process and then present their work. The research paper students also present. To really make this work, I recommend providing strong examples for the class (see below).
Why this approach is a good idea: It enables students to channel their passion and talents into their chosen format, while still requiring them to build off of an idea related to class.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: Beware of your own limits. One semester, I let every student in a 90+ class choose to either do a research paper or participate in a creative group project. It was difficult to bounce back and forth between the two types with such a large class. I’ve found that in a big lecture, it’s either a group project or no project (like I’ve done during pandemic teaching).

Creative Project Examples from this semester (across classes)

  • Ariel Smith’s children’s book on Mary Mallon (posted above).
  • Serena Vasudeva’s poem “Illuminated Manuscript
  • Chase Cimala and Andrew Pauly’s song “Divided”


Why Add Flexibility?

Keeping students engaged can be hard word. It can save you time, however, cutting down emailed excuses for missing class, complaints about group members, or questions about paper topics for which students have little interest. In offering choices, it does take a leap of faith. As we shift a little bit of control to students, we don’t always know what to expect. Clear guidelines and instructor-approved material can help structure the shared example, delivery, or project, but you just never know. And it is okay if you have a class day, example, or project that doesn’t exactly turn out. We’ve all had our teaching moments that influenced future classes. I will never forget the “Ted Bundy as a class game” presentation or the “Hitler country song” (both of which made the list of off-limit topics). Experience shapes future guidelines for assignments. It is worth trying out flexible approaches, even if they later need refinement.

On Completing the Hybrid Semester

Teaching in the Student Union Ballroom. Photo courtesy of Madeleine Luchsinger.

I just submitted final grades for all of my classes. Honestly, I didn’t think that we would make it to the end of the semester still meeting in person, but we did. I am thankful our last face-to-face gathering was before Thanksgiving and that all final exams were moved online. Because of that university decision, I didn’t have to personally determine if it was safe to convene.

We made it through without an outbreak in class or me getting sick. As a class, we navigated our learning experience with masked expressions and socially-distanced chairs placed in the Student Union Ballroom and other strange spaces. Protruding noses and open drinks replaced my usual pet peeves of texting in class. I projected as the increasingly-wet cloth stuck to my mouth. Even with these added challenges, I am still glad that I chose the web-assisted format. If nothing else, I got to connect with my students (those who showed up) once a week in a way that I personally struggle do to in a virtual environment.

I outlined my hybrid plan for my large lecture here at the beginning of the semester. I posted all lectures for my gen. ed. courses and the weekly quizzes online. Our meetings then were strictly discussion and media examples. For my seminar course (typically twice a week), I put up materials and reading responses for the hybrid portion and then used class time for lecture, discussion, and other activities.

I had underestimated just how much most of us needed the in-person meetings. My students were fairly eager to talk and interact (masked-up and distanced) with each other and with me. Across classes, our often impromptu discussions were the highlight, as students frequently linked our examples and topics to the many challenging events of 2020. “Internet week” turned into a thoughtful conversation on the challenges of distance-learning during the shutdown. In Health Com., we regularly subbed in the scheduled theme for the current COVID update. There was so much to talk about this semester that I was grateful to have an outlet in which to do so. And the masks were not really a big deal. At no point did I have an issue with students wearing masks, thank goodness.

This was not an easy semester for anyone. Most of my difficulties came from the need to be a flexible instructor. Obviously, my normal attendance policies were out. Instead, I awarded points for either attending class or writing a short reflection or post on the week’s topic. At first, I struggled to keep on top of the student emails. Between messages asking for make-ups and the email submission of the assignments themselves (in a semester with over 120 students), I felt like I was drowning in disorganization. For the big lecture, my amazing graduate teaching assistant helped me out tremendously. The solution for my other classes was to create instructions for make-up assignments and a Dropbox folder on our D2L site. This structure streamlined the process and somewhat cut-down on the emails.

It was also a change to adapt to teaching in new spaces. Two of my classes met in rooms that aren’t usually classes. While the MSTU staff did a great job getting the tech and chairs set up (and maintaining them), teaching in new rooms is always an adjustment. In one room, the light switch could only be accessed in the corner, farthest from the podium. The sound only worked in the ballroom if you toggled between multiple buttons. My seminar met in a computer lab — an awkward arrangement for a discussion class. Most of the extra features put in place to aid with teaching also added to the list of stuff to figure out.

In a semester in which everything felt hard for everyone, I found that my typical amount of reading assignments just seemed like too much. I wound up greatly reducing the reading assignments for my seminar and added in popular articles to help with the burden. In class, even though they wanted to talk, my students often seemed fatigued just at being in class. I tried to mix-up what we did to give energy to the room, especially because I couldn’t see it on their faces. I brought in dolls to talk about gender and race in advertising, let my classes vote on popular culture examples, and added in a few fun days. These activities seemed to help give us a breather to move forward. At the same time, I could feel the relief in each of my classes on the last day.

One strength of my university was its flexibility for faculty in approaching their classes. I appreciate that I could choose my format. And, knowing our student body and that some of my colleagues can’t meet in-person, I am glad that I did the hybrid. I chose not to both Zoom and teach live at the same time. I had decided in August that my focus would not be split. Recording my lectures allowed all students to see them. Having class time as discussion meant that the topic could be addressed in a response or other alternative format. I know some instructors can juggle both the Zoom and the in-person class, but this is not my preference. This flexibility also helped shift us to a virtual meeting to have a guest speaker.

In turn, I granted my students flexibility and choices. They could miss class as long as they emailed me and did the make-up assignments. All students got to choose what type of project to do, if they worked in pairs or alone, and the format of the project itself. On the last day of class, students decided whether or not to present in-person or record and post their presentations. This has been the semester of needing to be flexible and I really think it’s the only way that teaching can work right now.

Next semester, I opted for the same hybrid format. I plan to develop a better system for tracking engagement (not attendance) and making up assignments. I look forward to continuing to have a space to discuss our strange pandemic reality — provided we wear masks until things truly recover.