Embracing Compassion: The Challenges of Teaching and Learning During Crisis

The view from the hospital room. It’s hard to think about regular stuff in a moment of crisis.

The past few days have been tough for the Foss house. Last night, my 11 year-old’s seemingly-mild sickness turned briefly scary when she became too weak to stand and too disoriented for easy conversation. We made the the tough decision to take her to the local emergency room, knowing that it would be a long night. I figured that even if the hospital admitted her, I’d still be able to run home for a toothbrush or a change of clothes. Wrong. Once we made it through the waiting room gates two hours later, the health professional team quickly determined that my daughter would likely need to be transferred for pediatric care. More than six hours after we entered, we left in an ambulance transport to the children’s hospital 40 minutes away. There, we sat in a temporary exam room through tests and waves of doctors for another seven hours until my tween was moved to a more permanent room a few floors up — the space in which we could finally take a breath (or a nap). With my daughter under the careful watch of the nursing staff (who reassured me that it was fine and normal to leave for a few hours), I got picked up by my husband. We drove back to the first hospital’s parking lot. He dropped me off at my car with my youngest daughter and got back on the freeway to the children’s hospital. She and I drove home, where I couldn’t just crash. We both missed each other and I couldn’t just ignore her to nap or get stuff done.

This weekend has been a reminder of the compassion we must serve our students when they experience such a crisis. We can’t assume that a visit to a clinic or hospital only took an hour or two. Nor can we expect that waiting time in stressful situations can or should be used for completing homework assignments. Like us, our students also face stressful situations, like health emergencies, but also job loss, family crises, and other issues that draw time from school and take an emotional toll on attempting to adequately produce work. Unpredictable issues disrupt the flow of everyday life — a night in the emergency room meant exhaustion plus the burden of completing tasks that would have been easily achieved in late evening or early morning in a regular day.

I am not advocating for accepting any excuse or regularly opening up Dropbox restrictions and taking late work. Rather, my reflection has prompted me to examine my expectations for students when they experience crisis. I would honestly write a terrible manuscript review right now, record a comically-bad lecture, or likely fall asleep on a stack of papers if I tried to grade them in this moment. In fact, the only reason I started this essay was to pour out the story of the last day and a half and because I didn’t want to lose $20 for my monthly writing challenge.

If/when we grant make-ups, are we building in enough of a window for our students to climb out of the crisis first before diving into another stressful situation? Are we communicating what needs to be done, acknowledging that in stressful situations, it can be more difficult to navigate through online platforms and instructions?

I started this post on February 13th. It has taken me more than two weeks to come back to it, just to finish up a blog post. More than two weeks. Would we have granted students that same grace period?

My child’s issues have shifted from crisis to our (hopefully temporary) new “normal,” in which the mundane is punctuated with “drop everything and HELP” moments. I am beginning to understand more and more how a person can do some of the regular stuff (tween is doing the distance learning classes), but may still need patience and flexibility in finishing the work. For now, I’m just trying to do my best, as a parent, spouse, and teacher — attempting to bring newfound perspectives to my students.

Lessons from the past: Radio in the Chicago 1937 polio epidemic

This literacy activity is based off of my article for The Conversation, found here.

Until the last half of the 20th century, it was not unusual for schools used to briefly shut down for weeks or even months. I’m not just talking about holiday or summer breaks. Hunting season, the fall harvest, and inclement weather kept students at home. Times of crisis also impacted education, as coal shortages in the 1930s and 40s forced schools in cold regions to temporarily close, as illustrated in this newspaper article from 1936.

Herman Schools Close During Week. Herman Record (Nebraska). Feb. 20, 1936 -
From the Herman Record, Feb. 20, 1936

Before the advent of vaccines and treatments for scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, and polio, outbreaks of these common childhood illnesses also prompted officials to close schools.

School closings typically halted formal learning, granting kids extra time for play or work on the farm. Schools sometimes compensated for the additional closings by shifting the academic calendar or by mandating Saturday attendance once school was back in session.

The concept of distance-learning did exist, mostly through correspondence courses (classes taught by mail), but wasn’t commonly used during school closures. That is until Fall 1937, when school officials in Chicago decided to teach children at home using a relatively new technology: the radio.

It might seem weird to us now, but people in the 1930s were very used to just sitting and listening to the radio. By this time, over 90% of urban American homes had at least one radio — and they tuned in often, spending more than 4 hours a day listening to news and entertainment. (For an overview, watch this video). Individuals and families gathered around the radio much like we would a TV.

Radio had been used as an educational tool periodically since Penn State first offered broadcasted college courses in 1922. On a small-scale, radio programming occasionally served as a substitute for in-person instruction, as in 1932, when radio provided summer school curriculum in Chicago after budget cuts eliminated the regular session. Yet, no one had tried using radio to teach large groups of children.

Polio was a feared disease back then. While most people only had mild cases, the disease sometimes led to either temporary or permanent paralysis. Photos of children in iron lungs (machines to help them breathe) or using crutches frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines, making people more afraid of polio.

Pictures like this contributed to the fear of polio.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1937, a polio epidemic erupted. On August 31, 1937, the Board of Health in Chicago ordered the start of school to be postponed due to the record number of polio cases (109, just for August). Instead of just keeping kids at home, a “radio school experiment” was launched, led by Assistant Superintendent Minnie Fallon. She worked with 14 principals to design the curriculum for 317,000 children in grades 3-8. (It was decided that those in lower grades might not do as well with radio learning).

On Monday, September 13th, students tuned in for their first day of radio school. Three radio stations broadcasted the lessons, with local newspapers printing daily schedules, like this:

The schedule for Sept. 14, 1937, printed in The Chicago Tribune

Over a week, students were taught math, English, social studies, physical education, and science, with each lesson lasting 15 minutes.

Unlike our video technology now, the radio was a one-way form of communication. Teachers couldn’t talk with their students directly, however, a telephone helpline was set up for questions. Similar to today, parents had to oversee the radio learning, captured in this photo of a mom helping her kids:

Printed in The Rock Island Argus on Sept. 14, 1937.

The experiment only lasted three weeks. Declining polio rates meant that children got to go back to school in person. Even with this brief time, the radio school was a success, demonstrating that the technology could be used to teach people. Radio stations began to partner with local educators and found more ways to make radio educational. By February 1938, radios had been placed in many classrooms and opportunities for kids to do their own news shows had begun.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did the children of 1937 have to stay home? How is that similar to our need to have distance learning in the past year?
  2. What would it be like to learn through the radio? What do you think were some of the obstacles to this approach? How would that be different from lessons through Zoom or other video platforms?
  3. Not everyone had a radio then, just like not everyone has a computer now. What does it mean for the children who are left out in remote learning? What can be done to help families who don’t have internet access or computers?
  4. Radio learning led to the use of more technology in the classrooms. How will distance-learning now lead to new kinds of learning in the future?
  5. Media content from the past give us a glimpse into different cultural moments, like the radio school. After the COVID pandemic is over, what will people know about this time period from the news, social media posts, and other content produced in this time? If you only watched TikTok or Youtube videos from 2020-2021, what would you think that living through this pandemic was like?

Creating a Balanced Content Diet and Assessing Information

Drawing of moon creatures that appeared in the New York Sun
The fabrication of media content occurred long before digital technology made it easy, as illustrated with “The Great Moon Hoax” of 1835.
(Benjamin Henry Day (1810-1889), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As we are all well-aware, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and distrust have become a rampant plague on society. Our seemingly-infinite media outlets mean we have choices, but also leave regular consumers without a guide. You may feel like many do, either that one falsely-clumped homogenous system of messages — considered “the media” is solely misleading or that the wealth of information is just so much that you don’t know where to turn. So how do you create a regular slew of media sources that provide checked information?

First, no matter how overwhelmed you become, don’t reduce yourself solely to Twitter or other social media sites as your only place for news. Although great for entertainment and superficially connecting with others, social media platforms are vehicles for media content sharing, not fact-confirmed producers of information.

Statements and Terms to Avoid

  1. “The Media” (as one homogenous entity). People love to throw this dismissive phrase out there. If you think about it, “the media” doesn’t make sense since “media” are comprised of all of the millions of different types of individual, organizational, and industry content producers in the world. In some countries, government officials run or produce the media content. However, in the U.S., corporations and individuals are competing against each other for consumers, therefore, cannot be lumped together.
    In other words, since there’s no alien overlord overseeing and coordinating every news broadcast, print article, horror film, book, etc. created across all countries, “the media” does not exist. We can’t (accurately) make the generalization that CNN.com is featuring the same content/perspective/sources/images/framing at the same time as 9News in Australia, right?
  2. “Fake News.” This phrase is often used to disregard media content/perspectives/information. While it can to be synonymous with “made up information,” the term has morphed into a heavily-politicized, dismissive buzz term. What does one mean by “fake news?” Fabricated information? Satire? Content of which you disagree? Read this article in The Atlantic to better understand why this term is problematic in itself. Instead of just exclaiming, “Fake news!,” be specific in your critique of particular content, identifying why you either disagree with the content and/or the extent to which it is parody or includes untrue information (disproved with sources, of course).
  3. “Unbiased.” Nope. All content is biased in that it is produced by people for specific purposes, outlets or platforms, and audiences. Media creators can be transparent in what shapes their products, strive for balance when appropriate, include a diverse array of sources and perspectives, and adhere to the ethical tenets of a news organization, but can never be truly unbiased.

Some Types of Media Content

Especially if you grew up in the digital era, it might be a bit confusing to discern the agenda of a media creator, how messages are created, and the extent to which the content is checked. Let’s start with the least filtered/fact-checked and work our way to the generally agreed-upon most fact-checked.

  • Social media & video-sharing sites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, TikTok etc.): Posts to these sites are not fact-checked at all, with the exceptions of major violations of site policies, like hate speech, copyright violation, or big-time conspiracy theories. In other words, never believe something you read or see on a social media site unless you can verify the information through external sources.
  • Blogs, Vlogs, and personal websites (like this one): Anyone can create a blog, vlog, or website and no one checks them for accuracy. As with social media and video-sharing sites, verify what you consume in these forms with outside news sources. Don’t just trust that a cooking blog, for example, that promotes the “best banana bread ever!” recipe really has the best banana bread ever. You can look at who the content creator is and the # follower/views as indicators of who might provide more credible info, but still double-check. There’s a reason that I link content to outside news sources as much as I can.
  • Anonymous, editable sites (i.e. Wikipedia): While these types of sites can be useful to give you an overview of an unfamiliar topic, never cite them. Anyone can add, subtract, or modify the content and they aren’t checked.
  • Websites of businesses, corporations, & organizations that seek to profit from consumers: These are helpful for purchasing items directly from a company, learning its history, or identifying possible contacts. That said, this content is created in such a way as to make the business look good. Its agenda is to present a positive image, while minimizing damaging or negative information or feedback. Useful, but know what you’re getting.
  • Sites for nonprofits, universities, and government agencies: Generally, this content is fairly reliable, but may not be updated on a regular basis. Look for the reports and documents produced and linked by organizations more than just the surface-level content on the websites. What is the agenda? Audience? Rigor (or process of producing the information)? When was it produced? For what purpose?
  • News sites: Exist for the purpose of disseminating information. The content is created by journalists and undergoes an editing process. As we know, some news organizations have more partisan-leaning than others. This “Media Bias Chart” is a helpful tool for identifying where the online content of these organizations stand.

The Balanced Media Diet:

Draw from different geographic levels, partisan positions, and types of media (i.e. online news, TV broadcasts, radio briefs). You’ll also want to differentiate in the various types of news reporting (hard news, features, editorials, etc.). For my students: we will talk more in class about what this looks like in Murfreesboro, TN.

  1. Local/community news
  2. Regional news
  3. National news
  4. International news
  5. Nonprofit/government/medical sites (depending on the topic)

Building Media Literacy: An exercise

Select a timely topic — one so important that it is likely to be covered across sources. Look up that topic in your local, regional, and at least two national mainstream news outlets. Then examine the international perspective in multiple sources outside of the United States. What are the common threads? How do the stories differ in their points of focus? Framing? People interviewed? The overall takeaways?

Checking Information

So how do you verify a post that you came across on social media or know when to believe what you read? Since anyone can create and share messages on social media, assume the content is untrue/strictly opinion until you can verify the actual source. For example, in this blog post, I demonstrated how a viral meme was spreading misinformation.

Questions for blogs and websites

  • Who created the content? Is a name given? Who is the person? What is the person’s expertise? Position? Purpose for creating the content? Does the person directly or indirectly profit from the content?
  • What is the purpose of the blog or website? The purpose of my site is to provide (hopefully) useful information about media literacy, epidemics, writing, and/or teaching.
  • Do legitimate outside sources support the information given? Good blogs/sites give links to back up information. If you can’t find sources for the content, take it with a grain of salt.

On News

Generally, you can trust information that comes from mainstream news organizations that has an established history of solid journalism. I’m talking about The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and other credible news sites. In this Forbes article, Paul Glader outlines what makes for a trustworthy news organization, listing the extent to which a news outlet corrects misinformation, adherence to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics, and other tenets of quality journalism. You should be able to trace the facts given in a piece and verify with other sources.

Keep in mind that news is fluid. Information, especially about an emerging issue, is constantly changing. For example, we know much more about the COVID-19 virus now, compared to one year ago. Therefore, news articles on COVID from today differ greatly from last January. That doesn’t make them false, but simply a product of their time (similar to how scientists in 1918 believed that influenza was caused by bacteria).

For heavy partisan-leaning or alternative news, understand that the content is presented through a distinct filter to best attract and appeal to audiences drawn to those sites or channels. The balanced media diet will help you identify outlier perspectives and take them for what they are.

How to Avoid Getting Overwhelmed

I recommend subscribing and following scholars who study, analyze, and synthesize timely news topics as a means to help you navigate through the latest issues. To start with, I recommend Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American daily digest and Dr. Kathy Roberts Forde’s Letter from a Region. Additionally, Dr. Amanda Sturgill’s #DetectingDeception on Twitter provides timely advice on identifying false information, drawing from her book, Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News.

Lastly, balance news consumption with fun media content. It’s okay to indulge in a YouTube video about ballet dancers or watch a ’90s sitcom on Netflix. You can also enjoy your favorite social media platforms — just don’t use them as primary sources of information.

Why aren’t higher ed instructors considered teachers? (And where they stand in different parts of the country)

Not everyone has been teaching online.

On December 30th, The Tennessean announced that K-12 teachers and child care workers would receive the COVID-19 vaccine in phase 1B, after health care workers and senior citizens. Many states have similarly modified their COVID immunization hierarchies, some of which include higher ed in phase 1B.

Note: I recognize that all states are lagging behind in the vaccine rollout and that most places aren’t even to close to phase 1B. The lack of a clear, consistent, unified, plan contributes to the implementation struggles.

My quest to learn more about higher ed’s status prompted me to ask questions in a private Facebook group. The more than 580 posts abundantly demonstrated the lack of information communicated about the rollout, inconsistencies with who can receive the vaccine in 1B, and what constitutes an educator. Aided by the (very helpful) vaccine tracker in The Washington Post, I studied individual state plans and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ascertain if higher ed instructors were addressed at all.

My vaccine distribution scavenger hunt was more difficult than it should have been. A few state health departments provide clear graphics on their vaccine homepages to guide users through (like Arkansas). But most states barely convey any distribution information. Instead, I had to dig through lengthy PDFs to find the info. Adding to this, different states opted to name and number their plans differently. Most states use “phases,” but differ on how many phases (1A, 1B, 1C for some, but Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island use whole numbers. MA has 3 phases. The other two have four). Alaska has tiers. At least three states don’t explicitly list phases (Florida, Georgia, and Indiana), but somewhat describe the order.

No wonder people are confused.

At the state level, 44 include teachers in an early phase of the rollout. A few more states appear to do so, but aren’t clear in their plans. Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and West Virginia specifically include higher ed instructors in the same classification as K-12 teachers. Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wisconsin list higher ed instructors in the phase after teachers. The remaining states directly exclude higher ed and/or are vague in their plans. Furthermore, in some locations, counties decide the distribution and have elected to vaccinate specific groups of local college or university instructors, as exemplified with the immunization of Arizona State University instructors teaching in-person. I will note that vaccine plans do continue to change, especially at the local level.

In the midst of my research, Elizabeth Redden’s Inside Higher Ed article gave me hope about the possibility of instructors receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the teacher phase of the rollout. In it, she quotes CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund, who clarified that the CDC recommendations did indeed include “college, university and professional school teachers, support staff, and daycare workers” (as quoted in the article). Redden went on to outline the positions on vaccine priority from different organizations and then highlighted counties and states that plan to vaccinate higher ed instructors. I appreciated this well-researched article and felt optimistic overall about our possible inclusion in the rollout.

However, this clarification is not part of the CDC’s official recommendations. This is a big “however,” given that the written CDC guidelines served as the foundation for the state and county vaccine plans. In other words, unless your state already listed higher ed. instructors in the rollout, Redden’s article and Nordlund’s CDC endorsement means little for the implementation. My communication with my own local and state health departments unfortunately confirmed this statement.

The omission of higher ed. instructors from COVID vaccine plans draws from the false assumption that all colleges and universities continue to only offer classes online, thereby eliminating contact. In reality, modality has depended on the program, school, and state COVID responses. I won’t go into the economic, technological, and pedagogical reasons that colleges and universities have decided to offer forms of in-person learning, but instead acknowledge that it has and is happening. According to “The College Crisis Initiative”, approximately 48% of the 2,958 colleges and universities studied included some form of face-to-face contact between instructors and students for Fall 2020. Nearly 27% of schools were primarily or fully in-person. Even in some COVID hotspots, in-person returns are underway for Spring 2021. Staff also have interactions with students and other people, putting them at higher risk for transmission.

Why is this an issue? The age range of traditional college students aligns with those most likely to transmit COVID-19.

The CDC COVID Data Tracker Cases by Age Group. Found here.

Masks and social distancing have helped to protect instructors thus far, but may not be enough for the far more contagious COVID-19 variant spreading throughout the world. Thus, given the extent to which instructors must interact with a highly-transmissible sect of the general public, they should be clearly included in vaccination distribution plans. And aside from public health rationale for this inclusion, isn’t it also problematic to suggest that higher ed. instructors are not teachers?

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 action. 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.

Where are we in the pandemic timeline? (It’s not good).

The interactive COVID-19 map, updated and published by The New York Times.

COVID cases continue to escalate and the death toll for the U.S. has exceeded a quarter of a million. Yet, as this FiveThirtyEight poll shows, over 30% of Americans are “not very” or “not at all” concerned about infection. Obviously, as we head into the holiday season, this is incredibly problematic.

The division between those who believe in science and the anti-maskers can be attributed in particular to one’s political affiliation and primary source of information. These factors are mitigated by geography, as local and state authorities set the tone for the regional public response early in the pandemic, often paralleled in local news coverage. Moreover, experience with COVID’s effects, either personally or through friends and family, also shapes the extent to which people view the disease as a threat.

We also can’t dismiss the toll of “pandemic fatigue” on public behavior, as individuals stop caring about precautions that they would have taken months ago because it feels like we’ve been doing this forever. Why are we in this spot? Unlike past outbreaks, our global access to information enabled countries around the world to learn about COVID early on and (to different extents) take action. In short, we feel like we should be past this pandemic because we’ve been in it so long. Except we haven’t.

Last spring, we pretended that the first wave had a conclusion, a denouement. It did — if you live in New York City or other places that experienced the surge and the dwindling of cases. The rest of the U.S. was really in a waiting period. In this calm before the storm, many people took the precautions needed to carry us through the pandemic. However, collectively, we acted like that was it, that we had made it through the wave. In reality, most of the U.S. has only just begun its red zone.

Let’s compare where we are to this moment in past outbreaks/epidemics/pandemics. From my study of 200 years of epidemic history, I can tell you that both small and large-scale outbreaks follow specific patterns in their construction in media messages and in public perception. For this comparison, ignore the amount of time we’ve known about COVID., focusing instead on the severity of the crisis itself.

Placed in the midst of other epidemics, we are approximately at the same timeline point as . . .

  • August 1721, Boston smallpox epidemic
  • October 1793, Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic
  • October 1918, “Spanish Flu” across U.S., “Spanish Flu”
  • Late January 1925, diphtheria in Nome, Alaska
  • September/October 1952, polio in the Midwest
  • December 1968, “Hong Kong” flu in New York and many other places

These critical points not only mark escalating cases within different outbreaks/epidemics/pandemics, they also share collective public emotions: sadness, scarcity, panic, and loss. While there are certainly variations in responses, shared characteristics define the severity of the situation. Listed above are the peaks of despair, when hospital ran short of staff, beds, and equipment. Gravediggers and coffins became in demand. Images of this moment captured rows of the ill in makeshift hospitals, stacks of wrapped bodies, and quarantine signs. Towns and local media became solely focused on the sick, dying, and deceased, seeking supplies and care providers, while banning public gatherings and funeral bell tolling. Ministers ceased holding services for fear that they were spreading disease among parishioners.

This is where we are in our COVID-19 pandemic. If you are not feeling this moment yet, it is not due to the case numbers. Rather, it is the cultural climate that is imaging a reality that is not this one. Many local news outlets have opted not to publish cause of death as COVID-19 or showcase the experiences of survivors, blocking communities from the devastation from this disease. We have convinced ourselves that we did the work last summer so we must be fine now. NOPE. Even if you are not personally seeing it, the U.S. (and most of the world) is in crisis mode.

We are at a crossroads for what will happen next. Changing the course of the pandemic needs to occur at all levels, including our individual choices. It might feel like we’ve been in this pandemic state forever. Unfortunately, though, we are deeply in the midst of the crisis — a reason to stay home, not to give up.

Guest Post: Becoming your Best Writing Self: Motivations and Goals

Dr. Tanya M. Peres
Associate Professor
Graduate Program Director
Department of Anthropology
Florida State University
tanya.peres@fsu.edu

I recently attended a session with a staff member of my university’s writing center. He led us in a reflection exercise on how we start the writing process, set writing goals, and identify growth areas to become our best writing selves. Today I am sharing a little about my writing process – maybe you will find a trick or tip to put into your process toolbox.

1. How do I get started?

Much of my writing is assignment-driven. You might think it strange that anyone other than students or journalists would have writing assignments, but here we are. Professional assignments have a pre-determined topic or theme, are part of our professional workload, have specific requirements depending on the genre and outlet, and they have a deadline. So, what are these writing assignments and how are they genre-specific?

Conference Presentations

Conference presentations are typically part of thematic research sessions.  These presentations can be either posters or podium papers, and often are on unpublished current research. Presentations are a good way to get feedback from scholars in your field.

Peer-reviewed Publications

These are the ultimate in academic writing assignments. Peer-reviewed publications are the medium used to present data and interpretations, describe a new method or theory, or synthesize existing datasets and qualitatively or quantitatively compare them.

Public Writing

Writing for readers that are not discipline specialists is a genre in and of itself. I find ideas for a story stem from information I want to share, wanting to add another level of meaning or history to a story or topic, or simply a fun fact or story that I think non-archaeologists would enjoy. Sometimes I test out ideas in conversation with friends or acquaintances. Other times, I sketch them out to pitch as an idea to an editor.

No matter what genre of writing I am working on, I try to always start with an outline. Outlines help me figure out the flow of the narrative (or story), things that are necessities to that narrative, and how to best organize the different parts. When I ignore my own best advice and just start writing sans an outline, things go off the rails quickly. I often find myself going down a research rabbit hole that is more often than not on a completely different topic, but fun to read!). Like that time in 2015 when I found a medical brief on a patient with maggots in their nose (no, really, but if you are squeamish, skip the figure).

2. How do I set writing goals?

I start with the assignment due date! If it is a grant proposal, conference paper, or a solicited manuscript (i.e., someone asked me to write something for a journal, book chapter, blog, magazine, newsletter, etc.) it will have a hard deadline. If the assignment is self-inflicted self-motivated, then I have to establish the deadline(s). The author/editor and the press editor agree upon book manuscript deadlines. If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, your advisor, committee, department, and university all have deadlines you must meet. As the good Dr. Foss says “Always meet your deadlines!”

I break the REALLY BIG THING into smaller tasks and assign them objectives (word count, additional research/references needed, etc.), then schedule when I am going to work on these parts. Most days I have an hour or less to work on any given writing project. To stay hyper-focused I close out all social media and email apps, turn my phone to vibrate only, turn it face down, and out of easy reach, and put on writing music (cool jazz is my favorite).

Sometimes I need external motivation to keep me on track. I have been a part of writing groups, writing retreats, daily writing challenges, and the last-ditch “hole-up-in-a-hotel-room-all-alone-for-a-weekend-and-get-the-thing-done” method. All were useful and successful in their own way. Peer pressure and money are sometimes what is needed to get us over a hump.

3. What are some of my writing goals?

By the end of 2020 I will submit the final manuscripts for two different books; finish writing a lengthy technical report; and continue working on the draft of a third book manuscript (to submit in Spring 2021).

What are your writing goals? What is your secret inner writer identity? Understanding our goals and motivations can help us to stay motivated and organized.