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?

Teaching Exercise: The Google Doc Round Robin

Each group starts with a different Google doc.

I’m a big fan of drawing slips of paper for randomly-assigned group works. I also love notecards. The pandemic has forced me to find new solutions to communicating different discussion activities. Cue the Google Doc Round Robin.

Round Robin (the game, not the burger joint) involves each person contributing a little in one spot and then moving on to a new position or objective. In ping pong, this is done by hitting the ball once and then quickly moving to the right, circling the table. I applied this approach to a series of Google docs in my health communication class. We did it to explore the process of creating campaigns for a variety of different audiences. This activity could really be applied to any class topic that can be completed in stages — in-person, as long as each individual has a computer, or through a virtual platform with breakout rooms.

Prep Work for the Google docs

  1. Before class, decide how many different groups you would like to have. I opted for five clusters for my class of 17.
  2. Create the same number of Google docs. Include a distinct header and a file name for each one.
  3. Write out your scenario (or whatever you will differentiate between the groups).
  4. Number and state the objective of each stage. Copy and paste into all of the Google docs. In other words, most of the worksheet is the same, with the variable listed at the top.
  5. On our D2L site, I created a submodule for the in-class activity with online resources and links to the 5 Google docs.

Running the Activity

  1. Split the class into groups or have them form their own groups. On Zoom, you could set up break out rooms.
  2. Assign each group a different Google doc. Explain the activity, emphasizing that they should only complete one stage and stop. List out the rotation for the class.
  3. Have each group start at step 1, reading the tasks and doing necessary research. While the groups are working, you can bring up all of the Google docs on your own computer and see the class progress.
  4. After a set time (5-7 minutes), have each group stop and rotate to the next Google doc.

Doc 1–Doc 2–Doc 3–Doc 4–Doc 5–Doc 1

5. Use this format and rotation as the groups move through the docs and through the steps, building on what the groups before them have written in the docs.
6. On the last step, have the groups summarize their current Google doc, briefly presenting the ideas to the class.

With this approach, students are working both within their groups and with the whole class to complete the activity. It is also easy to monitor which groups may need help since you can access the docs at the same time. For my class, it was a nice break from our usual discussions and prompted them to work together. This activity could be modified for a variety of disciplines, keeping the concept of each group or individual contributing a little to create the whole. Of course, you may not be able to work the Rock into your scenarios.


Teaching a large lecture web-assisted (hybrid) class in the pandemic

Heading off to class back in February. So little to think about back then.

Flexibility, accountability, and backing up the back-up plan will be the only way to make this fall work. Even then, I am not sure how it will play out.

Back in May, my decision to do the mostly in-person with some online context seemed to be the clear winner in the fall choices. I applaud my university for giving 5 options, ranging from in-person to all online. I am also grateful that we could largely decide, based on course content, student needs, and our own personal situations.

I’ve been trying to counter every potential issue with a solution that falls within the range of CDC guidelines, university protocol, student expectations, and my own abilities to make this semester successful. I’ll add that I have been assigned a higher teaching load and thus, have more students than I have ever had. I am also teaching in the student union’s ballroom for my large class, which will provide unique challenges.

My classes are classified as web-assisted, meaning that we have meet in-person at least 15 hours throughout the semester.

Here’s my plan (fully realizing that I may be eating my words in a few weeks):

  1. Problem: A class of 99 students isn’t going to make it very long before someone brings COVID to the classroom.
    Proposed solution: For the large lecture, we will only meet once a week in person. Students can choose to either attend class or they can do a discussion post online. In other words, meeting face-to-face is optional and engagement is measured in different ways. Students can choose week by week which option to do and they don’t have to tell me why. This approach will hopefully reduce the likelihood of students coming to class with symptoms and will cut down the numbers overall.
  2. Problem: Students may resist wearing masks.
    Proposed solution: The university has established mandatory mask-wearing, backed by campaigns to inform students and free masks. I have already reminded students through email that this is the policy and will remind again through Zoom. No mask=no entry into class. Mask off in class=asked to leave.
  3. Problem: Students may have difficulty understanding me, especially since I am teaching in a ballroom and my face is covered.
    Proposed solution: I will also do a separate recording of each lecture (online, not just a recording of class) so that students can clearly see my face through the screen with closed captioning and have a back-up for the lecture. This method also provides the material for students who cannot come to class or opt out.
  4. Problem: Students will be confused about what they need to do to succeed in class.
    Proposed solution: In a semester that demands flexibility, I’m trying to be as consistent as possible. I’ve already posted the schedule, list of assignments, and deadlines. Discussion posts and quizzes will always be on set days. Communication is also going to be key. Even more than in a typical semester, I plan to use email and D2L announcements to convey what needs to be done when. I’m also using the module format and platform calendar to reinforce what needs to be done when.
  5. Problem: Students may be anxious about this semester, especially those who are first-years.
    Proposed solution: This is the primary reason I chose a partially in-person format. I want students that really need the face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) connection to have it. Since some of the anxiety likely stems from the unknown, I’ve already emailed all of my students with our general class plan, including our first day of class Zoom. I also made a brief welcome video on our D2L site and wrote out directions to access our class syllabus. Even if we have to go all online at some point, I will continue offering both a Zoom class discussion and Zoom office hours.

    I’m not sure how this will all work — how long we will get to have class. Obviously, I’m hoping that the optional class to reduce numbers, mandatory masks, and other precautions set forth by the university keep us safe. What I can say is that I will do my best to help students feel engaged and succeed in this very unusual semester.

How to Reopen the Schools: Buy-in Across Levels

I’m tired of seeing posts that either protest or promote reopening of schools (both k-12 and college) without trying to explore solutions. I won’t offer advice on when different schools should open. But the fact is, whenever they do open (now, in 3 months, in a year, or ???), every institution, K-12 and higher ed, will look much differently than last February. The key to this possibly working lies in multi-level protocol and support to reduce risk, remain open, and still provide enriching instruction. Obviously, these approaches need to be adapted to specific circumstances.

Mask mandates in school and in the community. We need to both require and enforce the wearing of masks in crowded public spaces. Mandates with enforcement mean that even those who (somehow) “don’t believe in the virus” will have to don a face covering in order to enter stores, schools, and other places. Mask-wearing in the schools is a no-brainer to making this work. But the mask requirement at places of learning will be much more effective if it is the community norm.

Actually rapid testing widely available and free. Cost, access, and time cannot prohibit testing procedures that could make reopening otherwise work. Especially for college students, we need free, on-campus results that can be processed quickly while they wait. With this type of access, professors could build in exposure and testing into the class policies. Combined with contract tracing, this testing could drastically limit both transmission while unknowingly infected and the amount of class and work missed.

Risk-reducing actions built into student codes of conduct. For K-12 students, parents should sign pledges confirming that they will not partake in risk-increasing trips or activities without a voluntary quarantine and testing (weddings and other gatherings, air travel, etc.). Similarly, college students who opt for face-to-face instruction must adhere to a code of contact, in which participation in parties, concerts, or other events could result in disciplinary actions. Tough to enforce, yes, but at least it gives faculty and administration some basis to assign consequences.

Prosocial campaigns on the new protocol. This is a very confusing and hard time for everyone. To get students to comply with our new reality, easy-to-understand messages should be distributed across social media and email, campuses, and the community. These campaigns can inform students, parents, teachers, administrators, other employees, and visitors of what is expected on school grounds and in the classroom before school is in session, including

  • How to enter and exit the building (or each building) and special protocol for entering and exiting (i.e. reminding students not to hold doors for others).
  • Where masks are required and what areas are designated spaces for removing masks.
  • Where to get a back-up disposable mask if something happens to yours.
  • How and where to eat and drink at school.
  • Classroom procedures, like cleaning one’s desk.
  • Other new rules of the year (i.e. no bringing in birthday treats or policies about visitors).
  • What to do if you are feeling sick and/or if you think you’ve been exposed.
  • Procedures for class exposure, including the message delivery, testing, and incubation period.

These campaign messages also set the tone for the school year, helping to convey what is allowed and encouraged.

The importance of community buy-in. Regardless of your party affiliation or even perception of Covid risk, we need to unify to make the reopening of schools work. Simply put, if folks want schools to open (now, 6 months from now, or even later) and stay open, mask-wearing and other protocol has to be implemented and followed. So how can people help and not hinder this success? Let’s look at the different levels.

Parents. After you decide on schooling for your kids, it’s time to look for the good in the situation. No teacher/professor-bashing on social media or to their kids. This has been and will be hard for every person involved. How can I help? should be the only response. Have kids pick out cool masks and practice wearing them. Talk about how the year will be different, highlighting the positives at the same time. Make sure to tell your children that there will likely be unexpected “breaks” and Covid testing. Parents of college students should also be supportive, gently prompting their kids to communicate with instructors if something seems unclear. At the same time, dissuade your college student from attending risky activities.

Students. This new protocol is not optional. By now, anyone over the age of 3 is old enough to understand that we wear masks in public and why. If kids and (especially) college students don’t perceive themselves at risk, the threat of a shutdown should be enough rationale to abide by the rules.

Administrators. I don’t think I have to say be proactive or have back-up plans. Obviously, we do and many are already being rolled out. What I will say is that for teachers and faculty to do their best during initial opening, administration needs to be both flexible and mindful of the strain on educators, especially for those who are also caring for others.

Everyone else. Alumni, store owners, and other members of the community, for schools, and, well, society to safely reopen, it’s time to follow the rules and put aside self-centered behaviors. Play your part in helping the world put this pandemic in the past.

Boosting Student Success: How to Create Redundant Reminders in the Online Course

In shifting from face-to-face to online instruction, we lose one significant tool in increasing student success: our class announcements and reminders. When in-person, this “touch base” moment comes easily, effortlessly built into the beginning or end of class. The first slide of every one of my lectures is “Announcements,” listing what is due and when, along with other important information. Moving online, this casual connection is lost unless we deliberately recreate it.

Before I dive into my own tricks, I will note that I teach students ranging from first-years in the gen. ed to graduate students. Like everyone else, I made the crisis transition to online with my Spring students. I also just wrapped up a June term, which gave me a chance to try out a few tactics. The most common feedback I got from students was their appreciation for how I set up the class, both in flexibility and in communicating deadlines.

How to Create a System of Reminders

I use the term “redundant” in the title because it feels redundant as an instructor while you are structuring your class.

Building in reminders as you set up the class

  • Layout deadlines in your syllabus. Duh. What I actually mean is write the deadlines in two places: in the description of an exam/assignment and in the calendar in the body of the syllabus.
  • Link everything together in your online platform. Organize your class into modules and then link all quizzes, exams, Dropbox assignments, and discussion posts into the specific module so that students can see what they need to do for that particular unit.
  • Use the calendar feature of your online platform. At least in D2L, this is just a click in the settings, but it will make a big difference for students, putting all the deadlines together with automatic reminders.
  • Add an additional checklist of assignments. In my seminars, I build in a lot of choices. The checklist helps students to know what options they have and what is mandatory. I do the list in Word so that they can print it off if they would like.

Reminding students as you are teaching the class

  • Keep the course home page updated. Even though I allow students to work ahead, I keep our course home timed with the module deadlines. When students log in, they can see the week’s tasks.
  • Email the class periodically. I do a weekly announcement through email (that also contains any Zoom invitations). In this email, I list the upcoming activities. It also prompts students to email me.
  • Use your Zoom sessions. As I discussed in my “Optional Zoom” article, I enjoy teaching more when I get to know students. These sessions are great opportunities to remind and talk about upcoming assignments and the content of the course overall. Like I do in-person, I typically end sessions by asking if participants have questions and how the [INSERT BIGGER ASSIGNMENT] is coming along.

These steps may seem like too much, especially if you have very dedicated students who are only taking classes. I’ve found though that my students need and want reminders of upcoming deadlines. These points of connection also demonstrate that we care that students complete the work and pass the class. While we still miss out on in-person class chatter, at least we can still have reminders, even if we have to work at it.

The Optional Zoom: Connecting with students (while reducing your grading)

With the quick shift to online class last semester, I didn’t feel comfortable requiring synchronous class. Many of my students were struggling to keep their jobs and have moved home. At the same time, I was very worried about losing my connection with students who needed and wanted to discuss our class material. I also had to cut down on the amount of grading that asynchronous learning can produce, especially in a class of 70 students.

For the Spring gen. ed., I decided to offer 2 optional Zoom sessions per week. Monday’s session served as a “come and chat” office hours set up. My one request was that they shared something that had brightened their week. Wednesday’s session focused on discussing specific concepts and materials, therefore counted in lieu of the week’s post on the class discussion board. Students could choose which option (Wed. Zoom or the discussion board) every week and didn’t need to notify me in advance. Those who participated in the Zoom earned credit for discussion.

It worked surprisingly well. I had a core group that showed up regularly, even for the Monday chat, and then a few students that alternated between options. This approach helped me to connect with students and for them to talk to each other.

With my summer class, I built the optional Zoom into my course syllabus for my small seminar on television and culture. For every discussion post topic, there’s a choice to do a Zoom session. To earn credit, students must log in on time, write their names into the Chat window, and participate in the discussion. This is how I lay it out in my checklist:

Discussion Activity Assignments

  • Introduction post, due May 27th
  • Topic Announcement, due May 29th
  • Reflecting on TV’s Place & social injustice, due June 3rd (Zoom option)
  • Reviewing Television due June 5th
  • Music in Television due June 19th (Zoom option)
  • Adaptation due June 22nd (Zoom option)
  • Fandom due June 24th (Zoom option)

The Zoom participation has reduced the grading of discussion posts by more than half. Even more importantly, the students and I feel much more connected to each other and the material when we get to talk about it together.

I could have just required the Zooms, but I don’t believe in assigning a class time that wasn’t part of registration. This framework gives students flexibility without omitting the opportunity to get together. It’s also helped me cope with the loss of the in-person classroom. I miss real discussion. For now, I will take the Zooms.

Tackling the Tough Teaching Conversations When You Don’t Know What to Say

As instructors, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge what is going on in the world and to provide an outlet for our students to talk about it. I was a student during Columbine and 9/11 and have been a professor through the Boston Marathon bombings, the too numerous mass shootings of the past few years, and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #Time’s Up. We can’t just plow ahead with course objectives, pretending that these moments of tragedy and injustice don’t exist.

As a white woman, I am not the right person to speak about the murder of George Floyd and worldwide Civil Rights protests, except to say that such injustice should never happen and I fully support the movement. I will never pretend to understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. In my role as an instructor, however, it is my duty to create a space for students to discuss what’s going on. So how do we lead a conversation without overstepping or feigning an insider view that we may not have?

In a face-to-face class, our conversation would have happened organically, as I could have gauged the need to talk in our initial chit-chat. It’s so much more difficult teaching remotely. Everything feels like a big deal, like a big agenda item in which I cannot pre-assess the vibe of the classroom.

I struggled with how to approach my summer class, but ultimately decided that I had to give the group the opportunity to talk. I invited students to an optional Zoom session to talk about current events. I didn’t know how many would show up or what to expect.

Only a few students chose to do the Zoom session. The small, yet diverse, group actually worked to our advantage as each person opened up. I did not lead, except to open up the discussion, ask what was on the participants’ minds, and call on people. I won’t share the details, but the conversation flowed naturally from the protests to related topics of representation.

It was honestly one of the best, most honest, reflective discussions that I’ve experienced in my teaching career. I did little to make it that way. I just set the table, sent the invitations, and welcomed the group–the extent to which I felt comfortable doing. In other words, I created the space. The students filled it.

I realize this could have gone poorly. I’m not usually a fan of unstructured class discussion, which are prone to tangents and the injection of personal agendas that may conflict with our class diversity policy. If we had started to have issues, I obviously would have stepped in. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this.

We can’t shy away from topics that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t know how to address. As educators, we can provide a safe space for students to reflect and make sense of what is currently going on, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We are not leading so much as creating the opportunity and protecting the conversation.

Our engaging class session prompted me to add more to the itinerary, beyond what was already on the agenda. In person, this would be easy. Online, everything has to be so much more scheduled. If students are looking to connect, especially in the current climate, I want to be there to support them and listen.

We Made It Through, but the Online Format is Not a Long-term Solution: Planning for the Future

With 2.5 more weeks of “crisis-schooling” for the kids, a summer class to prep, and numerous other tasks, it was necessary for me to push through and finish Spring 2020. I submitted final grades for all of my classes yesterday. The last gen. ed. assignment for the semester required students to briefly reflect and describe their experiences, including additional challenges they faced.

This short essay was very telling and I learned a great deal about my students’ feelings, activities, and obstacles since the midterm. Students expressed concerns over their parents and other family members — about the future of their family businesses, recent unemployment, and health. Three or four students had family members who had recovered from COVID-19 or had had it themselves. Other students worried about vulnerable parents or grandparents, fearing what would happen if they became sick. Many had become unemployed and struggled to buy food and other essentials. On the flip side, some students had significantly increased their hours, working 40-60 hours a week in addition to school.

Access to reliable technology was a significant hurdle for a large portion of the class. One student had left a laptop in the dorm and had to wait more than a week to get it back. Other students had no WiFi at home and had to drive elsewhere to use D2L or they had WiFi but connectivity was poor. Students also experienced multiple challenges at the same time — working on a farm, for example, with no internet at home.

Students faced other challenges as well, getting stuck far from home after visiting a friend on Spring break, dealing with canceled trips, performances, and training. Issues related to mental health were frequently brought up, in relation to isolation, a lack of purpose, and distancing from the world. Furthermore, many expressed their personal difficulties with online learning, explaining that they struggle with time management and understanding material in an online delivery.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t know about these hindrances until the day of the final. I had asked about challenges periodically throughout the semester, but few had piped up. In other words, students were not seeking excuses and exceptions in these reflections, just conveying their current realities.

Obviously we had to shift online this semester and for the summer. Beyond that, though, these reflections reinforced what I was already suspecting: the online format fundamentally does not work for many students. While my own university did an exceptional job with providing resources and support, our students do not have the widespread access and support to fully succeed. It is just not feasible for a student to juggle separating cattle and driving 40 minutes to complete school work or sharing a computer with multiple family members in the same household.

On April 30th, President McPhee announced that on-campus classes with resume next semester. Knowing our students’ challenges, I support this decision.

If we don’t at least try to have in-person classes, I wonder how many students would not return in Fall 2020. For those who did come back, how many would fail because of limitations outside of their control? Moreover, what classes cannot be taught effectively online?

For all colleges and universities that plan to resume in-person, the question is how do we do this? Obviously, cases may escalate and the in-person experience may not be feasible in a few months. However, we can still plan for the different possibilities and at some point, will reopen.

  • Increase the number of online courses by having faculty identify which ones can go online. It makes sense to offer more online courses for students that choose this format, knowing that they have the resources to make it work. Increasing online courses would also help vulnerable faculty members who cannot safely teach in-person at this time. There’s a difference between offering and mandating the online format.
  • Allow vulnerable faculty and staff to work from home.
  • Rethink class sizes, splitting up large lectures. Schedule classes in larger capacity rooms.
  • Hold faculty and student training sessions for online learning.
  • Encourage all instructors to create contingency plans for the semester and communicate them to students.
  • In preparation for another shutdown, identify students that are most likely to struggle and help them prepare for the shift to online learning.
  • Share guidelines across disciplines and universities for in-person and online classes in this new normal.

Today’s post is my reflection on my students’ experiences this semester. I felt for the ones struggling and those who stopping submitting assignments and taking exams. I did what I could to help my classes make it through the content, but it still did not feel like enough. Well, maybe for crisis mode/half term. However, it’s definitely not the default path for future semesters.

Creative Media Projects: Joy During the Teaching Crisis

Like other instructors, our mid-semester shift to online teaching forced me to quickly rethink assignments and assessment. For my intro course, 180 of 200 points remained of the group project. Obviously, it would have been unrealistic to expect students to work together to produce a paper and presentation, at least in the current crisis mode in a gen. ed. class. At the same time, I was reluctant to just do away with these points, shrinking the overall pool so that tests made up the majority of the grade.

My solution was to replace the majority of the group work with an individual creative project, in which students could either continue with their group’s historical topic or choose to create an original work that captured an aspect of our current situation. My only instruction was that they had to make something engaging that could be shared on D2L. Acceptable formats could include videos, songs, poems, posters, memes, and any other format approved by me. I also made the assignment a competition, allowing everyone to vote on their favorite projects.

This week, they turned in their projects. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the folder, but I was immediately blown away by their creations, in thoughtfulness, innovation, and the overall quality. Students wrote poems, stories, and letters, created photo essays, pictures, and comic art. Several students produced songs that were so well done, I asked for verification that they had actually created them, like this song by David Moore on life as an introvert (shared with permission).

A song by David Moore

The diversity in the videos was also impressive. Some were pensive reflections on the challenges of working and finishing the semester. Others were humorous: one student filmed herself attempting a skateboard trick. Another student created a ’90s sitcom intro, starring, well, only herself. Students were also thoughtful in their evaluations of each other’s projects, noting the skill and emotion put into their peers’ work or commenting on how songs and videos gave them new perspectives on how other people are experiencing life right now.

The top project was this mixed art painting by Jernicya McCrackin:

“For my Creative Media project, I wanted to do a mixed media illustration relating to how fashion covers and social media has converted wearing face mask to a fashion statement. ” by Jernicya McCrackin (shared with permission).

A project that I had thought would be a collection of hastily-created memes turned out to be so much more. While I did receive a handful of “distracted boyfriend” meme templates (lesson learned on my part), the majority of the submissions were so much better than I could have imagined. Thanks to my students, their projects became a bright spot in a difficult semester.

“My Quarantine Life Vlog in Japan” by Yurika Misuna. She was studying as an exchange student in the U.S. when the university shut down. Fortunately, she made it back to Japan.