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.